Death and the Kings Horseman
African Tradition and Culture in Death and the King’s Horseman
Death And The King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka tells the story of the importance of tradition in African culture. The play follows the life of Elesin Oba, who had the career title of “The King’s Horseman”, and his obligation to follow an African tradition of a ritualistic suicide following the death of their king. As the play goes on, Soyinka illustrates the importance of this tradition in African culture and shows what it means when the tradition is not fulfilled in this culture. By demonstrating the importance of culture and rituals in this play, Soyinka demonstrates how each culture, though very different, has their own rituals and beliefs that make their society what it is.
An important aspect of rituals and cultural beliefs in African society is the history that the ritual brings along with it. In the academic journal “Death and the King’s Horseman: A Poet’s Quarrel With His Culture”, Wole Ogundele provides a brief background of the importance of this ritual in African society. He states, “Oral history tells us that originally, the olokun esin (Master of the Horse0 did not have to die along with his king for any reason at all, political or metaphysical. The first olokun esin to die did so willingly. The reason, the oral historians say, was that that particular olokun esin and the king were uncommonly close friends” (Ogundele). As the paper goes on, he explains that, “When the king died, this particular olokun esin thought that the only way to demonstrate his love and loyalty to his friend, the dead king, was to die, too” (Ogundele). However, when colonization occurred in Africa, the empire that was responsible for the creation of this tradition began to fade as new, more modern traditions began to be taught. The journal states, “The colonial religion preached an alternative cosmic order in which ritual self-immolation on behalf of society is neither desirable nor necessary” (Ogundele), thus began the demise of this tradition. However, the ritual still survived in some ways. As the journal illustrates, “Precisely because the obligation to die was now no longer a military but spiritual affair, the two aspects of the warrior ethics, which had hitherto been complementary, were now discrete entities. The rights and privileges attached to the office might still be embraced—but the reciprocal obligation recoiled from” (Ogundele). Having learned about the culture that inspired the play and the rituals that serve as a fundamental aspect in the play itself, it is important to see how Soyinka demonstrates these rituals in the play.
The descriptions of these rituals and traditions throughout the play serve as a key theme and are very important to the play itself. The play begins with Elesin, the king’s horseman, and the praise-singer, who serves as sort of the chorus of this play, describing how the king has died and now Elesin must be prepared to perform the ritualistic suicide in order to keep the tradition going. Later in this scene, Elesin gives a monologue that describes the importance of being comfortable with death and knowing that he must perform the ritual. He states, “Life has an end. A life that will outlive/ Fame and friendship begs another name./… Life is honour./ It ends when honour ends” (Soyinka, Scene 1). As the play continues, the time of the ritual comes and it is now time for Elesin to fulfill his duties. The suicide process begins to occur as Elesin dances and slowly moves into a trance with the music that is being performed at the ceremony. As he dances and moves more and more into his trance, the Praise-Singer describes how it is becoming more and more visible that Elesin’s soul is no longer present in his body, and how the death is beginning to occur. The ritual will soon be complete, however British officers soon arrive and break up the ceremony, preventing the suicide from occurring. As this occurs, the play begins to move from the more spiritual history of the culture to its more historical background. After developing more of an understanding for the cultural background of the ritual that plays a fundamental role throughout this play, gaining an understanding of the history of the play itself becomes an important detail in order to gain a full comprehension of what this play is trying to illustrate.
While the culture and rituals that are performed in this play serve as a significant theme throughout the play, it is important to remember the historical accuracies of the events that the play is based on. In the play, when the ritualistic suicide is about to occur, a British officer arrests the king’s horseman in order to prevent his suicide from occurring. This is based on a historical event that occurred as colonization was beginning to occur in many African countries. The history is described in greater detail in an academic journal by Nick Tembo entitled “History, Religion, and the Dramaturgy of Victimization and Betrayal”. Trembo states, “When the ritual was to be celebrated in 1946m the British District Officer went out and arrested the Elesin Oba and threw him into jail because, according to British law, attempts suicide was a criminal offence’ (Tembo). As the journal goes on, Trembo illustrates that “The overriding issue here is history; that something actually happened in history. [Soyinka] is also out to tell us that African history should not necessarily be looked at as something that found its true essence with the presence of the white man” (Tembo). The events of the play demonstrate this history due to the fact that Pilkings and his men are responsible for preventing Elesin from completing his ritualistic suicide. After learning of both the cultural and historical backgrounds of this play, it is important to see how Soyinka himself portrays these facts in the play itself.
While the cultural aspects of the play have already been illustrated, the historical details of the play serve as an important detail. The main historical detail that is important in this play is the inclusion of the British District officer, Pilkings, and his blatant disrespect of the African rituals and cultures throughout the whole play. This begins in scene two when Pilkings and his wife are preparing to go a party and Pilkings decides to wear an important cultural dress of the African people as a costume. Amusa, who seems to be a servant to Pilkings and his wife, sees that Pilkings is wearing the dress and begs him to take it off, explaining how it is very dangerous for anyone to be wearing this ritualistic outfit. Pilkings ignores the warning and proceeds to read the letter that Amusa has delivered. The letter explains how the Elesin Oba is planning on performing the ritualistic sacrifice, and Pilkings becomes enraged. Pilkings states, “I’ll have the man arrested. Everyone remotely involved. In any case there may be nothing to it. Just rumors” (Soyinka, Scene 2). As Pilkings learns more about the act, he continues to mock how he has interfered so much with their traditions and how nothing bad has happened to him because of the actions that he has committed. Eventually, Pilkings prevents the suicide from occurring, which leads to a huge uproar of the African people. They are all furious that their traditions cannot be completed. Elesin’s son, who has returned to see his father’s corpse and keep the tradition going, sees that his father was prevented from committing the ritualistic suicide and decides that he must kill himself in order to keep the tradition alive. The heartbreak of losing his son ends up killing Elesin. All of the African people are furious at Pilkings for preventing their rituals from happening and blame him for all of the terrible events that occurred due to the fact that he stopped the rituals and tried to change their culture.
