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.
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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 […]