Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Quotes and Analysis

"I teach kings the history of their ancestors, so that the lives of the ancients might serve them as an example, for the world is old, but the future springs from the past."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 1

These words, spoken by the griot in the first section, set up a theme he revisits constantly in the epic: the importance of history and remembrance. This is a relatively concise statement of the griot's purpose. He teaches kings (and others) about the past not only to celebrate ancestry for an abstract purpose, but for the practical purpose of guiding future choices. The idea that mankind can grow if we learn from the past is contained here, and hence the griot, as repository of history, is so important. This quote also implicitly explains the purpose of the epic: to remember Sundiata and how he brought peace to Mali through his heroism, all in hopes that future rulers can learn from him. Implicit in this statement is a warning that the griot will make explicit on other occasions: if we don't learn from history, then we are bound to damn ourselves by repeating past mistakes.

"God has his mysteries which none can fathom. You, perhaps, will be a king. You can do nothing about it. You, on the other hand, will be unlucky, but you can do nothing about that either. Each man finds his way already marked out for him and he can change nothing of it."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 15

Here, the griot colors the story of Sundiata's rise with a reminder of the prominence of destiny in our lives. There is much irony in the way that Sundiata's enemies try to hinder - but, in the process, enable - his destiny. The griot, as a repository for history and hence a spokesman for the largeness of Time, often reminds his listener of how small mankind can be in the face of such greatness. Destiny cannot be perceived, and the wise man learns patience as it unfolds. The tone here is a bit harsh as the griot points to his audience and tells them they know nothing of what is meant for them. But this is the griot's purpose: to remind us that we are subservient to greater forces than any man could hope to understand or master.

"Kings are only men, and whatever iron cannot achieve against them, words can. Kings, too, are susceptible to flattery, so Soumaoro's anger abated, his heart filled with joy as he listened attentively to this sweet music."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 40

Unlike Sundiata, Soumaoro never learns piety and humility before magical powers. Instead, he remains convinced they exist to serve him, and so does Sundiata ultimately defeat him by robbing him of the powers he abused. This quote describes how Balla Fasséké saves his own life when Soumaoro catches the griot investigating the sorcerer king's fetishes and playing his personal balafon. It works in two ways: one, it illustrates Soumaoro's pride. He is so blinded by flattery that he mistakes the griot's loyalty to his original master Sundiata, a blindness that will ultimately cost him. This quote also stresses the power of the griot, who Mali custom might suggest wields the strongest weapon of all: the power of words and music. This also serves to remind the audience of the weakness of mankind. Though the king is a powerful sorcerer, he is still a man and his hubris leads to his undoing.

"Maghan Sundiata, I salute you; king of Mali, the throne of your fathers awaits you…Weeping mothers pray only in your name, the assembled kings await you, for your name alone inspires confidence in them. Son of Sogolon, your hour has come, the words of the old Gnankouman Doua are about to come to pass, for you are the giant who will crush the giant Soumaoro."

Mandjan Bérété, p. 45

Mandjan Bérété - brother of the queen mother - joins the search party to find Sundiata after Niani has fallen. Upon finding the boy in Mema, the party is overjoyed. This address reveals that the people of Nani finally recognize Sundiata as their rightful king. What it should remind us is how Niani allowed the exile of Sundiata seven years ago, when they were swayed by the machinations of Soussama Bérété. The public were quick to give up on the prophecy, yet the prophecy unfolded in its own time. Sundiata, by never despairing and trusting patiently in his impending destiny, has come to this moment of recognition ready to take up the mantle. It's a testament to the themes of patience, destiny, and heroism. Sundiata is now being welcomed not only by the gods who made him strong, but by the people he was destined to lead.

"The son of another is always the son of another."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 46

This phrase, thought by the king of Mema when Sundiata asks to be dismissed from the king's court so he can reclaim his crown at Mali, bears a spiteful tone. The king feels betrayed since he had expected Sundiata to take the place of his own heir and to rule Mema after his death. And yet it also touches on to a crucial theme: that of homeland. The truth is that Sundiata was always a stranger anywhere he went, since he is Mali through and through. It can also be taken as a testament to our history and ancestors; we are defined by them whether we know it or not, and those elements will surface at some point or another. Sundiata is great partly because of Sogolon's guidance, but mainly because he has been destined to lead a great people, a people of whom he is a part: the people of Mali.