The prevention of these rituals and the usage of the historical background of the play serve as a representation of how the colonialism that began to occur in Africa during this time ended up ruining a lot of important aspects of African culture and changed what they believe in. This can be illustrated by Iyaloja’s speech at the end of the play. She is talking directly to Pilkings after the death of both Elosin and Olunde, when Pilkings asks if this is what their people wanted to happen. She replies by saying, “No child, it is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers’ lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you” (Soyinka, Scene 5). This scene begins to perfectly illustrate the point that Soyinka is trying to make throughout this play, which is that the Colonization of Africa ended up greatly impacting their culture as a whole and that the white men ended up trying only to destroy the culture that they had previously created. This theme can be summed up by M.B. Omigbule in his journal entitled “Proverbs in Wole Soyinka’s Construction of Paradox”, in which he claims, “Tragedy, being a more serious form of art than comedy, provides Soyinka with an enormous opportunity in Death to examine the Yoruba metaphysics and, consequently, put to test the strength of the culture with is explained and sustained by the metaphysics in the face of the transition occasioned by modernity” (Omigbule). This quote is used to describe how difficult it was for the African people to keep up their tradition as colonization occurred due to the fact that the European people did no share any of the same values that the African people possessed, and they wished for the African people to be more like them.
The use of historical and ritualistic concepts of African beliefs throughout Death and the King’s Horseman allows Soyinka to make an excellent commentary on how European colonization impacted the African people and how their society lost a lot of the traditional and spiritual values that it once possessed due to European disregard for the importance of their cultural values. This play does a great job of portraying the historical prevention of the ritualistic suicide and how the colonization impacted African culture as a whole. With the inclusion of these historical and spiritual values, Soyinka is able to make a proper social commentary on the social and cultural factors that colonization destroyed in African society and how colonization as a whole had a negative impact on Africa and its people.
Yoruba Values and Paradoxes in Death and the King’s Horseman
Throughout the play, Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, there is a conspicuous paradox between the traditional Yoruba values of Olunde and his father, Elesin. Although Olunde has been westernized by staying in Europe for his studies, he is seen to be more faithful to his own culture than his father, who has never ventured off from the roots of his civilization. Olunde’s devotion to his culture overcomes his father’s through a prolonged sacrifice ritual. Through Elesin’s failure to follow through with the sacrifice, there is an abundance of European influence, shame, and cultural values that enforce Olunde’s actions. This further strengthens the paradox seen in this play and focuses on clues drawn out by the play itself.
Olunde spends some time away in Europe to further his education in medicine. When he arrives back to his hometown, he converses with Mr. Pilkings’ wife, Jane. In their conversation they mention a captain who had to take his own life when his ship was blown up in order to save the lives of others. Jane expresses her opinion when she says, “…Life should never be thrown deliberately away”(Soyinka, 42). Jane, like other Europeans, does not understand that sacrificial ritual in many cultures is an action of honor. We see this difference through Olunde saying, “I don’t find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life”(Soyinka, 42). Similarly, the traditional Yoruba values include a sacrificial ritual, which is why Olunde finds the captain’s sacrifice so inspiring. Olunde is able to relate to the captain and realizes his honorability, in which he would perceive his father if he forewent his Yoruba duties. This story of the captain sacrificing his life for the wellbeing of others foreshadows the upcoming sacrifice Olunde later does.
Throughout Olunde’s stay in Europe he was exposed to differences of people and culture, even surroundings such as World War II. Olunde unveils his opinion to Jane when he states, “Don’t think it was just the war. Before that even started I had plenty of time to study your people. I saw nothing, finally, that gave you the right to pass judgement on other peoples and their ways. Nothing at all”(Soyinka, 44). Through Olunde’s experiences with the European people he has been further educated in how single-minded individuals like Jane and her culture can be. In the text, Jane states that when Olunde left, her and her husband were unsure of what he left with. Olunde responds saying, “Neither did I. But I found out over there. I am grateful for your country for that. And I will never give it up”(Soyina, 44). Through Olunde’s experiences, he has come to know that he will always be tied back to his roots no matter how long he is gone.
Elesin, the King’s Chief Horseman, has a duty to fulfill in which he needs to accompany the King to the afterlife through a ritual sacrifice. Elesin makes excuses for his inaction by stating, “…my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs”(Soyinka, 53). Elesin is trying to hide his true intentions, which was avoiding the sacrificial ritual he was supposed to uphold. His dedication to his culture deteriorated and he let his people down. In response to his wife, Olunde states that his “powers deserted him” and that he “could do nothing to save himself”(Soyinka, 55). It is easy for him to disguise his shame and blame it on those who captured him, but in reality he feared death.
Through westernization, Olunde proves himself to be more devoted than his own father. When Olunde finds out his father did not go through with the ritual, he is engulfed in shame. Olunde makes the decision to go through with the ritual himself because he feels responsible in bringing honor to his family. His sacrifice is a statement to his father, reasserting the fact that leaving to go to Europe has not detached himself from his original roots. His father’s failure allows Olunde to reconnect with his culture and prove his worthiness to his people.
Through culture, shame, and European influence it is clear that Olunde holds his traditional values more closely than that of his father. Experiencing life in Europe drew Olunde closer to his roots than ever before. He distinguished the differences between the two cultures and came to the realization that his honor belongs to Yoruba traditions. Due to Elesin’s cultural reluctance, Olunde was obliged to overcome his father’s fears and face death for his people. Clearly, through evidence in the play and analytical perspective, Olunde overcomes his father’s dedication to their culture.
Review of Wole Soyinka’s Book, Death and a King’s Horseman
Due to the obligation of serving as a new tribal member in third world environments, one would be expected to maintain the standards and beliefs of religion, politics, and family. Dedication to these new beliefs would cause stress and added pressure for one to strive for the satisfaction of the tribe and people. This could result in isolation and unhappiness.
In his play, Death and a Kings Horseman, Wole Soyinka combines the Yoruba culture and a predominant western culture to express the clash between the two. In the Yoruban world, everything survives on ancient history and religion. The Yorubans beliefs are so strong that when Elesin was to follow his king to heaven, this was acceptable for the people to understand. From the Western perspective, it is hard for people to accept a ritual suicide as positive or helpful to the living.
