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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183

The Guardian of the Word by Camara Laye is part ethnography documentation and part fantastical tale, the latter element stemming from the stories of a griot (a traditional African storyteller) about Sundiata, a thirteenth-century leader from West Africa.

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There is also a theme of colonial history and post-colonial consequences in this book, as is the case in much African literature. West Africa has a long history of colonial rule, from the Muslim conquest to the French colonizers to the dealings of the North American slave traders with West African rulers.

The art of storytelling is a theme in itself, and the griot's tradition is examined from an anthropological context as the griot himself tells the stories. The story of Sundiata is reminiscent of Shakespearean themes, mixed with the tragedies of Greek mythology. Themes such as prophecies, destiny, and conquering the rule of tyrants are recurring in the story of the griot. Victory over injustice and evil is the overarching theme of the griot's story, and it is evident that the story of Sundiata is one of praise and glorification of his legendary life.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Laye studies the tales of the griot not as accurate historical documents but as artistic preservations of the values found in a traditional culture.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!”

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