Book Review: “Death and the King’s Horseman” by Wole Soyinka

I read Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman for an English class in 2013. Last week while trying to think of a unique story to review for my next post, I couldn’t get this play out of my head. For the last three years I’ve had a few lines from Death and the King’s Horseman in the quotes section of my Facebook, not that anyone reads those anymore. It reads:

Who does not seek to be Remembered?
Memory is Master of Death, the chink
In his armour of conceit. I shall leave
That which makes my going the sheerest
Dream of an afternoon

The play is gorgeous, Shakespearean almost. It sticks with you. It was written in 1975 by Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, and I can not understand why Death and the King’s Horseman is not wildly popular, or at least a cult classic among the literary scene. I’d never heard of it before I was assigned the text in class. And I’ve never heard it mentioned since.

The five act play, which is only sixty pages long in my edition, was written by Soyinka while living in Cambridge, England. The plot of the play is concise, a simple arc of life and death akin to a Greek tragedy. It tells the story of a real event in colonial Nigeria in 1946, when a ritualistic suicide was interrupted by the British rule there. It opens with the death of the chief, and the community in mourning. In Yoruba tradition, the chief horseman must die in a suicide ritual, to go to the other side to help his chief’s spirit reach the afterlife safely. Elesin, the horseman who must follow his chief into death, loves life, and is reluctant to accept his fate. The play opens with him living life to the fullest in celebration, before his death which he has been long prepared for. Even as the play begins Elesin’s appetite to enjoy all the world has to offer is seen as excessive by his family. The conflict begins when the British government tries to put a stop to the death, when Simon Pilkings, intervenes at the last minute.

The second half of the play is chaotic, as the community of Oyo in Nigeria tries to grasp with the broken ritual, as their spiritual future and the soul of their chief is as risk. The people of Elesin’s community blame him as much as they blame Simon, because Elesin was too connected to the earth and unwilling to leave as duty mandated. What follows is not a conflict of colonialism as much as a moral conflict of suicide and murder. The heavy spiritual themes of the play, which work beautifully in Soyinka’s poetic English, are more universal questions than those of colonialism. Soyinka himself wrote a short introduction to the play, where he asked the reader to not view the story as a clash of cultures – but rather an examination of communal beliefs and autonomous decisions, when those decisions can affect more than that one person’s fate. When Elesin’s life is saved someone still has to die in the end to bring order back to the community, and respect back to the family. Is is who and how the life is taken that makes the second half of the play so interesting.

Death and the King’s Horseman is a play about life, wrapped up in themes of death. It examines two views on life and death – the first being that life of an individual should be protected at all costs, even perhaps at the expense of others, and the second view being that there can be respect and dignity in a life well lived and willingly given, especially in defense or in honor of others. The cultural tension of the play is not a tension between colonialists and Nigerians, it is a tension between two different religious and philosophical points of view.

Despite Soyinka’s small introduction to his play, in which he states his authors intend in clear language, it is often still read as commentary on colonialism. While that is definitely an aspect of the story, it is not the main theme nor is it the one that gives weight and beauty to the play. However, one of the most unique aspects of the play is the one that might encourage a social reading of the text. Any spoken English is written in modern, simple language. All parts of the play that are spoken by characters who would be speaking Yoruba* is written in classic, Shakespearean English. This gives the reader an idea of the richness and meaning that comes with the character’s native language, while making it understandable. The “two Englishes” creates a contrast between when they are speaking English and when they are speaking their own language, and it gives the impression of two entirely different cultures.

The play is thrives on the reader having a sense of awe around the religion, rituals, and spiritual urgency that Elesin’s community in Oya has. That heaviness is represented in the language that Soykina uses, in the play’s gorgeous stanzas. As Elesin considers the life he has had in fear of death he thinks:

How can that be? In all my life
As Horseman of the King, the juiciest
Fruit on every tree was mine. I saw,
I touched, I wooed, rarely was the answer No.
The honour of my place, the veneration I
Received in the eye of man or woman
Prospered my suit and
Played havoc with my sleeping hours.

This play is catchy. It is readable, singable, actable. I’d love to see it performed one day. Soyinka has a fluidity in his language that is charismatic. It was hard to get out of my head. There is nothing more exciting than finding a piece of literature that seems almost unclassifiable. The emotional impact that Death and the King’s Horseman had on me almost five years ago does not jive with the dull annotated volumes sold for literature classes, instead of recreational reading. It seems a pity that any book would be sold only in “study” editions, as if it was assumed it would not be read for reading’s sake.

Soyinka’s play is not something that will be everyone’s next favorite read, but it is a quick read, and a beautiful and memorable one. I hope that by reviewing Death and the King’s Horseman here as recreational (instead of assigned reading) I can do my part in giving life back to this vibrant story of life and death, a play that deserves more than what it seems to have.

* I do not believe that Yoruba is mentioned explicitly as the language in question, but it is the regional language to Oya so I am assuming it is.

Sarah V Diehl


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