Soyinka uses mystic elements to provide the reader with a sense of the African tradition. The religious traditions in Africa are to respect the king as ruler, so that the people would be protected of war, have organized politics and rather comfortable living conditions. With out a named king, the tribal members would fight over the succession of the kings position. This would cause anarchy within the community. It is mandatory for the king to be serious at all times. He must eat and sleep alone, and those who wish to see him must bow their heads in respect.
The kings Canadian immigrated son is appointed to be the successor after he passes on. His son realizes what chaos the people would experience if he refuses to accept the role as king. The people would never forgive him and he would rather be dead than deal with the guilt. His son also realizes the sacrifices that go along with the role as king. He can no longer talk on the phone with his friends, walk to the store, listen to music, watch television, or sing songs. There would be scarcely any vehicles, with dirt potholed roads, and houses made from boards and canvas. His dreams of his family and Canada seem shattered. Having a decent job, riding the bus, wearing expensive clothes, and taking long showers would soon come to an abrupt end. There would be no more McDonalds or take out food. The harsh climate would be treacherous to his body and health and would take some time getting used to. He could no longer go to the doctor or dentist for annual check ups, nor receive any prescribed medicine when ill. The successor could not meet friends at the local pub for a beer and wings, laughing and joking while smoking cigarettes. Hard labour would be expected. Working long days in blistering heat, while barely dressed. Witnessing more dead carcases of cattle in the fields than actual living. Listening to the problems of the tribal people would be ordinary. Having your hands and head spat on would be expected as a ritual of respect. In Canada, having your hands and head spat on would not only be an act of disrespect but assault as well.
Only few Canadians can imagine what it would be like to have your freedom banished from their life. The opportunities Canadians have are countless. Everyone is offered an education taught by trained professionals, existing in a comfortable atmosphere, that permits the eligibility of using sport and academic equipment. Everyone is entitled to seek employment. Unemployment and financial aid is given to those who need it. Obtaining some source of income is absolutely crucial in order to maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle in Canada. In Canada, it is normal for infants to play with toys in their playpen, for children to ride their bikes to the park, and for adults to save for a new car, house, boat or vacation. Canadians of all ages can join extra-curricular activities such as sports, arts, or music.
Comparing the Canadian culture to the African would oppositely drastic. Most Canadians have experienced the taste of chocolate, chips, or pop. In an African culture the necessity foods come from animals. Beef, chicken, eggs and milk. In Canada, people drink clean water, have access to flush toilets, warm showers and can launder their clothes using a machine. Africans only have access to infested rivers for a source of drinking water, which is also used for bathing and washing clothing. They have no flush toilets, and no warm showers. Canadians may choose a movie at the theatre for pleasure, while in Africa, dancing around a fire would be the only source of enjoyment. In Canada, people freely choose who they prefer to date, marry and have children with. Only two people can be married at the same time unless a divorce is settled. They can engage in sexual relations with out being married and have the opportunity to protect them selves. In Africa, people cannot chose who they date, marry or bore children with. The King is entitled to several wives and multiples of children. The lack of remedies for protection result in a vast spread of diseases. In most areas of Canada, people are protected from wildlife. They are not expected to hunt them for food. Africans are not protected from the wildlife and hunt with out dated or man- made weapons.
Most Canadians take the things they are offered for granted. No one can imagine the culture difference until they have experienced it them selves. Once a Canadian realized the isolation from civilization they would be ultimately grateful for what they have. If an African realized the freedom offered in Canada and experienced the difference they would never want to go back to Africa. Many Canadians take what they have for granted. When they are hungry they can make themselves a snack, when they are bored they can go to the library to read, when they are hot they turn up the air conditioning, and when they are cold they turn up the heat.
There are endless contrasts when comparing the two cultures. When the new successor arrives in Africa the shock would be drastic. Going from an uncivilized society to a civilized society back to an uncivilized society would be mentally and physically painful. Whether or not the new king believes in the legends of the tribal gods, he would have to change his views and beliefs in order to satisfy the people. Decisions toward war, peace and politics would be his obligation to make the appropriate choices. Should he make any erroneous decisions, the fear of being killed by another member to relieve him as king, is always on his mind.
The conflicts between cultures would cause extreme pressure for a king who has experienced both of the cultures. He would strive for satisfaction of the people but would be unhappy by the isolation of society.
Wole Soyinka, although relying on the predominant western culture, is able to sustain an African cultural world-view through his use of language, rhythms, and literary devices. The use of such allows the reader to be transferred to a foreign world to experience the clash and conflict of the evolving cultures.
Examination of Death and the King’s Horseman Book by Wole Soyinka
UNDERSTANDING WOLE SOYINKA’S “DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN”
An issue worth noting in Wole Soyinkas Death and the Kings Horseman involves his prefatory remarks and the impact they have on the meaning of the story. While Soyinka, in his preface, forcefully rails against readers who would make his play into a portrayal of “culture clash”, actual reading of the story does draw significant attention to cultural tension. More specifically, the portions of the play dealing with culture raise interesting ideas about understanding and respect. Fueling a dilemma, Soyinka directs readers to instead see the plays “threnodic essence”, dealing with Elesin and the natives perceptions of death and transition into death – which makes up the other significant portion of the play. The questions that result are whether the reader should ignore the “culture clash” tendencies of the play, instead focusing solely on the “threnodic essence,” and consequently, if ignoring the “culture clash” means its themes of understanding and respect have no worth or value in the play. However, the problem can be reconciled and the two apparently contrasting interpretations of the story can be integrated through a linking theme of understanding. A theme investigating human understanding is found running through both the central “threnodic” and the “culture-clash” themes, unifying them and allowing them to coexist. Ultimately, this underlying theme of the play shows how all humans struggle with understanding – both with each other and with death.
