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Throughout the play, Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka, there is a prominent paradox between Olunde’s traditional Yoruban values and his father’s values. Olunde is Elesin’s oldest son, who has left Yoruba to study medicine in England, and he returns home when he hears the king has died. Olunde is still faithful to his Yoruban values, even though he has moved to England and is surrounded by a new culture, values, and traditions. Olunde knows his father, Elesin, the king’s horseman, is obligated to take part in a ritual suicide to accompany the king as it is a Yoruban tradition. Elesin did not follow through with the sacrifice, which resulted in Olunde taking his own life because he has more of a devotion to his culture than his father does. Olunde’s time spent in both British and Yoruban culture strengthened his connection with the Yourban culture because he was looking to make connections between the two places through his understanding of the ship story, the sacrifice of soldiers, and his conversations with Jane. Olunde sought to gain an appreciation for both cultures which strengthened his ability in completing the Yourban ritual.
Olunde was introduced to the story of a captain and his ship that taught him British values that he was able to apply to the Yoruban culture. Jane, incomprehensible to the Yoruban culture, presented Olunde the story of the ship as, “The captain did it himself The ship had to be blown up because it had become dangerous to the other ships, even to the city itself. Hundreds of the coastal population would have died” (Soyinka 41). Jane tells Olunde this story of a captain who blew up the whole ship because of the threat it had on the city. Truth be told, the captain sacrificed his own life to save the lives of many other individuals. Both the captain and his ship symbolize this sacrifice Elesin, the king’s horseman, is supposed to make for the people of Yoruba, their ancestors, and the King himself. Jane and Olunde’s views of why the captain blew up the ship varied, which represents each of their culture’s views. Olunde concluded, “I don’t find it morbid at all. I find it rather inspiring. It is an affirmative commentary on life” (42), thus exemplifying that Olunde views the death of the captain as a sacrifice for others, and to be honored for his drive to help and save others. It is the central idea that because an individual sacrificed himself for the good of others, the captain should be remembered and honored by all. Jane finds it difficult to understand why the captain should be honored.
Olunde’s and Jane’s disputing beliefs on the captain’s death promotes the different views individuals obtain through culture. Because Olunde was immersed in a new culture, he learned the values and traditions outside of the Yoruban culture, teaching him new lessons. Jane is unable to understand Olunde’s views as a whole as she can only perceive true curiosity within the Yoruban culture. Jane and Olunde’s conversation at the masque party, shows Olunde’s new views on the British and Jane’s curiosity to the Yourban culture as a whole. Jane is insensible to the Yourban culture and traditions, while Olunde is faithful to both cultures as he was exposed to cultures in both Yoruba and in England. The first remarks from Olunde goes as, “You forgot that I have now spent four years among your people. I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand” followed by Jane, “Oh. So you’ve returned with a chip on your shoulder. That’s a pity Olunde. I am sorry” (41).
Jane truly believes that Olunde has changed since he arrived back from England. Olunde states that he still believes in the Yoruban culture and the customs of the people since he was born into this culture although, there is still a huge gap between the understandings of the two cultures. Each culture views what they do as a sacrifice for the good of others. Jane is disgusted that Olunde wants his father to die, “However clearly you try to put it, it is still a barbaric custom. It is even worse- it’s feudal! The king dies and a chieftain must be buried with him. How feudalistic can you get,” (43) thus portraying Jane’s emotions towards Olunde. Olunde should want Mr. Pilkings to intervene with the ritual, according to Jane, so his father stays protected due to his Yoruban culture. Olunde’s sacrifice for others and his father exemplified his true Yoruban rituals from where he grew up. It is apparent when Olunde follows through with his father’s ritual suicide, as he commits suicide for him.
The British Army sacrifices their own lives for the good of their people and for honor. However, the Yoruban culture’s definition of sacrifice is to show loyalty to the King and his ancestors. Olunde gained a better appreciation for different cultures, traditions, and values through his time in England. Compared to Jane, Olunde does in fact have a whole new outlook on life concerning sacrifice as he was essentially exposed to it in hospitals as, “Don’t forget I was attached to hospitals all the time. Hordes of your wounded passed through those wards. I spoke to them. I spent long evenings by their bedsidess while they spoke terrible truths of the realities of war. I know now how history is made” (44). Olunde is explaining to Jane that the British are sending men to war and how they die in the war. These men are sacrificing their own lives for the safety of their country and are seeking good in life by helping others. Death is not talked of amongst individuals of their country, but instead they are honored for their service. After complimenting the British to Jane, Olunde changes his opinions saying, “But at least have the humility to let others survive in their own way” (43). He switches his opinion of the honor of their survival to the wishing these men in the army could survive “their own way.” Jane does not understand why a ritual suicide is to be completed, therefore she believes that army men are committing mass suicides.
Olunde’s traditional Yoruban culture would follow the ritual suicide but he compares the ritual suicide to the mass suicide in war. Because Olunde was exposed to a new culture in England his views on suicide abruptly changed. Olunde’s loyalty to his culture and traditions is solely portrayed through his father’s ritual suicide, his sacrifice. Further resulting in, Olunde disowning him fully as a father and completing the ritual suicide in his place. Olunde’s honor to commit suicide because he was ashamed of his father proves to all that Olunde is more faithful to Yoruba than his father was. Both the British and Yoruban cultures, have one similarity which is the idea of self-sacrifice. Although, the British do not understand the purpose of the culture of Yoruba. The ritual suicide is done as a tradition for the nation and their ancestors, not as “barbaric.” Olunde’s appreciation for both cultures gave him a new perspective on life and why it was important for him and his faith to complete the ritual suicide in the place of his father.
The play, Death and the King’s Horseman, helps the reader explain the paradox of Olunde’s adoption of European mannerisms but still more faithful to traditional Yoruban values than his father. Olunde’s time in both England and Yoruba strengthened his connection to the Yourban culture through his ship story, the sacrifice of soldiers, and his conversations with Jane. He gained a further appreciation for both cultures resulting in Olunde taking over his father’s ritual suicide.
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