The epic of Sundiata is told by the griot (storyteller and keeper of history) Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté. He begins with details of Sundiata's ancestors, as the force of history is important in the tale of the man whose victory will create the Mali Empire.
Sundiata's father, Maghan Kon Fatta, was king of the city of Niani. One day, a soothsaying hunter foretells that he will produce a great ruler through the marriage of an ugly woman. Later, two hunters bring a woman to offer as his wife, and he sees this is the foretold woman, Sogolon. The hunters earned her by defeating a monstrous buffalo that was terrorizing a land far away. Through showing kindness to an old woman, they were taught the secret of the buffalo and then given their choice of woman by the king whose realm was being terrorized. The old woman told them to choose the ugliest maid, and they did. The king takes Sogolon for his wife, but she refuses to let him consummate the marriage until magic powers help him to rid her of a wraith (spirit) that was making her resistant. Sundiata is conceived.
In childhood, Sundiata faces two obstacles: first, because of the prophecy, the king's first wife Sassouma Bérété spreads vicious rumors about him and Sogolon in an effort to elevate her own son's stature; and second, he is crippled and does not walk until the age of 7. Despite his physical limitations, his father sees wisdom in his son and gifts him griot Balla Fasséké, the son of his own griot. The king dies soon afterwards and his eldest son, Dankaran Touman, is given control by the elders, who do not see much future in the crippled boy. One day, when Sogolon is embarrassed by the queen mother, Sundiata uses a rod to help himself stand on two legs and from this day onwards, his strength is unmistakable.
Frightened her own son will lose his control, the queen mother Sassouma Bérété orchestrates exile for Sundiata, Sogolon, and their immediate family. For seven years, they travel from asylum to asylum, sometimes being shown great hospitality and occasionally being mistreated by their hosts. All the while, Sundiata learns of new peoples and customs, while impressing most people he meets. He spends a particularly long time with Moussa Tounkara at Mema, who helps raise Sundiata and teaches him the ways of war so as to potentially groom the boy as his heir.
Sundiata also learns during his exile about the evil sorcerer king Soumaoro Kanté, who is slowly forcing the cities of Mali and beyond under his control through cruelty. When Niani falls to the sorcerer king, a search party is sent to Ghana to find Sundiata and ask him to claim his mantle as ruler. Though his choice to return to Mali and battle the sorcerer king upsets the Moussa Tounkara, he is ultimately given his blessing and the first of his subservient armies.
Sundiata goes to many cities and lands that he visited during his period of exile, slowly building up his army. Finally, his armies come up against those of Soumaoro. Though Sundiata is successful in his battles, he cannot harm the sorcerer king because the latter has magical protections. Sundiata turns to magic for help, and through sacrifice is able to craft a magical arrow. In their largest battle, Sundiata nicks Soumaoro with the arrow and the sorcerer king loses his power. Soumaoro retreats and escapes.
Accompanied by Fakoli, Soumaoro's nephew who revolted after being betrayed by his uncle, Sundiata pursues Soumaoro for several days. They finally trap him in a cave with nowhere to go; they have won. After his victory, Sundiata defeats the kings who stayed loyal to the sorcerer king. He then returns to Niani and founds the Mali Empire, splitting it up to show respect for all the rulers who promise to serve him.
The griot ends the epic by praising Sundiata and his rule of the golden age of the Mali Empire. He tells the audience that Mali is eternal and that reminders of history are everywhere, but only the griot can know all.