Sundiata

Sundiata Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on D.T. Niane's Sundiata. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

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Historical Context of Sundiata

Sundiata was a real person who lived from 1217-1255 CE. While much of the epic is fantastical, it's considered fact that Sundiata was foretold to be a great ruler of the Mali Empire. He indeed had a difficult childhood and didn't walk until the age of seven, and he then fulfilled the prophecy of uniting Mali after the Battle of Krina in 1235. The empire that Sundiata built continued to grow after his death and eventually became the largest empire in West Africa before its fall in 1670. The book's supplementary materials state that one of Sundiata's descendants was the famed Mansa Musa, who put Mali on European maps after making a two-year pilgrimage to Mecca (1324-26).

Other Books Related to Sundiata

Sundiata shares a number of similarities with other epic poems, such as The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. Scholars have noted that, despite the fact that Sundiata doesn't come from the Greek traditions that guide the style of European epic poems, it still shares a number of the same hallmarks and qualities of its European counterparts. Epic poems like Sundiata exist worldwide.
Key Facts about Sundiata
  • Full Title: Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (also referred to as Sundiata Kieta or Epic of Sundiata)
  • When Written: Sundiata, the founder of the Mali Emperor, lived from 1217-1255 CE, and this oral tale was presumably composed after the Battle of Krina in 1235 CE. The story was traditionally told by griots (professional storytellers) and existed only as an oral story for centuries without any one particular authoritative version existing. A version was first published in "novelistic" (prose) French by Djibril Tamsir Niane in 1960, while the English translation was developed by G. D. Pickett several years later.
  • Where Written: The historical kingdom of Mali existed in what is now modern-day Guinea and southwestern Mali in northwest Africa. Niani, the capital city of the Mali Empire, still exists and is in Guinea.
  • When Published: The first written accounts of the epic were in Arabic and existed prior to 1890, but versions of the tale weren't published in Europe until 1898 (in German and French). The English translation used in this LitChart was published in 1965.
  • Literary Period: Pre-Colonial African Literature
  • Genre: Epic Poem
  • Setting: Mali Empire, namely the cities of Niani, Wagadou, Cissé, Mema, Tabon, and Sosso, around 1216-1236.
  • Climax: When Sundiata defeats Soumaoro at the Battle of Krina and is then crowned Mansa.
  • Antagonist: First Sassouma Bérété, later Soumaoro, king of Sosso and his allies.
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient, narrated by the griot Mamoudou Kouyaté. He occasionally addresses the reader directly.

Extra Credit for Sundiata

A Questionable Death. It's generally accepted that Sundiata died in 1255, although there are differing accounts as to how exactly he died. The most popular and well-accepted cause of death is that Sundiata drowned in the Sankarani River.

The Lion King? While Disney maintains that the 1994 film The Lion King was inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet, several scholars have drawn a number of similarities between the film and the epic of Sundiata. Indeed, one of Sundiata's many names is the Lion King of Mali and he also went by the title Simbon (master hunter), which bears resemblance to the name of The Lion King's protagonist, Simba.