First, the theme of understanding is explored throughout sections of the play involving the English colonists and their cultural tension (to avoid using the word “clash” which Soyinka believes mistakenly assumes an equality of cultures) with the native Yoruba people. In Act 2, the District Officer, Pilkings, and his wife, Jane, first confront the theme of understanding when they dress up for a ball wearing native death costumes. They see no problem with it, but Mr. Pilkings employee, Amusa, a native policeman, is frightened by them wearing the costumes, believing it to be bad for people to touch this cloth of death. “I think youve shocked his big pagan heart bless him,” Jane says in reaction (pg 24). Their Christian background, which doesnt include knowledge of Nigerian spiritual life, has not prepared the Pilkings to understand, in Mr. Pilkings words, “any mumbo-jumbo” (pg 24). Although this situation could be looked at on the surface as “clash of cultures,” a deeper conflict, involving understanding and respect relating to each other and to death, is also present.
Later in the play, illustrating the lack of understanding the Pilkings continue to harbor, Jane, who is still wearing the costume, meets with Elesins European educated son, Olunde. “I have now spent four years among your people,” Olunde says. “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand” (pg 50). Jane is angry with his view, but they continue to visit. Jane brings up the story of a ship captain who sacrificed himself for the lives of many others. Olunde views the captains act of dying for others – which ironically parallels Elesins death ritual – as admirable, but Jane fails to understand how it could be admirable. Olunde is frustrated at her inability to try to understand or at least to respect that someone else might have a different view of death from her own. You (Western people) believe that everything which appears to make sense was learnt from you,” he says (pg 53). This scene seems well suited to a “clash of cultures” interpretation, but looking past the context of culture as Soyinka wishes, it can also be seen as an examination of the basic human understanding of death, and the roadblocks humans encounter – both cultural (in Janes case) and spiritual (in the case of Elesin and the natives). We are shown that it is almost impossible for Jane, as a human, to understand and respect these ideas which she has been conditioned against.
At the end of the story, when Mr. Pilkings is talking with Elesin in the cell, the theme of understanding is once more brought out. “You dont quite understand it all but you know that tonight is when what ought to be must be brought about,” Elesin tells Mr. Pilkings (pg 62). In this sentence, Elesin alludes to both his death ritual and the cultural gap, uniting the threnodic and cultural themes into one of understanding. Finally, Olunde, talking with Pilkings – who he thinks has just come from witnessing Elesins death – sums up a main aspect of the theme of understanding which relates to both cultural differences and death, saying, “you must know by now there are things you cannot understand – or help” (pg 58).
But the play is not completely – in fact it is only in small part – just a struggle of understanding for the colonists. The larger struggle is inside the minds of Elesin and the Yoruba people as they try to understand death and the transition into death. In the first scene, this is especially apparent as Elesin prepares for death and the Praise-singer spouts a flood of questions aimed at finding answers to the mystery of death. “There is only one world to the spirit of our race,” the Praise-singer says. “If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?” (pg 11) Here he is trying to gain understanding about what would happen if Elesin isnt successful in carrying out his death ritual. He struggles to know what their fate would be. Later, as Elesin is further into his transition into death, the Praise-singer asks him questions about what he is experiencing, hoping to gain an understanding. “Is there now a streak of light at the end of the passage, a light I dare not look upon?” he asks. “Does it reveal whose voices we often heard, whose touches we often felt, whose wisdoms come suddenly into the mind when the wisest have shaken their heads and murmured; It cannot be done?” (pg 44) He continues, “Your eyelids are glazed like a courtesans, is it that you see the dark groom and master of life?” (pg 44 – 45) In these passages, the Praise-singer represents our “human” questions, and he hopes Elesin, in his half-earthly, half-heavenly state, will help him to understand. But Elesin can not answer him, and all remains a mystery.
Near the end of the story, the theme of understanding again shows through when Elesin is pondering his failure to fulfill the death ritual. “I need understanding. Even I need to understand,” he says (pg 69). He laments his weakness but also his lack of understanding that led to his failure. “My will was squelched in the spittle of an alien race, and all because I had committed this blasphemy of thoughtthat there might be the hand of the gods in a strangers intervention,” he says (pg 69). He realizes that his failure was tied to a misunderstanding, believing that perhaps the intervention of the colonists was the work of the gods. He is frustrated at his weakness and the catastrophe that came to be as a result. Soon after this realization, Iyaloja reinforces the theme of understanding while arguing with Pilkings. “Child,” she says, “I have not come to help your understanding. [Points to Elesin] This is the man whose weakened understanding holds us in bondage to you” (pg 71). The play ends sadly, with Iyaloja reminding Elesins new bride to “forget the dead, forget even the living. Turn your mind only to the unborn” (pg 76). Neither an understanding of people nor death has been reached, but considerable examination and contemplation has occurred – and that is the point. As Iyaloja suggests, we can only concentrate on the future and continue trying to understand our world and the world beyond life.
Death and the Kings Horseman is an intensely complex play which undoubtedly examines many themes. However, an examination of human understanding permeates most every scene and situation and plays a role in most every other theme in the play – especially themes concerning cultural relations and death. Although Soyinka tries to discount completely the presence of a “culture clash,” this is a case where the authors intent is not the same as what actually presents itself in the play. By renaming cultural themes as themes involving understanding, it is possible to incorporate the cultural themes into the play without disturbing or drawing too much attention away from the threnodic theme Soyinka promotes. And, in fact, incorporating culture only adds extra richness and complexity to the play and to the theme of understanding.
Elisen as an Aristotilian Tragic Hero
As in other plays, reflecting a specific culture, “Death and the King’s Horseman” has kept close to religious and traditional issues, but it has shaped culture into a great tragedy. Aristotle defines tragedy in his book poetics as:
A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions. (Aristotle, 23)
Death and the King’s Horseman encompasses tragic events that excite the audience’s emotions. It could be inferred from “catharsis” that the aim of a tragic work is delivering the author’s thought and notions through affections, an effective device that could penetrate the soul. The feelings of pity and fear, aroused within the audience, are not mere affections towards the hero, but they enable the audience to accommodate the play’s main message and theme as well as be fully convinced of the author’s thought. Death and the King’s Horseman is a tragedy that aims to manifest the tragic consequences of disobeying the gods and not maintaining a state of order among the three worlds of the unborn, the living, and the ancestors. Greek tragic dramatists, Aeschylus and Sophocles, wrote religious dramas that were concerned with the relation between gods and the hero. Further, the play is full of poetic language and is built on real events. Hence, Soyinka’s play is very close to the Greek tragedy. A protagonist within a tragedy must be also tragic. According to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, the tragic hero has certain characteristics.
