This tale tells of Sundiata, the great thirteenth-century ruler of Mali. The story comes to us through the centuries from a long line of oral historians, or griots, who are charged with keeping the memories of the past alive. Once only available to those who could understand the native language of the griot, which in the case of Sundiata is Malinke (or Mandingo), this epic tale intrigued Mali historian Djibril Tamsir Niane. He transcribed the words of the griot Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate and produced a French translation in 1960. In 1965 an English translation by G. Pickett appeared.

Sundiata illustrates the anthropological importance of saving the words of the oral historians before the advent of literacy extinguishes their memories. Griots, like most oral historians, work for a particular patron, and as the patronage system falls into decline, these tale-weavers are less and less able to support themselves with their words. The significance of these oral historians is underlined in the epic itself: a griot plays an important role in helping Sundiata defeat his enemy Soumaoro.

In addition, the story of Sundiata contains important lessons for people of all times. Appearances can be deceiving, we learn: Sundiata's physically repulsive mother becomes an honored queen, and Sundiata himself overcomes a severe handicap to become a great warrior. Hospitality pays, as those rulers who receive Sundiata well during his period as an outcast are rewarded under his reign. Above all, readers learn to respect their own history and ancestors, for they are the link to a glorious past.

Part I Summary: The Buffalo Woman

After giving his lineage and justifying his right to tell the tale, the narrator begins the story of Sundiata by telling how Sundiata's mother and father came to be married. Sundiata's father, Maghan Kon Fatta, rules Mali. He has one wife, Sassouma Berete, and a son named Dankaran Touman. One day a hunter comes to Maghan Kon Fatta's court, bringing part of his catch in homage to the ruler, as was customary. The king asks the hunter, who is also a fortune-teller, to throw his cowry shells in a divination ceremony to reveal the future. Speaking in obscure language, the hunter reveals that the king's successor is not yet born, and that his heir will come from a hideous woman brought by two strangers.

Some time later, two hunters appear at court from the land of Do with a veiled woman hunchback. The brothers announce her to be a wife worthy of the king and proceed to relate how they obtained her. The hunters had gone to search for a buffalo that was ravaging the countryside of Do. Great rewards had been promised to whoever killed the buffalo. They encountered an old woman who begged for food, which they gave her. In return for this kindness, she revealed that she is the buffalo in human form, and told them the secret of how to kill her animal form. She insisted that when the hunters were offered their choice from among the local maidens as their reward, they select the ugly hunchback named Sogolon Kedjou. Sogolon is the buffalo's wraith; that is, she...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Part II Summary: Sundiata's Childhood

Maghan Kon Fatta's first wife, Sassouma Berete, fears that the prophecy, which seems to be coming true, will mean that her own son Dankaran Touman will not rule Mali after his father. She is pleased when it becomes evident that her rival's son cannot walk. Sogolon and the king try remedies of all sorts, but Sundiata remains lame. The king marries a third wife, Namandje, whose son Manding Bory becomes Sundiata's best friend. The king seeks more advice about his sons, and is reassured that Sundiata is the foretold heir. The king gives his own griot's son, Balla Fasseke, to Sundiata to be his griot.

The king dies not long after this. Sassouma plots with the council of elders to have her son Dankaran Touman put on the throne. Sassouma encourages others to ridicule Sogolon and her other children, but especially Sundiata, who is still crawling at the age of seven. One day, in tears from being mocked, Sogolon laments to Sundiata that he cannot go and pick baobab leaves for her as other boys do for their mothers. Sundiata calls for an iron rod. He uses it to haul himself to his feet and takes his first steps. Striding to the baobab tree, he pulls it roots and all from the ground and brings it to his mother. From that day on, Sundiata excels at all physical pursuits, in particular hunting.

As the years pass, Sassouma grows more worried that Sundiata will take the throne from her son. When Sundiata is ten, she asks the nine great witches of Mali to kill...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Part III Summary: Sundiata in Exile

Sundiata and his family spent seven years in exile, sometimes finding welcome but more often finding that Sassouma has sent messages to other kingdoms urging that they turn the wanderers away. In the court of Djedeba, for example, the king Mansa Konkon challenges Sundiata to a life-or-death match of a word game called won, which Sundiata wins by revealing that the king has accepted a bribe to kill Sundiata. When Sundiata wins, the king allows him to live, but expels him and his family from the court.

