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«Journal of Modern Education Review, ISSN 2155-7993, USA May 2015, Volume 5, No. 5, pp. 510–516 Doi: 10.15341/jmer(2155-7993)/05.05.2015/009  ...»

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Journal of Modern Education Review, ISSN 2155-7993, USA

May 2015, Volume 5, No. 5, pp. 510–516

Doi: 10.15341/jmer(2155-7993)/05.05.2015/009

 Academic Star Publishing Company, 2015


A Challenge to Western Cultural Beliefs: Wole Soyinka’s

Death and King’s Horseman

Gonul Bakay 

(American Language and Literature Department, School of Arts and Sciences, Bahcesehir University, Turkey)

Abstract: Wole Soyinka’s play Death and King’s Horseman reflects the cultural conflict between the African and Western worlds. The play is based on an actual event that took place in 1946 when British colonial authorities prevented the customary ritual suicide from taking place. In Yoruba society the community is more important than the individual. It was also their tradition for the first horseman to commit suicide after the king’s death. When the realization of this tradition is prevented by the white authorities, the horseman’s son, who had received a European education commits suicide in place of his father. This event, does not surprise the Africans as much as the whites. Building on Frantz Fanon’s theories, my aim in this article is to challenge universal assumptions concerning right and wrong which may have different connotations for black and white culture. Although cultural change is coming to black community, the way they adapt to and experience change is fundamentally different than whites. Olunde, despite his European education, can sacrifice himself for the continuation of an ancient African tradition which he believes holds the country together.

Key words: Yoruba society, tradition, ritual murder, sacrafice, suicide.custom “All I wanted was to be a man among man.” (Fanon, The Crisis of European Man, p. 116) “Violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inactivity; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect”. (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 51) Considered by many to be one of Wole Soyinka’s best plays, Death and King’s Horsemen (1975) tells the story of Elesin, the king’s horseman, who is expected to commit ritual suicide following the death of the king, but who is prevented from fulfilling his duty by the intervention of British colonial authorities. Instead of him, the European-educated Olunde sacrifices himself in the ritual. Although the play is based on a real event that took place in 1946, Soyinka alters some historical facts and presents a fictional version of the real incident with the aim of examining important issues including, primarily, the clash between African thought and tradition and the Western mindframe represented by British colonialism. As a politically engaged intellectual, Soyinka also draws attention to flaws in Nigerian society caused by people who forget their traditions and their sense of duty.

As Yakuba Saaka and Leonard A. Podu observe, “In Soyinka’s drama, the son pursues western education but ultimately is himself fiercely determined to uphold tradition” (p. 265). Although Soyinka challenges tradition and  Gonul Bakay, Associate professor, American Language and Literature Department, School of Arts and Sciences, Bahcesehir

University; research areas/interests: 18th century English literature, women’s studies, Gothic literature and ethnic literature. E-mail:


A Challenge to Western Cultural Beliefs: Wole Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman welcomes change, his message is similar to one professed by Jane who argues that “one should try to understand all cultures” (p. 54). When Olunde hears that the Pilkings are going to a party wearing an ancestral mask and apparently show no respect for Yoruba customs, he observes: “And that is the good cause for which you descrate an ancestral mask?” Jane: “Oh, so you are shocked after all. How disappointing!” (p. 50) Olunde is aware that white people cannot understand the customs of black people. He expresses his views to Jane with the following words: “No, I am not shocked, Mrs. Pilkings. You forget that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” (Soyinka, 1975, p. 192) Building on Frantz Fanon’s theories, my aim in this article is to challenge the concepts of right and wrong which may have different connotations for black and white culture. Although cultural change is coming to black community, the way they adapt to and experience change is fundamentally different than whites. Olunde, despite his European education can sacrifice himself for the continuation of an ancient African tradition which he believes holds the country together.

In Death and the King’s Horseman, white people cannot grasp the full meaning of suicide or self-sacrifice.

Elesin rejects the communal Yoruba values. Yoruba values demand that he allow himself to be sacrificed but he refuses to do so because of his selfishness. Soyinka examines the ideology on which conventions are based. The importance of self-sacrifice is analyzed. His son Olunde’s decision to die in his father’s place points to Yoruba society’s hope of regeneration and continuity by preserving Yoruba rituals (p. 118).

With Death and the King’s Horseman Soyinka offers a uniquely African context of myth and mores (Booth, p.

530). As Soyinka suggests, “Man exists, however, in a comprehensive world of myth, history and mores; in such a total context, the African world, like any other ‘world’, is unique.” (1976, p. xii) As Booth argues: “Despite Soyinka’s insistance on the incidental quality of the Europeans, it cannot be denied that one of the main ways in which the play’s Yaruba values are dramatically defined by contrast with the attitudes of the uncomprehending views of the whites.” (p. 533) Through his depiction of the story Soyinka stresses that self-sacrifice is important for both Europeans and Africans, but in a different way. In doing that, he foregrounds the importance of the Yoruba culture.

The Yoruba tradition focuses on the gulf between the deities, between man and his ancestors, between the unborn and his reality, and the essential gulf that lies between one area of existence and another. This gulf is what must be constantly diminished by the sacrifices, rituals, ceremonies of appeasement to those cosmic powers which act as guardian to the gulf. The Yoruba tragedy reflects the anguish of this seperation from the essential self.

Music in Yoruba tragedy helps reflect the mood of this severence.

