The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town

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The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town

by Amos Tutuola


A novel set in Nigeria in the timeless folkloric past; published in English in 1952.


Drinkard, the protaganist and narrator of the novel, goes in search of his deceased palm-wine tapster in Deads’ Town. On the way he meets with a series of adventures, in the process gaining a wife and wisdom.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in 1929 in western Nigeria, Amos Tutuola achieved only a sixth-grade education due to financial constraints following his father’s death. He later tried his hand at farming, without success, then pursued the blacksmith trade. He served as a coppersmith in the West African Air Corps of the British military in World War II. After the war Tutuola had to take a job as a messenger, and it gave him time, between errands, to write down stories he had heard. His first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town, became the subject of much controversy because of its frequently ungrammatical, though stylish and vivid, writing. A landmark work, it was the first novel to be published by a Nigerian author, and also the first novel by a black African to be written in English. The work is classified as a novel, but there has been some debate about whether this designation is accurate, since The Palm-Wine Drinkard incorporates so much oral tradition. Indeed, this novel has provided many with their first glimpse into Yoruba folklore. The Palm-Wine Drinkard draws heavily on traditional folktales, which has been another source of controversy, prompting some to claim that the work plagiarizes the intellectual property of the Yoruba people. In fact, Tutuola, who was Yoruba himself, acknowledged his debt, in particular to an old man who told him tales on Sundays over tumblers of palm wine. Although The Palm-Wine Drinkard brought him international acclaim, Tutuola afterward remained a literary outsider, preferring to spend his time with blacksmiths and other working-class men rather than with writers and intellectuals. He continued his literary career, completing five more novels before his death in 1997, but none of them received the international notoriety gained by his first published work.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

An unspecified era

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, like the folktales on which it is based, takes place in mythic time, in an indefinite past when, according to the novel’s protagonist (nameless in the novel but herein referred to as “Drinkard”), the people “did not know other money except COWRIES”—the currency of traditional precolonial Yoruba society (Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 7). Aspects of colonialism creep in, however—for example, Drinkard sells his death for the sum of “£70: 18: 6d” in British pounds sterling—but for the most part the novel is literally timeless (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 67). This entry therefore focuses on the elements of traditional Yoruba culture that have persisted through time, as well as on the history of change in Yorubaland that led to the writing of The Palm-Wine Drinkard in the English language.

The Yoruba people

In Yoruba lore, the god Obatala descended on a golden chain from the heavens—ruled by Olodumare, the supreme deity—to an earth that was covered with water. Obatala scattered grains of sand on the water that formed solid earth, and he named this first place Ife, which became the original Yoruba city. In the new ground he planted a palm nut that brought forth palm trees, the first vegetation. Orunmila then formed human beings out of clay. While working, he drank palm wine—an alcoholic beverage fermented from the sap of palm trees—so a few of these beings came out misshapen, with crooked backs, crippled limbs, and other deformities. The new humans were the Yoruba people, and Ife became their cultural center.

The Yoruba homeland, or Yorubaland, spread from Ife, also known as Ile-Ife (literally, “the household that spread”), to cover an area about the size of England lying in the southwestern portion of modern Nigeria and the neighboring state of Benin. Yorubaland extends from the Atlantic coast, where navigable rivers crisscross swamps and marshy forests, to more temperate forests of the inland regions that gradually give way to savanna grasslands speckled with trees. It is not clear whether the various subgroups living in this region and identified as “Yoruba” are ethnically related, but they are certainly related culturally and linguistically, and all regard Ife as their place of origin.

The Yoruba have always been an urban people. In the precolonial era, they lived in well-ordered towns and cities separated by expanses of wild countryside referred to as “bush.” Despite this urbanity, agriculture was the main occupation of the Yoruba, who would commute from their homes within a town to surrounding farms via roads that extended outward from the center of each Yoruba town. These roads stretched past the farms, into the bush, until they merged with roads leading into the centers of other towns. In the middle of a town, where all the roads converged, sat the palace of the ruler, or oba. Each of the towns was ruled by an oba, who might owe allegiance to the oba of a mightier town or command the allegiance of subordinate obas. All obas ultimately deferred to the Oni of Ife, who was considered the paramount oba.

