The Guardian of the Word

by Camara Laye

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.

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