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The classical stories of Oedipus The King and Sundiata tell the tale of two epic heroes who must seek out and fulfill their own unique destinies. Although the themes of fate and destiny play a major role in the lives of Oedipus and Sundiata, both characters adapt quite differently to their predetermined positions: Oedipus is the tragic hero, always trying to tempt fate, whereas Sundiata willingly accepts his destiny. Both men are qualified to be powerful leaders but they utilize these qualities in different, sometimes opposing ways.
In the opening scene of the play Oedipus The King, the audience is introduced to Oedipus as a compassionate, concerned leader: he is a man of his word and a man of action. His people are suffering because of a plague that has swept the land and Oedipus suffers with them. He will stop at nothing to save them from this curse. Ironically, while saving his people, Oedipus destroys himself. When Oedipus is told by Delphi – Apollo, the prophet’s oracle, the only way to stop the plague is to find the man who murdered Laius, the former king, the audience views a new side of Oedipus – his imperfections and flaws. In spite of his intelligence he acts foolishly, impulsively, and impatiently. With much arrogance and aggression Oedipus sets out in search of the murderer, but instead his search reveals the truth about himself. The journey toward self-knowledge is not a pleasant one for Oedipus, who learns he has been cursed by the gods.
In his search for truth, Oedipus shows himself to be a thinker. Thus Oedipus’s intelligence, a trait that brings him closer to the gods, is what causes him to commit the most heinous of all possible sins. Instead of relying on the gods, Oedipus counts on his own ability to root out the truth. He is shocked to learn he is the one who killed Laius, his father, and married Jocasta, his mother, even though these actions were prophesied long ago by the oracle at Delphi. After hearing the oracle’s prophecy, Oedipus is still foolish enough to believe he can tempt fate and change the path chosen for him by the gods. He tells Jocasta, “I heard all that and ran, I abandoned Corinth, from that day on I gauged its landfall only by the stars, running, always, running toward someplace where I would never see the shame of all these oracles come true” (205). The contrast between trust in the gods’ oracles and trust in intelligence plays out in this story much like that between religion and science in modern times.
In the story of Sundiata, even before his birth, the lion king is destined to become a great leader, in defiance to traditional order and birthright. His role as king and his victorious return to his homeland of Mali are all controlled by the effects of fate in his life. A traveler prophesied the powerful heir to the throne would be born from a foreign, ugly woman. The tales of greatness impressed the king of Mali enough to trust the foretelling and marry Sogolon, the buffalo woman. After Sundiata’s birth, huge obstacles are not enough to stop his continuous path to the throne. Being crippled in a society where physical skills are highly valued is perhaps the greatest curse possible. Learning to walk, in defiance to others in the palace, is only a small achievement compared to the milestones that Sundiata would pass in his lifetime.
As opposed to Oedipus, Sundiata proudly and willingly accepts the road paved for him by the gods. Sundiata is boldly determined to seek out and fulfill his destiny, where as Oedipus stubbornly and vehemently tries to change his destiny. Perhaps one can say both characters are cursed, but Sundiata overcomes his physical handicap while Oedipus unknowingly and foolishly curses himself by saying:
Whoever the murderer is, a lone man unknown in his crime or among many, let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step – I curse myself as well… if by any chance he proves to be an intimate of our house, here at my hearth, with my full knowledge, may the curse I just called down on him strike me! (172).
In contrast to Oedipus, Sundiata acts wisely as he courageously faces the obstacles in his path. His attitude of being able to overcome all is perhaps a result of his pre-ordained status in life, as the course of his life is ultimately set by the goal of kingship of Mali. Exile is deemed necessary by Sundiata’s mother as a measure to protect her children. During his exile, Sundiata is able to become allies with many countries and these friendships prove helpful to him when he is at war with the Sorcerer King. By exiling himself into Africa for many years, Sundiata is not being weak, but wise. The distance from Mali gives him the opportunity to complete the plan destiny holds.
The attitude of strength is vital to the story’s victorious end for Sundiata. The determined attitude of Sundiata, as when he says, “Very well, then, I am going to walk today,” is an example of his strength (p 19). As he grows into a man of leadership, so does his bravery. The zeal born of being deprived his home land is stronger than any other and it helps him keep spirit in his fight to reclaim Mali. During the fight Sundiata exclaims,
I salute you all, sons of Mali. I have come back, and as long as I breathe Mali will never be in thrall – rather death than slavery. We will live free because our ancestors lived free. I am going to avenge the indignity that Mali has undergone (56). Fate has its hand in the travels and return of Sundiata, and destiny further creates the course preset for him. In the case of Oedipus, destiny is a bit more complex.
Both Oedipus and Sundiata have been chosen by the gods to be heroes; Oedipus, however, is a tragic one. Both are wise and strong, but their skills are applied contrarily because of the opposing paths in their lives. Sundiata enters the world and defies many expectations – he goes from cursedness to heroism as he overcomes the affliction of being crippled and living in exile. The opposite is true for Oedipus. When the audience first sees Oedipus, he is powerful and strong. Through a combination of fate and his own actions, his life is transformed into tragedy.
Although the lives of Oedipus and Sundiata end differently, both men’s lives are guided by the same principle: you cannot escape your destiny. Oedipus learns this lesson after much heartache. Since he is blind to the truth, Oedipus desperately tries to change the course of his life and go against fate; in the end, he physically blinds himself as a reminder of his foolishness. Sundiata, on the other hand, spends his life accepting and fulfilling the plans fate has set for him. The acceptance of his purpose in life eases the journey for Sundiata and leads him to victory. Perhaps the journey of Oedipus would have been easier if he accepted his plight and courageously faced the future, instead of walking through life blind to the truth.
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