Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Does Death and the King's Horseman suggest a failure of the tribe to maintain their cultural identity?

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In creating fictional works, authors rarely set out to "prove" things. The concept of "proof" is largely associated with mathematics and with scientific experiments. When one considers Wole Soyinka's goals in Death and the King's Horseman, one can see that he aims to distinguish between the individual and the group.

While the play is clearly concerned with important cultural values and practices, Soyinka is writing about specific individuals and their actions at a specific time, rather than making broad generalizations about an entire culture. Elesin's own understanding of the actions he does or does not take undergo a significant change during the course of the play. We can understand Elesin as a representation of the conflicted position of one man at a time of great political, religious, and cultural upheaval.

Rather than reject the responsibility of taking his own life in service to his king, Elesin postpones participating in the ritual because of his own selfish desires. When he realizes some of the negative consequences of this inaction, he regrets the choices he made and does end his life. Many other members of his tribe blame him for failing to act, but they do not reject the underlying cultural values that the ritual represents. Far from it: Elesin's son, Olunde, steps up to complete the requirement. Although he has lived away from his Yoruba people, he physically returns to their land and emotionally returns to his identity.

Soyinka clearly indicates that this group of Yoruba are continuing their cultural beliefs and practices, and does not show any general failure of the whole group.

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In short: no. The Yoruba traditional community ritual was blocked by one of British colonial authorities, Simon Pilkings, not by any Yoruba. It was outside interference that prevented carrying the ritual being carried out.

In both the play and the real life incident it is based on, the Yoruba community blamed the King's horseman for not following the tradition of ritual suicide after the King's death. They claimed the man could have killed himself and was too attached to life. The play presents the horseman as having strong doubts as to the rightness of the ritual.

If one accepts the play's account, then the failure is of that one man alone. Either way it would be a mistake to blame the Yoruba people as a whole, since there are tens of millions of them.

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If this play is a question of failure, it is important to be very clear about who precisely is to be blamed. It seems rather extreme to blame the tribe as a whole for failing to maintain their cultural identity, when the failure was down to one man, Elesin, and his failure to die at the appointed time. In Scene 5, Elesin, talking in private to his wife, acknowledges that his failure to commit suicide was not down to the interruption of Pilkings, but rather his own unwillingness to relinquish life:

You were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs.

Elesin therefore acknowledges that the tragedy of this play is largely down to his own lack of will. If he were stronger in his own spirit and determination to do what he needed to do and commit ritual suicide, he could have done so, as he acknowledges in this speech. Elesin did not carry out his duty as the King's Horseman, and as a result caused massive havoc and chaos, resulting in his own son's death as he tries to make right his father's failure to kill himself at the appointed time. The failure therefore is not to be placed on the tribe, even though Pilkings tries to do so at the end of the play. The failure is to be firmly placed in Elesin's quarter.

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