Death and the King's Horseman


Of all the Norton Critical Editions I've read recently (and it seems like I'm busting right through my back-log over the past few weeks!), the one whose extra materials I found most useful is Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman. Which is kind of ironic, since a big theme in this post-colonialist Nigerian drama is the cultural arrogance of western white folks who think that because they've been educated in England, they know best how to interpret and control the cultural traditions of the "natives" colonized by the Crown. As I perused the appendices of my scholarly volume, all working to foster an understanding of Nigerian culture and "background sources" in the predominantly-white US undergraduate population, I'll admit to a rueful smile. What would Soyinka think of the book I'm holding in my hands? Obviously, I don't know the answer, but my bet is that he would feel, as he did about many things, somewhat ambivalent. Son of Westernized Anglican schoolteachers and educated in the most toney of Nigerian prep schools before leaving for University in England, Soyinka identified as "truly bi-cultural"; out of this background came a deep grounding in the Western canon, as well as the Yoruba beliefs of his grandfather, and an acquaintance with the ways in which the English thought of their own subjective perceptions as "natural" and "universal," and anything else as barbaric. Perhaps this background explains some of the reason that, in contrast to many of his liberation-era contemporaries, Soyinka wasn't primarily interested in educating white folks about Nigeria, but about making Nigerian literature that referred to its own subjective universe. From the introduction:

Soyinka has no patience for those who argue that works of art are most effective when they are clear, direct and didactic ... [He] was unhappy with the romanticism, naïveté, and idealization of the African image in classic African novels such as Camara Laye's The Dark Child. He understood the political imperative behind such works - namely, the desire by a whole generation of African writers to counter the European image of Africa - but was categorical in his belief that idealization was not a substitute for what he considered to be literary truth. However, in explaining why he had disavowed and attacked movements that celebrated African or black identity, Soyinka was keen to insist that he was not against the idea of the African world as such ... He wanted the African world ... to be taken for granted as a self-evident cultural experience. As far as Soyinka was concerned, the artist's commitment was not to a particular idea of Africa, a set of political or ideological commitments, but the self-apprehension of the African world.

I have to say, I was cheering Soyinka on here, and I hadn't even started reading his play yet. I've always found it so awkward - almost dirty-feeling - to be reading a novel about a non-US culture, and suddenly get the feeling that its primary goal is to educate US/European/first-world readers about The Other. I mean, novels where the narrator (or even the speaking character!) takes time out to explain every culture-specific term she uses: how unnatural is that? It makes it really difficult to craft believable characters, because who stops in the midst of their dinner preparations to think to themselves, "Now I'll open the refrigerator: a large metal box in the corner of my kitchen, which keeps my food cold via an electric current running through coils near the floor"? This kind of aside is so disruptive to the narrative, and so inaccurately representative of how peoples' minds actually work. (And yeah, that's a comic exaggeration, but I've read examples almost as bad! Even in novels as acclaimed as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I got this vibe.) In actual life, people take for granted their everyday surroundings and cultural contexts, and I applaud Soyinka for creating characters who do so as well. At the same time, it does make the learning curve on his play a sharp one for anyone coming to it from the Western tradition.

Nevertheless, an aficionada of English literature is never wholly at sea. Death and the King's Horseman opens in an almost Shakespearean manner: Elesin, the primary horseman of the late king, engages in verbal parry and thrust with his "Praise-Singer" in a way that reminded me of a kind of reverse take on Lear's relationship with his Fool. They're bantering about Elesin's planned transition to the land of the spirits and ancestors; the king he served has died, and it's now his duty (along with the King's favorite horse and his trusty dog) to join his master. Central to the play's tragedy is the different metaphysical realities of Yoruba people and their English colonizers: for the English, an act they understand as "suicide" is both a crime and a sin, as well as the end of a life, whereas in the Yoruba cosmos (according to my Norton, at least), Elesin is merely helping the natural order of the world continue on its course by helping the spirit of his King through the door to the world of gods and spirits. Elesin greets his impending transition with cocky joy; he radiates strength and will, dancing with and around the market women, and singing a long song about the foolishness of those who attempt to evade Death. His Praise-Singer is his straight-man and his counter-point as he teases the women, and claims, on his prerogative as an honored man about to pass to the next world, one last young bride:

ELESIN      All you who stand before the spirit that dares
The opening of the last door of passage,
Dare to rid my going of regrets! My wish
Transcends the blotting out of thought
In one mere moment's tremor of the senses.
Do me credit. And do me honour.
I am girded for the route beyond
Burdens of waste and longing.
Then let me travel light. Let
Seed that will not serve the stomach
On the way remain behind. Let it take root
In the earth of my choice, in this earth
I leave behind.