Next the family goes to Tabon, where one of Sundiata's childhood friends, Fran Kamara, is crown prince. The reunion is joyful, but the boy's father is afraid of Sassouma, and he insists that Sundiata and his family go elsewhere. They travel to Ghana, to the palace of the great Cisse clan. King Soumaba Cisse welcomes the visitors and treats Sundiata and his siblings as princes and princesses of his own realm. Sogolon falls ill, and the family must move to a more favorable climate. In Mema, the court of King Soumaba Cisse's cousin, Tounkara, the family thrives, and the youthful Sundiata becomes an important advisor to King Tounkara, even governing in the king's absence.

(The entire section is 201 words.)

Part IV Summary: Soumaoro Kante, the Sorcerer King

During Sundiata's years of exile, his griot, Balla Fasseke, had been at the court of Soumaoro Kante. This evil king's power is legendary. His town of Sosso is fortified and invincible, his own palace a seven-story tower in the center of town. On the seventh floor he keeps his fetishes, magic charms that are the source of his evil power. Soumaoro Kante has conquered all the surrounding peoples, including the people of Mali.

One day Balla Fasseke stumbles into the fetish room. Carpeted in human skins, the room contains the heads of the nine kings that Soumaoro had conquered. A giant snake, owls and fantastic weaponry also fill the room. The griot spots a magic balafon, or xylophone, that he began to play, bringing the ghoulish chamber to life. Soumaoro knows that someone had touched his xylophone, and he raced to the chamber to kill the intruder. Balla Fasseke, hearing the king's arrival, improvises a tune in honor of the sorcerer king. The song so pleases Soumaoro that he decided to make Balla Fasseke his own griot.

The evil king continues attacking and subjugating lands, ruling his people in terror. In an ultimate outrage, Soumaoro steals the wife of his own nephew and chief general, Fakoli Koroma. Fakoli swears revenge, and the men of many lands attacked by Soumaoro answered Fakoli's call to arms. As Dankaran Touman seeks to join the revolt, Soumaoro again invades Mali. Dankaran flees, leaving his villages to be pillaged and the capital city...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Part V Summary: The Return of Sundiata

One day in Mema, Sundiata's sister Kolonkan sees a woman selling baobab leaves, a type of produce available only from Mali. She speaks to the woman, who is in fact one of the Malinke searching for Sundiata. Sogolon and Sundiata receive an embassy of notables from the court of Mali, learning of Soumaoro's depredations against their homeland. Sundiata vows to join the army of Fakoli to help defeat Soumaoro. The next morning, Sogolon dies. Sundiata leaves to join Fakoli, despite the protests of the king of Mema, who had considered Sundiata his heir.

Sundiata begins his march on Soumaoro by defeating the troops under the command of Soumaoro's son. Later he met Soumaoro's own troops, and though Sundiata and Fakoli's other allies fight well, they cannot take Soumaoro himself, for he has magical abilities and can vanish at will. Little by little, the allies drive back Soumaoro's troops, but he eludes them.

Reunited in battle with his griot, Balla Fasseke, Sundiata learns that Soumaoro's evil power can be destroyed if he is shot with an arrow tipped with a magical rooster's claw. During the next battle, Sundiata grazes Soumaoro with the magic weapon, depleting his powers enough so that he can be driven from the battlefield, though not killed. The victorious troops then march on Soumaoro's town of Sosso, take the fortified city, and find that the king's fetishes had lost their power. The Sorcerer King has been conquered.

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Part VI Summary: Sundiata, Ruler of Mali

The allies go on to defeat all of Soumaoro's partisans. Sundiata travels back to Mali to rule. He appoints the descendants of Balla Fasseke - the Kouyate - as the official griots to his heirs, the Keitas. He finds that the inhabitants of Niani have already started to rebuild their city, and Sundiata makes it his center of power. Here Sundiata rules justly and wisely for many years. Though many great rulers come after Sundiata, none equal the son of the Buffalo Woman and the Lion King. He left his mark on Mali for all time, Kouyate reminds us, and his decrees still guide the citizens in their conduct.

(The entire section is 109 words.)