Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The Lion's Awakening


Soon after the gifting of Balla Fasséké, the king dies. Shortly thereafter, Doua dies as well. The prophecy means nothing to the council of elders, who convene and, under the strong hand of the "queen mother" Sassouma Bérété, choose her son Dankaran Touman as king. "As men have short memories," the griot explains, the public thinks of Sundiata only "with irony and scorn," even if the jinn did choose him.

Using her new power, the queen mother banishes Sogolon and her son to a palace backyard. She invites any who wish to visit and gawk at Sundiata, where they mock him. Sogolon's only bright star is her daughter Kolonkan, who understands her mother's misery and helps with housework. Though they are mostly dependant on scraps from the queen mother's table, Sogolon grows a small vegetable garden out back that gives her joy.

One day, when short of baobab leaf (used for flavoring), she went to beg some from Sassouma Bérété. The latter gladly grants her some, since it provides occasion to mock her, saying "your son is unequal to mine" and hence incapable of collecting leaves for his own mother. Mortified and disgusted by such strong hatred, Sogolon returns to find her son "blandly eating," and she strikes him. He presses her for an explanation, and when she tells him of the insult leveled against her by Sassouma Bérété, he tells her "Cheer up…I am going to walk today." He asks her to visit the former king's smiths and ask for the heaviest iron rod they can make. He also asks if she wants simply baobab leaves or the entire tree. She says the insult would best be negated by the entire tree delivered to her hut. He then sits and continues to eat, as though nothing has happened. When they hear Sassouma Bérété laughing outside again in mockery of them, Sogolon returns to crying and Sundiata sits alone outside. "What was he thinking about? He alone knew."

Balla Fasséké runs to the smith to order an iron rod, and finds that Farakourou, the son of Maghan Kon Fatta's soothsaying smith, has been holding onto just such a rod since his father's time. The smiths carry the bar and drop it in front of the hut, where it makes a frightful noise. The griot instructs his companion, "Arise, young lion, roar, and may the bush from henceforth know it has a master."

Sundiata crawls to the bar and with no apparent effort, lifts it vertically. With a violent jerk, he pulls himself up with his arms. It takes great effort to straighten himself out, but he achieves it, in the process bending the great bar into a bow. In celebration of the accomplishment, Balla Fasséké improvises a song, "'Hymn to the Bow." Sogolon follows his song with her own prayer of thanks.

As Sundiata catches his breath from the effort, people flock to see the miracle. There are many around when he throws the bar down and takes his first steps: "those of a giant." He walks to an enormous tree outside Niani and pulls the entire tree from the ground. He plants it outside his mother's hut, adding that now women must come to her to beg for their supplies.

Now that Sundiata walks, the queen mother grows anxious, but "what can one do against destiny?" He grows popular amongst the crowd that had previously despised and mocked him, he becomes a popular hunting partner, and his mother is spoken of as pleasant contrast to the "pride and malice of Sassouma Bérété." Sundiata's greatness is considered by the populace as proof of Sogolon's valor. As Sundiata grows more popular, so does the blandness of Dankaran Touman, who is understood to be his mother's puppet, grow obvious to everyone.

Sundiata is drawn particularly to a few friends who stay with him throughout the epic: Fran Kamara, son of the king of Tabon ; Kamandjan, son of the king of Sibi; and his half-brother Manding Bory. It was common custom for princes from other kingdoms and tribes to spend time in other courts to both ensure peace and sow the seeds for future alliances, and these princes are drawn to Sundiata. All the while, Balla Fasséké is actively educating the boy.

Using a bow shaped by Farakourou, Djata (as he sometimes is called) proves himself an excellent hunter, and inspires crowds to sing his griot's "Hymn to the Bow" when he hunts well. At night, Sogolon tells her son stories that help him to distinguish between strength and weakness of different animals, to admire the exploits of Alexander the Great, and how to use medicinal plants to his benefit. By the time he is 10 years old, the hero is on his way.

This of course inspires the envy and fear of Sassouma Bérété, who calls the nine great witches of Mali to her aid in assassinating Sundiata. In reward, she promises each of them a cow and her calf and, in advance, large sums of rice and hay. The eldest of the witches, Soumosso Konkomba, insists that "all is interwoven…life has a cause and death as well", and so they cannot murder Sundiata unless he personally mistreats them. So the queen mother concocts a plan to entrap the hero: she instructs them to steal from Sogolon's garden, at which point Sundiata will give them a "good thrashing," thereby disrespecting their position as elders.

