Study Guide

Death and the King's Horseman Primitiveness

By Wole Soyinka


What do you mean you don't know? It's only two years since your conversion. Don't tell me all that holy water nonsense also wiped out your tribal memory. (2.109)

Simon's reference to some kind of "tribal memory" when he's pumping Joseph for information about the Yoruba rituals makes him sound pretty out of touch with the indigenous population. He's making up random terms to describe their experiences and memories and how they understand them. And nothing says respect quite like calling someone's beliefs nonsense. Oh wait…

I don't have to stop anything. If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves for the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me? If it were ritual murder or something like that I'd be duty bound to do something. I can't keep an eye on all the potential suicides in this province. And as for that man—believe me, it's good riddance. (2.128)

At first, Simon doesn't really want to interfere with Elesin's suicide ritual. As you can see here, however, it's not like he actually makes any effort to understand the tradition and instead simply views it as "barbaric."

Oh, I beg your pardon officers. You do look a little… I say, isn't there something missing in their uniform? I think they used to have some rather colourful sashes. If I remember rightly I recommended them myself in my young days in the service. A bit of colour always appeals to the natives, yes, I remember putting that in my report. Well well well, where are we? Make your report man. (3.27)

The Resident is holding forth on how to appeal to the "natives" by making some adjustments to their police uniforms. His thoughts don't necessarily seem to have a lot of, er, depth.

… I have a rather faithful ox called Amusa. (3.52)

When the girls in the market are making fun of Amusa, they imply that the British think of him simply as an ox rather than a person—which is probably accurate, given their attitude about the "natives" in general.

Not so fast Olunde. You have learnt to argue I can tell that, but I never said you made sense. 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! (4.103)

Like her husband, Jane Pilkings doesn't make any real effort to understand the Yoruban customs that call for the death of the king's horseman, and instead simply writes the whole thing off as primitive or "barbaric."

Others would call it decadence. However, it doesn't really interest me. You white races know how to survive; I've seen proof of that. By all logical and natural laws this war should end with all the white races wiping out one another, wiping out their so-called civilisation for all time and reverting to a state of primitivism the like of which has so far only existed in your imagination when you thought of us. (4.106)

In his conversation with Jane Pilkings, Olunde kind of turns the tables on her and suggests that perhaps the British aren't so far from being "primitive" or barbaric themselves. In his view, World War II has brought the civilization of the "white races" close to the same kind of barbarism that these same "white races" have perceived in others.

How can you be so callous! So unfeeling! You announce your father's own death like a surgeon looking down on some strange… stranger's body! You're just a savage like all the rest. (4.127)

When Olunde fails to show any outward emotion when he believes his father has died, Jane is just totally unable to understand his reaction and decides that he is "just a savage." In her view, there's no other reason you could have this attitude about death.

Well he'd better learn to answer civil questions when he's asked them. These natives put a suit on and they get high opinions of themselves. (4.137)

When the aide-de-camp realizes that Olunde has upset Jane (but before finding out why), he rushes in and lashes out at Olunde with a racial epithet. Jane tries to get him to calm down, but as you can see, he thinks he's completely justified in punishing Olunde for potentially getting a "high opinion" of himself.

I wish to ask you to search the quiet of your heart and tell me—do you not find great contradictions in the wisdom of your own race? (5.37)

Jane is still trying to get Olunde to see contradictions or problems in his own traditions. Mind you, she hasn't admitted any in her own, which kind of implies that she's still thinking of Yoruban traditions as not simply different from her own, but actually lesser and, at the very least, flawed.

What is she saying now? Christ! Must your people forever speak in riddles? (5.106)

When Iyaloja comes to the prison to talk to Elesin, Simon hears the conversation and finds a lot of what Iyaloja has to say pretty incomprehensible. Naturally, rather than trying to understand, he simply writes them off as riddles—you know, since he doesn't really give Yoruban logic, spiritualism, or perspectives much weight.