Critical Overview

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The story of Sundiata has attracted little critical interest among speakers of English. This can be attributed to two main reasons, the first being the lack of interest in African texts until recent decades. Only now are literature departments including courses and specialists in African literature. The critical world had privileged the Western literary canon for many years. Those wanting to see other texts undergo mainstream critical analysis had a hard battle to fight. With the development of professorships in African literature throughout the world, this problem is being overcome.

The second, and still relevant, problem is that of linguistic and social accessibility. Many stories from Africa are oral, told in indigenous languages. Those outside the small language-speaking community are unable to access the tale until it is transcribed and then translated into a common language. In addition, many of the guardians of African oral tradition do not wish to communicate their words outside of their own communities. They feel, perhaps rightly so, that in fixing their stories in written form they will lose control over the production of the text. The important element of performance is always lost in the written version of any oral tale. Little by little, many of the oral texts of Africa are being recorded and eventually transcribed. Even so, much of African oral literature remains unknown outside of its small community of production. Sundiata was largely unfamiliar outside Mali before D. T. Niane's version was published in French in 1960. The English-speaking world had to wait until G. D. Pickett's translation appeared in 1973.

Sundiata is now known as an excellent example of West African epic. A children's version, with beautiful papercut illustrations, has been produced by David Wisniewski. The first steps have thus been taken, spreading knowledge of this epic throughout different communities of readers. During this first phase, critical attention has been focused on the anthropological and historical detail found in Sundiata. Critics have tended to read the tale as history rather than literature, although it of course enters into both realms. As a piece of history, Sundiata tells us much about life in thirteenth-century Mali and the reign of the great king Sundiata.

But Sundiata is equally a literary text. The part the griot plays in shaping history to please his audience cannot be overlooked. Each griot plays the roles of both historian and artist. More studies on both the oral and literary functions of Sundiata are certainly in order.

Post-colonial criticism has flourished in the late twentieth century, and can be used to help non-African readers of traditional African texts gain insights and understanding. Problems such as audience (is the text meant for those inside a specific cultural community or open to universal interpretation?) and applicability of Western critical theory (for instance, can an ancient African text ever be called "feminist?") are two of the many questions that must be raised and answered by readers of Sundiata. These issues have been initially addressed in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader published in 1995.

Other forms of criticism available to the reader of epic will also prove invaluable for reading Sundiata. The oral aspect of epic has been examined, with one of the first and outstanding examples being that of Alfred Lord's Singer of Tales (1960), which looks at contemporary Serbo-Croatian epic. Questions of nationalism and nation-forming have been long associated with epic, and current critical approaches to the epic and history should be examined to see if they shed light on reading the West African epic as well. One thing is certain, however. Sundiata is the epic recounting the pinnacle of an important dynasty in West Africa, and it tells us much about the heritage, literary and cultural, of a population still vital today. With that in mind, it seems certain that only toward the end of the twentieth century is the critical history of the thirteenth-century epic story of Sundiata beginning.

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Essays and Criticism