“Not I became the answering-name
Of the restless bird, that little one
Whom Death found nesting in the leaves
When whisper of his coming ran
Before him on the wind.
Not I has long abandoned home.
This same dawn I heard him twitter in the gods’ abode.
Ah, companions of this living world
What a thing this is, that even those
We call immortal Should fear to die. “
It is based on a true incident and has in its roots, a Yoruba tradition that death of a chief must be followed by ritual suicide of the chief’s horseman because horseman’s spirit is essential for helping the chief’s spirit to ascend to other world (or it shall wander the Earth and harm people.) I think this explains the title. The king is dead and, Elsin, his horse-man is more than willing to kill himself. He feels duty bound to it – and would rather die than have his honor questioned:
“Life has an end. A life that will outlive
Fame and friendship begs another name.
What elder takes his tongue to his plate,
Licks it clean of every crumb? He will encounter
Silence when he calls on children to fulfill
The smallest errand ! Life is honor.
It ends when honor ends. “
Of course, I don’t subscribe to this view. Sometimes, I think the best way to make people do something stupid is to either tell them that gods asked them to do so or make them look at the thing as ‘honorable’.
Now, the ritual suicide is intervened by British government. In his author note, Soyinka warns against seeing it as a ‘clash of cultures’. I think I can understand his frustration. It is also not intended to be anti-colonial – ‘the colonial factor’ he says is only incidental.
Although he does seem to be trying to silence, in advance, any judgments from cross-cultural readings:
“Of course you have also mastered the art of calling things by names which don’t remotely describe them.”
Again, when colonial officer’s wife calls the ritual feudalistic, Olunde (Elesin’s son) points to her the parties of British royal classes when war is on.
“Don’t forget I was attached to hospitals all the time. Hordes of your wounded passed through those wards. I spoke to them. I spent long evenings by their bedside while they spoke terrible truths of the realities of that war. I know now how history is made.”
Also, Soyinka doesn’t want you to care about easily-imaginable officer’s dilemma –whether or not to intervene the ritual suicide. It is Elesin that is supposed to be the main character – you are supposed to understand him; understand his wish to do what he had lived all his life thinking he is duty bound to – and to do that you need a mind which has known nothing but Yoruba tradition. Everyone in the tribe, including his studying-in-European-to-be-a-doctor son, had thought him as good as dead when king died – and they thought it was right thing as well. In fact the atmosphere has a big role to play – most apparent in tribe’s emphasis on rhetoric and idoms:
“Even a tear-veiled Eye preserves its function of sight.”
The power of tradition also comes out in that ending which I won’t give away, but haven’t people in all cultures struggled whenever forced to break away from traditions?
“But this young shoot has poured its sap into the parent stalk, and we know this is not the way of life. Our world is tumbling in the void of strangers, Elesin.”
The logic behind it may not make sense to us but that is irrelevant, it makes sense to Elesin and that is what matters:
“What can you offer him in place of his peace of mind, in place of the honour and veneration of his own people?”
It is thus about guilt and agony of a person who has lived a honorable life – and suddenly finds himself failed to perform his duty. An undeserved life is all he is left to live whose honor wanted him dead – a left-over.
And now back to officer’s dilemma, since I can’t help it whatever Soyinka say. The officer in this case was very clear that he willinterfere and nothing makes him doubt his decision – perhaps that ending did but it was too late. So, should you interfere? I don’t know. Merely the fact something can be called ‘culture’ shouldn’t put it beyond criticism. I think it was a right thing for British government of India to ban Sati ritual. But that was almost always forced while in this case, Elesin is not harming anyone but himself (aside from the fact that he took a new ‘young’ wife on his last day – but that is a different issue) and so, it becomes a question of whether you are willing to allow suicide, and whether or not you are willing to allow suicide for reasons which don’t make sense or look trivial to you. That is a debate I won’t enter here.