Forest of a Thousand Daemons was written in 1938 in response to a literary contest sponsored by the Nigerian ministry of education. It is considered the first novel to be written in Yoruba and one of the first to be written in any of Africa's indigenous languages.
The book begins with a simple frame story. One beautiful morning, the narrator says, he was seated in his favorite chair, “settled into it with voluptuous contentment, enjoying my very existence,” when an old man came up to greet him, sighed, and told him to take down the story he was about to tell.
The old man explains that he was once a mighty hunter known as Akara-ogun or Compound-of-Spells. Over the next 140 pages or so, he describes his adventures in the forest and his clashes with a variety of supernatural beings.
The literal meaning of the book's title is “The Brave Hunter in the Forest of 400 Deities,” but the translator — none other than Wole Soyinka — explains that “four hundred” has a similar meaning in Yoruba to what we mean by “a thousand,” and that daemon is “closer in essence” to the Yoruba imale than gods, deities, or demons.
Much like Nabokov translating Eugene Onegin, Soyinka deploys obscure English words to convey shades of meaning and sort out the many types of creature in this tale. After an unsettling encounter with a warrior named Agbako, whose sixteen eyes are “arranged around the base of his head,” the hero is greeted by a beautiful woman who spells things out for him:
‘Akara-ogun, you are aware that even as dewilds exist on this earth, so do spirits exist also; even as spirits exist so also do kobolds; as kobolds on this earth, so are gnoms; as gnoms so also exist the dead. These ghommids and trolls together make up the entire thousand and one daemons who exist upon earth. I am one of them, and Helpmeet is my name…’
Like the better-known novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola, Forest of a Thousand Daemons is based in Yoruba folk tales, but although it came earlier than Tutuola’s book (which was written in English), it is less grotesque and more “traditional” in tone. One reason is that it is told not in the odd but powerful “broken English” of Tutuola but in the sophisticated, sometimes antique language of its translator.
The hunter’s meeting with Helpmeet suggests Pilgrim’s Progress, and the impression is reinforced a page later when he arrives at a city called Filth, “a place of suffering and contempt, a city of greed and contumely, a city of envy and of thievery…”
Elsewhere we seem to be in the world of Paradise Lost, since Christian and Yoruba myths coexist in the tale. On page 63, a ghommid with two heads and two horns tells the hunter, “I was one of the original angels who were much beloved of God, but I rejected the laws of God and His ways and engineered chaos in heaven. God saw that I was intractable, and that my genius was an evil one. He handed me to Satan to inflict agonies on me for seven years, and even so did it come about that I lived in Hell for seven clear years.”
Forest of a Thousand Daemons is said to have been a strong influence on The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Some of its grotesque creatures may also have helped inspire those in Ben Okri’s story collection Stars of the New Curfew. And on page 11 a smoke monster boils up from the ground that is startlingly similar to the one in the TV series Lost.
The language of Forest of a Thousand Daemons is sometimes odd or awkward, and Soyinka seems to have preserved its flavor. Recounting the third day of his journey, the hunter says, “I ate, filled up properly so that my belly protuberated most roundly.”
Yet peculiar as it sometimes is, the book has life, and helps bridge the gap between oral tradition and the modern literature of Nigeria — one of the most fertile on the continent.