Sunjata Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Sunjata

(Also transliterated as Son-Jara, Sun-Jata, and Sundiata) Thirteenth-century West African epic.

The Sunjata is named after the founder of the thirteenth-century Mali empire. The heroic narrative relates the life and adventures of Sunjata (also known as Son-Jara or Sundiata) from his childhood when, because of a curse, he could only crawl, to his exile with his family, and finally to his becoming the triumphant King of the Mandinka and expanding his empire. Scholars agree that the mythic Sunjata is an embellished version of the historical Sunjata but accept that, with no documentary evidence whatsoever from his time, it is impossible to entirely sort out the fictional from the historical elements in the tale. Existing exclusively as an oral epic for centuries, the Sunjata continues to be performed in the present day in western Africa by griots, or bards, who exercise wide latitude concerning which features of the epic to emphasize. With the advent of transcripts and assorted print versions, the text of the Sunjata has garnered further academic attention and become the most critically acclaimed of all African epics.

Plot and Major Characters

There are many variations to the Sunjata epic, but the gist of the story remains the same in all of them. Sunjata is the son of the King of the Mandinka, Maghan Kung Fatta, and one of his wives, Sukulung, a pagan with occult knowledge. Sunjata's chief rival is an older half-brother, Dankaran Tuma. Dankaran Tuma's mother puts a curse on Sunjata that renders him unable to walk; he crawls on all fours until his adolescence, at which time his mother gives him a staff made from a sacred tree and commands him to rise. Upon the death of the King, Dankaran Tuma rules for a brief time before the sorcerer Sumanguru usurps the throne of Mali. Sumanguru is warned by soothsayers, however, that Sunjata is destined to become king. To try to prevent this, Sumanguru sends Sukulung and her children into exile. Sunjata performs many daring feats and gains the respect and admiration of assorted monarchs who will later come to his aid. Sunjata and his enemy engage in battle (historians believe this occurred in 1235). Sunjata's sister seduces Sumanguru in order to trick him into revealing the secret of his sorcery. She passes the knowledge on to Sunjata, who promptly uses it to destroy Sumanguru, but not before Sumanguru saves himself by changing into a bird (or a stone in some versions). Not content with the size of his new kingdom, Sunjata proceeds to expand it at the cost of his neighbors' lands.

Major Themes

Sunjata is an entertaining recitation of tales of daring and bravery that champion the Mande value of courage in the face of opposition. Scholars also note an emphasis on female characters and their essential roles in the family. Some scholars assert that the Sunjata played an important role in binding together diverse groups of people into one nation by giving them a common story.

Critical Reception

Sunjata studies largely focus on the characteristics of its accounts of Sunjata's deeds and on its transmission through generations. John William Johnson ponders the question of the historicity of the story of Sunjata and whether or not it is more appropriate to consider it a myth. In another essay, Johnson studies the griots and their roles as chroniclers, entertainers, and mediators. Thomas J. Sienkewicz examines the epic's relation to Greek tales, finding that they share some aspects of incorporating myths into social and cultural contexts. In trying to make use of the Sunjata for historical purposes, David C. Conrad consults many variations of oral accounts. He notes: “Several centuries of history have been telescoped into the period of the few generations mentioned in the Sunjata epic, so to look there for references meaningful to Western-style chronology will rarely if ever be rewarding. Depending on the variants consulted, episodes of the Sunjata epic address issues dating from times that are now described only in mythological terms, through the recognizably historical period of Mansa Musa (1312-37).” Gordon Innes contends that the Sunjata's historical significance is secondary to its literary value and that whether the events described actually took place or not is irrelevant. He believes that the work has survived for so long because it fulfills “some deep emotional need among the Manding people.” Charles S. Bird suggests that while the Sunjata instills a sense of pride and honor in Mandinkans, it can produce anxiety at the thought of not measuring up to their forebears. Stephen Bulman examines the section of the epic known as the Buffalo-woman tale and finds that popular themes borrowed from hunting practice and folklore have been combined with a “wandering” story pattern. Stephen Belcher examines some of the chief plot elements of the Sunjata and their variants. Isidore Okpewho analyzes the dynamics of the griots' balancing of the retelling of the heroic past without making present-day audiences skeptical of its truthfulness. Jan Jansen reports on rehearsals for a major performance of the Sunjata and concludes that “the recitation of the Sunjata epic is not necessarily in the first place the product of the griots' imagination and literary creativity, but a highly standardized oral text that is carefully reproduced by its ‘owners.’” He contends that perhaps too much importance is ascribed to the dynamic literary variations of griots.