Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230
The characters of Camara Laye's The Guardian of the Word tells the story of the founding of the Empire of Mali in West Africa. Its protagonist is the thirteenth-century founder of this empire, Sundiata.
Sundiata becomes a brave warrior; however, he grows up in exile with his mother and siblings. A prophecy stated that his father must marry the ugliest woman he could find. Sundiata cannot walk until age thirteen. He is exiled because one of his father's subsequent wives doesn't want him to inherit the kingdom.
Sogolon is Sundiata's mother. She is described as hump-backed, and she is the king's second wife. She bears him five sons and a daughter, including Sundiata.
The king is Mandan-Ka, and, while his wife gives birth to Sundiata, there is a prophecy and a storm attending his birth. Nevertheless, the ruler and others are disappointed in Sundiata, who cannot walk until he is much older.
Sumaoro is a usurping tyrant who is punishing innocent inhabitants of his kingdom in west Africa at the time when Sundiata comes of age. Sundiata, therefore, uses the new military prowess he develops as a young adult to avenge Sumaoro's people by killing their ruler. Sundiata kills Sumaoro by chasing him into a cave, after which the people of his kingdom, now governed by Sundiata and those who fought with him, enjoy a period of prosperity and happiness.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653
Sundiata, a great warrior, brave and resolute but humane. Sundiata’s life follows a pattern common to mythic heroes in many cultures, African and otherwise: the auguries at birth (in this case, a violent storm), an inauspicious youth (he is unable to walk until the age of ten), exile from his homeland (to escape jealous relatives), many tests of bravery and manhood, encounters with supernatural persons and events, and an eventual triumphal return to his homeland. In addition to having courage and prowess, Sundiata is clever and resourceful, an able military tactician and leader of men, and lucky. Like all national heroes, despite the formidable odds against him, Sundiata seems destined to triumph from the outset. This “lucky” or “destined” quality imparts to Sundiata an almost supernatural or godlike aura, also characteristic of the mythic hero. At the same time, he is warm, humane, loyal, and loving, and he elicits these qualities from others.
Babu Condé (kohn-DAY), the narrator, a griot (traditional storyteller). Not an active participant in the story that he tells, Babu is nevertheless its most important character, perhaps because his method of telling and attitude toward his materials are crucial to the reader’s apprehension of these materials. Babu narrates from a religious perspective (Islamic) about an ancient people who had not yet embraced that religion, although they were on the verge of doing so. More important, he narrates from a modern perspective, discussing his characters in a psychological depth that would have been unfamiliar to Sundiata’s contemporaries and describing certain practices with a modern frankness. Still, it is obvious that Babu addresses his subject not only with respect but also with reverence. Most evident of all is the griot’s love of storytelling itself, of the joys of language. It is not mere coincidence that the title of the work refers not to a participant in the action but to Babu, who is indeed the “guardian of the word.”
Sumaoro (sew-MOW-roh), a tyrant. Although both he and Sundiata desire to rule, Sumaoro is the young warrior’s opposite in almost every other respect. Sumaoro is arrogant, brutal, cruel, and venal. He achieves his ends through force and terror, and he takes great delight in abusing his power. Although there is an almost supernatural quality about him—he is invulnerable to all but one rather strange weapon, the identity of which he guards carefully—the reader believes that he is destined to fail, just as surely as Sundiata is destined to triumph. His fall comes about through his venality, so the climax truly can be said to be a triumph of good over evil.
Sogolon Condé, Sundiata’s mother. Sogolon is ugly and a hunchback, yet still she manages to bewitch the king into marrying her. “Bewitch” is the proper term, for Sogolon possesses the power to cast spells, which she does frequently over the course of the work. Rather than being an evil temptress, however, Sogolon appears more the frightened, confused child during her courtship, wedding, and torturously long honeymoon, long because the king is unable to consummate his marriage. Of the two parents, it is Sogolon who has the greater influence on her son and on the plot of the story.
Maghan Kön Fatta
Maghan Kön Fatta, Sundiata’s father, king of the Manden. Maghan Kön Fatta is a great hero himself, but his major contribution to the tale of Sundiata is to die, leaving the field of battle to his two wives, Sogolon and Fatumata Béreté.
Fatumata Béreté (beh-reh-TAY), Maghan Kön Fatta’s first wife. Fatumata is the stock older wife of African literature. Suspicious, spiteful, jealous, and shrewish, she gains her way by treachery and is never to be trusted. It is she who sends Sogolon fleeing from her homeland, with Sundiata in tow, thus setting events on their course.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526
Following the demands of the epic tradition, the griot does not develop characters as the novelist might but relies instead on broad strokes, especially those derived from action, to bring the story’s figures to life. Although it may sometimes be difficult to believe in Sundiata as a flesh-and-blood person, considering the number of advantageous interventions he enjoys from mystical sources, the great warrior emerges as a memorable hero who takes his proper place alongside the Zulu’s Chaka, Beowulf, King Arthur, Sir Gawain, the mythological Greeks and Romans, and the Old Testament heroes. The fact that he loves his mother and shows devotion to his younger siblings, and that he even falls in love, gives Sundiata human dimensions, while his fear-less fight on the side of good to destroy the forces of evil lends him ideal dimensions.
Sundiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta, a powerful king whose son is destined to be even greater, also faces human problems, including confrontations with his jealous first wife after he marries Sogolon. Even his stormy relationship with Sogolon, who at first refuses his romantic advances, helps to turn him into more than simply an abstract instrument of prophecy. When the much-touted son proves to be an embarrassment, the disappointed father again shows his human fallibility.
Although ugly and deformed, Sogolon not only fulfills the role that supernatural forces had ordained for her but also evolves into a warm, touching character. She becomes a devoted wife and mother whose personal traits shine so beautifully that they obliterate her outward ugliness. When she dies in exile on the eve of her son’s triumph, her death causes far more sorrow for the reader than would that of a stick figure, for she has developed into much more than a mere fulfiller of prophecy.
One of those distinctive evil heroines, Maghan Kon Fatta’s first wife, Fatumata Berete, does not calmly accept her demotion from the position of favorite wife but reacts to the situation as such a woman might, with cunning and cruelty. Her intense jealousy is understandable, for she intends to protect not only her personal interests but also those of her children. Disappointed in her son’s weakness, she again shows the way in which the mind of such a woman works when she displays her human side as well as her stereotypical villainy.
Sumaoro, depraved and ambitious to the exclusion of all else, succumbs to the wiles of a beautiful woman in a weak moment that leads to his downfall. Reveling in evil and barbarity, Sumaoro murders at will, engages in unspeakable rites, and exults in destruction. Yet, like Fatumata Berete, he shows a human side which is subject to fear and jealousy.
These major characters, as do all the others who weave their way through the narrative, emerge both as symbolic personages in the unfolding of the epic and as actual people caught in the web of timeless human events. The guardian of the word understands the demands of characterization; he knows that stereotypes will not gain his listeners’ (and in this case, his readers’) attention and sympathy. Only those with human traits can do that.
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