Aristotle says that the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror …, and also that this tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is “better than we are”, in the sense that is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a man is exhibited as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of his mistaken choice of an action, to which he is led by hamartia-his “error” or “mistake of judgment” or, as it is often, although misleadingly and less literary translated, his tragic flaw. (Abrams, Harpham, 315)
The definition corresponds almost verbatim to the character of Elesin. Having the position of the king’s horseman, he ends up suffering and dies with shame. His demise is the consequence of his error that is the failure to fulfill his ritual duty. Elesin’s fall and agony arouse the audience’s compassion toward him and fear for themselves lest they may fall in the same mistake. Nonetheless, there is one thing that distinguishes him from the Greek tragic hero. Whereas the focus in the Greek tragedy is on the individual, the African theatre centers upon the community. In all these respects, Death and the king’s horseman is a tragic play that exposes the Aristotelian tragic hero, yet it includes one difference, differentiating it from the Greek tragedy.
The main reason behind Elesin’s tragic fate, according to Soyinka and the Nigerian ethos, is Elesin’s dereliction of duty. After having a very high position in life, Elesin’s negligence in accomplishing his ritual sacrifice decidedly begets tragic sequels.
How can that be? In all my life as Horseman of the King, the juiciest Fruit on every tree was mine. I saw, I touched, I wooed, rarely was the answer No. The honour of my place, the veneration I Received in the eye of man or woman prospered my suit and Played havoc with my sleeping hours. (Soyinka, 76)
Socially, he becomes prostrate with humiliation, and, spiritually, he becomes a sinner and a defiant against the gods. Besides, he causes disastrous chaos among the world of the dead, which, according to the Yoruba community, is duplicated in the world of the living. Soyinka’s Praise Singer-guardian of culture rebukes his erstwhile leader, “Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice” (Soyinka, 75). Lyaloja, also, admonishes him severely.
You have betrayed us. We fed you sweetmeats such as we
hoped awaited you on the other side. But you said No, I
must eat the world’s left-overs. We said you were the hunter
who brought the quarry down; to you belonged the vital por-
tions of the game. No, you said, I am the hunter’s dog and I
shall eat the entrails of the game and the faeces of the hunter.
We said you were the hunter returning home in triumph, a
slain buffalo pressing down on his neck; you said wait, I first
must turn up this cricket hole with my toes. ( Soyinka, 68)
The play turns into a tragedy when Elesin is prevented from doing his ritual assignment. His son, Olunde, is the most person who pays for his father’s mistake. When he sees that his father is still alive, he is filled with shame and sadness,” I have no father, eater of left- overs” (Soyinka, 61) and ,thence, the climatic catastrophe happens. He kills himself in order to compensate the shame his father has caused and make a contrite apology for the ancestors and his people. Lyaloja comments on that, pointing to Elesin the consequences for what he has done.
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. (Soyinka, 75)
Seeing the corpse of his son, Elesin is fixated on Olunde, and, thereupon, suddenly, he strangles himself with the chain before anyone can intervene. Lyaloja censures the white men for trying to stop him, commenting that he has finally gone on even though it is too late.
He is gone at last into the passage but oh, how late it is. His son will
feast on the meat and throw him bones. The passage is clogged with
droppings from the King’s stallion; he will arrive all stained in dung. (Soyinka, 76)
Elesin’s “hamartia” that is the reason of the nonfeasance of his mission could be interpreted as his surrender and submission to the European colonizer. Tanure Ojaide writes:
Elesin’s failure is not refusing to die, but not dying at the appropriate moment. It is a ritual and there is a time for everything. However, Elesin delays and provides the opportunity for his arrest and the excuse not to die. (Online, Ojade)
Elesin in a moment of “blasphemy” surrenders to the outer forces.
It is when the alien hand pollutes the source of will, when a stranger force of violence shatters the mind’s calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief, commit in his thought the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of the world. I know it was this thought that killed me, sapped my powers and turned me into an infant in the hands of unnamable strangers. I made to utter my spells anew but my tongue merely rattled in my mouth. (Soyinka, 64)
Blaming the white man, his gods, and his bride, he forgets to consider his own role, “my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs” (Soyinka, 65). Further, in another quotation, he almost admits that he yields up his will to the European hands, “My will was squelched in the spittle of an alien race” (Soyinka, 65). In addition, while Lyaloja is reprimanding Elesin, she alludes darkly to his submission and says that he has allowed them to be the dominators of the situation (Soyinka, 65). In fact, Lyaloja’s words could be hitting home as when the inducement of death came from Elesin’s heart, nothing prevented him from fulfilling his duty, neither the iron bars nor the “alien race”.
The very feature that distinguishes Death and the King’s Horseman from the Greek tragedy is the thought of individualism which could be seen as a fundamental tragic crux. Yoruba religion pivots wholly on the community’s good and prosperity. The thought of individualism is considered as a great ignominy. Since they deem that the whole humankind is correlated, the individual’s selfishness afflicts the three worlds of the universe (the living, the ancestors and the unborn) and, as a corollary, the individual himself is afflicted. Therefore, there is no room for egotism.
