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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

The Guardian of the Word is a novel by Guinean Francophone writer Camara Laye. The novel is not easy to follow, as it employs spells and chants in order to portray the mystique surrounding its heroes and villains. The protagonist is Sundiata, and the narrative tells the story of the founding of the empire of Mali (in modern West Africa). Sundiata was born to a hump-backed mother, Sogolon, who was chosen by the king, Mandan-Ka, who himself was told by a soothsayer to find the ugliest woman that he could to achieve his destiny. To this woman, Sogolon, Sundiata (along with several other siblings) is born.

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Sundiata cannot walk until age thirteen, and after his father dies, he, his mother, and his siblings go into exile. However, by the time he turns eighteen, he proves himself to be an excellent warrior. Sundiata has a chance to use this skill and renown to avenge the people living under Sumaoro, a destructive and tyrannical king. The novel describes Sundiata's preparation for battle in epic fashion. He defeats Sumaoro by learning how he can be killed (with the spur of a white rooster). When he does defeat Sumaoro, he reunites disparate kingdoms and assigns power to those who fought with him.

This unique novel, which can rightly be said to belong to the various genres of epic, folktale, and fantasy, represents the tradition of a griot, an African storyteller. It is from a griot that Laye received inspiration for the story of this novel.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

The Guardian of the Word relates the events surrounding the rise and reign of Sundiata, a thirteenth century Africa leader. The story was told to Camara Laye by a noted griot, a traditional storyteller in Guinea, in West Africa. Literally “the guardian of the word,” the griot has long played an important role for his people by keeping alive their political and social history. This oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation, survived the colonial period and, since independence, has been revived by Africans seeking to understand their past more fully. Laye’s novel is one such effort; during 1963, he recorded the words of a modern griot named Babu Conde, then transcribed them into a purely African work. The voice of Babu Conde speaks throughout the tale; thus the narrative style belongs to him, not to Laye’s inventiveness.

After framing the central story with genealogy and a history of earlier rulers, the griot tells of the miracles and adventures that made Sundiata’s life legendary. He begins by revealing how Sundiata’s mother, Sogolon, ugly and hunchbacked, marries Maghan Kon Fatta. To this aging ruler and his mysterious second wife Sundiata is born, during a violent storm, but, in spite of the prophecies heralding his birth, Sundiata appears at first to be a disappointment. Unable to walk until he reaches the age of ten, the boy only then begins to fulfill his destined promise.

Not long thereafter, with his father dead and his father’s first wife jealous, Sundiata and his mother, along with her younger children, go into exile; various rulers give them shelter. By the time that Sundiata has reached eighteen years of age and proved himself to be an able warrior, he hears of the evil exploits of the tyrant Sumaoro and of the cruelties that his armies are inflicting on innocent people. To right these wrongs, Sundiata raises an army of his own, and other kings join him with theirs to destroy Sumaoro. After learning Sumaoro’s secret, that he can be killed with a white rooster’s spur, Sundiata chases this perpetrator of destruction into a cave. There Sumaoro dies, ending his reign of terror.

Triumphant, Sundiata then unites the various kingdoms and assigns authority to those who fought with him, creating a great empire where “carefree mothers gave birth to happy children, and desolation, the sign of Sumaoro’s passage through the savanna, gave place to prosperity which burst forth everywhere.”

The narrative first covers events that lead up to Sundiata’s triumph and introduces a number of characters who serve to fulfill the prophecies surrounding him. Then, its structure entirely in the tradition of the griot, the story moves into a rehearsal of Sundiata’s preparation as a warrior, his demonstrations of courage, and his practice of wise and fair government. Economical in its telling, dependent on magic spells and other such devices, fiery in its depiction of battles, fixed in its assurance that evil yields to good, The Guardian of the Word resembles any number of epics from world literature.

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