The Radiance of the King

by Camara Laye

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Themes and Meanings

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Although The Radiance of the King follows the white man’s attempt to comprehend an alien culture and to adjust to a nonrational mode of thought, the novel also suggests a traditional conception of community that rivals the individualistic isolation of modern society. Clarence, through much of the novel, is lost either in the maze of streets in Adrame or in the dense vegetation of the rain forest. He cannot understand how the Africans await such a brief appearance of the King with so much uncertainty about when and where he will next appear, especially given that his power, like the Naba’s, seems whimsically arbitrary. Physically and socially, Clarence finds little experience that is subject to rational analysis. The King is irrelevant to daily life, not even communicating with his subjects. While rulers impose only a few laws through mediators, such as the Master of Ceremonies, even those minimal laws seem all but ignored by the people, who act primarily upon their own desires. Both the ruler’s authority and the individual’s submission within the community, however, are constrained by ritual. Tradition governs political authority, and that tradition gives equal status to both human and natural worlds.

The culture of Aziana and its governing principles are based on the respect for and the immediacy of the natural world, on emotion and sensuality, and on chance and custom, unlike the mechanistic, determined rational world of the West. In Aziana, the individual’s identity and needs are defined and met by the traditions within the larger community, including the natural world. Defining the self in order to belong to the community is unthinkable for those in Aziana, who belong by right of birth and have their identities proscribed by ritual and talent. Clarence’s identity crisis is as puzzling to the Africans as their customs, thought, and dress are to him. Consequently, as Clarence adapts to village life, he also becomes attuned to participating in the physical world. He learns to trust the vagaries of nature and to trust dreams as revelations of thought greater than logic.

Laye, by unraveling the mystical experience of Clarence from his seemingly surrealistic adventures in Africa, affirms the belief in the transcendence of human reality, whatever its cultural coding, in creating the peace of divine union. While the King’s gentle beckoning suggests that he is a savior much like Christ, his figure also suggests Allah as an unknowable, aloof God. In Laye’s privileging of dreams and visions, he suggests the animism of the Manding people’s ancient beliefs. Drawing, in addition, upon the Sufi mystical rituals which his father practiced, Laye suggests yet another spiritual tradition’s thread in his tapestry. All these diverse traditions, however, suggest a single path to unity with a divine presence: Clarence, like any human being who pursues the classic mystical quest, must first reject reason, then the senses, and finally his own ego, even to the point of annihilating race, history, and culture, before he can experience the grace of divine peace. What begins as a parody of the white man’s cultural conquest develops into a serious inquiry into the universal means of enlightenment, destroying the very premises and inversions of race which initiate the novel.

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