"In the life of every man there comes a moment when doubt settles in and the man questions himself on his own destiny, but on this evening it was not yet doubt which assailed Djata, for he was thinking rather of what powers he could employ to injury Sosso-Soumaoro. He did not sleep that night."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 53

Sundiata's army wins the battle at Negueboria, but he is not heartened. He was unable to injure Soumaoro because of the sorcerer king's magical protections. By all accounts, Sundiata has proven himself a great hero by this point, both through his incredible bravery on the battlefield and through his ingenuity at organizing troop movements. And yet one element of his heroism is not yet sculpted: his piety. It is not until he recognizes that there are forces greater than him – the natural powers of magic – that he is able to appropriately enlist those powers to his aid. By the time Sundiata conquers the sorcerer king, he will have learned piety towards these powers, and they in turn will grant him the strength for which he is destined.

"I salute you all, sons of Mali, and I salute you, Kamandjan. I have come back, and as long as I breathe, Mali will never be in thrall – rather death than slavery. We will live free because our ancestors lived free."

Sundiata, p. 56

This address is given by Sundiata as his newly assembled army prepares for the final charge on Soumaoro. In the most basic sense, it is the king accepting his destined place as ruler of Mali. However, several of the qualities that make him such an important king are evident here too. Firstly, he addresses everyone in the crowd. This willingness to hear and consider others a virtue that helps him build alliances and maintain a peace in his rule. The focus on "freedom" will be reflected in the way he allows each city or tribe to rule itself under his flag, so long as they follow his rules for peace. And lastly, it shows his humility before the past; the call to freedom has little to do with his force of will, as he puts it, and everything to do with what the ancestors of Mali have already achieved.

"Sundiata was very happy to recover his sister and his griot. He now had the singer who would perpetuate his memory by his words. There would not be any heroes if deed were condemned to man's forgetfulness, for we ply our trade to excite the admiration of the living, and to evoke the veneration of those who are to come."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 58

Balla Fasséké and Nana Triban escape Soumaoro's clutches and return to Sundiata. While Nana Triban provides information Sundiata uses to defeat Saumaoro, it is the griot who is ultimately more important to the king's making. In the simplest sense, this quote illustrates the importance of the griot. Without his griot, Sundiata would be condemned to commit his "trade" for only the moments of his life, and then they would fade away. No one after him could learn of his adventures, or learn from his mistakes and triumphs. It would be a tragedy to be forgotten despite greatness. But the quote also implicitly reminds us that man's memory is generally short and hence are we are doomed by our nature to make the same mistakes over and over – unless, of course, we have a trusty griot to remind us of what came before.

"Griots are men of the spoken word, and by the spoken word we give life to the gestures of kings. But words are nothing but words; power lies in deeds. Be a man of action; do not answer me any more with your mouth, but tomorrow, on the plain of Krina, show me what you have me recount to coming generations."

Balla Fasséké, p. 63

This is Balla Fasséké's advice to Sundiata on the eve of his final battle with the sorcerer king. For once, a griot acknowledges that despite the prominence of remembrance, the other side of the coin is the men of action change the world through their heroism. The griot makes sure that man does not digress into past failures, but continues moving forward towards greatness. Still, we rely on our heroes to take action against injustice and to improve the world. Balla Fasséké tells Sundiata to earn a place in history by vanquishing the evil sorcerer king, to prove himself the destined ruler, after which it will be the griot's job to keep that legacy alive through the generations.

"Everywhere I was able to see and understand what my masters were teaching me, but between their hands I took an oath to teach only what is to be taught and to conceal what is to be kept concealed."

Griot Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté, p. 84

These final words of the griot offer one last reminder that even the great Sundiata was only a man and hence could never transcend to the realm of great secrets and knowledge. Only the griots are privy to these secrets, and though they too are men, they have access to timelessness through their vocation. The world, tied in with the magic of religion, is far more complicated than any man can know. We pursue heroism on Earth in hopes of bettering ourselves, but can never truly understand the great forces at work (like destiny). The griot preaches amongst all else a humility before these secrets, and a recognition of how small we are as humans in the face of a great world we will never fully understand.