Death and the King's Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

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Essential Quotes by Character: Elesin Oba

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708

Essential Passage 1: Act 1

Where the storm pleases, and when, it directs
The giants of the forest. When friendship summons
Is when the true comrade goes.

Nothing will hold you back?

Nothing. What! Has no one told you yet?
I go to keep my friend and master company.
Who says the mouth does not believe in
‘No, I have chewed all that before?’ I say I have.
The world is not a constant honey-pot.
Where I found little I made do with little.
Where there was plenty I gorged myself.
My master’s hands and mine have always
Dipped together and, home or sacred feast,
The bowl was beaten bronze, the meats
So succulent our teeth accused us of neglect.
We shared the choicest of the season’s
Harvest yams. How my friend would read
Desire in my eyes before I knew the cause—
However rare, however precious, it was mine.

Elesin, the king’s horseman, enters the market on the last day of his life. By tradition and by law, the king’s horseman must commit suicide one month following the king’s death, on the day of his burial, in order to accompany him to the afterlife. Elesin prepares to enjoy this last day before he gives his life. Elesin has long been a loyal servant to the king, a close companion and protector. He has not asked for more than was given him, but rejoiced in the honor of serving. When the king was in want, Elesin was in want. When the king lived in plenty, so did Elesin. The king knew what was in Elesin's heart before Elesin himself did. Thus gladly does Elesin face his own death, knowing that he will spend eternity in the afterlife with his king and his friend.

Essential Passage 2: Act 1

Elesin Oba…

What! Where do you all say I am?

Still among the living.

And that radiance which so suddenly
Lit up this market I could boast
I knew so well?

Has one step already in her husband’s home. She is betrothed.

ELESIN [irritated]:
Why do you tell me that?

[IYALOJA falls silent. The WOMEN shuffle uneasily.]

Not because we dare give you offence Elesin. Today is your day and the whole world is yours. Still, even those who leave town to make a new dwelling elsewhere like to be remembered by what they leave behind.

Who does not seek to be remembered?
Memory is Master of Death, the chink
In his armour of conceit. I shall leave
That which makes my going the sheerest
Dream of an afternoon. Should voyagers
Not travel light? Let the considerate traveler
Shed, of his excessive load, all
That may benefit the living.

Elesin has seen a young girl and immediately decides that his last act will be to marry her, sleep with her, and hopefully leave one last child behind as his legacy and duty to the community. Iyaloja, the “mother of the market” or community wise woman, pauses at this request, because the girl is betrothed to her son. Yet she knows that the king’s horseman, on the last day of his death, is to be granted whatever he wishes. Despite the remonstrations of the market women, Iyaloja says nothing to Elesin. However, she does warn him that he should keep in mind all that he is leaving behind. Not just a child but a reputation is an important legacy, and this legacy is not to be thrown away lightly on a whim, should it turn out to be that this is what Elesin’s fascination with the girl would be. Elesin ignores her warning or does not catch the full meaning. He simply desires to have one last woman. Iyaloja's warning, however, will come back to haunt him.

Essential Passage 3: Act 5

My young bride, did you hear the ghostly one? You sit and sob in your silent heart but say nothing to all this. First I blamed the white man, then I blamed my gods for deserting me. Now I feel I want to blame you for the mystery of the sapping of my will. But blame is a strange peace offering for a man to bring a world he has deeply wronged, and to its innocent dwellers. Oh little mother, I have taken countless women in my life but you were more than a desire of the flesh. I needed you as the abyss across which my body must be drawn, I filled it with earth and dropped my seed in it at the moment of preparedness for my crossing. 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. I would have shaken it off, already my foot had begun to lift but then, the white ghost entered and all was defiled.

Elesin has been imprisoned by Pilkings so that he will not have the chance to commit the suicide that is required of the king’s horsemen by custom. Outside of his cell, his young bride of one day sits silently. Elesin frets that his failure to commit suicide has brought shame to his people and has also disrupted the cosmos. A higher law has been broken, he believes, than the white man’s injunction against suicide. Elesin tries to place the blame on others than himself. He would like to blame the white man and his infiltration of Africa, but he cannot completely. He would like to blame the gods for letting the white man stop him. Finally, he would like to blame his young wife, whose charms led him from his purpose of following his king, yet he begins to realize that the blame rests solely with him. He did not kill himself, because he too highly valued his life. He was reluctant to leave, but he believes that he would have shaken off the pull to remain earthbound if only the white man had not interfered.

Analysis of Essential Passages
Elesin is in a transitional period in African history during the middle part of the twentieth century. Colonialism is fading painfully away, yet a new Africa has yet to appear. Elesin belongs to the old Africa, clinging to the old traditions no matter how contrary they are to the laws of the ruling British. Not only is the ritual sacrifice that is required of him a remnant of the old tradition, but his very personality and standard of living in relation to the others in his community belong to the old Africa as well.

The male-dominated society of Yoruba has created Elesin to be a conqueror of women. He has frequently done so and is vocally proud of his conquests. It is this that has helped to make Elesin a man and has inflated his self-opinion. Thus, as he comes into the market, the women are presented to him as possible prizes rather than viable members of the community. Yet within Yoruba culture at that time, such objectification was as much a part of daily life as the ritual suicide that is required of Elesin. The male prowess in which he glories is made of greater importance in his mind than his duty to his king. Before he dies, he will impregnate one more woman so that his “glory” may continue after him, even though he has at least one son already. His family line is assured, yet his pride shines forth.

Iyaloja tactfully tries to point this out to Elesin. She is in a difficult position because the girl Elesin desires is her prospective daughter-in-law. As one of the matriarchal heads of the community, she shows more depth of wisdom than does Elesin. She puts herself and her family aside in order to safeguard peace in the community and in the universe (since it is believed that Elesin’s death will please the gods and not disrupt the way of life of the Yoruban people). In the face of Elesin’s selfishness, Iyaloja is unselfish. Yet she must warn him that the legacy he leaves behind is not what he thinks he is leaving. It is his selfishness in insisting on marrying the young girl rather than his selflessness in sacrificing his life that will be Elesin's lasting legacy.

When Elesin finally faces the destiny that is now his, he tries to place blame anywhere and on anyone but himself. The white man is an easy target, and perhaps a justifiable one. At the very least, it is a difference in the two cultures that has led to this tragedy. Elesin also thinks about blaming the gods, yet cannot bring himself to do this. It is when he tries to blame his new young wife that he begins to see that it was himself, and himself only, who bears the blame. By thinking of his own legacy rather than that of his king, Elesin failed in the duty that was required of him, forcing his son Olunde to take his place.

Elesin’s suicide is the result of his loss of face, not the fulfillment of his destiny. That destiny has already been fulfilled by Olunde. Pilkings’s attempt to stop the ritual suicide only results in Elesin’s shameful suicide. Elesin’s death is a hint that the end of the old Africa is fast approaching. Rather than one of honor and respect, the ending will be filled with shame, both for the colonized and the colonizers. The ensuing conflict, like Elesin’s death, is the result of a deep lack of respect for traditions on both sides. Yet the new Africa must emerge, though it would prove to be a painful birth. As Iyaloja says in the last line of the play, “Now forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn.”

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Duty