The Guardian of the Word

by Camara Laye

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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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