Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Suggested Essays
Suggested Essay Questions
What qualities in Sundiata's character define him as a hero? Use specifics.
Sundiata is described by the griot as heroic because of several qualities: his intelligence, his compassion, his bravery, his sense of justice, his charisma, his piety and his strength. He uses intelligence as a commander of the army by devising strategies that defeat larger armies. His bravery is reflected in his tendency to rush into battle himself, killing enemies left and right with little regard for his own safety. His sense of justice is reflected in the way he forgives others' trespasses (within reason), and the description of his rule is a just one. His charisma unites people together; during his exile, all he encounters are impressed with him, and hence do they later join his empire. His piety helps him defeat Soumaoro, since, once Sundiata discovers the extent of Soumaoro's sorcery, he is willing to admit he needs the help of spirits and magic to win. And finally, his legendary strength makes him a hero worthy of remembrance. Balla Fasséké tells him to be a "man of action" so that his deeds will be remembered, and Sundiata certainly lives up to his destiny.
Do you consider the griot to be a historian or a storyteller? Defend your answer.
One could argue this both ways. The griot certainly defines himself more as a historian, though not by Western standards. Griots are culturally oral historians. He loathes written history, as it lacks the "warmth of the human voice". But he constantly defends his vocation as crucial, since it preserves the memory not only of the Mali ancestors, but also of the decisions that were made and alliances forged. By reminding current rulers of those alliances, the griot helps maintain peace. Further, the griot recollection of Sundiata – who is known to have been a real person – is far more specific than any other historical sources that have survived from this era.
However, one could point out that the griot is reliant on elements more akin to a storyteller. His use of music and dramatic rhythm (pumping up the crowd) remind us that his history is meant for an audience, and hence susceptible to certain exaggerations. Further, his constant stressing of his own importance could stretch the credibility of what he describes as "facts". As with many early epics, more than one version exist and the details vary depending on the storyteller. The strongest answer to this question suggests that for a griot, history and storytelling are one and the same, since he preserves essential truth by using the "warmth of the human voice" to inspire his listeners.
What qualities make Soumaoro a bad ruler? Be specific.
Like Sundiata, Soumaoro has a surplus of strength and ambition, and yet he is categorically painted as a bad ruler, even described occasionally by the griot as "evil". This perspective results from several of his qualities; his cruelty, his lack of responsibility to his subjects, his lack of hospitality, and his arrogance towards magic. The griot certainly embodies a moral sense when he praises Sundiata for compassion, while lambasting Soumaoro for the latter's cruelty. He is known to kill at will and to treat subjects harshly through both threats of violence and the demand for excessive tribute (taxation). This is not the mark of a good ruler, who would have a responsibility to inspire his subjects to follow him rather than simply to fear him. The way Soumaoro treats his subjects is best captured by the incest he commits by stealing his nephew Fakoli's wife. Soumaoro also ignores the Mali custom of hospitality, which is a grievous fault. For example, when Dankaran Touman sends an embassy to inspire peace, Soumaoro takes Balla Fasséké and Nana Triban hostage, a gross violation of his duty as host. But what ultimately defeats him is his arrogance towards his sorcery. He treats his powers as subservient to him, using disgusting fetishes to build up his power. It is no surprise that, when Sundiata prostrates himself before the spirits and admits his powerlessness without magic, that the jinns choose to favor Sundiata and thereby allow Soumaoro to be robbed of his powers and defeated.
What is the griot's depiction of mankind in general? How does this depiction help to explain the need for heroes?
The griot consistently presents the population of tribes and cities as fickle. Consider the people of Niani, who know well that Sundiata has been prophesied to be a great ruler. They are nevertheless easily swayed to mock him when he is handicapped during childhood, and likewise to have contempt for his mother Sogolon. Much of this derives from the gossip spread by Sassouma Bérété, gossip that is quickly swallowed and perpetuated by the people. It is only when they are oppressed by Soumaoro that they finally start to seek out their destined ruler. People throughout the epic behave shortsightedly, and their susceptibility to rumor and impatience implies the importance of strong, positive heroes. For mankind to reach its best potential, they must be led by a great hero. Sundiata, through his positive qualities, inspires the tribes towards peace and prosperity as part of the Mali Empire.
What is the value of hospitality in Mali custom? How is it shown to be useful or harmful depending on how it is used?
Hospitality is presented as central to custom in the epic. It is presented as an unspoken contract between guest and host. From the beginning, Maghan Kon Fatta is given a chance to sire a great hero because he is hospitable to both the hunter who prophesies Sundiata's birth and, later, the two hunters who bring Sogolon to Niani. Much of Sundiata's empire is built upon the foundation of the positive treatment he and his family are shown when they wander as exiles, as well as relationships cultivated in Sundiata's youth. The characters who show lapses in hospitality are presented as horrible. Consider Mansa Konkon, who cheats Sundiata of a victory in wori and had accepted gold to exile them further and murder the boy. He is not rewarded once Sundiata is victor. And lastly, Soumaoro is painted as "cruel" through examples that show his lack of hospitality, whether to travelers on the road or in the kidnapping of Balla Fasséké, who was sent as guest by Dankaran Touman.
Why is patience so heavily stressed as a virtue by the griot? How does patience aid humans?
