Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Laye studies the tales of the griot not as accurate historical documents but as artistic preservations of the values found in a traditional culture. One authority in the oral tradition of West Africa has noted that the stories, although entertaining, have as their primary purpose the revelation of moral truths. Research has shown that the Sundiata legend probably gained its form around the end of the seventeenth century, a time of political crisis; by telling such a story, the griot hoped to present an image of the perfect ruler and kingdom in order to construct an ideal for those who ruled at that time.

Three centuries later, Laye makes a similar use of the Sundiata material. In the chapters that introduce the tale, Laye points out that destiny finds its direction through spiritual forces on which Africans could draw, if only they would forsake the remnants of colonialism and found their nations on past glorious traditions, such as those exemplified in the Sundiata story.

Laye also indirectly criticizes the regime then ruling Guinea by comparing it to Sumaoro’s dictatorship, which, like its modern counterpart relied on the terror and execution of its opponents for power. That such a leader as Sundiata might rise in modern Guinea appears to be Laye’s hope, for the guardian of the word concludes the tale with this moral: “May the example of Sundiata and his family illuminate us in our progress along the slow and difficult road of African evolution!”