Son-Jara is both the main character and the name of an epic tale. It's kind of one of those The Odyssey/Odysseus things. For anybody striving to break the bonds of literary eurocentrism, this is a tale that deserves to be placed next to The Odyssey and the Iliad.

Unlike many works of literature, the tale of Son-Jara has no definitive version or author. For the purposes of this writeup, I will be using D. T. Niane's Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali and Fa-Digi Sosoko's The Epic of Son-Jara. However, Penguin Classic's Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute | Sunjata contains two other variant tellings that are also very good.

Son-Jara is an oral tale. Like The Odyssey and the Iliad, and unlike the similar tale The Aeneid, Son-Jara was spoken for generations in the African continent before every being written down. Niane's text is a literary translation: it is written down in prose by an African who traveled to France to study in a western culture. He wrote the text for westerners to make African culture more accessible. Sisoko's work is merely a transliteration and translation by John William Johnson. It is kept intact in its original poetic structure, written down as it was sung to other African tribesman. Since it is an oral tale, every version is a little different, like Paul Bunyan. I will try to discuss some common elements. (If you only have a chance to read one version, read Niane's, it's the easiest to understand.)

Son-Jara (who also goes by the names Sundiata, Sunjata, and Sogolon Djata) is the son of a hunchback woman (who is really a buffalo) and an African king known as 'The Handsome'. From before his birth, he is destined to rule the empire of Mali and be a king of Africa on par with rulers like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Son-Jara grows up without the use of his legs, but one day he stands up and brings his mother a baobab tree. His father's other wife, Sassouma (many traditional African cultures are polygamous) gets jealous, and when Son-Jara's father dies, Sassouma kicks him, his mother, and his siblings out. They live in exile for a while, until Son-Jara hears about this sorcerer-king Soumaoro who's running about causing trouble. Son-Jara decides to kill him, gathers up an army of blacksmiths, and does so. Then he becomes king. The end. (Hey, I never said it was Shakespeare.)

Son-Jara and The Mwindo Epic are the two great oral works to come out of Africa.

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