ENG 2301

Study Guide for The Epic of Son-Jara

Click for questions and information for each section:

Note:  These questions are partially based on notes in John William Johnson & Fa Digi Sisoko, The Epic of Son-Jara:  A West African Tradition, published by Indiana University Press in 1986.

Episode 1 (This episode states the theme of the poem and leads into an account of creation (from Genesis) and the origins of Son-Jara's people.)

Episode 2 (The selection from Episode 2 introduces Son-Jara's father, Fata Magan, by tracing his descent from Bilal, a companion of Muhammad who is said to have been an African. )

Episode 3 (We learn the origins of Son-Jara's mother, Sugulun Knd, who is also called Sugulun-of-the-Warts.)

Episode 4 (Sugulun Knd is married to Fata Magan and gives birth to Son-Jara, who is crippled by a curse. He recovers, and eventually he and his mother, with his full siblings, are exiled.)

Episode 5 (Son-Jara goes into exile and moves from place to place. Dankaran Tuman loses the kingdom to Sumamuru.  Sugulun Knd dies.)

Episode 6 (Son-Jara comes out of exile and defeats Sumamuru with help from his generals and his full sister Sugulun Kulunkan.)

Episode 7  (Son-Jara establishes his rule and begins conquering an empire.)
Click for more help:

Characters & summary  (This may be very helpful!)

Another helpful character list

Partial Explication

Click for extra information:

What is a griot?  

Cora (kora) and balaphone

Historical Context for the story of Son Jara

Mali Empire and Djenne Figures  This site tells about the Mali Empire and has an interactive map that allows you to compare its area with those of Ghana and Songhay.

Commentary on Keita (the movie we viewed in class) This site now includes a substantial clip from the movie itself.

3.1 EPIC of SUNDJATA--Information on several versions of the epic and their relationship to the story as told in Keita

Map of Africa showing location of Burkina Faso, the country from which the movie Keita comes. (Rest the cursor on the map until an icon appears in the lower right corner. It will allow you to enlarge the map.)

The Story of Africa: Traditional Religions For help with the epic's reference to religious beliefs and practices, listen to or read materials on the companion site for The Story of Africa, a radio series which "tells the history of the continent from an African perspective." Another page on the companion site talks about the historical Sundiata Keita (Son-Jara) and his empire.

Middle-grades lesson plan based on the story of Sundiata Keita (Son-Jara) 

In the book In Griot Time musician Banning Eyre describes what happened when he learned to play a song associated with the story of Son-Jara: "Everywhere I went in the country [Mali], when I took out my guitar and played Sunjata, I made friends." You can download the first chapter of the book here and find ordering information for the book and CD.

Toumani Diabate Takes a Solo Turn  This National Public Radio page reviews a CD by "the greatest living kora player today . . . Toumani Diabate of Mali." There are extended samples of the sound of the kora.

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Exercises to help you with characters' names (Look in Blackboard for a brief practice test.)

Video introduction:  The film clip below is the opening of the film Sundiata - The Heritage of the Griot. Although the characters' names are slightly different, you will get a sense of how this living epic is performed. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQP4gM5Na54.

Episode 1: This episode states the theme of the poem and leads into an account of creation (from Genesis) and the origins of Son-Jara's people. Much of this is omitted from our text.

    1. Notice the praise names of Son-Jara. He is Nare __________ _____________, Sorcerer-_____________ ______________, and Biribiriba.

    2. Think about ll. 10-11 and read the footnote. What else might these lines mean? Watch for their reappearance.

    3. Where did Son-Jara rule?

    4. Who is Sumamuru (Bambara)?

    5. With what animal is Son-Jara associated?

    6. Who is Bmba? (See n. 4, p. 2342.)

Episode 2: The selection from Episode 2 introduces Son-Jara's father, Fata Magan, by tracing his descent from Bilal, a companion of Muhammad who is said to have been an African. (Compare this with the "begats" passages in the Bible.) This is one of the poem's many references to Islam. Compare ll. 175-81 and l. 242. A long passage describing the origins of the clans of Ghana (the empire that preceded that of Mali) is set into this section.

    7. Fata Magan descends from Kanu ____________ ____________, who was the grandson of ____________.

    8. Whom did Fata Magan marry first?

Episode 3: In this episode we learn the origins of Son-Jara's mother, Sugulun Knd.

    9. Who is Du Kamisa? Who is her nephew?

    10. How does the nephew insult and injure Du Kamisa?

    11. How does she answer him? How does she transform herself? What does she become?

    12. Which general of Son-Jara's descended from the same clan as Dan Mansa Wulundin and Wulanba? (See p. 2348, l. 467 and n. 8.)

    13. What does the proverb "What sitting will not solve, / Travel will resolve" mean? Watch for its reappearance.

    14. The hunters go to the jinn for magical help hunting the buffalo. (Hunters possess strong occult powers in the world of this poem.) Kola nuts would be the appropriate sacrifice, since they are important in social and religious rites, but the griot says these events happened before kola was available, so the hunters use a peanut (groundnut). What advice does the jinn give the brothers?  (According to the movie Keita, the old woman  is the buffalo, who of course is Du Kamisa. In Keita she refers to Sugulun Knd as her foster daughter.)

    15. How does Dan Mansa Wulundin kill the buffalo?

    16. How does the king (the nephew--see ll. 408 and 784) react to the buffalo's death?

    17. How does the king recognize the hunters who have killed the buffalo? (Notice that l. 847 calls them by the name of their descendent Tura Magan, whom we will meet later.)

    18. What advice do the hunters receive?

    19. What reward do the hunters request? Notice that just as descent from Bilal gives Fata Magan power in Islamic terms, so her family gives Sugulun Knd occult powers like those of Du Kamisa (the buffalo).

