This tale tells of Sundiata, the great thirteenth-century ruler of Mali. The story comes to us through the centuries from a long line of oral historians, or griots, who are charged with keeping the memories of the past alive. Once only available to those who could understand the native language of the griot, which in the case of Sundiata is Malinke (or Mandingo), this epic tale intrigued Mali historian Djibril Tamsir Niane. He transcribed the words of the griot Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate and produced a French translation in 1960. In 1965 an English translation by G. Pickett appeared.
Sundiata illustrates the anthropological importance of saving the words of the oral historians before the advent of literacy extinguishes their memories. Griots, like most oral historians, work for a particular patron, and as the patronage system falls into decline, these tale-weavers are less and less able to support themselves with their words. The significance of these oral historians is underlined in the epic itself: a griot plays an important role in helping Sundiata defeat his enemy Soumaoro.
In addition, the story of Sundiata contains important lessons for people of all times. Appearances can be deceiving, we learn: Sundiata's physically repulsive mother becomes an honored queen, and Sundiata himself overcomes a severe handicap to become a great warrior. Hospitality pays, as those rulers who receive Sundiata well during his period as an outcast are rewarded under his reign. Above all, readers learn to respect their own history and ancestors, for they are the link to a glorious past.