Yoruba belief

Olodumare, the supreme Yoruba deity, is served by many lesser deities known collectively and singularly as orisa. The orisa are numerous; estimations of their number range from 400 to 1,700. Some orisa, like Faithful-Mother in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are connected to specific sites—certain rivers, trees, or hills—and are worshipped only by the inhabitants of a single town. Others are more widely worshipped, like Ogun, the orisa of iron and war, or Sango, the orisa of thunder and rain. The orisa both punish and reward human beings and are amenable to sacrifice. Like the gods of Greece and Rome, the orisa are flawed and sometimes fail, the way the drunken crafter of some of the Yoruba people did, to perform their duty. It is up to the Yoruba, therefore, to persuade the orisa through sacrifice to do what is best for human beings.

The Yoruba universe is divided into two major realms: Orun (heaven), and Aiye (earth). Olodumare and the orisa reside in Orun, which is also home to the ancestors—the spirits of the Yoruba dead—while Aiye is the world of living human beings. The ancestors are actively concerned with the welfare and behavior of their descendants, whom they may protect or punish, and from whom they require sacrifice in order to be admitted into the realm of Orun. The divination system called Ifa allows communication through priests between the living and the ancestors, and also between the living and the orisa. The ancestors and the orisa proffer their advice and predict future events through their influence on the throwing of palm nuts by an Ifa priest; the patterns into which the palm nuts fall are related to certain prophetic verses that the Ifa priest will recite. Yoruba consult Ifa regularly once each year and on any important occasion, such as birth, death, illness, marriage, or the undertaking of a business venture. Thus the relationship between Orun and Aiye—between gods and mortals, and between the living and the dead—is very important in the Yoruba worldview.

The responsibility for maintaining balance and harmony between heaven and earth belongs to living Yoruba who, through sacrifice, both appease the inhabitants of Orun and replenish their power. The two domains engage in a constant exchange of energy as the living Yoruba of Aiye offer sacrifices to Orun and receive in return all the good things in life via the ancestors and the orisa.

Human beings travel back and forth between Orun and Aiye through reincarnation. Ancestors are believed to reincarnate through their descendants, and the names Babatunde (“father returns”) and Yetunde (“mother returns”) are frequently given to children whose grandparents are deceased. The only way for a spirit to reincarnate is through its own progeny; thus the bearing and raising of children is extremely important to the Yoruba, and one is not considered a full-fledged adult in Yoruba society until one has married and become a parent. Because of their belief in reincarnation and the exalted status of ancestors, the Yoruba celebrate the deaths of old people, for through death the individual moves on to the next stage of existence. Sudden deaths of young people, however, are considered tragedies, especially if the deceased did not have a chance to marry and procreate before he or she died.

In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the protagonist has frequent recourse to magic or what the author describes as juju The Yoruba concept that comes closest to magic is oògùn, which refers to medicines, poisons, love potions, truth serums, invisibility charms, and the like. The Yoruba word egbōgi is considered a synonym for oògùn, and means literally “root of trees,” indicating the primarily botanical nature of the powerful substances both words describe, though oògùn or egbōgi can also be composed of animal or mineral elements. Sometimes oògùn is accompanied by a spell that must be recited by the user, and sometimes oògùn is effective on its own; in either case, the operation of oògùn is automatic—no special skill or concentration is required on the part of the user. The use of oògùn is moreover not restricted to any special class of individuals; anyone may use oògùn, and most Yoruba have knowledge of at least a few oògùn. Yoruba men, like the narrator of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, typically have knowledge of some oògùn of the occult variety.

