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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200

The Guardian of the Word is a novel by Camara Laye which serves essentially as a foundation tale for the Empire of Mali (which would rule West Africa for about 500 years). It is also a celebration of the tradition of the griot , a traveling musician and poet specific...

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The Guardian of the Word is a novel by Camara Laye which serves essentially as a foundation tale for the Empire of Mali (which would rule West Africa for about 500 years). It is also a celebration of the tradition of the griot, a traveling musician and poet specific to the West African culture. Laye himself was born in Guinea, and many of his novels have African subjects.

The protagonist of The Guardian of the Word is one Sundiata, who, according to a prophecy, was born to an ugly, hump-backed mother, Sogolon, and the king, Maghan Kon Fatta (who was instructed to marry the ugliest woman he could find). Sundiata is lame and cannot walk until age thirteen, at which point he comes into his own as a warrior. Sundiata defeats a neighboring tyrannical ruler, Sumaoro (using the insight of a prophecy that tells how Sumaoro could be killed by means of a white rooster's spur).

The narrative style is very unique, featuring chants, proverbs, prophecies and spells. In this way, the novel is a demonstration and celebration of this culture featuring the griot figure. In fact, Laye claims to have learned the story from one such modern griot, Babu Conde.

The Guardian of the Word

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1509

Cultural essence and value lie at the heart of Guinean author Camara Laye’s works. While appreciating the knowledge and customs of Western civilization, Laye valued even more his rich heritage. This is explicit in such autobiographical books as L’Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child, 1954) and its sequel Dramouss (1966; A Dream of Africa, 1968), where ritual and folklore enlarge personal experience. Laye’s brilliant novel Le Regard du roi (1954; The Radiance of the King, 1956) goes further, ensnaring readers by the exotic force of its mystery and paradox. To Laye, Africa remained both mystery and paradox, a young, protean continent in need of reaching back to its ancient foundations in order to rediscover its national identity. Laye believed that the value of Africa’s past lies in its oral tradition, where morals, history, and social tradition unite to form what he called an “ethical unity that comprises native generosity, loyalty, chivalry, respect for a man’s word, the practice of Islam, the Cora [the African harp], and the Cola [cola nuts are given as a sign of regard].” With the number of griots—oral historians and keepers of tradition—diminishing, Laye saw the need to preserve—in as authentic a form as possible—the oral history of his nation. Especially important to him were the creation myths, for he believed them to be the essential foundation of individual traditional civilizations.

For a month during 1963, Laye taped a series of interviews with Babu Condé, the most learned and talented griot of the Malinké. Le Maître de la parole (The Guardian of the Word), first published in 1978, is the author’s re-creation of Babu Condé’s tale of the events leading to the formation of Mali; this tale is known in the Upper Niger as the Kuma Lafolo Kuma.

Prefacing the tale are two chapters essential for appreciating Laye’s his re-creation. The first gives an overview of Africa as Laye sees her: to him a nation too readily adopting Western standards and too eagerly replacing her ancient culture with technology. Civilization, Laye insists, is not confined to technology; voices of a culture ultimately “tap the mystery of art, of being.” These voices belong to Africa’s griots. An artist before historian, the griot, using ancient formulas, reconstructs history that entertains and instructs. Distortions of fact naturally occur, but the initiated clearly understand that essential truths remain.

The second chapter expands on the role of griots in Africa by giving readers a look at Babu Condé, whose power of the word is so great that he can silence birds. Serving the griot, Laye hoped to serve society’s needs by preserving “the word and the world beyond the word.” He selected the Kuma Lafolo Kuma from the four major categories of Words in order to reveal a few elements new to the study of the Malinké world in hopes that Africa will rouse herself from her historical and moral stagnation. The tale that follows is one to inspire pride in and reverence for the past.

Following the advice of their soothsayer, two brothers, named Dantuman and Mussa, kill the terrifying buffalo of Dô and are given as a reward their choice of the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. By prearrangement they select Sologon, a humpback. Though deformed, Sologon possesses two powerful totems that safeguard her virginity until she is wed to a king, Maghan the Beautiful. Then she conceives her firstborn son, Nankama, destined to become the first emperor of Mali, Sundiata. Throughout childhood, however, Nankama’s future greatness is shadowed by his inability to walk. A target of scorn, especially of his father’s jealous first wife, Nankama finally leaves his kingdom with his mother and her other children. After several stops and having survived one life-threatening test, the family finds refuge in a distant kingdom where Nankama’s virtues are rewarded by the king, who appoints the young man viceroy. When representatives of his deceased father’s kingdom appear to plea for his return as ruler, Nankama accepts, forms a coalition of armies against his powerful antagonist Sumaoro, and ultimately vanquishes his enemy. Instead of claiming supreme power, Nankama—now Sundiata—forms a federation, leaving individual kings in charge of their independent territories, and brings unity, prosperity, and strength through a number of innovative, strikingly modern methods.

