Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899
Sundiata tells the story of the childhood and coming-of-age of one of Mali's greatest rulers, culminating with his defeat of the evil tyrant Soumaoro at the battle of Krina.
Artists and Society
In the version of Sundiata collected by D. T. Niane, the narrating griot, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, makes the role of the oral historian a primary theme of the work. One of the major characters in the story is Sundiata's griot, Balla Fasseke. Sundiata opens with the griot Kouyate himself explaining his right to tell this epic story. At the point when the main battle is about to take place, the griot again pauses to commend the role of the oral historian in preserving the culture and history of his society. The importance of tradition and the griot's role in preserving memory emerges as a central concern of Sundiata.
Sogolon, Sundiata's mother, is considered the ugliest woman in her village. When the hunters choose her as their bride, they are laughed at by the villagers. Yet the unattractive Sogolon is destined to carry the greatest ruler of Mali. While her lack of beauty makes her an unlikely consort for the king, the prophecies concerning her offspring prove stronger than societal judgment. Sogolon proves to be the most important wife of the king. Sogolon also proves to be intelligent, perceptive, and a good mother.
Coming of Age
The first part of this epic concerns itself with the journey, both physical and spiritual, that Sundiata makes as he grows from a child into a man. While Sundiata always has the strength of a ruler within him, as was predicted from before his birth, he must change in several ways in order to claim that power. He must first learn to walk, and to lead his peer group in such traditional activities as hunting. Lame from birth, he finds the power within himself to stand up and walk in order to avenge his mother's honor. Made to leave his own country by the mother of his half-brother, Sundiata must learn how to be a warrior and how to comport himself in the courts of other rulers. He excels at hunting, and his feats in battle lead one foreign king to regard the exiled prince as his own. Then, called to lead his people in a time of great trouble, Sundiata must leave this comfortable position and go forth on his own as a ruler. Finally Sundiata must learn when to make his stand, as he does on the battlefields of Krina. The warrior-king who emerges from this process is strong and wise, admired by all. This king will establish the administrative and justice system for the great empire of Mali.
Limitations and Opportunities
Stricken from birth with a disability that prevents him from walking, Sundiata seems far from the great leader foreseen by the soothsayers. His father doubts whether a boy who cannot even walk can be the predicted savior of the Malinke. Sundiata must overcome both his physical handicap and the perception that it renders him unfit to rule.
While his victory over the tyrant Soumaoro gains Sundiata immediate acclaim and the throne of Mali, his lasting accomplishments are his establishment of a system of administration and justice for his vast kingdom. Sundiata's truest strength comes from within.
Mystery and Intrigue
The intrigues of the Mali king Maghan Kon Fatta's first wife, Sassouma Berete, against Sundiata plague his childhood. Sundiata and his family leave their home because of the danger that Sassouma represents, but even at a distance she remains a threat, attempting to bribe others to kill Sundiata while he is with them. Sassouma never tires in her quest to undo Sundiata, but ultimately, her son's cowardice leaves the throne of Mali vacant for Sundiata to assume after his victory against Soumaoro.
Magic and the Supernatural
Magic and supernatural events surround Sundiata even before he is born. Soothsayers predict the circumstances of his parentage and birth, and that he will become Mali's ruler. Sundiata's parents are brought together by the hunters of a supernatural buffalo, and his mother magically partakes of the spirit and strength of the buffalo. In an attempt to thwart Sundiata's predicted destiny and ensure that her own son will inherit the throne of his father, Sassouma hires witches to kill him by supernatural means. Her plan backfires: their malevolent powers cannot work against anyone with a truly pure and good heart. The sorcerer-king Soumaoro derives his evil power from his room of magic fetishes, and Sundiata eventually overcomes him with the aid of magic.
Strength and Weakness
The epic calls into question traditional perceptions of strength and weakness. The buffalo ravages the lands of Do, but when the hunters give hospitality and kindness to an old woman, she unlocks the secret of the buffalo's power and they easily defeat it. When Sassouma Berete sends the most powerful witches in Mali to kill him, Sundiata's kindness overcomes their power, leaving them unable (and unwilling) to harm him. The kings who are kind to Sundiata and his family during their years of wandering are repaid by being made allies of this powerful kingdom once Sundiata takes the throne of Mali. The sorcerer Soumaoro derives great strength from his evil fetishes, but the scratch of a magic arrow is enough to leave him powerless. In Sundiata, great power can be overcome by simple acts of kindness.