Death and the King’s Horseman – Wole Soyinka

death and the king's horsemanwole soyinka


Death and the King’s Horseman is a play by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian and the first African to be honored the Nobel Prize in Literature. The play was published 1975, and Soyinka won the prize in 1986. I was reading this together with my GR book group. It also adds nicely to my Nobel project and my intention to read more plays.

The play is inspired by a real life incident that took place in Nigeria during the British occupation: the horseman of a king was prevented to do his last duty on earth, which is to commit a ritual suicide – to follow his king into the afterlife and help lead the way.

Everybody has a duty. The king’s horseman Elesin has lived a lavished lifestyle, with the understanding of the duty his community expects him to perform one day. Failure to do this would throw everything out of balance. The British officer Simon Pilkings also has a duty, and that is to keep order in the Majesty’s realm. A murder – that includes killing oneself, is a disorder and does not make sense to the British eyes. The stake is made higher as the Prince is visiting when this event takes place, so Pilkings is desperate to resolve (resorting to postpone) the problem without the Prince noticing.

The other important characters include Iyaloja, a matriarch of the market – so in effect, the community; and the horseman’s son Olunde who has gone to study abroad in England and come back when he heard the news about the death of the king, knowing the implication for his father.

In one way it is very much about the issue of colonization, though Soyinka doesn’t like it to be categorized that narrowly, as mentioned in the extra materials of my edition. It’s about a clash of cultures, but it could be between any cultures or subcultures, and does not necessarily point its finger to the white colonists vs the natives.

Soyinka is of Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, so this story is about people of Yoruba. To contrast, Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are both Igbo people. I haven’t read enough Nigerian literature to know the subtle differences, but I found these interesting. It just happens that the colleague sitting next to me is a Yoruba Nigerian, and he said his mother knows Soyinka personally (which I guess isn’t very surprising if they’re from the same tribe). He mentioned that there are some conflicts in the past between the tribes (Yoruba and Igbo are 2 of the 3 biggest tribes in Nigeria) but things are well now, and in fact his wife is Igbo. And that’s my little crash course on Nigerian tribes :)

I had the opportunity to go to Wole Soyinka’s talk at the British Library a couple of weeks ago – which was a very nice conjunction with my book group discussion (it’s online and nobody is in London – so I went by myself). It was a full house and more than half of the audience were Nigerian or African descent, so he seemed a very well respected man. I had my edition of Death and the King’s Horseman signed, but the signing was very rushed so I’m a bit disappointed on that end.

Last interesting point is Soyinka writes in English, so his works are not translated. His choice of language to produce his art is somewhat a sore point among different groups of people, as English is obviously the colonist language. This was asked also at the talk, and his answer is somewhere along the line of wanting to have his work as far reaching as possible. He also writes in his native language, but mostly privately. Considering that he did his higher studies in England and therefore went through Western education, I can absolutely understand this reasoning.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Great selection for book group as there are a lot of things to discuss. I can recommend my edition: Methuen Student Edition (pictured above) as it has plenty of extra materials to help you better understand the play and its place in the context of society and its time. Since reading this play I’ve been looking for more plays in Methuen Student Edition, which luckily my favorite secondhand bookshop in Charing Cross has many.

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