Hundreds of years ago in the western Sudanese kingdom of Joliba, caretakers of local history were "djelis": bards who preserved and sang their people's stories. Today, in Bethesda, a novelist and folklorist named Harold Courlander writes that he "became the djeli of Numukeba of Naradugu," the ancient folk-hero Courlander has created in his latest novel, "The Master of the Forge."
"The Master of the Forge" is a prose epic that follows the blacksmith Numukeba on his 11-year journey from his village in search of honor and truth. His purpose? "I do not know what I am looking for, only that I am living out my story," says Numukeba, placing himself in a long line of heroes questing spiritually, as well as physically.
Like England's Lancelot and Mali's Sundiata before him, Numukeba's venture becomes an adventure, all in the name of honor and the faith that his "story" will guide him. He has cinematic encounters with evil, slays foes, does good deeds, and most importantly, augments the faith that sent him out in the first place.
Numukeba is a sober, straightfaced hero. His philosophy is strongly delineated and appealing. Though Courlander lets him sound like a fortune cookie at times, he also quietly points to the larger lessons embedded in daily activities. Joliba is a world where ritual and community are profoundly respected. This strong sense of alliance and kinship makes Numukeba's self-imposed odyssey all the more poignant.
Indeed, in ancient Joliba what goes around, comes around. A character is a slave one minute and a noble the next. At one point, Numukeba is changed into a dog by the wizard Etchuba. Courlander subtly and successfully challenges conventional social hierarchy through these transformations. Unfortunately, he does not extend the challenge to the world of women, who are scarcely mentioned and exist only to procreate, to heal and to gab by the river.
Courlander has some lovely passages illustrating his hero's reverence for the natural world, such as this monologue to a wise old rhinoceros:
" 'Have you discovered honor in this wilderness? If so, tell me what it looks like. If it is invisible, where do you hide it? Does it live in your heart? And when you die and the vultures claim your heart, where will your honor be then?' As Numukeba went on talking, the rhinoceros dropped to his foreknees and then lay on the earth, watching and listening."
Creating a world in which one has never lived is no easy task. "The Master of the Forge" is filled with details, but at times they are cliche's, evocative of "Africa" through stock words and a clipped, formal diction, as in this opening paragraph:
"Numukeba, the blacksmith, forged at his forge, completing the last iron link for his vest of chain mail. He heated it to a white glow and tempered it in millet water. When it was done he fastened it in place and hung the vest over his shoulders testing its fit. His slave said to him, 'Master, the armor becomes you.' Numukeba answered, 'Iron does not turn away weapons because it "becomes" but because it contains the life force of the sun.' And the slave answered, 'Yes, Master, it is so.' "
Because the epic form is so familiar, the language between setting out and coming home must truly sparkle to distinguish the work. Courlander's does not. But it is steady and functional; while not lyrical, it trots along at an even gait. It can move large spaces of time with a few gracefully tossed sentences. With the affecting line "I am Numukeba. I am here," Courlander places his hero in a great tradition of literary cries of "I am," of finding the central self through adversity.
Courlander is recapturing an oral form, storytelling, through a written form: the book. This is an inherently ironic task; in Joliba, people "explored the world with talking." On one level "The Master of the Forge" is a story about stories, and the retelling of stories, and how they translate culturally.
Men no longer venture forth on horseback in search of truth. But they do wrestle with their own faith. This is neither a bona fide African epic nor a purely historical work. It is a gentle, quiet tale about a man "who understands the mysteries of iron" and his quest to understand his own fate.