Heroism and the Supernatural in the African Epic

Heroism and the Supernatural in the African Epic

Heroism and the Supernatural in the African Epic

Heroism and the Supernatural in the African Epic

Synopsis

There exists a strong tendency within Western literary criticism to either deny the existence of epics in Africa or to see African literatures as exotic copies of European originals. In both cases, Western criticism has largely failed to acknowledge the distinctiveness of African literary aesthetics. This book revises traditional literary canons in examining the social, cultural and emotional specificity of African epics. Mariam Konate Deme highlights the distinguishing features that characterize the African epic, emphasizing the significance of the fantastic and its use as an essential element in the dramatic structure of African epics. As Deme notes, the fantastic can be fully appreciated only against the cosmological background of the societies that produce those heroic tales. This book not only contributes to the scholarship on African oral literature, but also adds reshapes our understanding of heroic literature in general.

Excerpt

This study is a critical analysis of the role and functions of the supernatural in selected African epics. It was necessitated by the persistent misconception and misrepresentation of the African epic noted in the works of several previous conservative scholars due to their provincial views and ignorance of other cultures. Such scholars often claim that Africans are not capable of creating oral epics which are considered by them to be among the most advanced forms of literature.

Although marvelous actions and deeds tend to appear generally in epics everywhere, such elements have been exploited by Eurocentric scholars to deny the existence of the epic in Africa. They tend to argue that in the African tale, too much emphasis is put on the hero’s recourse to non-human means, rather than on his natural physical force, which in a Western conceptualization, typifies true heroism.

To dispel such misconceptions and shed light on the nature and characteristics of African epics, this study systematically examined five African epics from West, Central, and Southern Africa: Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, The Epic of Askia Mohammed, The Ozidi Saga, The Mwindo Epic, and Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. These works were critically analyzed from an African-centered perspective. The study found out that a major characteristic of the African epic is the belief and reliance on the supernatural and the marvelous. It also demonstrated that the significance of the fantastic as an essential element in the dramatic structure of the African epic may be fully appreciated only if considered against the cosmological background of the societies that produce those heroic tales. The study therefore, accentuates the view that a meaningful approach to the study of African epics may be possible only when pursued in the context and poetic tradition of the specific cultures that produce them. It also confirms the inadequacy of Western analytical models in the interpretation of African literary genres.

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