Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of Nana Triban and Balla Fasséké and Krina

Summary of Nana Triban and Balla Fasséké

Sundiata and his army stop for a while at the city of Sibi. Before entering Mali in full force, Sundiata wants to determine how best to attack Soumaoro's magical power. He consults the soothsayers there and, on their advice, sacrifices 100 white bulls, 100 white rams and 100 white cocks. In the middle of the sacrifice, he learns that his sister Nana Triban and griot Balla Fasséké have escaped Soumaoro, and he is enlivened.

He welcomes the fugitives, who are both happy to see him. Nana Triban insists she never shared her mother's hatred for him, and he calms her and asks her story. To appease Soumaoro, her brother Dankaran Touman gave her to the sorcerer king. She was miserable as one of the sorcerer king's wives, and pretended to hate Sundiata to protect herself. She and Balla Fasséké, who were in touch during their captivity, devised a plan to exploit her position. Through flattery of his strength, she got him to reveal the source of his magical power, and he showed her his many totems.

Once they learned his secrets and he was gone to battle, she and Balla Fasséké fled together. Balla continues her story and tells Sundiata how they found him through the news of his victories. Sundiata is overjoyed now that his memory will be perpetuated through Balla Fasséké.

Sundiata learns that Soumaoro is advancing, and so, to bolster his troops, he organizes a great military review. There, Balla Fasséké addresses each king in turn – Fran Kamara, Kamandjan, and many others unnamed by the griot – and asks what great heroic feat they can perform. The former splits a giant tree, the latter creates a great tunnel through a mountain, after which both re-swear their allegiance to Sundiata. So do the armies remind themselves of their greatness and prepare for the impending battle.

Summary of Krina

Sundiata sets up camp at Dayala in order to block Soumaoro's path. So far, neither side has officially declared war on one another, and so the kings use magic to communicate through owls. The griot relates their dialogue, wherein Sundiata insists he will retake his destined mantle, and Soumaoro dissuades him from it. Their dialogue contains many parables and symbols as they match wits to best one another.

Afterwards, Fakoli Koroma arrives and places himself under Sundiata's command in order to strengthen their cause. Balla Fasséké invites Fakoli to sit amongst the other military leaders, but Sundiata withholds his permission until all war chiefs have agreed, which they do. Sundiata declares his intention to attack the sorcerer king soon, and the next day they head for a hill near Krina, where Soumaoro is, and prepare for the battle.

That night, Sundiata hosts a great feast to excite his troops for the impending fight. Balla gives a great speech, where he praises Sundiata and the griots. He tells Sundiata "you are Mali…It has had a long and difficult childhood like you." He tells Sundiata before all that if he is to succeed, he must remember his history. He then gives a short history of Mali. Long before, the ruler Bilali had conquered old Mali. His descendant Lahibatoul Kalabi made a pilgrimage to Mecca, thereby bringing divine blessing upon the people. Subsequent rulers made it strong and it almost succumbed to tyranny before Naré Maghan, Sundiata's father, brought peace with him. Balla has great hopes for what greatness Sundiata will achieve to further the legacy of Mali. He charges him to "be a man of action."

The next morning, Fakoli brings news that Soumaoro has begun to move. Sundiata prepares himself, dressing as a hunter and also revealing to Manding Bory his great bow as well as a "deadly arrow" imbued with magic made specifically to defeat Soumaoro - the tip contains the spur of a white cock, which Nana Triban learned is the sorcerer's taboo. Nana Triban reminds Sundiata that since Soumaoro knows that she and Balla have escaped, he will avoid Sundiata in the battle. This makes him nervous, but Balla shares news that a soothsayer dreamed of the sorcerer king's end, and so the hero is calmed.

Soumaoro's army is enormous, and outnumbers that of Sundiata. So the latter does not deploy all his forces, but rather leaves bowmen behind. Sundiata gives a great cry and the army charges. They are stopped quickly and become embroiled in a vicious struggle. The battle grows to consume the entire plain. Through Sundiata's force of bravery, the enemy center is broken and the battle grows again.

Manding Bory brings news to Sundiata that Soumaoro is focused on destroying Fakoli's flank out of revenge for his insurgency, and the latter is starting to fall. Sundiata steers his cavalry in that direction, killing Sossos incessantly but still barely making a dent in their overpowering number. When Soumaoro sees him approaching, he tries to hide but Sundiata shoots his magic arrow and nicks the sorcerer king, at which point the sorcerer king feels his powers leave him. He looks to the sky and sees a black bird, an omen of misfortune.

Soumaoro retreats in fear, which disheartens the Sossos and causes them to flee. "Who can tell how many Sossos perished at Krina?" the griot asks.

For several days, Sundiata and Fakoli pursue the king and his son on horseback. They are matched by their enemies in perseverance, so it is not until Fakoli proposes a difficult, dangerous shortcut that they have a chance to catch the fugitives. Naturally, they take the dangerous route and soon thereafter have Soumaoro and Sosso Balla in their sights. When they approach their enemies, they do not attack, since both pursuers want to capture them alive.

Fakoli pursues and captures Sosso Balla through a fight, while Sundiata chases down the sorcerer king. He uses a spear to kill the latter's horse and then chases him on foot. Soumaoro climbs a mountain ahead of him, and enters a black cavern. Sundiata stops before the cavern, and is joined by Fakoli, who now holds Sosso Balla hostage. Fakoli tells him the cave is connected to the river, so the sorcerer king cannot escape.

