Death and the King's Horseman

Death and the King's Horseman Quotes and Analysis

This market is my roost. When I come among the women I am a chicken with a hundred mothers.

Elesin, 10.

In this quote Elesin explains why he must go to the marketplace before he travels on to the next world as part of the ritual. The women and the girls are his spiritual mothers, daughters, and wives, and he must be around them so they can give him the affirmation he needs. He must be in that physical space that has so much spiritual significance; the marketplace is representative of life, but also of an interstitial space that prepares Elesin to move from life to death.

Iyaloja, who is she? I saw her enter your stall; all daughters I know well.

Elesin, 19.

Elesin possesses a great zest for life, and one of his pursuits is that of women: he claims that he wooed often and rarely was refused. He is used to getting what he wants, and when he sees a beautiful woman on the eve of his ritual death, he decides he must have her. This is important not only in further entrenching our understanding of Elesin as a man committed to the pursuit of pleasure in all capacities, but because it offers the first glimmers of suggesting Elesin is not ready to die. That he is so easily swayed and ignores Iyaloja's warnings foreshadows his inability to carry out his role in the ritual. It is a misstep, and a fatal one for both Elesin and Olunde.

When they get this way there is nothing you can do. It's simply hammering against a brick wall.

Pilkings, 25.

Pilkings offers several ignorant, callous, and patronizing comments about the Nigerians throughout the text, and this is one of them. He is annoyed that Amusa will not get over his fear of the egungun costumes, and begins to rail at and ridicule him. This speaks volumes about Pilkings: he is ignorant of the customs of the place he was sent to live and work in, he is unsympathetic and callous towards people who are different than him, he is short-tempered and mean, and he is patronizing and condescending. His behavior towards Amusa symbolizes the behavior of Europeans generally towards their colonial subjects, and one of the reasons why the entire situation was so fraught.

You know this business has to be stopped, Simon. And you are the only man who can do it.

Jane, 31.

Jane's comment here is telling, for it demonstrates the mantle of authority and power Europeans took upon themselves to order the affairs of their colonial subjects, most of the time without any permission or acceptance. Jane believes it is her husband's right, responsibility, and personal duty to stop Elesin from killing himself. She believes this because of the position that Pilkings holds, and by mere dint of him being a European. She, and others, never contemplate that to intervene in the sacred affairs of the Nigerian people is not their right.

We don't want the eater of white left-overs at the feast their hands have prepared.

Girl, 39.

The scene where the girls mock Amusa is amusing, but also offers insights into the difficulties colonial peoples were subject to as a result of imperialism. Amusa is certainly unlikeable, and seems to be a traitor to his people by working for the colonial administrators. However, this choice makes sense in light of the situation, for people like Amusa and countless other examples in colonial territories believed that working with the Europeans would offer them financial and social stability. Thus, Amusa can be seen as a pitiful figure because he is part of a system that oppresses all colonized peoples, but in different fashions. He is in a difficult spot, and the reader/audience finds it easy both to ridicule and feel sorry for him.

Is there now a streak of light at the end of the passage, a light I dare not look upon?

The Praise-Singer, 44

In the second part of the ritual, following Elesin's consummation of his new marriage, the praise-singer resumes his responsibility of the facilitator of the ritual. He speaks in parables and stories and asks rhetorical questions of Elesin, guiding him into a trance-like state in which he can contemplate his upcoming suicide and prepare his spirit for it. By the time he utters these words, Elesin is close to achieving his aim. However, Soyinka increases the dramatic tension in the work by ending the act right after this interlude, making it seem as if Elesin succeeds. In the next act it becomes clear that he did not, and was arrested moments after the praise-singer utters these words. Returning to them is instructive, as the reader can now put together the reality of the scene that took place offstage -Elesin's reverie is brutally interrupted by Amusa and his officers, and he is clamped in irons before he can carry out his duty. The trance, and the ritual, is broken.

Then I slowly realised that your greatest art is the art of survival. But at least have the humility to let others survive in their own way.

Olunde, 53.

Olunde is unafraid of saying what he means to the Europeans. In his conversation with Jane, he reveals his perspicacity and wisdom, gleaned from living in both England and Nigeria. He is able to commend the British for certain characteristics, but ultimately understands that they are a race of men only able to adapt and survive, not achieve heights of culture, wisdom, or morality. This quote underscores one of the fundamental problems with the entire colonial era -European countries have goals and ambitions for themselves, which may not be inherently wrong, but along the way of achieving these they trample over other societies. They develop a tunnel vision, convincing themselves of their virtue and power, which is, of course, incapable of being legitimated: races and countries and groups are different from each other, but how can one begin to judge which is inherently better? Olunde exposes this false set of beliefs, making him an important anticolonial voice.

I have no father, eater of left-overs.

Olunde, 61.

The once-strong Elesin, now clamped in irons, is dragged in before the Europeans and his son. His failure is complete, his abjectness unarguable. The reader/audience may be hoping for some sympathy for the man, as he exemplifies all the traumas of colonialism; but Olunde rebukes him sharply. He denounces him, and uses that phrase common in the text, "eater of left-overs." This compares Elesin to a dog, which is something that Iyaloja does later in the text as well. It is a profound insult, and designates Elesin as unworthy of their civilization. However, below the surface meaning there is also the foreshadowing that Olunde will take Elesin's place, as he no longer has a father and must be the king's horseman.

First I blamed the white man, then I blamed my gods for deserting me. Now I feel I want to blame you for the mystery of the sapping of my will.

Elesin, 65.

There are several layers of blame in terms of why Elesin fails. There is the problem with Elesin himself, who demonstrated that he was firmly tied to the sublunary world and was not quite ready for death. There is Pilkings, the individual man who used his power to intervene in the ritual. Then, there is colonialism itself, which brought this outsider force into Nigeria, bringing chaos, trauma, oppression, and despair. By the 1940s, when the text is set, colonialism is entrenched and many aspects of traditional Nigerian religion and culture are vanishing. Despite our interest in seeing Elesin succeed, it is not very likely that he would have been able to. Elesin wonders if his failure is due to his gods, and if that is the case, it is only because Nigerian gods and not as powerful as European bureaucracy.

Because he could not bear to let honour fly out of doors, he stopped it with his life. The son has proved the father Elesin, and there is nothing left in your mouth to gnash but infant gums.

Iyaloja, 75.

In this dramatic ending, Olunde takes on his father's role as the king's horseman and sacrifices himself. It may be surprising for some readers/audiences, as Olunde seems to be a more "modern" young man, who has studied in Europe and is capable of critical thinking regarding both of the societies he was a part of. Nevertheless, he understands how important this is to his people. His father is no longer a patriarchal figure, no longer an emblem of power. The Nigerian people need someone who can embody the strength and vitality of their society, and Olunde is aware, given his nuanced understanding of the colonial system, that he is the only one who can do this.