In “The Fourth Stage” and later in Myth, Literature and the
African World, Soyinka explores what he understands to be the
relation in Yoruba cosmology between man, the gods, and the an-
cestors. The essence of this cosmology, as he expounds it, is in
direct contradiction to the Christian and European emphasis on
the individual and individual salvation. For the Yoruba the em-
phasis is on community, and community in this context makes no
distinction between the dead, the living, and the unborn. The em-
phasis is on continuity, on maintaining the continuous and conti-
guous relationship of these three stages of being. (Ralph Bowman, 82)
Mark Ralph-Bowman asserts that in order to appreciate the “religious mystery” (82) which lies at the heart of the play we must forget “the whole western tradition of individual tragedy” (84). Although the protagonist has the appearance of a tragic hero, “the grandeur, dignity, and pathos of Oedipus; the questing anguish of Hamlet” (94), one must not be misled into interpreting the play in such terms. What it asserts, according to Ralph-Bowman, is not the tragic loss of an individual, but the communal Yoruba values by which Elesin is found wanting, and condemned. “Though a creation of such stature,” Ralph-Bowman argues, “he has to be totally and unequivocally renounced” (94). Elesin is rejected by the world of the play because he allows himself to be di- verted by selfish individualism from the sacrificial death that his Yoruba religion prescribes. (Booth, 529)
Soyinka explicitly shows this idea in the play. Elesin illustrates to Pilkings that what he has done does not harm him only, but it afflicts the whole community,” I am stopped from fulfilling my destiny. Did you think it all out before, this plan to push our world from its course and sever the cord that links us to the great origin?” (Soyinka, 63). Another instance is the story of the captain in the war that is emblematic of these opposing viewpoints: Jane sees the man’s deliberate death as unreasonable and unjustified,” Nonsense. Life should never be thrown deliberately away” (Soyinka, 53), and Olunde lauds it as self-sacrifice and a great honor. The conversation between Olunde and Jane manifests these divergences. Jane asks Olunde if he can explain how he has this acceptance and satisfaction with his father’s death. Olunde replies that he started mourning for his father as soon as he heard of the King’s demise (Souinka, 53). He asserts that it is Elesin’s duty towards his community and that he mustn’t dishonor his people,” What can you offer [Elesin] in place of his peace of mind, in place of the honour and veneration of his own people?” (Soyinka, 53). These divergences in thought may be the main reason behind Elesin’s tragic fate, and because the English colonizer is the stronger in this battle, he managed to interfere. Lyaloja’s ultimate words to Pilking avers that. When Pilking asks her if this tragic end is what she wants. Turning her blame and venom on him, she replies:
No child, it is what you brought to be, you who play with strangers’ lives, who even usurp the vestments of our dead, yet believe that the stain of death will not cling to you. The gods demanded only the old expired plantain but you cut down the sap-laden shoot to feed your pride. ( Soyinka ,83)
Thus. Eesin tragedy could be summed up as a great man is undone for his aim is butted up against the law of the European man. In all these respects, the difference between the ideologies of the two tragedies, begetting the tragic destiny, is obvious. The Nigerian tragedy is not about the tragic fall of an individual; it is the whole community that is in distress.
The Nigerian audience would be inclined to despise such weak character as Elesin; however, Soyinka has very skillfully heightened the human interest of the play, and thus enlisted the audience’s pity and fear. It is in his suffering in prison and his son’s death that Elesin rises to the heights of the tragic grandeur, and the audience forgets his fault. For the last act of the play, the incidents and the poetic language Soyinka applies restore the fallen Elesin’s hold on the audience.in a scene of gloom, Elesin is chained up in a prison cell, in a state of melancholy. His heart is full of guilt and shame. All the people come to humiliate and admonish him, and he asks forgiveness from them, ”may the world for give me” (Soyinka, 73) . The people, who to a great extent are responsible for his misery, has put him in prison and confined his freedom. He is in complete paralysis and confusion; he does not know who to put the blame on his gods, or the white man, or himself. In this scene, Soyinka has laid bare the suffering soul of Elesin. In addition, the spectacle in which Olunde lays dead and his father is looking at him captures the essence of tragedy. The last act closes with two corpses on the stage, making Death and the King’s Horseman a great tragedy.
All things considered, Elesin, in all aspects, is regarded as Aristotelian tragic hero, except for the notion of individualism. He is a distinguished person who falls into misfortune on account of hamartia or a tragic flaw. The tragic destiny he ends with arouses the audience’s feel of sympathy and fear. Soyinka’s application of tragic events looms large the theme of Death and the King’s Horseman that is condemning and disparaging the European colonizer.
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Booth, James. “Self-sacrifice and Human Sacrifice in Soyinka’s “death and
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Horseman” to American College Students.” College Literature 19.3/1
Conflicting Duties: The Choices of Elesin and Pikings
In Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka tells the dramatized version of true events that happened in the Yoruban city of Oyo in 1946. A Colonial District Officer interrupted a traditional ritual suicide which then led to the death of both the original man committing suicide and his son who committed suicide to take his place. Although Soyinka changes some of the details, such as changing the year and adding a wedding, the heart of the story remains the same. Because of the interference of a colonist who didn’t truly understand the culture and the significance of the suicide, two lives were lost instead of one. The actions of each character, major and minor, in the play are motivated by the sense of duty. Neither Elesin Oba nor Pilkings appear to be fully committed to fulfilling their duty, but they attempt to do it nonetheless. The minor characters all also have opinions on the resolution of the two main characters’ resolution to fulfill their duties.
In the opening act of the play, Elesin Oba (here out referred to as Elesin) stands in the marketplace as he discusses life, his imminent fate, and a new bride with his praise-singer . According to Moses Adebayo Aremu, a scholar published in the Journal of Pan African Studies, the play opens with the praise-singer “warning or rebuking Elesin to beware of his hedonistic attitude, carnal lust, and Epicureanism” (121) in the back and forth proverbs about the cockerel. The praise-singer and Iyaloja express their doubts about Elesin’s willingness and readiness to go through with the ritual suicide many times throughout this first act. Iyaloja expresses her doubts most bluntly at the end of the act when she says, “The living must eat and drink. When the moment comes, don’t turn the food to rodents’ droppings in their mouth” (Soyinka 17). She continues in this vein for several exchanges, requesting that he be kind to the living spirits when he is gone, and to be sure “the seed you leave in [the earth] attracts no curse” (18). Elesin is offended at her doubts and implications, but he pretends that he is not. It is not simply the praise-singer and Iyaloja, however that have doubts. The women of the market question Elesin when they call out, “You will not delay? Nothing will hold you back?” (10). The praise-singer and Iyaloja both sense Elesin’s apprehension at the upcoming task, and they reprimand him for traits that they feel might jeopardize his willingness to go along with the ritual.