Historical overview

In the fourteenth century c.e., the Yoruba city-state of Oyo rose to power and extended its authority over much of Yorubaland, uniting what had been several independent kingdoms into an empire with a common language. In the late eighteenth century, the powerful kingdom of Oyo began to decline. Subject kingdoms revolted against Oyo domination, and in 1837 the city of Oyo fell to Fulani invaders from the north. A series of wars fought between the various Yoruba city-states followed hard upon the dissolution of centralized power at Oyo.

The victors in these conflicts sold captured prisoners of war to European merchants who were by this time conducting a profitable trade in African slaves. Yoruba captives filled the cargo holds of slave ships headed across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, carrying Yoruba culture to such far-flung places as Cuba and Brazil. Combined with the internecine warfare, the sale of the defeated into slavery decimated the Yoruba population, and this decline set the stage for the ascendancy of the British in Yorubaland.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Yorubaland became the focus of British interest. At this time British missionaries arrived to convert the Yoruba to Christianity, and British merchants noticed that Yorubaland was rich in trees yielding palm oil, an important product for European industry. In 1851 the British military conquered the city of Lagos with the twin goals of dominating the palm-oil trade in the area and putting an end to the slave trade. In 1861 Lagos and the surrounding area were officially designated a colony of the British Crown. Some of the Yoruba kingdoms offered their submission to the British in hopes of ending the long years of internecine warfare and the depredations of slavery. By the turn of the century the British had expanded their colony to include all of Yorubaland. The city of Lagos became the administrative capital of the new British colony of Nigeria.

The British maintained a policy of “indirect rule” in Nigeria, meaning that Britain ruled through the traditional system of obas, who now owed allegiance to the new colonial government. (Of course, there were some changes in the selection of these obas to insure the presence of ones friendly to the colonial authorities.) British missionaries opened schools, and the colonial government, through taxation of the Nigerian populace, partially funded primary and secondary education for Nigerian children, in English. In the 1930s, however, when author Amos Tutuola attended primary school, students still had to pay a cash tuition, which was often hard to come by, forcing many to drop out of school early or go without an education altogether. Those Yoruba who did manage to get an education often sought positions within the civil service, which would allow them to earn a salary and escape the backbreaking labor of agriculture. A few even obtained a higher education. Finding no place for themselves in the upper echelons of the colonial government, where the British blocked African participation, these universityeducated Nigerians began to foment a nationalist movement that would eventually lead to Nigerian independence.

Another factor contributing to Nigerian independence was World War II. Because the war drained British resources, the British government wished to scale back its expenditures overseas, and the notion of self-rule for British colonies gained popularity. The development of a new constitution and government for an independent Nigeria progressed slowly, however. The colonial government, uncertain how to balance the rights and privileges of the diverse ethnic groups that comprised Nigeria, made a series of constitutional changes that gradually moved the colony toward self-rule. As a result of these constitutional changes, educational and economic opportunities increased for Nigerians, and nationalist fervor, born of outrage and desperation, waned, further slowing the movement toward self-rule. Thus, Nigeria would wait until 1960 for independence.

Nigerians like Amos Tutuola had meanwhile served and fought in the British military during World War II. Ironically, one group that did not benefit in postwar Nigeria was that of the ex-servicemen. Many of these men had seen the world and returned to Nigeria ever more aware of the disparity between colonized and colonizer in their own land. A great number of them spent years searching for adequate work after their return. In 1949 The West African Pilot questioned, “Are not thousands of these heroes still roaming about Lagos and the Provinces in search of the wherewithals of life?” (Olusanya, p. 98). Government promises to secure employment for these men, or to loan them money for starting new businesses, did not materialize. The Nigerian author and ex-serviceman Mokwugo Okoye would later write, “The brave new world that they had fought for had very easily faded into a rotten world of unemployment and frustration” (Okoye in Olusanya, p. 99). Amos Tutuola joined the ranks of the unemployed ex-soldiers for a year before landing a messenger job, the only position he could get. As a messenger Tutuola had to spend a great deal of time waiting for errands. Rather than sit idly, he began writing down the stories he had heard throughout his life, stories that would merge in his first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Oral tradition

Pre-colonial Yoruba culture had a written counting system devised for use in the Ifa divination ritual, but the primary means of communication was oral. Despite the spread of literacy through missionary-run programs, by the mid-twentieth century Yoruba culture was still highly oral, and in an oral culture, storytelling is an important art form. When Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard, he worked from a firm grounding in Yoruba oral tradition, revising tales he had heard from others to create something new. In so doing he followed the tradition of the storyteller who recycles, revises, and renews traditional stories to adapt them to the present.

