Professor Cheryl Sterling
Rewrite of Midterm A
“Soyinka: Death and the King’s Horseman: God Returns ”
Throughout the play, Death and the King’s Horseman, Soyinka explores what he understands to be the relation between the Gods, man and the ancestral relationships within the Yoruba culture. As he focuses our attention to the metaphysical, the idea of ritual (notably, ritual of transition) provides a meeting point between the forces of the divine, humanity and spirituality that dominates this theory. However, within this ritual context, Soyinka recreates Yoruba ontology/ religion pantheon within the aesthetics of Western tragic form. Soyinka’s vision of tragedy is a recurrent cycle of destruction and creation, which lies at the heart of Yoruba metaphysics. Extending this idea, there remains the matter of whether Olunde’s death fits into the Soyinkan tragedy that is outlined within the essay “The Fourth Stage”, and most importantly, whether his death evokes continuity for the Yoruba culture. Therefore, this essay will explore Olunde as an embodiment of the Yoruba deity Ogun, ultimately symbolizing the continuance of the Yoruba cosmological cycle.
Soyinka uses Olunde, the son of Elesin, to symbolically bridge the worlds of colonialism and old African heritage by bridging the transitional void. As the firstborn son, he is destined to become heir to the same role of his father. However, we learn that Olunde has left his tribe to obtain a Western education in medicine. Furthermore, becoming a child of the new age, he returns to bury his father. Throughout the play, we are guided to assume that Olunde has fully abandoned his role to becoming the next Elesin and his Yoruba beliefs. Yet, he returns to his homeland to bury his father. As he comes to understand, that his father has failed his people by not willing himself to death, he takes upon the sacrificial duty. Iyaloja, unsure of the future of her tribe, intones to Elesin, “…Your heir has taken the burden upon himself. What end will be…?” (Death 75). Elesin has failed his people more so, his son since he unconsciously burdened the responsibility of death onto Olunde. Nonetheless, his sacrifice can be interpreted as a reassertion of his Yoruba cultural beliefs, although he has learned the colonial mannerism and way of thinking. The merge of two worlds, colonialism—the new way of education and African heritage—Yoruba cultural beliefs, can signify a new way of life for the Yoruba tribe.
Furthermore, a close reading of the play reveals that the idea of too late only pertains to Elesin but not for Olunde. In the final act of the play, Iyaloja states that “[h]e is gone at last into the passage but, oh how late it all is. His son will feast on the meat and throw him bones” (Death 76). Even so, the Praise-Singer in his final thoughts, in the voice of the dead king, states “ Oh my companion, if you had followed when you should, we would not say that the horse preceded its rider. If you had followed when it was time…What is left now?…Speak the words over your shadow which must now serve in your place” (Death 74). Cleary, Iyaloja and the Praise-Singer corroborated a valued role for Olunde. It can be argued that, Iyaloja envisioned the success of Olunde spiritual travel alongside the King eating lavishly. Praise-Singer told Elesin to speak the secret words to ‘your shadow that must now serve in your place’ Olunde into the doorway of this transitional path. Hence, Olunde was the form of restoration of the Yoruba cosmos. Nonetheless, we can view Olunde as an embodiment of the deity Ogun. No doubt, Olunde committed a great “offence…against nature (Myth 156) since; he died before his father, which is looked down upon in the Yoruba culture. However, I believe that nature was acting in ways only Olunde’s will—determination could bring him to understand. So, Olunde’s act of hubris allowed him to save his people in the face of…