On the other hand, Elesin is eager to show off how honorable he is and how eager he is to perform his duty, but there is tension. When the praise-singer and he are discussing how the presence of white colonialists interfered with Yoruba before, Elesin is adamant that he will not let them interfere. The praise-singer says, “If that world leaves its course and smashes on boulders of the great void, whose world will give us shelter?” and Elesin replies, “It did not in the time of my forebears, it shall not in mine” (6). He also implies several times during the conversation that it is the gods will that the whites will not interfere. He moves on to manipulate the crowd with the knowledge of what the night will bring. He snaps at them, “Stop! Enough of that! … I am bitterly offended” (11). He turns it into a joke, laughing as they bring him rich cloths to wear. After spotting a young woman and essentially demanding that he be allowed to marry her before he dies that night, he claims, “I deserve a bed of honour to lie upon” (15). The women, multiple times throughout the act, say, “We know you for a man of honour,” (11). Elesin is boastful throughout the whole act. He describes himself as having eyes that are hawks, as being the master of his Fate, and as having an honor that is a legacy to the living. According to Summer Pervez in her article Performing British Power: Politics and Perfromance Space, by the end of this act, “Elesin’s hesitations are evident to the reader” (65).
The second act takes us out of the sphere of the Yorubans and into District Officer Pilking’s bungalow, “a colonial site of power” (Pervez 65). In this act, Pilkings receives news of the upcoming ritual suicide, bemoans possibly missing the ball, and harasses his Yoruban servants. He exerts his power over Amusa, a native policeman, by attempting to force Amusa to deliver news to himself and his wife while they desecrate sacred masks. He says, “I order you to report your business at once or face disciplinary action” (19). Amusa refuses, and eventually writes down the report after they’ve left the room. After showing that Pilkings has absolutely no respect for the culture of the Yoruban people, he misinterprets Amusa’s note to mean that they will be doing a ritual murder. His wife, Jane, is immediately disappointed. “Oh. Does that mean we are not getting to the ball at all?” Pilkings responds, “No-o. I’ll have the man arrested… I’ll send Joseph with instructions” (20-21). Instead of doing his duty and investigating what’s going on, he decides that he would rather go to the ball because the prince will be attending. His wife guilts him into at least asking a few questions before arresting Elesin. “But don’t you want to talk first to the man? … It seems hardly fair just to lock up a man-and a chief at that-simply on the… uncorroborated word of a sergeant” (21). Pilkings is determined not to miss the ball, but Jane reminds him of his duty. “You know this business has to be stopped Simon. And you are the only man who can do it” (25). His sense of duty catches up with him, though, and he apologizes for severely offending Joseph, his steward-boy, because he wants Joseph to deliver a message to Amusa. The apology is very difficult for Pilkings, but he does it because he needs the job to get done. This whole act is a balancing act between showing that Pilkings has no respect for anything and showing that when it comes down to it, he will do his duty.
In the fifth and final act of the play, Pilkings has stopped Elesin from committing suicide and locked him up in a cell for the remainder of the night. It is in this act, mostly clearly, that the audience can see the two men’s conflicting senses of duty. Pilkings has succeeded. Elesin has failed. Elesin blames everyone but himself for his failure to complete the ritual. “First I blamed the white man, then I blamed my gods for deserting me. Now I feel I want to blame you…” (53). He does eventually admit that blaming everyone else won’t solve the issue, but it is not until Iyaloja enters and severely reprimands him that the audience can see his full shame at his failure. Elesin says, “I more than deserve your scorn” (55) and Iyaloja gives it to him. For three whole pages, she lays into him because he has neglected his duties. He has failed. He attempts to redeem himself by committing suicide after finding out that his son has committed the ritual suicide in his place. In this way, he ends the play by fulfilling his duty, but he is too late.
Pilkings experiences the opposite situation in that he feels successful at the start of the final act, but by the end of it, he has failed. He begins the act by attempting to be in camaraderie with Elesin, but Elesin is having none of it. “You did not save my life, District Officer. You destroyed it” (50). Still, Pilkings continues to feel successful. “I did my duty as I saw it. I have no regrets” (51). He feels righteous in his interference with a man and a culture that he does not understand. As more and more people arrive at the prison cell, Pilkings becomes more irritable. The play culminates in the double suicide of father and son. Pilkings has failed. Instead of preventing the death of one man, he has caused the death of two.
Death and the King’s Horseman is a powerful drama that deals with many complicated issues including death, colonialism, right to die, and self-determination. The characters in it are complex and have their own reasoning for each action that they do or do not take. Soyinka’s skill as a playwright allows the audience to know that he dislikes Pilkings and still form their own opinions. Both men in the play inevitably fall from grace largely from their own faults. Pilkings felt that he had the right interfere with a suicide he didn’t understand, and Elesin didn’t have the willpower to go through with the suicide. They both attempted to do their duties, but when the heart isn’t in it, they fail.
Aremu, Moses Adebayo. “Proverbs As Cultural Semiotics In Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman.” Journal Of Pan African Studies 8.5 (2015): 115-125. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.
Pervez, Summer. “Performing British Power: Colonial Politics And Performance Space In Soyinka’s Death And The King’s Horseman.” Philosophia Africana: Analysis Of Philosophy And Issues In Africa And The Black Diaspora 11.1 (2008): 61-73. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.
Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. London: Eyre Methuen, 1975. Print. 1 Apr. 2016.
Olunde’s Sense of Tradition in ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’: The Father Is Overshadowed by the Son’s Loyalty
As seen in the Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, the Yoruba culture and tradition have very strong, unusual customs and values. This play is centered around one particular custom: when a king dies, his servants and horsemen must die also so that the king is not alone going into the afterlife and so that he is peaceful. In the play, the horseman (a chieftain) who is supposed to die, Elesin, ends up captured and thus unable to fulfill his duty; however, Elesin’s son, Olunde ended up killing himself as to not bring bad spirits on the Yoruba people. Thus, even though Olunde fled his home and culture to go to England, he still has more loyalty and respect to his culture than his father does, as Olunde is present for and respectful to the rituals, while his father is careless and basks in the glory that the ritual brings him. The play shows many instances where Olunde cares significantly about the Yoruba rituals, and many instances where Elesin does not take them seriously, but instead lets the power blur his vision of the ultimate goal, each showing why Olunde is more faithful to Yoruba culture than his father.
