Throughout the canon of world literature, it must be distinguished between the prose written in a particular culture and that which is placed in a foreign locale but is distinctly domestic. The story of Sundiata takes place in and around the Kingdom of Mali, and contains a legend which reflects that world and its distinct culture and history. “The Last Samurai," on the contrary, is an American story that uses the images and flavor of nineteenth-century Japan as a vehicle to tell the tragic story of an American hero, thus offering a strange combination of myth and historical reality. The juxtaposition of these two narratives speaks to the needs of the intended audiences, rather than truly revealing any incites into their heroes’ characters. For while one is born from the power of faith in omens, the other is that: the namesake character of “The Last Samurai" is the other, a hero who can never be the king.
Within these examples of forms of world literature, there are many common themes and elements. For instance, in both of these narratives, the stranger is a common motif. In both stories, this stranger can appear under different guises, but no matter how he appears, his wisdom is clear and his motivations pure. An interesting comparison can be made between the mythical King Mahan of Mali and Emperor Meiji of Japan. Each of these figures ruled great lands, with subject peoples that included both those loyal and those who threatened the order of the day in hope of their own ascendance to power. In each case, despite their own experience and knowledge, nothing was more intoxicating than the possibilities arriving in the form of the stranger. Of course, there are divergences in their tales, as the former believed that the incarnation of the stranger would be delivered by the future wife whom he was to meet at the behest of fate’s messenger, while the latter arrived in the person of a magical chameleon—the mystical foreigner who became Japanese. Still, in both cases, the proof of the king’s wisdom was in his unquestioning acceptance.
Why then are there different stories? For while the parallels remain true, the strangers are different men. Mali’s stranger is a Christ-like figure, born under a magical star, rejected by many, his fate was to go into exile. There, as many tales have described, the solitude of the metaphorical desert prepares a boy to become a man and a leader. Similarly, the metaphorical and in the case of young Sundiata, real handicaps are vehicles in which he learns to draw on his strengths and grows into a great man.
Algren, the namesake figure of The Last Samurai, travels on perhaps a longer road than Sundiata, though the deposed crown prince could argue that in fact, the pain of being deposed from so great a height is greater than that of another whose struggle is only with his own inner demons. This, however, is a debate that has no true answer, as no one can truly measure their pain against another, since each person’s capacity to absorb is so different. Algren’s story is a bit more complex, as he finds himself not once but twice acting as the wise consul to men who are in positions of power. His tale is also more colorful as his capacity to “become" a member of the society in which he was imprisoned, Here, the Biblical allusion to the story of Joseph is applicable, as that ancient figure was jailed by the Egyptians only to become a regent and prince of that kingdom as his wisdom was recognized. Ironically, Algren counsels the Emperor against trusting his compatriots at the tale’s conclusion, while Joseph created a harmonious relationship with the Pharaoh and his own father and brothers, as he assisted them in migrating to Egypt.
The difference in stories can possibly be attributed to the words which one man heard but another did not. For it was only Sundiata that was counseled with the loving words of his mother and the wise advice of a dear friend that led him to find his way to the place he truly belonged. He also was taught that his victory could be achieved with the benign act of wounding his nemesis, thus allowing him to succeed without any notion of blood on his hands. Algren was truly a man alone. Unlike Sundiata, a stranger who knew he was a king, Algren knew that whatever throne might have been his own, could never allow him to occupy it as his own past permanently tarnished his white armor. Even his final moments before the climax of his story were blackened by the ritual suicide of the secondary leader in which he counseled. As if this were not enough pain for him to bear, he would then see his former employer-come-nemesis also die at the point of the same sword which sliced the flesh of the aforementioned man.
Perhaps the expectation of a fairy tale is a happy ending. For stories that begin with preambles like “Once upon a time" are supposed to end with the words “and they lived happily ever after," so the cliché goes. Ironically, Sundiata’s happy ending is his assumption of his rightful crown and the adulation of his subjects, while Algren’s life is finding a home with the woman he loves. At the same time, the new King of Mali is continuing a life that is without the angst and internal struggles of the expatriate American. This perhaps is the opportunity for each culture to define what happiness is. For like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet," whose tragic ending has delighted English audiences for centuries, the same is not true universally. Sundiata’s story offers a storyline whose conclusion may seem obvious, but that does not lessen its appeal to a particular culture in which the greatest ending is the success of the rightful heir. So too, The Last Samurai’s more twisted plot and bittersweet ending is perhaps appropriate for its intended audience. Certainly it would not have the intended effect on people living in Japan, but again the issue of how a stranger is viewed and what could make that person a hero is a concept as different from place to place as their language or religion or culture.
Fairy tales and legends often seem similar. A king, a hero, a villain, but there the similarities end. Not everyone will applaud the death of a villain, just as not every stranger needs to become a king in order to make a great tale. These tales are similar on some levels, but just as the sonnets of Shakespeare and the haikus of Japan are great poetic works, their many differences can fill volumes too.