Simplifying this tale to plot summary deprives it of much interest, for its beauty lies in its telling. Not surprisingly the language is quite visual, with homey similes and elaborate descriptions of rituals. Of particular interest are the rituals, which range from the preparation of a bride to provision for a hunt. Lending grace and dignity to the motion of life, these highly symbolic ceremonies signal communal participation in an individual’s advancement and recall social involvement.

Individualism, however, is not sacrificed to rituals. Unlike most mythological figures, the characters of this tale are touched by multiple, often contradictory, feelings. Brave hunters have sweaty palms and timid brides are reluctant to yield their freedom. Survival is often more important than personal dignity. Underscoring their psychological complexity are the griot’s intrusions at moments of decision or in respect to a character’s feelings. Instead of posing a simple question, he interjects a series and then immediately proceeds to answer them, prefacing each answer with “perhaps.” These equivocations add to the texture of the narrative, suggesting that the griot remains aware of his role as historian rather than omniscient narrator. More important, though, these intrusions confirm the author’s recognition that human motives and emotions are rarely simple.

The griot’s interventions are also reminders that the tale is being spoken. Indeed, The Guardian of the Word has an oral character exclusive of such notices. High-pitched complaints—breathless litanies of grievances—punctuate the narrative. Most striking to the ear is the African love of palaver, rhythmic talk which includes genealogies, histories, and nonsense words injected for effect. While lending authenticity, this technique will doubtless test Western patience, for many readers may neglect to enjoy the sensuous nature of words. Laye, however, makes the taste of language inescapable, for he includes many chants, printed in Malinké and English, that successfully approximate speech rhythms and patterns. His blend of prose and poetry heighten aural effects.

Western readers new to African history and literature are bound to be puzzled by some of this book’s characteristics. Locales, for example, are difficult to establish, although a map loosely defining Mali during the thirteenth century is included. So general are the map’s borders that they fail to give contemporary readers any idea of where this federation existed in relation to the Upper Niger region today. Most of the village names are unfamiliar to Western readers, and distances between kingdoms bear a closer relation to the narrative’s demands than to geographical reality. There are also multiple names with which to deal: mothers’ names, fathers’ names, childhood names, and titular names, as well as family totems and their combinations. Keeping these fusions straight is a challenge to any reader’s memory.

While remote practices are footnoted and unfamiliar words are glossed, the text fails to answer many questions that it provokes. Had the translator composed an afterword addressing some of these problems—for example, the marriage of animism to Islamic belief and the hierarchical social system—the reader’s experience would certainly be enriched. As it is, James Kirkup’s preface is relatively ineffectual, for he links Laye’s tale to Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) and later speculates on Laye’s possible Western literary influences. This sort of self-indulgence has little to do with the work at hand, especially since this work is not so much Camara Laye’s independent creation as it is Laye’s rendering of Babu Condé’s tale.

Kirkup might also have pointed out the correspondences between the coming of Sundiata and his founding of Mali and other legends with the same theme. Especially striking are this tale’s similarities with the Arthurian legend. Like King Arthur’s, Sundiata’s coming is foretold, and magic plays a role in his conception. Early in life, Sundiata occupies an inferior social position, a position rectified by his pulling a magical sword from its sheath. Echoes of other folk myths resound through this tale: an almost invincible antagonist, the secret of whose vulnerability must be charmed from him, humans assuming animal forms, magical objects. Since African literature has yet to be truly discovered in the United States, a discussion illuminating this tale’s relation to classical literature would have been helpful.

Despite the fact that the audience for African literature in the West is now relatively small, there is a growing awareness of its variety and substance. Such names as Camara Laye, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, and Ayi Kwei Armah are beginning to acquire a well-deserved international reputation and are increasingly attracting serious study. Laye’s works especially merit close explication. Once a cultural history of twentieth century African literature is written, surely Camara Laye will be recognized among the foremost novelists of the continent.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79

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