The most common type of tale in Yoruba culture, told by almost everyone, is the alo story or song-story—so-called because a song, or alo, integrated into the plot of the tale is an essential part of its performance. When asked to define an alo story, Yoruba informants responded “Alo is a lie!” (LaPin, p. 95). Alo stories are indeed fictional, and are “lies” in this sense, but the Yoruba concept of falsehood or iro includes not only fictional statements but also “divergence from what ought to be,” and indeed, alo stories invariably present a lamentable state of affairs (LaPin, p. 95). Although alo stories usually have happy endings, the body of the tale deals with the negative consequences of antisocial or simply socially unacceptable behavior (for example, vicious jealousy between rival co-wives). Although alo stories are the most common form of Yoruba tale, they are a guilty pleasure. The telling of alo stories is strictly proscribed during daylight when responsible individuals ought to be working, and men often dismiss alo stories as being “for women and children” (LaPin, p. 78). The justification most often given for the telling of alo tales is the instruction of youth through negative example, and the most common plot, which is conflict between the individual and society, invariably resolves in society’s favor.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard can be likened to an alo tale in several respects: The initial situation of the novel, in which the protagonist, Drinkard, does nothing but drink palm wine in prodigious quantities, can certainly be described as a “divergence from what ought to be.” Drinkard’s behavior—failing to work, to honor his dead father with sacrifice, to marry, or to procreate—is antisocial, and things go badly for Drinkard through much of the novel. The ending of The Palm-Wine Drinkard is, however, happy. Drinkard at first presents an example of how not to live, then advises the people how to rectify their plight by acknowledging the superiority of heaven. His final advice results in a boon to society—the end of drought and famine.

Another type of tale to which The Palm-Wine Drinkard can be compared is the long tale or romance. Like alo tales, romances are told in the evening, but unlike alo tales, romances are told only by accomplished male storytellers and deal with a series of heroic adventures undergone by a single character in the bush. Although romances are not necessarily believed to be true stories by teller or audience, these tales at least have the ring of plausibility to them—such things, even magical things, could have happened, even if they in fact didn’t. Romances have to do with the protagonist’s journey from a subhuman or socially unacceptable condition to a state of social acceptability—a transformation achieved during a quest of a more tangible nature that takes the hero or heroine away from society and into the bush. The protagonist, while suffering an inhuman condition, must also suffer an inhuman world (the wilderness); his return to society coincides with a return of his own humanity.

According to scholar Deirdre LaPin, “The triumph of good character over selfish motives is a theme repeated in many [Yoruba] romances” (LaPin, p. 56). This theme is certainly evident in The Palm-Wine Drinkard, which also follows the romance pattern of a quest leading from society into the bush and back again. Drinkard, upon returning to his village, returns to social acceptability. He has gained a wife, wealth, and an appreciation for things other than palm wine.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The Palm-Wine Drinkard opens with the narrator, Drinkard, explaining his name: “I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age. I had no other work more than to drink palm-wine in my life” (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 7). Although the rest of his siblings worked, Drinkard spent all his time day and night drinking palm wine until “I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine. But when my father noticed that I could not do any work more than to drink, he engaged an expert palm-wine tapster for me” (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 7). The tapster kept Drinkard supplied with wine, as well as Drinkard’s many friends, who joined him every day.

Fifteen years later, however, Drinkard’s father dies, and six months after that the tapster falls to his death while tapping a palm tree. No other tapster is skilled enough to replace the dead one. Without palm wine, Drinkard loses his happiness and his friends, but then realizes that he has a chance to get his tapster back:

Old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world. So that I said I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was.

(Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 9)

Drinkard embarks on a journey fraught with danger and adventure, a journey into the bush in search of his dead tapster. Luckily, he possesses a certain amount of magical power, or juju, with which he transforms himself and defeats, or escapes from, adversary after adversary.

Drinkard meets an old man who claims to know the location of the dead tapster, but to learn the secret he must pass the man’s test: he must capture Death himself. Although the old man thinks this task will end only in Drinkard’s demise, Drinkard succeeds. He finds Death living on an isolated farm, and Death invites Drinkard to stay the night. Drinkard accepts and, after avoiding Death’s attempt to murder him in his sleep, manages to fool and snare Death. When Drinkard returns to the old man with Death in tow, the old man flees in terror without revealing the location of the dead tapster.

Months later the head of a village promises to tell Drinkard the whereabouts of the tapster but only if Drinkard will rescue the headman’s daughter. She has fallen into the clutches of a “curious creature,” whom she met at the marketplace (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 17). He appeared to be a handsome young man, a “complete gentleman,” but when she left the market and went with him into the forest, he began to return first his fine clothes and then his body parts to those from whom he had borrowed them, until all that was left of the “complete gentleman” was a bare skull (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 17). By the time she realized her mistake, the girl was already the skull’s prisoner, and he took her back to his underground home to live with his skull family. Drinkard uses his magic to locate and rescue the woman. Soon they marry and live in her father’s village, but the father refuses to reveal the secret location of the dead tapster because he does not want his daughter to depart with Drinkard.

Three-and-a-half years later the thumb of Drinkard’s wife swells, and a child bursts forth, already able to speak like a ten-year-old. The child grows in hours to a height of three feet, and declares his name to be “’ZURRJIR’ which means a son who would change himself into another thing very soon” (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 17). The child drinks palm wine and eats food in prodigious amounts. He also possesses great strength and ferocity, which he uses to attack people and burn their homes. Seeing the child’s bad character, Drinkard sets his house on fire while the child sleeps within.

His father-in-law finally informs Drinkard of the tapster’s whereabouts. Before Drinkard and his wife leave for good, however, a “half-bodied baby”—their son disfigured by the fire—rises from the ashes of the burnt home, and commands his parents to carry him on their journey (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 35). The baby dominates the couple, eats all their food, and refuses to let them rest or sleep.

They finally escape his clutches when they encounter three spirits—Dance, Song, and Drum—with whom they are compelled to dance for five days. They reach the spirits’ home, which the monster baby enters with the spirits, and without his parents, who are released at once from the spirits’ dance and from the clutches of their son. Soon Drinkard and his wife reach the place to which the dead tapster first went, only to find he left two years earlier for Deads’ Town, the abode of all the “deads.”

The couple’s adventures continue as they escape from a king who lives in a palace made of refuse. They then come to live among the beautiful and friendly creatures of Wraith-Island. Here, Drinkard works successfully as a farmer and gains some magic seeds once he makes a sacrifice to the creature-owner of the land that he farms. Eighteen months later the couple decide to continue their journey: “While we had enjoyed everything in that ‘Wraith-Island,’ to our satisfaction, there were still many great tasks ahead. Then we started our journey in another bush, but remember that there was no road on which to travel in those bushes at all” (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 51).

They next escape from a fantastic monster called “Spirit of Prey,” but they then fall into the grasp of the cruel creatures of Unreturnable-Heaven’s town, who do everything incorrectly; they dress their animals in fine clothes and wear only leaves themselves. The couple is physically tortured, but they finally escape.

Exhausted, they rest for five months in a house they build in the bush, and then discuss returning home, though they do not know its direction anymore: “To go back was harder and to go further was the hardest, so at last we made up our mind and started to go forward” (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 64). In the bush the pair encounter a talking tree with hands that beckon them to come inside. Within the tree is the palatial home of the spirit Faithful-Mother. Before entering they deposit a couple of potential handicaps:

We had “sold our death” to somebody at the door for the sum of £70: 18: 6d and “lent our fear” to somebody at the door as well on interest of £3: 10: Od per month, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again.

(Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 67)

In the lavish interior of the tree they recover their strength and enjoy food and drink. The Faithful-Mother’s home resembles a twentiethcentury nightclub with dancing, feasting, and gambling, rather than anything from Yoruba tradition. After a year, however, the Faithful-Mother instructs them to return to their journey. Drinkard does not want to resume the arduous odyssey, but Mother will not let them tarry any longer, nor will she join them. As they leave her home, they collect their “fear” and interest payments, but the buyer of their “death” refuses to return it.

Back in the bush they meet a “Red-lady” who leads them to a territory where everything—the trees, ground, and living creatures, including Drinkard and his wife—are deep red in hue. They come to the Red-king who wants to sacrifice one of the couple. Since he has already sold his “death,” Drinkard volunteers for the sacrifice. He battles, and unexpectedly kills with a gun, the red-fish and red-bird that had been responsible for all the red color.

[I]ts head was just like a tortoise’s head, but it was as big as an elephant’s head and it had over 30 horns and large eyes which surrounded the head. All these horns were spread out as an umbrella. It could not walk but was only gliding on the ground like a snake and its body was just like a bat’s body and covered with long red hair like strings. It could only fly to a short distance, and if it shouted a person who was four miles away would hear. All the eyes which surrounded its head were closing and opening at the same time as if a man was pressing a switch on and off.

(Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 79-80)

The Red-king fears Drinkard’s power, so when Drinkard returns, the red-people burn down their town and leave the area in the form of two walking trees, taking with them Drinkard’s wife. Drinkard finds her in the new town of the redpeople, who are no longer red, and with whom he becomes reconciled. The couple lives there for a year while Drinkard farms with the magic seeds from Wraith Island and becomes quite wealthy.

A man called “GIVE AND TAKE,” who has never known poverty, asks to work for Drinkard. The laborer is actually the head of all the bush creatures, and after a while he steals all the crops of the red-people. They blame Drinkard, but “GIVE AND TAKE” protects him from their wrath by killing them all.

Drinkard and his wife continue their journey to Deads’ Town and before long meet a man in the bush carrying a bundle. In exchange for their carrying his burden, he promises to lead the pair to Deads’ Town immediately. Unbeknownst to Drinkard and his wife, the bundle contains the body of a dead prince, and the next town is not Deads’ Town but that of the dead prince’s father. The stranger informs the king that the couple has murdered his son and that the sack they carry contains the corpse. The king captures the pair but decides to give them a week of enjoyment before they are executed. The real killer is confused when he sees the king treat the couple so well and, out of desire to enjoy such luxuries himself, confesses to the murder. Soon the festivities end, and the killer is executed.

The couple finally reaches Deads’ Town where the “deads” do everything opposite from the “alives,” such as walking backwards. The deads forbid alives to enter the town, and before they can meet the tapster, the couple is dragged from Deads’ Town. The tapster meets them outside the town’s gates, and recounts his story of the ten years since his death. For the first two years he trained in a place for the recently dead before qualifying as a fully dead man and resident of Deads’ Town, where he has “lived” since. Drinkard and his wife cannot remain among the dead, “Because everything that they were doing there was incorrect to alives and everything that all alives were doing was incorrect to deads too” (Palm-Wine Drinkard, p. 100). The tapster gives Drinkard a magic egg as a present but will not return to the land of the living.

On their journey home the couple continue their adventures in the bush. They escape from 400 malicious dead babies, from a monstrous creature that traps them in a bag, and then from the stomach of a “hungry creature” that swallows them. They arrive in “mixed town,” a place of mixed people—exactly what they are a mixture of is never explained. Drinkard’s wife is ill, and while she recovers, Drinkard attends the local court and is asked to judge two different cases. Unable to determine a fair outcome, he asks for an adjournment of a year before deciding.

