African Oral And Literary Epic English Literature Essay

2193 words (9 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this


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Ngugi wa Thiongos Matigari is a modern African epic that castigates Western imperialism for its hypocrisy and its gross exploitation of the proletariat, working class. The quest for truth and justice serves as the guiding force that motivates the actions of the novel’s heroic protagonist – a protagonist that Ngugi embellishes with stylistic elements that simultaneously enhance the larger-than-life status of the character and serve to provide the framework for the novel’s epic compositional structure. Characteristics of traditional oral storytelling, intentional proposals of environmental ambiguity, repetition of central rhetorical questions, noun-epithet phrases, emphasis on augmented or supernatural abilities, and biblical allusions are all frequently used to convey Matigari’s central themes of truth, justice, and an ongoing socio-economic power struggle in ways that feel both philosophical and satirical at times, while altogether consistently traditional and legendary in form.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o begins Matigari with a set of prefatory notes that should immediately provide insight into the emphasis Ngugi places on the importance of oral tradition. In Ngugi’s essay Decolonizing the Mind he writes, “I would like to see Kenya peoples’ mother-tongues (our national languages!) carry a literature reflecting the rhythms of a child’s spoken expression,” (Ngugi, 28) to convey his belief that oral tradition (and, by extension, writing in one’s native language) is fundamental to the preservation of local culture. As such, it should come as no surprise to find Ngugi’s prefatory notes addressed “to the reader/listener”. The structure of an oral epic narrative is further evidenced by Ngugi’s adherence to traditional, formulaic opening rituals:

“So say yes, and I’ll tell you a story!

Once upon a time, in a country with no name…. “

These prefatory notes not only establish an oral, presentational tone – their purpose also serves to introduce the novel’s setting and other introductory information. Perhaps most peculiar about this introduction is Ngugi’s firmness on proposing geographical ambiguity. While character names and landscape/floral descriptions throughout the novel strongly indicate a Kenyan setting, Ngugi insists on the story having “no fixed time or space”. This mythologization of historical events – the intentional hyperbolic or fantastic representation of real-world settings – contributes greatly to the stylistic structure and epic composition of the novel. By alluding to real-world locations while simultaneously insisting upon the setting’s undefined nature, Ngugi allows his protagonist the dual capacity to act as both a national hero and as an international warrior for justice on behalf of the lower class.

Matigari’s narrative is divided into three parts, mimicking the introduction–rising action–conclusion trinity common to traditional folklore structure. Though each individual part exhibits unique aspects in tone and compositional structure, Ngugi curiously ends each section with the same question (only slightly reworded each time). Part one ends thus: “Still the question remained: Who was Matigari ma Njiruungi?” (Ngugi, 54). Part two similarly ends with: “But who was Matigari ma Njiruungi?” (Ngugi, 107). And Part three concludes with: “Who was Matigari ma Njiruungi? Was he dead, or was he alive?” (Ngugi, 148). Thus, I believe Ngugi reveals the narrative’s central thematic question: Who is Matigari? All of the novel’s characters (both major and minor) have vastly differing ideas of who the protagonist is, what he stands for, what he looks like, what his abilities are, and whether or not he is even real:

“They all shared the same hope: that a miracle should take place. But at the same time all wondered: who really was Matigari ma Njiruungi? A patriot? Angel Gabriel? Jesus Christ? Was he a human being or a spirit? A true or false prophet? A saviour or simply a lunatic? Was Matigari a man or was he a woman? A child or an adult? Or was he only an idea, an image, in people’s minds? Who Was He?” (Ngugi,134).

Matigari, the titular protagonist, is a legend; he is the epic hero with a thousand faces. His physical and moral traits, his curious relationship with both the natural and the supernatural, his deity-like demeanor, his championing for the oppressed lower-class, and the reciprocal nature of his interactions with people define his god-like, heroic character as simultaneously one of epic proportions and one of modest relatability.

First I shall speak of Matigari’s exemplary qualities – beginning with his very name. We are told his full name, Matigari ma Njiruungi, translates to “the patriots who survived the bullets” (Ngugi, 17) which references the patriots who survived the liberation war, and their political offspring. From namesake alone, we are already introduced to the heroic qualities of the protagonist. Upon further analysis of namesakes, we quickly identify one of Ngugi’s most widely-used stylistic elements to achieve formulaic, epic structure: the noun-epithet phrase. “Settler Williams,” “Minister for Truth and Justice,” “His Excellency Ole Excellency,” “Giceru the informer” or the “Hooded Truth,” “Madam the Minister’s Wife,” “He-who-reaps-where-he-never-sowed,” and others join the likes of “Matigari ma Njiruungi” as individuals with epithetical names to effectively dramatize character traits in an almost satirical manner that reflects the narrative’s larger-than-life form.

Matigari’s physical characteristics likewise seem to mystify those whom he interacts with. His face often appears to morph back and forth between youth and old age – often within a matter of seconds. “Age crept back on his face; the wrinkles seemed to have increased and deepened. How everything had changed. What was this world coming to?” (Ngugi, 25) contrasts sharply with “The courage of truth had once again transformed him. It seemed to have wiped age off his face, making him look extremely youthful” (Ngugi, 26). Matigari’s physical size is also mysteriously inconsistent. At one point in the narrative, he is rumored to be “a tiny, ordinary-looking man” (Ngugi, 63), at another, he is presented as “a tall, well-built, elderly man” (Ngugi, 93), and moreover it is at other times reported that “The man is a giant” (135). These fluctuating, inconsistent physical characteristics portray Matigari as a kind of universal, ubiquitous figure. Much like an ethereal, omnipresent god, Matigari is able to interact with all kinds of people from “all four corners of the earth.”