In contrast to this vital, cocksure young horseman, we are introduced to the colonial bureaucrat Simon Pilkings, all set to attend a fancy-dress ball with his wife Jane (in ceremonial "death cult" attire confiscated from the natives, no less) when he gets word of the rumor that a local chief is about to take his own life. Because the Prince is visiting the colony, and because Simon wants to show he is in charge, he takes it upon himself to "save" Elesin from his impending death; tragedy ensues.

Despite certain references and metaphysical contexts of Yoruba life that might be unclear to Western readers, it's obvious that Soyinka is drawing heavily on the traditions of the Western canon as well. The contrast between Elesin's nobility and Pilkings's essential pettiness, for example, is communicated brilliantly through the differences in their modes of speech: whereas Elesin delivers most of his speeches in the nobility of blank verse, Simon's and Jane's speech is utterly banal prose, peppered with bourgeois British colloquialisms:

PILKINGS      You know the Prince is on a tour of the colonies don't you? Well, he docked in the capital only this morning but he is already at the Residency. He is going to grace the ball with his presence later tonight.
JANE      Simon! Not really.
PILKINGS      Yes he is. He's been invited to give away the prizes and he has agreed. You must admit old Engleton is the best Club Secretary we ever had. Quite quick off the mark that lad.
JANE      But how thrilling.

Without giving away too much of the plot and the tragic denouement, I'll just say that the final scene of the play does interesting things with this dichotomy that's been set up between the blind demands of bureaucracy and the individual's ability to be noble within the context of his or her own society. Soyinka apparently despised and fought against the tendency of critics to interpret his play as merely a chronicle of an oppressive colonial encounter, and pleaded with his audiences to look beyond the historical details of the play to the metaphysical truths within. I think the most universal message that I got out of Death and the King's Horseman is that even the traits we hold most intrinsic to our personalities - our confidence that we will react a certain way in a certain situation, our vitality, the decrees of our moral compass that X is right and Y is wrong - are dependent, not only on our general background and upbringing, but on our immediate circumstances, and can be altered forever in a single moment.

Death and the King's Horseman, like all plays, loses a lot by being read on paper rather than watched in performance. I don't read a lot of drama, for exactly this reason: plays yearn to be interpreted by a company, and reading them to myself always comes off as flat. Soyinka's work suffers perhaps more than most drama in this regard, because his Yoruba characters use music and dance as important modes of character expression - modes that are obviously not present in my head. Still, I am glad I read this play and some of its accompanying materials, and I would leap at the chance to see a good performance of it live.

(Death and the King's Horseman was my ninth and 800-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)


  • The conflict between writing within the bounds of your character and educating the reader is an interesting one, and actually reminds me of Frantz Fanon. I read his 'Wretched of the Earth' and parts of 'Black Skin, White Masks' for a research paper not too long ago, and his ideas on colonialism and 'native culture' are really interesting, and still very applicable today. At some level, after all, historically any culture that is not our own becomes a natural 'other'. The alternative to the 'othering' we did in the 20th century is what you see in the classics - the other is completely uninteresting except as evidence of cultural superiority (think of the aggresive stance toward the Cyclops or the Amazons, in mythology, or historically, Caeser writing about the Gauls, or the feeling we STILL pretty much assume about the Huns or the Visigoths that sacked Rome). Sure, the current attitude is pretty condescending and belittling, but without the sense of us and others, you wouldn't have people making lists of 'diversity books' they want to read either.
    The problem is that we read the books from a colonialist's point of view, whether we agree wtih Colonialism or not (reading Frantz Fanon as a Westerner has a strange feeling of looking through a lens backwards for this very reason :D). So, for us, the book is always about, at some level, the relationship of the culure to our own. Even, say, pre-European Japanese literature, would be hard to read for me, at least, outside the framework of 'so this is what Japan is like without the West's interference.' And, the thing is, that since all the power is in the West's hands, this makes this-is-how-you-make-us-feel colonized culture books not only kind of inevitable, but probably important. After all, literature is supposed to be the conversation of the human experience, and maybe our diverse cultures should be chatting more with each other, not less. I'm not saying that a book that is a conversation between Nigerians rather than between Nigerians and Brits is a bad thing, nor do I think you're necessarily saving the inverse of that (inverse? Is that right?). Just, I guess, in defense of cultural conversation.

  • Jason: I've not read Fanon, but you make some interesting points. I agree that didactic works of art can be totally important and serve a legit cultural function - I just generally don't enjoy reading them as much as works that involve what Soyinka calls "self-apprehension" of one's own (or one's characters') world and consciousness. I mean, I have no doubt that more directly didactic works laid the groundwork for white folks like me to even be interested in or attempt to read post-colonialist Nigerian drama. And maybe it's my Western-ness that makes me crave characters and writers who engage in self-examination as well as self-explanation. Nevertheless, I am what I am, you know? I tend not to find much interest in novels where the primary purpose is to educate me about someone else's way of life.

