Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The Return and The Names of the Heroes

Summary of The Return

The griot begins by reminding each, "every man to his own land!" We cannot fight our destiny, and it must be fulfilled where it is foretold.

Now a man, Sundiata has grown strong enough to confront Soumaoro and is ready to try. Moussa Tounkara allows Sundiata half his army towards the goal. It's not enough, so Sundiata heads first to Wagadou in hopes of earning half of that army as well. Manding Bory is worried they still lack sufficient numbers, but Sundiata calms him: "Numbers mean nothing; it is worth that counts." But before confronting the sorcerer king, Sundiata decides to first return to Tabon, since he promised Fran Kamara he would stop there. He pushes his army on a "forced march", long and hard and broken up only by stories told about the heroes of the past. Sundiata's favorite remains Alexander the Great.

However, Soumaoro has been told by his soothsayers that Sundiata is organizing to fight him. Though he is advised to attack Sundiata early, Soumaoro's arrogance leads him to disregard the advice, especially because he is embroiled in a battle against Fakoli and Fran Kamara, who joined the fight. Now king, Fran Kamara goes by the name Tabon Wana (though we will maintain his first name for our purposes here), and has turned Tabon into a war state to defeat the sorcerer king. So Soumaoro worries little about Sundiata, and sends his son Sosso Balla (who is around the same age as our hero), to halt the former's passage to Tabon.

When Sundiata arrives at the mountains overlooking Tabon, he sees the valley full of Sosso Balla's men. He is not scared; he laughs. Though his war chiefs caution the battle should be put off until the next day because of troop fatigue, Sundiata insists they organize for battle immediately. He puts a rearguard cavalry under Manding Bory and leads the front line into battle, where they surprise the Sossos and dominate them. Sundiata himself destroys many of the strongest smiths, and pursues Sosso Balla, but the latter escapes. Manding Bory, from up on the hill, uses his cavalry to surround from the back and they capture many men. It is a great victory.

Fran Kamara and his army arrive too late to be of use, but the reunion between friends is joyful, and occasions an all-night feast. The next day, they march together into Tabon to roaring cheers. The news of the victory energizes the rebellion throughout the land, and Soumaoro realizes he must take more heed of this hero. His son's reports of Sundiata's bravery lead the sorcerer king to begin seeking in magic an answer to his problem.

Sundiata's army has grown more because of his victory, and he prepares to fight. Soumaoro makes the next offensive move, meeting Sundiata at Negueboria. As before, Sundiata is ready to fight immediately. While Soumaoro's plan was to occupy the plain and draw Sundiata into it, the latter's quick aggression halts this plan, and Soumaoro is forced to give battle in the valley. For this battle, Sundiata uses a "very original form of deployment." He forms a square of cavalry with archers in the back.

From across the valley, Sundiata can make out Soumaoro by his height and helmet adorned with horns. When the battle begins, Sundiata's army charges but is held back by the smiths of Sosso. Soumaoro watches the stalemate from on high for a while, and then notices that a breach is opening down the middle because of a charge led by Sundiata. The sorcerer king orders more smiths to surround them, but Sundiata's deployment is ready, and the square of cavalry stretches itself to a rectangle, so as to better fight from all sides. The shift takes the Sossos by surprise, and leaves them prey to the flaming arrows of the archers in the rear. In the madness, Sundiata again pursues Sosso Balla, but the boy escapes again.

Soumaoro joins the ranks to reenergize his men, and Sundiata makes a passage towards his antagonist. He gets close and hurls a weapon, which bounces off the sorcerer king's chest. He shoots an arrow, but Soumaoro catches it in flight. Furious, Sundiata charges with his spear but the sorcerer disappears suddenly. Sundiata looks up to see he has teleported to the hill. Then the sorcerer king disappears again!

The battle is a victory, but Sundiata is troubled. He does not have the tools or knowledge to defeat a man so versed in sorcery, and he had never given enough credence to the rumors of Soumaoro's sorcery, which say amongst other things that the king can assume 69 different shapes. Though the army and nearby villages spend the night in celebration, Sundiata faces great doubts about his abilities and his future.