Not uncommon to many of the great literary epics of history is the idea that the hero must venture through – or conquer – that which is inaccessible to mere mortals. In the Greek “Odyssey”, Circe the enchantress informs Odysseus that he must travel to the underworld in pursuit of answers to elusive questions. In the Nordic “Beowulf”, Beowulf is tasked to bring an end to the hellish monstrosity known as “Grendel” while only using his bare hands – a task no mere mortal could possibly achieve. Similarly, Ngugi paints his protagonist with super-human, almost-god-like abilities: Matigari’s voice, for example, mimics the sound of thunder (Ngugi, 80, 124); his snoring is “like the roar of a lion in the wilderness” (Ngugi, 137); his look penetrates deep into one’s soul (Ngugi, 123); he has the ability to communicate with animals (Ngugi, 143); he has a superhuman capacity to sustain and defy both hunger and fatigue (Ngugi, 12); he fears no man but rather strikes fear into others (Ngugi, 31, 114-15). Such traits and abilities are bestowed upon only those of unordinary greatness – thus we view Matigari as a kind of demigod at the very least. Ngugi’s use of hyperbole in this case serves to dramatize the hero’s character into epic form and function. Matigari often finds himself in circumstances of such fortunate coincidence that his very luck is often attributed to a similar “favor of the Gods” that ancient epic heroes such as Achilles, Hercules, and Hermes were blessed with. In these cases, the Gods – or the supernatural powers-that-be – aided their favored heroes by supplying them with special tools or gifts… and, on occasion, by physically bending the natural world to suit their hero’s needs. Matigari is no different. The stones that are hurled at him by children, for instance, are, at least initially, miraculously deflected (Ngugi, 14) and he “seemed to be protected by some magic power, for the bullets did not hit him…. It was as if on reaching him they turned into water” (Ngugi, 146). Not only are these unexplainable charms products of the supernatural, so too are the natural elements of fire and water that spontaneously occur without logical explanation just when the hero needs them the most. The source of the climactic, explosive fire at Boy’s house and the cause of the immediate torrential deluge at the novel’s conclusion are never fully explained. We, the readers/listeners, are left to simply marvel at their all-too-timely arrival which saves both the quest and the life of the epic hero.

When speaking of the fable-like, supernatural undertones of Ngugi’s novel, it would almost be criminal not to mention the biblical allusions – which range anywhere from ‘prominently featured’ to ‘repeatedly-in-your-face’ in their subtlety – Ngugi makes use of in the narrative to characterize his protagonist. Though Matigari does in fact differ with Christ in a number of ways (notably Matigari’s vengeful convictions and his acceptance for the use of arms to achieve desired outcomes), he is largely depicted as the Jesus-like figure the public and the government come to simultaneously fear and admire. “Our people, let us share this bean, and this drop of wine” (Ngugi, 46) is a clear allusion to Jesus’ Last Supper. Each of the prisoners (all of whom are described in the noun-epithetical phrases Ngugi is so fond of) parallels one of Jesus’ disciples. Additionally, Matigari’s choices to save Muriuki and Guthera (a character who mirrors that of the biblical Mary Magdalene in profession and in eventual salvation) in the first third of the narrative serve as examples of Matigari’s performed miracles. These characters reciprocate their fortune by saving Matigari as some point later on. Matigari’s release from prison by Guthera and his later release from the mental hospital by Muriuki shed light onto an emerging theme of reciprocity. Ngugi seems to suggest that only through unity, conviction, and altruistic sacrifice can the exploited lower class prevail over the ruling elite.

Though Matigari swims in a sea of grandiose characterization, Ngugi is careful not to lose the relatable human side of the character. While Matigari ma Njiruungi is a character of embellished heroism, he is also a champion of the working class who relates to the common man. As a figurative embodiment of the worker, Matigari often represents himself as a farmer, factory hand, driver, tailor, soldier, patriot, and builder (Ngugi, 21-22, 38, 60, 74, 143). Ngugi’s use of two particular recurring motifs – the quest for truth and justice, and wearing the “belt of peace” – serve to portray Matigari as a chivalrous, peaceful champion for a noble, relatable cause. Thus, Matigari is distanced from the likes of Achilles and Odysseus – forgoing braggadocio for empathetic humility.

It is through all of these aforementioned stylistic techniques – the modeling of traditional oral storytelling, intentional proposals of environmental ambiguity, repetition of central rhetorical questions, noun-epithet phrases, emphasis on augmented or supernatural abilities, and biblical allusions – that Ngugi successfully crafts a narrative that transcends the status of a mere published ‘story’ in favor of emulating an original, modern African epic in both form and function. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s deliberate depiction of Matigari as both a larger-than-life, god-like hero and a relatable common man on a chivalrous quest for truth and justice earn the titular character both the titles of national hero and international social champion that, when passed on from generation to generation through literary and oral tradition, transcend the epic test of time.


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