Patience is so important, according to the griot, because mankind is fundamentally unable to understand the forces of destiny. Mankind's tendency is to expect that "what you see is what you get" and hence to doubt that greater forces might be at work. As a result, the people of Niani are quick to turn on Sundiata when he is born crippled, and Sogolon herself has doubts about the boy's greatness. But the greater forces work in their own time, and destiny unfolds beyond the sight of humans, so it behooves us to remember that greatness is often born from the measliest of seeds. One of Sundiata's strengths is his willingness to wait. He does not try to reclaim Mali before he is ready, and as a result is able to quickly recruit an army to fight Soumaoro when the time comes, since he had been patient enough to build alliances throughout his youth.
Explain the role of magic in Mali. How is it used for good or evil? In what ways is it difficult to apply such terms to magic in general?
Magic in Mali is not to be considered supernatural, but rather as an extension of the natural world. The forces that control the world exists in trees and lakes and mountains, and can be accessed by paying respect to their spirits. It encompasses all, including elements that might seem disparate to us. For example, the monotheism of Islam is not considered contradictory to the polytheism of the Mandingo. There are those who use magic for evil, like Soumaoro, and others who use it for good, like Sundiata or Sogolon. However, perhaps it is fallacious to consider this magic 'good' or 'evil', since to do so implies human understanding of greater forces. The griot is quick to remind his audience of how little humans can truly understand, and this is easily applied to the magic forces, which operate in a way we can barely perceive and hence mankind ought be humble enough to admit we don't understand.
The griot suggests that his words are the strongest weapon a hero can have. Explain.
Because the griot comprises the sum total of medieval Mali's history, it is only through him and his family that memory can be preserved. Greatness is necessarily transient if it cannot be remembered and related to future generations, and so it is that kings and griots have a reciprocal and important relationship. It's more than just the arrogance of wanting to be remembered for a king; instead, there is a fear that the accomplished deeds will be forgotten and a king's empire will not continue to grow. For instance, alliances can be forgotten or mistakes can be repeated. For greatness to resonate throughout the ages and inspire others, griots are central. So a hero brandishing a sword can commit a great deed, but what good is it if he has no words to make that deed into a legend? In more practical terms, Sundiata is a great king and ruler because he listens to his people and does not go back on his word. The people fear him, but also love him and his sense of justice and fairness.
In the closing sections of the epic, the griot speaks of the mysteries of Mali that men are best not to pursue, and only the griot is privy to. What might these mysteries be? Use examples to support your conjecture.
The griot's insistence that men not try to uncover the secrets of Mali reveals his perspective on people: they are fickle and unable to recognize the limits of their sight. The mysteries likely have something to do with destiny. Destiny is revealed as central and immovable through the epic, in the way that Sundiata's greatness is foretold and delivered. It is possible that the griots know of Mali's future destiny, but fear that the common man would misunderstand this knowledge and hence act poorly with this knowledge. Throughout the work, man is unable to show patience for destiny to unfold. The secrets might also have to do with magic, a central force for the Mandingo. Most people can neither use magic nor understand its workings. Only the great, like Sundiata, are able to show appropriate piety, as he does through his sacrifices and respect to the jinn. Perhaps the griot worries that a common person would misuse the secrets of magic if he learned them, or perhaps would be swallowed by those forces. Lastly, the griot might be warning people against the secrets because it is through maintaining those secrets that the griot keeps his job. There is no shortage of self-promotion in the epic, as the griot always stresses his centrality to Mali tradition and its perpetuation. Perhaps the griot does not want others privy to his secrets, for then he would lose his vaunted status.
In what ways is music seen to be important to Mali civilization?
Firstly, music is the means by which the griot keeps history and communicates it to the people. So for all the reasons that the griot is important as a keeper of history, so is music important. However, music also serves as a means of communion for a people, and a way to celebrate the greatness of its heroes. Notice the long dance celebrations that are detailed in the epic. The marriage of Sogolon to Naré Maghan inspires a celebration not matched until Sundiata's great victory over Soumaoro. Songs provide a way for all to celebrate the same event. "Hymn to the Bow" not only preserves the moment that Sundiata walked for the first time, but it also serves as a battle cry later, and a way for all to celebrate the greatness of their new ruler and, by extension, themselves. The power of music is apparent in the way Balla Fasséké saves his life through flattery of Soumaoro, which he does with an impromptu song. Music can make people listen, and hence
through song, they may learn about themselves and grow stronger by celebrating their greatness.
Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Essays and Related Content
- Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali: Major Themes
- Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali: Essays
- Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali: Questions
- Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Anonymous - Sundiata: Biography
- Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary
- About Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Preface
- Summary and Analysis of The Words of the Griot Mamadou Kouyaté
- Summary and Analysis of The First Kings of Mali
- Summary and Analysis of The Buffalo Woman
- Summary and Analysis of The Lion Child and Childhood
- Summary and Analysis of The Lion's Awakening
- Summary and Analysis of Exile
- Summary and Analysis of Soumaoro Kanté, the Sorcerer King, History, and The Baobab Leaves
- Summary and Analysis of The Return and The Names of the Heroes
- Summary and Analysis of Nana Triban and Balla Fasséké and Krina
- Summary and Analysis of The Empire, Kouroukan Fougan or The Division of the World, Niani, and Eternal Mali
- About the Epic Form
- Related Links on Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali
- Suggested Essay Questions
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