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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Tutuola’s Fiction: Witch-Herbalists and Yoruba Gods

~ Review, Amos Tutuola The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town

She had various kinds of voices such as a huge voice, a light voice, a sharp voice, the voice of a baby, the voice of a girl, the voice of an old woman, the voice of a young man, the voice of an old man, the voice of a stammerer, the voice of boldness, the voice of boom, the voice of a weeping person, the voice which was amusing and which was annoying, the voice like that of a ringing bell, the voice of various kinds of birds and beasts. And she spoke and understood all kinds of languages of humans, beasts, birds, evil spirits, immortal beings, etc.

Repetitions of words and phrases, sweeping summaries of events, a fondness for sparse matter-of-fact descriptions of people, creatures and places, the heavy use of etceteras, and names that are often literal renderings of what is being encountered (Devil Worshiper, King, and so on) combine to lend Amos Tutuola’s The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town a distinctly fairytale quality—complementing its fairytale title. Tutuola was promoted internationally in his day by T. S. Eliot and his Yoruba folk-tale inspired writing (which was composed between the 50s and 90s, with this book being composed in 1981), is marked by fantastical encounters, wandering heroes and great tests of endurance. The strangeness of this book is difficult to relate; it felt most like the Welsh Mabinogi of anything else that I have encountered—with its odd, allegorical but difficult to grasp encounters, and fast paced, highly unpredictable story.

The hero—a brave hunter—still early in his quest, is described as walking alone for a long while: ’Having continued my journey on this path for about one hundred and twenty twinklings, without either meeting or seeing any kind of living creature on the path,’ he says, ‘I stopped by a small rock which was near the path.’ We can see many of the key elements of the first-person prose here, which has a mesmeric quality from this outset to the finale: ‘after I had experienced much hardship, punishment, etc. in the wild jungles, etc. at last I reached the town of the Witch Herbalist.’ There is a sense of plodding determination; nothing in the novel exists outside of the single-minded purpose of its point-of-view character.

That style is reinforced by some more familiar coming-of-age adventure conventions, which build towards the hero’s desire to become a respected father, ‘I was going to the Witch-Herbalist who was going to help me make my barren wife pregnant.’ The hunter begins with him all the natural abilities and tools of a warrior: ‘When my father saw that I was stronger and braver than any of my playmates, and also saw that I was bold and stout, he bought one bow and a large quantity of arrows for me.’ On his journey he supplements such items with increasingly odd acquisitions, such as two removable heads of a wild creature, ‘I held the “removable head” with my left hand and my heavy matchet with my right hand.’

What he lacks, however, is some elusive self-mastery; his wife’s family is even initially afraid of him on that account. So it is clear early on that the ostensive purpose of this quest is a mere conceit, and its deeper meaning is to prove the hunter’s more general and spiritual worth. The adversaries the reader then encounters along the way are all intended to test different potential vices of his character—from his cowardice to his hubris to his laziness and so on. It is the externalisation of an essentially inner journey. The externalisation of interiority is more generally important to the book, however, as the different parts of the hunter’s own personality are more literally rendered external ‘characters’ in the novel:

Although I had two “minds” in me, the first one which was in the left was not so reliable sometimes. It misled me to do wrong things, but its advice was useful sometimes. But the second one which was in the right was very reliable. It spoke the truth always. Whenever both of them deserted me I was in dangers, my “memory” never deserted me and it did not fail to forget to record the offences which the other two “minds” committed.

Along the course of the book, one or other of his ‘minds’ fail in their own ways (through error or tardiness, respectively), and the hunter’s memory takes note on each such occurrence. ‘So as my first “mind” and second “mind” could not tell me what to do,’ the hunter will observe, and ‘I began to think of another way to remove the sadness and depression from my “memory”.’ This culminates in the final chapter, when the three internal parts of the hunter are literally personified, and Mr Memory sues the two minds before the judge, the hunter’s kidney, asking that they be put to death, with the hunter’s alter-ego, his Supreme Second, stepping in as a defence lawyer (this is the second such judicial drama in the book). This results in the hunter coming, at last, to some profound self-understanding about the obscured duality of man.

The central driving conflict of the novel, nonetheless, is with the wild people of the jungle. A different type of duality is suggested here, one between a wild matriarchy and a settled-patriarchy. The former is variously described in the language of the grotesque and facial, while the latter is rendered as the norm by implication: ‘They were really offensive wild people indeed, because parts of their bodies such as arms, legs, thighs, heads, eyes, noses, etc. were very badly stigmatised by their creator.’ Many of the strange creatures that are met and fought belong to the wild people—when they are not described in more infernal terms.

However, as dangerous and horrific as they are, the wild people are also notably alluring to the hunter, a source of intense fascination and even desire, which can make him temporarily forget his mission: ’Its water was making several kinds of lovely noises which were just lovely music of the wild people of the wild jungles.’ At the climax of this conflict, the hunter—as mentioned above—faces a wild court (a sort of inversion of the rituals of the settled people), ‘So the wild Long-Breasted Mother was the judge and the Old Father of the Mountain was the chairman of this court.’ As always, the hunter ably fights his way out of the situation, although not before being held guilty—a verdict that is not really repudiated.

The primary and sought-after encounter, however, is with a matriarch another kind of matriarch, the Witch-Herbalist, the many-voiced woman in the epigraph of this review who is evidently a kind of feminine god-like entity (one of a multitude of gods met or referenced in the novel, but evidently by far the most powerful):

This Witch-Herbalist was also called the Omnipotent, Omnipresent and Omniscient Mother by her people and by her grandchildren[…] She was so old that she had already become a deathless old woman as well as or like her chiefs. She was very beautiful and her body was still as strong and fresh as that of a young woman. Although short white hair was on her chin and all over both cheeks, the strange crown which was on her head made it difficult for me to see whether there was black or white hair on the forehead.

Having arrived, the hunter then joins other supplicants to the Witch-Herbalist, ‘all the burdensome people who were more than three thousand’, to make his request. And it here becomes clear that there is a strong Christian, almost Old Testament subtext to the still largely pagan story, as the Witch-Herbalist sees herself as an agent of the Abrahamic God:

There is no need to mock his father and gods, idols, spirits, etc. of his town who had failed to make his wife pregnant, because, without the approval of God Almighty, people will fail in all attempts!

The hunter at last returns home with a soup to make his wife pregnant, but along the way, finding himself famished, he ‘ate from the soup to my entire satisfaction.’ This results in not only his wife conceiving, but the hunter too, ‘I as her husband conceived as well.’ And this, in turn, means his village decides to sacrifice him and his wife to their ‘god of state’, sending them out on a canoe to be taken into the river. There, they have a chance meeting with a god and goddess, who treats the hunter and his wife kindly, and in exchange for the removable heads he acquired before, elects to put a stop to the village’s sacrifices, returning the hunter alongside all previous sacrifices.

Tutuola’s The Witch-Herbalist of the Remote Town is a consistently enjoyable piece. It is impossible for me to disentangle where all the different elements of the novel derive—what portions of Tutuola’s own, what portions are Christian allegory, what portions are taken from Yoruba folk-tales—but in this very electricism it renders a singular and fantastical mythos.

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