The couple resumes their homeward journey, but dancing mountain-creatures trap Drinkard’s wife and force her into a perpetual dance with them. Drinkard saves her by temporarily turning her into a wooden doll, and then with her in his pocket he turns himself into a pebble, which he manages to throw across a river and into his own town.

The town has fallen victim to a terrible famine due to a dispute between Land and Heaven over which has seniority and therefore claim over a mouse they caught together, which is too small to divide. Heaven has stopped the rain to show its anger, and the drought has caused the famine.

The magic egg that the Drinkard received from the tapster produces copious amounts of food and drink. Drinkard uses it to feed the people, who flock to his house from all over. After eating and drinking their fill they start to wrestle and accidentally break the egg. Without more food and drink the people leave. In order to teach them a lesson Drinkard puts the egg back together and has it make whips that attack all the lazy people. He then tells everyone how to end the famine—by sending a sacrifice to Heaven to acknowledge Heaven’s superiority. The sacrifice


My friend, it was in the twenty-fifth year of my father’s life, that he got himself ready [to go]. One day, early in the morning, he headed towards a strange forest near our hometown to hunt; our town’s people knew the forest as the Forest of God, for it was a very dreadful forest indeed. Even the hunters dreaded the Forest of God more than the Forest of Four Thousand Demons; and it was a law in our town that any hunter who had not hunted elephant must not go there to hunt, for it was the abode of wonders; it was where the birds talked like human beings, and animals bought and sold from and to one another; where many trees did not have roots, but looked fresh with evergreen leaves. Mice were bigger than pouched rats, and snails were bigger than tortoise in the Forest of Cod. The gnome and hoodlumish spirits were friends; it was there that the strong headed snakes terrify the hunters, for the abode of the head of the entire snakes in the world was there.

(Fagunwa in Ajadi, p. 13)

is sent, Heaven relents, the rains return, and the famine ends.

Harmony between the domains

Because of the sacrifice that Drinkard has advised the people to make to Heaven, Heaven and Land are reconciled, and harmony is reestablished between the two domains. In this episode from The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola is retelling a Yoruba myth about the confrontation between Olodumare—supreme deity and representative of heaven—and Oduduwa—orisa of the earth. In the myth, as in the novel, humans send the disputed animal as a sacrifice to Olodumare in acknowledgement of his superiority, thus settling the argument and ending the drought. Both the myth and The Palm-Wine Drinkard reflect the high value that the Yoruba place on maintaining a harmonious relationship between the domains of Aiye (earth) and Orun (heaven), with which the plot of The Palm-Wine Drinkard has much to do.

An important part of the relationship between Orun and Aiye is the relationship between the living and the dead. The Yoruba who dwell on Aiye consult as well as make sacrifices to the ancestors in Orun and to the orisa who dwell there and exert control over life on earth. Yet at the beginning of the novel, Drinkard hardly notices when his own father suddenly dies. In a culture in which great importance is placed upon the proper burial of and sacrifice to one’s deceased parents, Drinkard’s behavior is particularly shocking. This is not the proper relationship, as conceived by the Yoruba, between the living and the dead. It is only when Drinkard’s tapster dies, and the supply of palm wine is cut off, that Drinkard takes notice of death. His response—to seek his tapster in order to bring him back from the land of the dead—is also improper, as Drinkard will eventually learn when he reaches Deads’ Town. The dead do not belong in the same domain as the living; their ways are different. Tapster cannot leave the Deads’ Town and Drinkard cannot remain. As a result of Drinkard’s contacting Tapster, however, good things result: Drinkard receives from Tapster the food-providing egg. In the Yoruba worldview the living should look to the dead for help and advice.