The next day, Sundiata and his companions hunt. On their return, Djata stops by his mother's garden and finds the witches stealing from the vegetable patch. When they stage a mock-escape, he stops them and tells them not to run, for "this garden belongs to all." Soumosso Konkomba tells him of the ruse and admires him, since "nothing can be done against a heart full of kindness." He bears them no ill-well and instead gives them some of the meat from the ten elephants he and his troop killed that day. For his generosity, the witches promise to watch over him.

That night, his sister Kolonkan teases him for being frightened of the witches and he admits he was. Unbeknownst to Sundiata, his sister watches over him as well.


In the ascent of Sundiata to his place as hero, much of the Mandingo culture is on display. But perhaps most apparent in this section are the qualities that emerge once Sundiata is no longer a subject of mockery. They are the qualities that mark him as the epic hero of Mali.

There is much at play in the final scene with the witches. First, the use of witches indicates again how heavily integrated magic is in Mandingo life. But again, culturally, magic is not a supernatural force, but rather an extension of the natural world and as such follows certain rules and guidelines. As Soumosso Konkomba explains, "life hangs by nothing but a very fine thread, but all is interwoven here below. Life has a cause, and death as well. The one comes from the other." Despite their position as great sorcerers, they cannot control nature but rather only exploit it. They remain subservient to it - as evidenced by Sundiata's kindness which both thwarts their murderous plan and affirms his destiny.

Indeed, human quality has a place alongside the magic. Sundiata is not recognized as hero by the witches because of his great power, but because of his generosity and respect. The Mali custom of respect for elders is very much on display in his treatment of the women, who he must have recognized only as elderly women trying to feed themselves. Though it was within his rights to punish robbers, he relied on his compassion, which is an important counterbalance to his physical strength. A marriage of these traits will make him a great leader rather than a tyrant.

This is not to suggest that physical strength is not equally, or more, important. Sundiata is only accepted once he displays physical strength, first in the bending of the bow and then in the acquisition of the tree. His mother's stories, which teach him to discern between weak and strong animals (the latter of which include the lion and the buffalo, both parts of his identity), are meant to shape his understanding of humanity. By being able to recognize weakness, he is greater. He shows this in the face of weak old women by not flaunting strength over them unnecessarily, and as such defeats the queen mother's simplistic assumptions.

The importance of memory and legacy continues to resonate here. There is a reason that an insult is of such grave import, as it is to Sogolon. In a society dependant on the griot to preserve memory, one's reputation affects not just one's life but legacy. Sogolon's pain at the queen mother's insult is indicative of her desire to protect her own legacy. Accordingly, this insult finally spurs Sundiata to act, as the insult also reflects negatively on his family. Notice, however, that it is not an insult to himself that drives him up – on the contrary, he withstands the throngs of ogling onlookers and only decides to stand when his mother is insulted.

Sundiata's respect for his elders is a crucial component of his growth as a hero, which reinforces the cultural weight of such respect for the Mandingo. As the griot tells us, "each is the child of his mother; the child is worth no more than the mother is worth." This is particular in its relevance to Sundiata, but also metaphoric in the sense that it reminds listeners that our own strengths or weaknesses are not ours alone but are instead shaped by our legacy and by what came before us. This implicitly argues for the importance of remembrance - and the role of the griot. And of course, there is "Hymn to the Bow," a griot's song, reminding us that music serves as a repository for greatness and a way to preserve what is done. This song will resurface throughout the epic.

Finally, the contrast between the hero – who stands because of slights to others, who shows patience both in awaiting his destiny and in judging others – and the fickle masses is apparent again in this section. The griot is particularly harsh on the public here. They are behave wickedly and cruel towards Sundiata when the queen mother convinces them he is an aberration, but as soon as he shows strength, they begin to love him and turn upon the queen mother. "Men have short memories", the griot tells us, as though to indicate that mankind requires heroes to lead them towards valor, since otherwise they might just as easily be led towards pettiness and vice. And since heroes die as does everyone, they also need the trusty griot to remind them of those heroes so that future generations may not lose the lessons learned by ancestors.