Sunjata is a west African epic surrounding King Sunjata who founded the kingdom of Mali. Its dates are unknown as the story itself comes from storytelling rooted in the Malian tradition, which has resulted in different tellings of the story as well as legends surrounding the figure of Sunjata. These legends include many tales of sorcery, such as the story of Sunjata’s birth itself and how his mother was cursed by a powerful witch. The version of Sunjata found in the Norton Anthology of World Literature is told in such a tone that makes it feel like reading about a legend, not a man. While Sunjata was indeed a real person, many of his deeds are exaggerated to the point where he becomes a character more powerful than any mortal man. Many figures throughout history are also portrayed in this way, such as Alexander the Great in Europe and Miyamoto Musashi in Asia.
Sunjata is portrayed as a child with a destiny, a trope that has been used in countless works of literature. What I liked was that his origin story, like many others, presented him with an obstacle to overcome, namely that he could not walk. But what I found interesting was that he only learned to walk once he stopped using a staff to help him up. This is not only an early example of Sunjata’s strength but could also be a metaphor for finding inner strength rather than relying on any sort of crutch.
One line in the story I found somewhat interesting was “God gave Sunjata feet.” This particular line takes place around the time when Sunjata first learned to walk on his own, without any assistance from a staff. It doesn’t initially seem like it fits to say that after Sunjata learned to walk, God gave him feet. I’m not sure if this is a mistranslation or if the ‘feet’ is actually a metaphor for Sunjata gaining strength as he decided to become a hunter. This line may be an example of the story having such a tone as the one I described earlier.
There are many lines in this story that provoke sort of a playful mood, such as the one about his iron staff: “Some people say he made the bent iron staff into his bow, but don’t repeat that.” The fact that it’s even implied that the bent iron staff became his bow makes the statement seem true, but the writer of this particular version is saying it might not be. Again, I’m not sure if this could be a mistranslation, but this might be another example of the ‘legendary’ tone of this work of literature.
Another aspect of this story that I enjoyed was the level of detail and the means of describing said detail. This story uses “inventories” quite a bit, especially when describing character actions. In one line, Sunjata “stood up, put up his crocodile-mouth hat, took his hunter’s hammock, his quiver, bow, and fly whisk, shut the front door, and went out he back.” While many people dislike this way of describing character actions, I like it because it gives me an accurate picture of what the characters are doing and also adds to the playful, legendary tone of this piece. This style of writing can be found in other epics as well, so it’s safe to say that this style of writing definitely has its place in literature.
This tale is filled with Sunjata’s feats of physical strength and prowess in battle, but one event I found also interesting is toward the end of the book, when Sunjata inhaled a poison powder and was completely unaffected. While it would be easy to assume that this is another example of Sunjata being made to seem more legend than man, it could also have been real as he could have built an immunity to the poison. We tend to think of physical strength as something a human can achieve, but poison as something that kills all humans no matter how strong they are. This is a common misconception, and yet the work of Sunjata could be playing on our tendencies to assume that certain things cannot be achieved by humans.
However, one example of a legendary feat that truly can’t be achieved by a human is when he lights the torches and that his own light was more powerful than the others. It’s heavily implied that Sunjata is magical in some way and that is why he’s able to do this, so the story could also be hinting at magical origins for all of his strength and other attributes.
One final thing I find interesting is that while many people are aware that the story of Lion King has actually been stolen from the manga Kimba the White Lion, not so many of those people know that the story itself is also loosely based on Sunjata. This can easily be inferred from one of the legends surrounding Sunjata: that he has the strength of a lion. There are many parallels between this story and Lion King such as that he learned to be strong after the death of his father. The fact that a Disney movie is based on Sunjata shows how the epic has influenced storytelling and media even today.
Puchner, Martin, editor. Sunjata. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th edition. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. pp. 12-59
Gabler, Jay. Twin Cities Daily Planet. 18 Jan, 2012. https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/lion-king-disney-sundiata. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.