Shortly thereafter, the horsemen of Mema catch up with their commander. He leaves them to guard both the exit from and entrance to the cave, and Sundiata returns to meet his army.

After this victory at Krina, kings from everywhere send their submission to Sundiata, and the city of Sosso is confronted. It has been defended by Noumounkeba, a tribal chief left in charge by Soumaoro. Noumounkeba has stockpiled provisions and believes he can withstand a siege long enough to wear down Sundiata's patience, but the latter pledges to take the city in the course of one morning.

The next day, Sundiata's troops climb the walls on ladders, while the main body of the army attacks the gates of Sosso. Flaming arrows set the city aflame, while other archers break down the wall defenses so troops can storm in. Once in, they begin the massacre. Women and children beg mercy. Noumounkeba attempts to kill Sundiata but the latter easily triumphs.

Balla Fasséké brings Sundiata to the secret chamber which contains Soumaoro's fetishes. They find that the chamber has lost its magical power just as the sorcerer king lost his. Everything inside is dying. Sundiata has it all taken down. Outside, he frees Soumaoro's captive wives, captures many other people, and then orders the city destroyed.

The griot ends this section with a lament for Sosso, which no longer exists except as an empty field and a place barely remembered.


The action continues to ramp up as the great final battle of Krina approaches. The distinction between pride and humility, and the way they play out between the two commanders, is very clear in these sections. Where Sundiata has learned that pride in his strength can only get him so far and thus alters his plan of attack, Soumaoro does not make any changes in his attitude, which leads to his downfall. In fact, one of the crucial tools used in defeating Soumaoro – knowledge of how his fetishes and magic work, as provided by Nana Triban – are provided by the sorcerer king himself because he could not see through the flattery of Sundiata's sister.

On the other hand, Sundiata shows great humility before the forces of magic in the world. As Balla Fasséké illustrates in his history of Mali, this virtue is one that helped Mali to grow. Long before, Sundiata's ancestor Lahibatoul Kalabi had brought greatness to Mali because of his religious devotion (he took a pilgrimage to Mecca). This devotion to Islam assumes a humility before God or Allah (which again for the Mandingo can be understood as similar to and acting in concert with the natural forces and jinns) that mirrors Sundiata's humility. His great tool is a single arrow, provided through his willingness to consult soothsayers, make appropriate sacrifices, and heed advice from allies.

Sundiata's other great quality – his ability to inspire and connect with men – is apparent here as well. His great military review allows each ruler to impress the great king, and also to perform feats worthy of remembrance before a griot, the person who is directly responsible for that remembrance. Sundiata allows his men an opportunity to become timeless, and so their great feats are more than just showing off; they are also a chance to live forever in the words of Balla Fasséké and his descendants. Similarly, Sundiata's insistence that the war chiefs allow Fakoli to join their ranks indicates a respect for his men that helps explain why they fight so tirelessly for him.

There are several passages in these sections wherein the griot reminds us again how important history is. Sundiata's excitement at the return of Balla Fasséké indicates his knowledge that without a griot, his efforts will be transient and forgettable. But once his griot returns, he has the chance to live forever in history. Balla relates the history of Mali not as didactic lesson, but because it provides important reminders of how men have acted before, and thus what men living now should learn. As mentioned above, the virtue of humility is stressed since it is through humility in the face of magic forces that Sundiata will defeat Soumaoro.

Of course, the relating of the story of old Mali also fulfills one of the obligations of the epic, which is the celebration of culture. This section provides the griot a chance to remind his audience of their past, thereby fulfilling his purpose as a repository of history.

There is a marked viciousness towards the city of Sosso that seems a bit out of character for the Mandingo. Certainly, the way they destroy the city is indicative of the anger Sundiata has felt towards Soumaoro. But it's not explicitly stated whether the "women and children" are indeed granted mercy during the "massacre" and, moreover, a modern reader might consider that not every member of the population supported the efforts of their cruel, powerful master. However, keep in mind that by destroying the town, Sundiata is also attempting to destroy the legacy of Soumaoro. As the remembrance through griots is one of the central facets of Mandingo culture, it is as though Sundiata could not fully defeat his enemy unless the city was no more. Further, it touches to the recurrent attitude of the griot towards the fickle common people, who seem ready to follow strength no matter where it comes from. Perhaps the viciousness of Sosso's destruction is a comment on how fickleness in a population is rewarded or punished depending on how well those common people choose.

One element that deserves special attention is the off-stage demise of Soumaoro. His death is never explicitly detailed in the epic; instead, we are left to assume that he dies inside the cave that is being guarded by Mema horsemen. It's worth noting that no epic tale has one definitive version; while the moral and themes are consistent, details often vary depending on the storyteller - especially in a culture with an oral tradition. Thus, the demise of the sorcerer king unfolds in different ways to different griots. But what does this mean for a current audience reading this version? Does it indicate Sundiata's willingness to let things happen in their own time while he returns to his own army, where he belongs? Does it mean that by forcing Soumaoro towards patiently awaiting his own starvation, Sundiata is teaching him a lesson? It's a strange omission for a work that so heavily stresses military exploit and so dramatically builds up the sorcerer king as a battle-worthy foe.