Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The Lion Child and Childhood

Summary of The Lion Child

Sogolon grows comfortable with her place in the court, even as Maghan Kon Fatta's first wife Sassouma Bérété grows to disdain her. Sassouma Bérété sees the attention the king paid to his new wife, and she worries that her own boy, the king's eldest son, would be overlooked. She resolves to kill Sogolon, but all of the sorcerers she tries to recruit to that purpose admit they cannot defeat Sogolon, who herself is known to have great powers of sorcery. She decides to wait to enact her scheme.

When Sogolon's labor begins, the king recruits the greatest midwifes of Mali to her aid. The king and his griot pass the time anxiously, and even the griot's music cannot heal his worry as they await news of the birth. As they wait, a thunderstorm begins, and then stops suddenly. At this moment, the news is brought that Sogolon has given birth to a boy.

The griot makes an announcement via drum, and many come to the palace to celebrate. There, Gnankouman Doua sings a song in honor of the new father, and other griots follow with their own original songs. Several days of celebration follow, during which time Sassouma Bérété is outwardly happy but suffers inwardly. Meat and rice are given to heads of families by the king. The child is named eight days after his birth, while his first crop of hair is cut. The griot and king exit their own chamber and the griot announces that the child will be named "Maghan after his father, and Mari Djata, a name which no Mandingo prince has ever borne."

Summary of Childhood

The griot begins the section with a small lecture on fate – "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." Then he jumps right back into the story.

Sundiata's childhood is difficult. He suffers from a disability that left him still crawling at three years old. He has a big head, large, strange eyes, and is extremely taciturn. Sogolon Djata, as he is called partially after his mother, becomes a subject of gossip, especially as other children, when required by Sogolon to keep her son company, are beaten by Sundiata's "already strong arms." Sassouma Bérété is particularly happy with the child's infirmity, since her son Dankaran Touman, a healthy and virile 11 year old, looks kingly in comparison. She makes a point of mocking Sogolon, saying her son was promised nothing extraordinary by the jinn, but that he nevertheless is able to walk on two legs.

Sogolon is disheartened by her son's troubles, and her sorcery does nothing to help him. The griot points out "how impatient man is," focusing specifically on the king's impatience even in the face of Gnankouman Doua's reminder of the prophecy. Over time, Sogolon gives birth to a daughter, Kolonkan, after which the king removes Sogolon from his house, and she lives in "semi-disgrace." He meanwhile takes an additional wife, the "legendary" beauty Namandjé, who gives birth to the son Manding Bory, who will later become a great friend and ally of Sundiata.

All through this time, the king's griot advises patience. One day, the king visits the old, blind blacksmith seer Nounfairi, who confirms that the prophesied seed of greatness was planted. Reassured, the king returns Sogolon to her favored position, and they have another daughter, Djamarou.

Sundiata grows to 7 years old and still cannot walk on two legs. Meanwhile, his half-brother Dankaran Touman grows to become a strong boy. The king calls Sundiata to him and speaks "as one speaks to an adult." As a gift to his son, the king promises to him Balla Fasséké, the son of his own griot. He tells the two boys to "be inseparable friends from this day forward." The boys agree, and the older men are happy.


Sundiata's childhood does not seem like that of the hero everyone expected. Again, we see the recurring theme of a disconnect between what we perceive and what destiny has in store, since the boy seems to embody the opposite of what the prophesy promised.

In fact, the griot's presentation in these sections really drives home the central themes of destiny and time. The tone of his address at the top of "Childhood" is stern and disappointed. He takes for granted that humans are impatient and as such prone to judge greatness poorly. This sense that people tend to judge based on their immediate concerns and perceptions, unable to stay patient to behold the unfolding of destiny, runs through the epic.

As a repository of memory and legacy, the griot is a figure who boasts an evolved sense of time and how a situation can become its opposite. The king shows an impetuous impatience in the way he exiles Sogolon from his quarters, and is counseled towards valuing the future hero's mother only by his griot and another magical practitioner, the seer. Destiny cannot be perceived in the day to day, and so it behooves us to be patient.

Perhaps because of these qualities (or perhaps because the performing griot wanted again to validate his importance), the import of the griot is apparent here. In "The Lion Child" he says, "the generosity of kings makes griots eloquent", but there is reciprocity in the ceremonial giving of Balla Fasséké to Sundiata. The griot is of great value to the king, not only as a courtier, but as a wise ally. As keeper of ancestry and history, the griot is also part of the kingdom to be bequeathed to a prince. In essence, the son of Doua - who was himself gifted as a boy to Maghan - represents the gift of history to be inherited by Sundiata, the future king. Together kings and griots uphold history. There is a sense of duty that binds kings and griots; duty will become a central theme as a virtue worthy of heroes.

Finally, "Childhood" introduces the motif of Sogolon and Sundiata as alone and misunderstood. Before claiming his mantle, Sundiata will spend much time alone, and he gets his first taste of this in childhood. The hero's journey often involves great loneliness in the epic form, as though to suggest that man knows other men best only if he knows what it is like to live without them.