Author: Wole Soyinka
Publishers: Spectrum Books Limited
Year of First Publication: 1975
For Amy's Nigeria Independence Day Reading/Reviewing Project and for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge.
Death and the King's Horseman is one of Soyinka's best known plays. Voted as one of Africa's Best Books of the Twentieth Century, it has been more admired than it has been performed, according to a 2009 Guardian article. This play, according to the Author's Note, 'is based on real events which took place in Oyo, ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria, in 1946', though certain changes have been made in 'matters of detail, sequence and ... characterisation [and the setting taking back] two or three years... for minor reasons of dramaturgy.' An important note, before present readers make the same mistake, sounded by the author was that this work should not been seen as a 'clash of cultures', which is 'a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.'
The Elesin Oba, the King's Horseman, by tradition, has to follow the King, upon the latter's death, to the afterlife. And this must be done willingly and at a particular time, using the moon as a guide. Failure on the part of the Elesin Oba to follow the King would spell utter disgrace and shame for him and his family and upon his death is bound to live a degraded life in the hereafter. Meanwhile for the larger community, Elesin Oba's failure means showers of catastrophic events perpetrated by the King's spirit, which unable to cross into the afterlife, would wander amongst the people, torment them and cause cosmic disorder.
Death and the King's Horseman begins with the Elesin Oba, amidst drumming and dancing, walking through the market, on expensive clothes of damask and alari spread on the ground by the market women, as he prepares to leave the earth after the death of the King. The Elesin Oba has come to understand the meaning of this step and has willingly accepted his fate. He knows that greater is his reward if this deed of ritual suicide is carried through. His praise-singer eggs him on, reminding him through metaphors, fables, and riddles, the reward of this step and why it must be done. The Elesin Oba, as a final request and perhaps a fortuitous gratification one, on seeing a young woman walked into a market stall, asks the girl be given to him. But because 'only the curses of the departed are to be feared. [And] [t]he claims of one whose foot is on the threshold of their abode surpasses even the claims of blood [for which] It is impiety even to place hindrances in their ways', Iyaloja granted the Elesin Oba his final wish, even though the girl is betrothed to her son. However, before handing her over to the Elesin Iyaloja warns him
The living must eat and drink. When the moment comes, don't turn the food to rodents' droppings in their mouth. Don't let them taste the ashes of the world when they step out at dawn to breathe the morning dew.
IYALOJA: You wish to travel light. Well, the earth is yours. But be sure the seed you leave in it attracts no curse.
And to these the Elesin expresses shock at how the 'Mother of the Market' 'mistake [his] person. And that when he is gone they should let 'the fingers of [his] bride seal [his] eyelids with earth and wash [his] body'.
The news of the ritual suicide reached the British Colonial District Officer, Simon Pilkings, who sent his men to arrest the Elesin, deeming the act as barbaric and counter to the law. Thus, the Elesin who had promised the women that nothing would hold him back when the time comes found himself in custody at the DO's house where his wish could not be fulfilled. Iyloja blamed the Elesin Oba, for loving the earth too much, and Pilkings, for misunderstanding the traditions of the people. Iyaloja to Elesin:
You have betrayed us. We fed your sweetmeats such as we hoped awaited you on the other side. But you said No, I must eat the world's left-overs. We said you were the hunter who brought the quarry down; to you belonged the vital portions of the game. No, you said, I am the hunter's dog and I shall eat the entrails of the game and the faeces of the hunter.... IYALOJA: We called you leader and oh, how you led us on. What we have no intention of eating should not be held to the nose.
To District Officer Pilkings, Iyaloja says
Child, I have not come to help your understanding. (Points to ELESIN) This is the man whose weakened understanding holds us in bondage to you. ...
Elesin's son who had come home, from his study abroad, to bury his father when he heard of the King's demise 'proved the father..'. To avoid the shame of the father and avert any calamity that would befall the people as a results of his fatehr's failure to perform the ritual, Olunde took his father's place and committed ritual suicide. The King's body with Olunde, the son who became the father, was brought to Elesin for a final ritual to be performed; however, seeing his son by the King, Elesin also committed suicide. But Elesin's death has become useless and 'his son will feast on the meat and throw him bones.' Refusing to go at his appointed time he is bound to live a lowlife in the afterlife.
All through the texts the reader discovers that whereas the people and Elesin understood the essence of what he has to do, Simon and Jane Pilkings did not. For instance, Olunde argued that it is not different from the war being waged by the British and that their greatest art 'is the art of survival.' Yet they have not the humility to let other's survive. Shocked Jane asked 'through ritual suicide?' and Olunde responded:
Is that worse than mass suicide? Mrs Pilkings, what do you call what those young men sent to do by their generals in this war? Of course you have also mastered the art of calling things by names which don't remotely describe them. ...
OLUNDE: Mrs Pilkings, whatever we do, never suggest that a thing is the opposite of what it really is. In your newsreel I heard defeats, thorough, murderous defeats described as strategic victories. No wait, it wasn't just on your newsreels. Don't forget I was attached to hospitals all the time. Hordes of your wounded passed through these wards. I spoke to them. I spent evenings by their bedside while they spoke terrible truths of the realities of that war. I know now how history is made.
Through the arguments between Olunde and Jane Pilkings and between Iyaloja and Simon Pilkings, Soyinka showed how much similarity exists between these two cultures and their attendant religions. It is all a matter of how you look at it and from where you stand when looking.
Soyinka's plays are often times difficult to explain, for though on the surface they may seem easy to grasp, beneath them would be simmering something powerful. Thus, I would recommend that, if possible, one reads this piece himself/herself.
ImageNations Rating: 6.0/6.0