Mrs. Pilkings doesn’t fully understand what going to Europe meant for Olunde. She assumes that he would have internalized European ways whereas Olunde’s experience abroad makes him appreciate his own roots better and comprehend what he had left behind. Jane is blind to the conventions of others; she thinks that the only thing that can be important for Olunde is his profession. Olunde’s decision to sacrifice himself in place of his father, shows his deep attachment to his cultural roots. He chooses to die “because he rejects his European education and the colonial restraint of the Pilkingses, thus gaining the audience’s anti-imperialist sympathy” (p. 539).

Olunde’s sacrifice is seen as more significant than his father’s. In a reversal of roles, the son Olunde becomes the responsible father. According to Msiska, “Pilkings’ intervention is not simply a castor of colonial meddling in the indigineous culture, rather it is an external factor that unintentionally strengthens the institution of the carrier instead of undermining it.” (p. 70) Death is one of the most important concepts examined in the book. It takes on different connotations A Challenge to Western Cultural Beliefs: Wole Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman including natural death, murder, suicide and ritual sacrifice. When Pilkings learns that Elesin intends to kill himself, he cannot decide what to do; he is torn by conflicting emotions. While he feels compelled to interfere as a

colonizer, he also doesn’t wish to do so. When Elesin’s expected death is announced Pilkings observes that:

“obviously he means murder.” Jane: “you mean a ritual murder?” Pilkings: “Must be. You think you’ve stamped it all out. But it is always lurking under the surface somewhere” (Soyinka, 1975, p. 26). Mr. Pilkings is more sensitive to Yoruba customs compared to his wife and knows in his heart that he should leave them alone observing that “If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves for the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me? If it were ritual murder or something like that, I’d be duty bound to do something. I can’t keep an eye on all the potential suicides in this province” (p. 31). At least Pilkington is aware of the seriousness of the problem.

Soyinka also examines the reasons for Elesin Oba’s failure to do what is required of him by the Yoruba traditions. The reader must be made aware of the reasons for this failure. One can surmise that if there is no respect for death, there can be no respect for life. In the words of Ralph Bowman: “Soyinka has made Elesin’s failure both individual and representative since as well as being a finely delineated individual character, Elesin Oba is also, as suggested earlier, the embodiment of the culture of his people, and as such, he has an awful responsibility” (p. 89). “Elesin Oba is both the mediator between the dead and the living as well as mediation itself” (p. 84).

In order to fully comprehend Elesin Oba’s failure to kill himself one should take into consideration his sensual character. He is a man deeply devoted to life and the fulfillment of sexual desires. His identity is defined by his relations with other people. His vitality is noteworthy: “through dance, music, songs and chants, a repeated sexual act, two deaths (Soyinka, 1975, p. 42). Elesin had spent all his life as a sensualist, now he has to change and prepare himself for death. He should be more concerned with the other world. The following song reflects his mood: “Death came calling./Who does not know his rasp of reeds?/A twilight whisper in the leaves before.” (p.

149) Although Elesin prepares himself for death, he still feels sad to leave the world. He observes: “Life is honour, It ends when honour ends”. Women: “We know you for a man of honour.” (p. 154) When he hears these words from the women, he gets angry: “Stop! Enough of that” he says (154). He doesn’t want to be reminded of his approaching death. A young girl enters the market place, she is betrothed to his own son and yet Elesin wants to spend one night with her before going to the world of his ancestors. Iyaloja, mother of the market, is at first surprised and sad and yet she acquiesces saying: “Now we must go prepare your bridal chamber. Then these same hands will lay your shroud” (p. 162). Iyoloja serves as the leader of the Greek chorus. Already, Elesin is considered as belonging to the world of his ancestors. He died when his king died. So his son also considers his father already dead. In Myth, Literature and the African World, Soyinka draws attention to different concepts of death and suicide compared with the values of the European ways. In his words: “The death of an individual is not seen an isolated incident in the life of one man. Nor is individual fertility separable from the regenerative promise of earth and sea. The sickness of one individual is a sign of, or may portend the sickness of the world around him.

Something has occurred to disrupt the natural rhythms and the cosmic balances of the total community (1976, p.


Elesin wants to possess the beautiful girl even if it is just for one night. He believes that his seed will take root on the earth of his choice. “You have seen the young shoot swelling, Even as the parent stalks begins to wither” (Soyinka, 1975, p. 160). He observes, “Then let me travel light. Let seed that will not serve the stomach A Challenge to Western Cultural Beliefs: Wole Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman on the way remain behind. Let it take root in the earth of my choice, in this earth I leave behind” (p. 160).

Elesin is a weak character, he is not fit to carry out and to assure the role of a full tragic subject bearing the collective burden and delivering communal redemption” (p. 66). As Elesin observes: “my powers deserted me.

My charms my spells, even my voice lacked strength when I made to summon the powers that would lead me over the last measure of earth into the land of the flashless […]. You saw me struggle to retrieve my will from the power of the stranger whose shadow fell across the doorway and left me floundering and blundering in a maze I had never before encountered” (p. 68).

Elesin’s child will also bring malevolence to the community. The child is not born under favourable conditions. Elesin’s weakness disrupts the social order. As Msiska observes As in Elesin’s failure, Soyinka is suggesting that true political agency must be a matter of choice rather than duty, and that perhaps it is this distinction that seperates the performance of ritual (as a matter of reproducing the hegemonic symbolic arbitrary of a given community) from its truly redemptive enactment, which focuses on its general transgressive value, an aspect which also has the potential to undermine the very ideological ground on which it is predicated. (p. 69) At the same time that there is a funeral and ceremony for the departed in the native community a costume party is prepared at the club of the colonialists. Mr. Pilkings and his wife are dressesed in the costume of the sacred egungun. They cannot fully comprehend the importance of the mask and the “egungun” for the natives.

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