    Which is not to say that I don't read post-colonial lit - Salman Rushdie is one of my favorite authors; I loved Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things; and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (apparently I only read post-colonial lit by authors whose names begin with "R"). All of those, though, while they involve Other-ized characters and engage with post-colonial politics, do so in a way that's well-integrated with more interior, psychological concerns and rich characterization; they're not obsessed with directly explaining every little thing that Western folks might not "get." So I think, for example, that The God of Small Things is still very much part of a conversation between Indians and Brits, but it's one that spends time on the subjective experience of individuals who are Indian, rather than presenting a "typical" tableau of Indian life. Does that make sense? I feel like I'm just rambling at this point. :-)

  • Well, after my comment, if I accused people of rambling I'd be a lil' bit disingenuous... ;)

    Thanks, your comments always get me thinking :). Honestly, I haven't read any of the three authors you've mentioned (I'm real bad about modern lit), so I'll have to try one :).

  • I have a Camara Laye work (The Radiance of the King) out on loan from the library, so it's interesting to hear of him being taken to task by Soyinka for idealizing and romanticizing Africa. Guess I better read it soon to see if I buy the criticism! In the meantime, thanks for reviewing this--not a huge fan of drama for all the reasons you mention, but I have so little background in African lit that I find posts of this nature a lot more enlightening than I might with equally worthwhile reviews dedicated to the western canon's authors.

  • That's a really good point about the explaining things for the american audience thing. It was a part of the novel I just read, but I just expected it. How would I know what the terms and traditions were that they were doing other wise.

    I'm pretty ignorant of African literature, and, I feel most literature, after seeing Jason and your comments. Thanks for another thoughtful post that brought something unknown to my awareness.

  • Richard: I'll be interested to hear what you think of the Laye! I kind of get the impression that Soyinka earned himself a reputation as the Grumpy Iconoclast on these issues, so I might take his criticisms with a grain of salt - but, on the other hand, I obviously have some sympathy with them. :-) I'm extremely weak on African lit, as well, so this was a good choice to start educating myself.

  • Rebecca: You make a good point - how would you know what the terms and traditions were, if they weren't explained?

    I think this is really a matter of preference, but I guess I'd opt for (what I think of as) a smooth-flowing narrative over knowing all the terms, and if I have to look something up or piece it together from context, I'm okay with that - okay with maybe just not being 100% clear on a certain term for a while.

    I think of it like reading Jane Austen: as a modern reader, there are lots of details about her world that are no longer immediately accessible. Why is it so bad for Lydia to go with Wickham to Scotland? Why is it worse that they never arrive in Scotland, but stop in London? Why does everyone freak out so badly when Jane catches a cold? Why is Lizzie impressed when Wickham refuses to drop in at her aunt's without being invited by the lady of the house? These are details that few modern folks recognize. But it would be super-distracting (in my opinion) for Austen to stop her narrative every time one of these items crops up, in order to explain it to the reader. Instead, I prefer to just immerse myself in her prose, and pick things up from context - either that, or read secondary materials like essays, which go into some detail about social expectations of the early 19th century. After reading her for a while, I find I kind of get a handle on what's going on in these different scenes, without being hit over the head with them.

    But yeah, I can understand having the opposite preference - being annoyed that an author is using a bunch of unfamiliar terms without explanation. In fact, I know some folks who avoid Austen for just this reason!

  • Not a big drama person myself, but I love your analysis of this particular work. I was especially intrigued by your thoughts on those non-Western fictional works that try too hard to educate Western readers and only end up ironically reinforcing their "otherness." Wole Soyinka actually rather reminds me of Zola Neale Hurston, who was criticized in her time for not being "political" enough in her books and for focusing too much on the individual, as opposed to the collective African-American struggle.

    I also find myself thinking of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, in which he ponders the question of "representation." Why must the individual African-American always stand for something? Be a human being instead of a symbol? It sounds like Soyinka was protesting a similar tendency: the portrayal of Africa as a symbol for something or as some sort of ideal, instead of as an real place where real people live real lives. Vassilis Alexakis also addresses this in his novel Foreign Words, about a Greek-French author who decides to learn the Sango language and subsequently travels to the Central African Republic.

  • E.L. Fay: Well, you obviously have my number, since Hurston is one of my all-time favorite writers! Yeah, I think the Soyinka/Hurston comparison is a good one, from the limited amount I know of both of them. I haven't read Alexakis, but I'm intrigued - I'll have to look him up!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography