No commentary can express the overwhelmingly controversial topics Wole Soyinka embarks upon in his drama “Death and the King’s Horseman”. This literary piece is multi-faceted because it embraces issues of race, religion, and culture. “Death and the Kings’s Horseman” is about the ritual suicide of a horseman of a tribal chief that is prevented by British officials because of its barbaric nature. As a result to this intervention, the tribal ritual is disrupted causing the horsemen’s son, Olunde, to sacrifice himself in order to take the place of his father and create peace within the tribe. This great loss in effect influences Elesin, the horsemen, to take his own life near the end of the play. It is evident that the character of Olunde is clashing between two cultures, embodies more courage than his father, possesses a sense of responsibility and loyalty to his tribe, and plays a heroic figure in Soyinka’s piece.
Noticeably, Olunde’s character appears to be struggling between two worlds. His origen is from Nigeria , however, he studies medicine in Europe. This clash in culture could definitely be an issue for him on many levels as far as challenging his allegiance to his tribe and their rituals, thus,conforming to british culture. Contrary to british belief, as far as their prejudices toward the barbaric nature of sacrificial suicide, Olunde seems to agree with his tribal rituals. Soyinka doesn’t introduce Olunde’s character until Olunde decides to visit Mr. Pilkings in regards to making funeral arrangements for his father, that he has already presumed dead.
To his surprise, Olunde discovers that his father is still alive because he is confronted by him at the Pilking’s house.Leading up to this rivoting climax, Olunde seems to be in disbelief that his father did not carry out the ritual. Evidence to support this idea can be found in this exerpt:
” All these things are apart of it. And anyway,my father has been dead in my mind for nearly a month.Ever since I learnt of the King’s death.I’ve lived with my bereavement so long now that I cannot think of him alive.On that journey on the boat , I kept my mind on my duties as the one who must perform the rites over his body. I went through it all again in my mind as he himself had taught me. I didn’t want to do anything wrong, something which might jeopardise the welfare of my people (p.57).”
Olunde’s character disowns his father for this fact. One would presume that Olunde’s character is highly dissapointed in his father’s actions. He appeared outraged by the fact that Elesin wouldn’t keep his allegiance to his people regardless to whether or not legal authorities attempted to prevent his fate.
Contrary to Elesin, the character of Olunde presents himself as having more courage than his father. This character trait is implied by the fact that Olunde allowed himself to be sacrificed, something that his father wouldn’t do. Even though, his character plays a relatively small part in the play, he obtains a lot of significance and noteriety by commiting this action because in effect Elesin’s guilt encourages him to kill himself. Dissapointment drove Olunde to take matters into his own hands. Evidence to support Olunde’s dissapointment in his father can be found in the following passage during a discussion between the charcaters of Iyaloja and Elesin:
“Olunde would have done it .
The chief’s asked him to speak
the words but he said no , not
while you lived( p.73).”
The characters of Olunde and Elesin contrasts significantly. In the beginning of the play, Elesin seemed very anxious about this sacrificial ritual. He even begins to tell a story called the ” Not-I-Bird” that is vey similar to that of another children’s story “Chicken Little”. Soyinka implies to the audience that Elesin is much like the Not Bird, when death is concerned. Olunde’s character is more responsible and trustworthy unlike Elesin’s character whom is portrayed as a womanizeing bigot.
Olunde’s character has a strong sense of loyalty to his tribe and unconditional respect for its customs. Leaving behind his privilleged life of studying medicine in Europe, Olunde doesn’t hesitate or lean towards the opinions of british officials when he returns to Nigeria. At the Pilking’s House, Olunde wasn’t swayed easily by Mr.Pilking’s opinions and attempts a preventing the ritual, it was as if Olunde was disregarding them. Evidence to prove Olunde’s dilligence can be found in the following lines:
” Mr. Pilkings, I appreciate what you tried to do.
I want you to believe that.I can only tell you
It would have been a terrible calamity if you’d
Olunde’s character plays a very heroic role in the real life inspired play, ” Death and the the King’s Horseman”. Soyinka portrays Olunde’s character as being somewhat a pillar to their society. He voluntarily gives up all that he has worked for in Eurpoe to maintain the cosmic well being of his culture, who he technically isn’t even apart of anymore being that he is experiencing another way of life somewhere else. Wole Soyinka purposely portrays Olunde’s death as a tragedy because it could have been prevented. He also places major emphasis on how much the character had to loose by letting the audience know that Olunde’s character was dilligently committed to studying medicine prior to this controversial uproar.This type of foreshadowing reveals the irony of how Olunde will soon throw away all of his accmplishments for the belief of his people. Evidence supporting this can be found in this exerpt, when Jane is begging Olunde not to do anything that may discourage him from his goals of becoming a doctor:
” Olunde, please…promise me something.
Whatever you do, don’t throw away what you have started to do.You want to be a
doctor.My husband and I believe you will make an excellent one, sympathetic and competent. Don’t let anything make you throw away your training (p.55)”
Olunde’s character is definitely a significant role in ” Death and the King’s Horseman”. His nobility, heroism, and loyalty are compelling character traits to be analyzed and discussed for further review. This clashing in culture, opinion, and ethical standard are continuous antagonistc forces that distresses the character of Olunde through out his segments of the play. Soyinka briliiantly described him as a ranking of higher society and captures the irony of his charater versus the charater of Elesin, his father, with ease. The character of Olunde contributes a much needed depth and dramatic climax to this story of ritual versus ethics and tradition versus law.