Thursday, July 14, 2011

Classic Lit: Sundiata by D.T. Niane

Series: Longman African Writers
Publisher: Longman
Translator: G.D. Pickett
Date: c. thirteenth century (1965)
Format: paperback
Acquired: from BookMooch
Read: for the Once Upon a Read-a-Thon
Pages: 84
Reading time: two and a half hours

From the back cover: The son of Sogolon, the hunchback princess, and Maghan, known as "the handsome," Sundiata grew up to fulfill the prophesies of the soothsayers that he would unite the twelve kingdoms of Mali into one of the most powerful empires ever known in Africa, which at its peak stretched right across the savanna belt from the shores of the Atlantic to the dusty walls of Timbuktu. Retold by generations of griots - the guardians of African culture - this oral tradition has been handed down from the thirteenth century and captures all the mystery and majesty of medieval African kingship. It is an epic tale - part history, part legend - which should rank alongside the Iliad and the Odyssey as one of the world's great adventure stories.

My review: This edition of the Sundiata epic is a prose translation, and as such it reads more like a novel than an epic (personally, I'm not a big fan of poetry and find that quite helpful). A prose version also, I find, allows for the inclusion of more details, and so the characterizations and smaller details of the story come out more. Reading this after The Mabinogion, I was surprised at the often prominent role that women played in the story. While Sundiata is, of course, the central character, his mother and the other women have more complex personalities and take more active parts in the epic than the one-dimensional, damsel-in-distress women of many European tales. Sundiata is not only an epic story about a legendary king, however; it also includes details of the history, geography, and culture of the area. The entire time I was reading it, I found Sundiata to be enjoyable rather than the often tedious, slow, and difficult read that I generally expect from epics.

I also own the Penguin Epics edition of the Sundiata tale (here called Sunjata), which is a verse translation. Has anyone read this one, and if so, how does it compare to the Longman edition?

Join the Classic Bribe over at Quirky Girls Read!


  1. I've been looking for some titles for the Read-A-Myth Challenge that aren't Greek/Roman. This looks like a good choice. Thanks.

  2. I hope you enjoy it if you end up choosing it for the challenge!