D. T. Niane

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Themes and Colors
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Fate and Destiny Theme Icon
Heroism Theme Icon
Family, Community, and the Mali Empire Theme Icon
Magic and Religion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sundiata, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Storytelling and Memory

It's important to remember that the story of Sundiata is a transcription of an epic poem that is part of West African oral tradition—it was intended to be heard, rather than read. Furthermore, the original poem was told in verse, while the written English translation is in prose, and the poem was traditionally accompanied by a balafon, a type of wooden xylophone. Thus, the English translation of Sundiata is far from the story’s traditional—and intended—form…

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Fate and Destiny

Seers, witches, and soothsayers who can tell the future drive the action of the story, and destiny becomes one of Sundiata’s most powerful forces. No character can escape destiny, and every action has already been foretold. Thus, the role of destiny, and how individual characters interact with what they've been told of the future, becomes a study of power, human nature, and desire.

Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, in telling Sundiata's story, continually scorns…

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The narrator is frequently concerned with what qualities make a hero, and, as Sundiata is the iconic hero of the story who was destined for greatness from birth, Sundiata comes to stand in for the ideal hero, with his characteristics defining heroism in general. According to the narrator, among the many qualities that make Sundiata a hero are his physical strength, his virtues, his emotional intelligence, and his ability to form lasting alliances.

What initially…

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Family, Community, and the Mali Empire

Sundiata is not only the story of Sundiata’s life—it is equally concerned with the Mali Empire and how Sundiata built, conquered, and unified that empire. It's a story about creating community and forming alliances, both on a small scale (through marriage and having children), and on the broad scale of creating a vast empire. In fact, Sundiata’s skill at forging personal relationships enables his success at empire building, which implies that the cultivation of…

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Magic and Religion

Sundiata was an actual historical figure, and while his story is considered to be reasonably factual, it's also extremely fantastical. The fantastical and magical elements of the story serve several purposes. First, they paint a picture of the relationship between local spirituality (in the form of jinn and nature spirits) and Islam, which greatly influenced the cultures of West Africa, even when most West Africans weren't actually Muslim in practice. The elements of magic and…

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