Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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In Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, is Elesin a tragic hero?

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In Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s horseman, the character of Elesin is not a tragic hero. His story is not particularly heroic for several reasons, but most of all because he fails in his ultimate mission due to his own vice. Elesin’s mission, as the horseman, is to commit suicide alongside the king and accompany him to the afterlife. However, when the king passes away, Elesin delays this because he is engaged to be married to a beautiful young woman, and he lusts desperately after her.

Because of his delay, his son commits suicide instead, partly out of shame and partly to preserve the family’s duties when his father refuses to. The shame eventually overcomes Elesin, and he commits suicide in his depression, which is no longer honorable. The fact that Elesin failed in his duties, and even worse that he allowed his son to die because of his inaction and refusal to perform his duties, makes him a poor hero, so I would say he is not a tragic hero.

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In Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman, Elesin is certainly a tragic figure.  Whether he is a hero, however, is debatable.  Elesin is the titular “King’s Horseman,” whose responsibilities include accompanying the now-deceased king into the afterlife.  That he fails in this central mission, with his son Olunde taking Elesin’s place so as to protect his family’s heritage from the shame that would accompany his father’s failure to execute this sacred obligation, could be considered a direct consequence of Elesin’s decision to allow lust for his bride-to-be, an unnamed but extraordinarily beautiful young woman with whom the horseman falls deeply in love at first sight, to divert him from his mission.  As such, Elesin is not particularly heroic.  He lets his desire to make love to the young woman interfere with his responsibilities, which results in his son’s suicide and then Elesin’s own belated suicide, the act the execution of which on a timely basis could have prevented the tragic chain of events.  Also tragic is the king’s ultimate fate.  Early in the play, Elesin performs his ritualistic dance-of-dying, with the praise-singer reciting the requisite lyrics, the latter’s words become an avenue through which the dead king reaches out to his horseman with a reminder of the latter’s obligation:

If you cannot come, I said, swear

You’ll tell my favourite horse. I shall

Ride on through the gates alone.

If you cannot come, Elesin, tell my dog.

I cannot stay the keeper too long

At the gate.

Elesin could be considered a tragic hero insofar as the British colonial administrator, Simon Pilkings, aborted Elesin’s plan to commit ritualistic suicide on the grounds that such seemingly barbaric native traditions run counter to the more enlightened perspectives of the British Crown.  One cannot, however, ignore the fact that, had he not delayed in carrying out his obligation to commit suicide by sleeping with the young woman, he could have already done the deed, and his son would still be alive.  In that sense, he is, as noted, a tragic figure.  He is not, at least to this educator, heroic.  His eventual suicide is the product of remorse over Olunde’s death and not the ritualistic act of a responsible king’s horseman.

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