The next day, Sundiata learns that Soumaoro's men are making a forced march, and Sundiata decides to pursue with equal energy. They march all day, and only stop to rest that night. All are relaxed in camp when an invasion by Sosso troops happens. The army is split up and so each group must defend itself. "No one knows how the men acquitted themselves" because of the darkness and confusion, but Sundiata again proves his valor, especially by saving the army of Fran Kamara from its attackers. The flaming arrows of Sundiata's archers cause panic amongst the Sossos, who attempt to flee but are cut down. Called the battle of Kankigne, it is another victory, though costly for both sides. Sundiata's men are gripped with fear, while the Sossos are further demoralized by the loss.

Summary of The Names of the Heroes

Following these two victories, Sundiata finds more villages willing to volunteer their armies towards the cause. Most of the rebel armies are gathered under the command of Kamandjan, who is king of Sibi, Sundiata's childhood friend, and cousin to Fran Kamara. It was thus destined that the three old friends would reunite.

As Sundiata crosses the Niger and hence renters Mali again, the griot stops to list the heroes and peoples that made up his army. "All the sons of Mali were there," he says, spending time with each tribe and its heroes. When they all join together and Kamandjan offers his allegiance to Sundiata, the great hero promises he will free them all.


The war is on, and the griot approaches the climax of his story. Certainly, this is the part of the story where the audience will be most gripped, and the pace reflects this. Every battle is sketched out in some detail so as to maintain the tension – for while the griot's audience undoubtedly knows that Sundiata will prove victorious, they would enjoy the details that try to recreate the ups and downs of every battle.

Sundiata's strength is on great display when he is at war. What attracts so many to his side is above all his ability to dominate - both as a commander, through innovative deployments, but also as a gritty fighter, evidenced by his prowess on the battlefield. He tears through the lines, always making a beeline for the head of the opposing army. Likewise, his insistence on fighting immediately – rather than considering a line of attack and delaying battle – goes a long way towards selling his heroism.

And yet when he faces Soumaoro, he is reminded that a great ruler cannot rely on strength alone. In a sense, Sundiata is extremely arrogant in his belief that his men will dominate, and while this arrogance pays off as he wins battles through brute force, he is nevertheless angered when his methods are unsuccessful against the sorcerer king's magic. In the celebration after the victory at Negueboria, Sundiata is troubled and full of doubt. He shows his heroic qualities here, because he is willing now to be humble, to accept that the magics of the world are greater than he, and so he will have to defer to those if he is going to defeat Soumaoro. While the Western epic conception of a "tragic flaw" is not entirely applicable to this African epic, one could argue that his unblinking pride is the flaw that Sundiata fortunately has the wherewithal to overcome once he faces the sorcerer king. Both kings underestimate one another through their arrogance at first – Soumaoro learns too late how strong is Sundiata, for instance.

Loyalty also pays great dividends as Sundiata gathers his army. In particular, it is through his former goodwill and loyalty to other peoples that Sundiata is able to gather such a large force. His childhood friends (Fran Kamara and Kamandjan) prove crucial towards building his army, a reminder that we are better served through treating others well, since that behavior could pay off in the future. Loyalty is an important theme in the work. There is a similar loyalty to one's home, which was reflected in the previous sections as well. Sundiata's loyalty to his home is not necessarily a choice but rather an acceptance that his "destiny…was bound up with that of Mali." It is this humility before destiny that more than anything makes Sundiata a great king.

Lastly, The Names of the Heroes reminds us that one of the central purposes to the griot's story is to celebrate and remember the people it describes. The audience might well be from throughout Mali, and they would appreciate reminders that their local heroes too were a part of the great victory. This section has little story purpose but might be equally important to an audience who would seek in an epic a celebration of themselves, a remembrance not only of the greatest hero but also of all the other heroes who made the greatness of Mali possible.