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Epic of Son-Jara (13th century) epic poem. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

The Epic of Son-Jara records the deeds and exploits
of Son-Jara, otherwise known as SUNDIATA, a 13thcentury
king and the legendary founder of Mali, a
West African kingdom. The original Epic of Son-
Jara was composed in the Mande language as an
oral tale passed down by generations of griots to
their descendants. It is a story that is not only recited
orally in social functions but also performed
in accompaniment with music and dance. The griots
(jeli in Manding) are keepers of oral traditions
and can be compared to the minstrel knights of
medieval Europe as they sing of the heroic deeds of
the kings of the past.
The EPIC opens with a praise venerating the
bravery, glory, and powers of Son-Jara, followed by
a narration of the casting of Satan out of paradise
and the genealogies of various religious figures
such as Adam,Noah, and Konde.Konde is the family
name of the Buffalo-Woman, Sogolon Konde,
who would later give birth to Son-Jara. The story of
Son-Jara begins midway through the long poem.
The poem relates Son-Jara’s struggle in his
childhood to overcome his handicap (at his birth
he is crippled by a curse), his kindness and generosity
to his people, as well as his filial piety to his
mother, Sogolon. Unfortunately the wicked Sassouma,
jealous of both mother and son, forces
them into exile. The travels strengthen Son-Jara’s
character and give him the opportunities to learn
new ideas and skills.With the help of his faithful
sisters, half brother, and friends, Son-Jara successfully
defeats the evil sorcerer, Sumamuru, and returns
to Mali in triumph.
The Epic of Son-Jara as narrated by Fa-Digi
Sisoko offers valuable information on the function
of the bard, or griot, in traditional Mali society.
Sisoko, it is said, attended a reroofing ceremony in
Kaaba,West Africa, which improved his status and
made him able to recite and thus preserve the epic
of the hero king Son-Jara. Kaaba was and is still
considered the sacred center of the world in
Mande traditions. The importance of the griot as
a social recorder and observer is also represented
in the character of Kouyate, Son-Jara’s own griot
within the story. In addition to being an adviser
and spokesperson, the griot functioned as a historian,
recording the important deeds and events in
a king’s life and singing him hymns of praise as
well as of chastisement when necessary. As John
William Johnson observes in his translation of
Son-Jara, the interaction between music and words
are essential to the performance of the tale.
Predestination and the supernatural constitute
two major themes in the poem. The importance of
destiny is represented in the prophecy of Son-Jara’s
birth and his future greatness. The prophecy is revealed
first by the two hunters who brought Sogolon
Kunde to Fara Mangan, king of the Manden
and the father of Son-Jara. It is challenged briefly
when Son-Jara is found to be crippled, but he eventually
overcomes his handicap and displays his extraordinary
strength by wielding a giant iron staff.
Perhaps the importance of predestination is best
represented in the inevitable battle between Son-
Jara and Sumamuru. Son-Jara must defeat the sorcerer-
king to fulfill his destiny, and his victory over
the latter is not perceived as a victory of good over
evil but as a completion of his predestined task.
The theme of the supernatural surfaces
throughout the story. Son-Jara’s prowess is derived
from his maternal and paternal inheritances. He
inherits occult power from his mother, Sogolon,
the wraith of the Buffalo-Woman; and he derives
grace and knowledge from his father, the descendant
of Muslim migrants tracing their ancestry
back to Bilal, the second convert of MUHAMMAD.
Due to his lineage, Son-Jara possesses the ability
to wield occult powers without succumbing to evil.
This attests to his great strength, both physically
and psychologically.
The Epic of Son-Jara, besides being a literary
masterpiece and a representation of the richness of
West African oral tradition, also contains important
information about Mande culture.As Johnson
observes in the introduction to his translations, the
Epic of Son-Jara is “indeed filled with descriptions
and catalogues of cultural information useful to
those wishing to understand the remarkable society
from which this famous epic has emerged.”
See also SUNDIATA, AN EPIC OF OLD MALI.
An English Version of the Epic of Son-Jara
Sisoko, Fa-Digi. The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African
Tradition. Translated by John William Johnson.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
A Work about the Epic of Son-Jara
Austen, Ralph A., ed. In Search of Sunjata: The Mande
Oral Epic as History, Literature, and Performance.
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999.

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