Episode 4: In episode 4 Sugulun Knd is married to Fata Magan and gives birth to Son-Jara, who is crippled by a curse. He recovers, and eventually he and Sugulun (with his full siblings) are exiled.

    20. Why does Fata Magan the Handsome seek to marry the "ugly little maid" Sugulun-of-the-Warts (Sugulun Knd)? How does he get the right to do so?

    21. How does the birth order of Son-Jara and his half-brother Dankaran Tuman become confused?

    22. How does Son-Jara get his praise name "Lion-Born-of-the-Cat" (see l. 32, p. 2342)?

    23. Who arranged for Son-Jara to be unable to walk? How?

    24. Where is Son-Jara taken, and what ambition does he state in his prayer there?

    25. Lines 1282-88 interrupt the action. What do they refer to?

    26. What happens to Sugulun Knd as a result of the lameness of her son (Son-Jara, here called "The Wizard")?

    27. What finally seems to cancel out the magic of Saman Berete so that Son-Jara can rise? What kind of staff helps him?

    28. What does Son-Jara immediately do for his mother?

    29. How does Son-Jara (who has become a hunter) behave toward his half-brother?

    30. What does it suggest when Son-Jara's dog shreds Dankaran Tuman's toothless dog (who is magical, remember--see ll. 1200-16, p. 2360)?

    31. Is Son-Jara's true enemy Dankaran Tuman or Dankaran Tuman's mother?

    32. Who exiles Son-Jara and his family? What advice does Son-Jara receive from his mother? Notice the proverb with which the episode ends. Notice also that in this culture full siblings are assumed to be one's helpers, and half-siblings are expected to be rivals.

Episode 5: Son-Jara goes into exile and moves from place to place. Dankaran Tuman loses the kingdom to Sumamuru. Sugulun Knd (Sugulun-of-the-Warts) dies.

    33. Why do Son-Jara and his family keep having to move from place to place?

    34. Who is Sumamuru? ("Susu" is one spelling of a late flowering of the Ghana empire. The Mali empire succeeded it.) How does Dankaran Tuman (now king) try to placate him? Who is Dka the Cat? 

    35. What is a balaphone? Who has one?  (The Cora Connection site has pictures, a sound clip, and information that clarifies how the balaphone relates to Sumamuru.  Characters' names are spelled differently, but they are recognizable.)

    36. What is Sumamuru like? Notice his praise names.

    37. What does Sumamuru do to Dka the Cat? Why does this affect Son-Jara? What is Dka the Cat's new name?

    38. What happens to Dankaran Tuman?

    39. What kind of king is Sumamuru?

    40. Whom does Sumamuru try to bribe to kill Son-Jara? Who is their leader?  How does Son-Jara stop this scheme?  (Consider the implications of turning a gift of meat back into a living animal.)

    41. Where does Son-Jara go to live next?

    42. Sugulun prays that the shea tree will bear fruit so Son-Jara can make a necessary sacrifice, and it does. What other prayer of hers is granted?

    43. How does Son-Jara persuade Prince Birama to give him land to bury Sugulun?

Episode 6: Son-Jara comes out of exile and defeats Sumamuru.

    44. Why is the Boatman Sasagal willing to help Son-Jara once he knows who he is? (What moral does this illustrate, and what proverb relates to this?)

    45. What happens the first time Son-Jara's army attacks Sumamuru? How are the towns of Anguish, Resolve, and Sharing founded, and what do they stand for? The reason Son-Jara cannot yet defeat Sumamuru is that Sumamuru's magical power is too great.

    46. What does Sugulun Kulunkan (Son-Jara's full sister, who went into exile with him) resolve to do? What does she learn? (Notice the Biblical parallels cited in n.2, p. 2380. The closest parallel is the way Dalilah learns the secret of Samson's strength. The Book of Judith is in the Apocrypha, considered Biblical by some churches. Judith uses her beauty to ensnare and kill the Assyrian general and save Jerusalem. Another parallel is the story of Jael and Sisera in the Book of Judges.)

    47. What happens to Sumamuru's relationship with his mother? This removes more of his magical powers--another example of the importance of mothers in this epic..

    48. How does Sugulun Kulunkan get away to tell Son-Jara what she has learned?

    49. Why does Sumamuru's nephew Fa-Koli go over to Son-Jara's side? Notice that it is Fa-Koli who does the things Sugulun Kulunkan has learned must be done to counter Sumamuru's magical strength.

    50. How does Fa-Koli rescue the niece of Son-Jara whom her father sent to marry Sumamuru?

    51. This action provokes a battle, and Sumamuru loses and flees. (Notice that Tura Magan, mentioned in Episode 3, is one of Son-Jara's generals.) At the end of the episode Sumamuru is captured, but he still has too much magic to be wounded with a weapon. What happens to him?

Episode 7: Son-Jara is now king. He establishes his rule and begins conquering an empire.

    52. What happens to Bala Faseke Kuyat (formerly Dka the Cat)? Who must carry him?

    53. What kind of king is Son-Jara?

    54. How is Son-Jara persuaded to allow Tura Magan to lead his army? How does Tura Magan avenge the Jolof king's insulting suggestion that Son-Jara is only a hunter ("a runner of dogs"), not a king? These conquests represent the founding of the empire of Mali.

For more information about the epic and the translation we are reading, see John William Johnson, ed., The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition, with Notes, Translation, And New Introduction By John William Johnson ; Text By Fa-Digi Sisk, (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1992).

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This is a personal web page. Opinions or views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official views of Winston-Salem State University.