Trees, particularly the silk-cotton tree, are employed throughout the story as a symbol for the strength and power of the Mali Empire. The silk-cotton tree is covered in defensive thorns and is one of the largest trees in the world; likewise, the Mali empire was enormous and, because of its broad alliances, it was well-defended. In addition, throughout the story, soothsayers often use the growth process of seeds and trees as a metaphor for destiny. In particular, their invocation of a seed’s destiny to become a powerful tree refers to Sundiata—who is, himself, also a symbol of Mali. Thus, Sundiata’s being and destiny are associated with trees. Notably, Maghan Kon Fatta often sits with his court under the silk-cotton trees in Niani, suggesting early on that his empire, and his son, will become like the great tree if allowed to grow and flourish. The implication of the necessity of time for a great tree to grow serves as a reminder to impatient characters that fate and destiny happen slowly and on a predestined timeline. There's nothing one can do to speed up the growth of a great tree, or the destiny of a great empire. Throughout the novel, Mamoudou Kouyaté also notes where specific trees are planted in relation to landmarks of the past. These trees of today serve as reminders of the empires, cities, and great rulers of the past.
Trees, Seeds, and Growing Quotes in Sundiata
The silk-cotton tree springs from a tiny seed—that which defies the tempest weighs in its germ no more than a grain of rice. Kingdoms are like trees; some will be silk-cotton trees, others will remain dwarf palms and the powerful silk-cotton tree will cover them with its shade.
You are the outgrowth of Mali just as the silk-cotton tree is the growth of the earth, born of deep and mighty roots. To face the tempest the tree must have long roots and gnarled branches. Maghan Sundiata, has not the tree grown?
How many heaped-up ruins, how many vanished cities! How many wildernesses peopled by the spirits of great kings! The silk-cotton trees and baobabs that you see in Mali are the only traces of extinct cities.