When we are first introduced to Olunde, it is when he shows up to talk with Pilkings, the District Officer, towards the beginning of scene four on page forty-one. It is not yet explicitly stated exactly why he came, but the readers can assume it was to observe the ritual and pay his respects to his father. He then engages in conversation with Jane Pilkings, and he comments on the tribal masks she wears as a costume, and how it is being desecrated. He then says “I am not shocked… I discovered that you people have no respect for what you do not understand” (Soyinka 41). Two things here show how Olunde feels about his home culture. First, the fact that Olunde returned home to respect his culture and especially his father. Olunde is certainly dedicated to the Yoruba tradition, as he traveled all the way from England just for this ceremony following the king’s passing. Also, as we learned in scene two from Mr. Pilking’s discussion with his wife, Olunde had to flee to England after his father had disowned him. So, this adds to the list of reasons why Olunde would be against returning to his home, however, he does so anyways. This, and the fact that Olunde is offended and appalled at Mrs. Pilking’s egungun mask shows the reader that while Olunde may have fled to England, he did not lose his veneration or respect for the Yoruba culture. In fact, if anything, being in the civilized white culture of England seems to have strengthened Olunde’s respectful views of veneration towards his tradition and all cultures for that matter. Thus, from Olunde’s return and conversation with Jane Pilkings, we see that Olunde is extremely loyal to his culture and to his father, and also that he is very respectful towards cultural traditions and would never be disgraceful to any of these things.
Olunde also provides great symbolism and points out a paradoxical situation that show that he is very wise and once again reconfirms the point that Olunde is very respectful towards that which deserves respect, even though he may not understand it. On pages forty-one and forty-two, Jane Pilkings and Olunde discuss the ship captain who blew up his own ship with just him in it in order to eliminate the risk of endangering everyone in the harbor. They said that he wasn’t sure the legitimacy of the risk but there was no other way, so he had to make a self-sacrifice. Olunde then says, “I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life” (Soyinka 42). Jane is shocked to hear his opinion, but Olunde shows his utmost respect to the captain who sacrificed himself. This shows two things about Olunde. One is that he identifies the captain’s main duty as keeping everyone safe, no matter the cost. Thus, since he obeyed his duty and followed through all the way to his own death, Olunde feels that the man has done his assigned duty and greatly appreciates and respects this captain. This symbolizes the situation of Olunde’s father, Elesin. Just as the captain had to sacrifice himself so a potentially dangerous boat would not harm any citizens, Elesin must die with his king so that the evil spirits to not bring chaos to the Yoruba people. The fact that Olunde respects the captain so much shows how greatly he respects his father for sacrificing himself, as it is for the good of the rest of the people, thus it is very noble. Olunde and Jane get into a heated discussion about each other’s cultures, and Olunde says that white cultures are very paradoxical, as well as implying they are hypocritical and nonsensical. One of his main points is that there was a ball occurring in the middle of a devastating time of war. He is saying and implying that war is not a time for such merry activities, but Jane responds by saying it is “therapy, British style. The preservation of sanity in the midst of chaos” (Soyinka 43). This once more shows exactly how insightful Olunde is, and how he recognizes trends and behaviors of cultures, thus he is able to respect them even more. These two points reinforce the point that Olunde is wise when it comes to cultural intelligence in terms of understanding the rituals and traditions, even more so than his father, as he has had more experience with other cultures than his father, likely since he spent so much time away from his own Yoruba culture. Through this break he was able to gain insight, allowing him to understand the situation with the boat captain, and thus the situation with his father.
In contrast with the serious demeanor of respect that Olunde has, his farther, Elesin, maintains an interesting behavior when it comes to his situation. Elesin does respect the matter of the ritual, but he seems to be indulging himself at a more than honorable level. In the beginning of the first scene, Elesin engages in conversation with some women who seem to be questioning his willpower. They ask if anything will hold him back, and he replies nothing. He eventually ends the conflicting statements with these words: “Life has an end. A life that will outlive” (Soyinka 11). This shows that Elesin is very serious about his cultural duty and sets his character to be seen as having a very serious stance on the ritual for the rest of the play. However, Elesin then goes on to abuse his power, as anyone will give anything to the man sacrificing himself for the good of the entire community. A perfect example of this behavior is when Elesin encounters the woman soon to be married to Iyaloja’s son and decides he must have her. Rather than ridiculing him for being ridiculous and improper, everyone agrees with his idea, and the two get married. This shows how reckless Elesin is with his situation, as he turns his duty into fame. Another reason Elesin does not appear to be committed to his duty is that he allows himself to be captured and does not kill himself still. Though it would not have been the ideal way to complete the ritual, Elesin was capable of committing suicide to fulfill his duty, and he instead switched his mindset to begin thinking it was destiny that he did not kill himself. In reality, Elesin switches his mindset because it is an easier way out. This shows that he is not serious enough about his culture, as he is not fully committed. For, if he were as committed as his son, he would have taken any opportunity to kill himself to save his people.
At the end of the story, Olunde’s dead body is sent to Elesin, and the women accompanying the body reveal that Olunde killed himself because his father would not do so. This is the ultimate standard for loyalty to the Yoruba culture, a standard that Elesin never came close to. This, along with all of the other numerous acts of loyalty that Olunde has done, and the fact that Elesin allows his power to gain control of him and make him lose sight of the ultimate goal, is the reason that Olunde is more faithful to traditional Yoruba values than his father, Elesin. Elesin’s respect for the Yoruba tradition while raising Olunde, along with the foreign influences he experienced in England are likely the reasons that Olunde is so dedicated to his home culture.
Soyinka, Wole. Death and the Kings Horseman: Background and Sources, Criticism. Edited by Simon Gikandi, Norton, 2003.