Scholar David West has likened the palm wine in The Palm-Wine Drinkard to Nommo, “the expression of the life-force which forms one’s personality, and which remains even in the deads after they have become non-living” (West in Lindfors, p. 84). This life-force flows from Orun to Aiye, from the orisa and the ancestors to the living, but in return Orun requires a sacrifice of a portion of that life-force. Perhaps Drinkard is without palm wine for the same reason that the land is without rain: failure to sacrifice—in Drinkard’s case, to his father. One must not be greedy, in the Yoruba worldview, and begrudge Orun its fair share. When Drinkard is cut off from palm wine, from the life-force, he must reestablish a connection with the world of the dead that he has neglected, which he does by going in quest of his dead tapster. In Yoruba cosmology it is largely through the ancestors that good things come to the living—the dead in a sense serve as tapsters of the life-force that the living need to drink.

As a prodigious drinker of palm wine, Drinkard is like the original crafter of Yoruba-land and the Yoruba people: the orisa Orunmila. Orunmila is also known as the orisa of Ifa, the divination system whereby living Yoruba communicate with the ancestors and the orisa. His knowledge of divination gives him authority to communicate to humans on behalf of the supreme deity, Olodumare. Orunmila is a link between Orun and Aiye, between gods and men, between the dead and the living: he is the means by which earth, created by Olodumare in heaven, becomes habitable by human beings; and he is the means through which the ancestors in heaven communicate with their descendants on earth. In the novel, Drinkard likewise serves as a link between Orun and Aiye when he instructs the people to sacrifice so that harmony between the domains may be regained. Those who make sacrifices, according to Yoruba beliefs, enlist the aid of another orisa, Esu. Master of languages and the orisa of unpredictability, Esu carries messages and sacrifices from earth to heaven, or from the descendants to the ancestors and gods.

Sources and literary context

Both the content and style of Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard owe a debt to Yoruba oral tradition. Throughout his life Tutuola enjoyed hearing and telling folktales, and he used them freely in his work. Tutuola once commented, “I wrote Drinkard for the people of the other countries to read the Yoruba folktales” (Tutuola in Lindfors, p. 280). And in fact his novel has brought Yoruba stories to many who would otherwise never know them.

One example of Tutuola’s borrowing from folktales is the incident of the “complete gentleman” who is actually a skull that abducts the woman who would later become Drinkard’s wife. There is a traditional tale about a disobedient daughter who defies her parents and insists on the mate of her choice, a man of beauty, actually a skull garbed in borrowed body parts. It whisks her back to the land whence it came, returning the body parts on the way. Before the woman is rescued she promises ever after to obey her parents. Among other characters and items common to Yoruba folklore that surface in The Palm-Wine Drinkard are the monstrous child, the magic egg, and various monsters in the bush.

Another Yoruba author who wove folklore into his writings is D. O. Fagunwa, whose Yoruba-language adventure novels preceded and served as a model for Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard. Fagunwa’s novels The Forest of the Thousand Demons (1939) and The Forest of God (1946), the first long works of fiction written in Yoruba, were extremely popular. The similarities between these works—which concern adventures in the bush—and the works of Tutuola are so striking that Tutuola received criticism from Yoruba reviewers for being too derivative. While Tutuola did not plagiarize Fagunwa, the major difference between the two is that Tutuola chose to write in English. This brought his work into the purview of an international audience.

Tutuola was considered an honorary member of the Mbari Club, a group of artists and writers based in the Nigerian city of Ibadan in the 1960s. Their work marries traditional African culture


Tutuola has described hearing the story of Drinkard told by an old man on a Yoruba palm plantation:

“He started to serve the wine with bamboo tumbler. This bamboo tumbler was as deep as a glass tumbler, but it could contain the palm-wine which could reach half a bottle. Having taken about four, my body was not at rest at all, it was intoxicating me as if I was dreaming. But when he noticed how I was doing, he told me to let us go and sit down on the bank of a big river which is near the farm for fresh breeze which was blowing here and there with strong power. Immediately we reached there and sat under the shade of some palm trees … I fall aslept [sic]. After an hour, he woke me up, and I came to normal condition at that time.

“When he believed that I could enjoy what he wanted to tell me, then he told me the story of the Palm-Wine Drinkard,”

(Tutuola in Lindfors, p. 279)

with modern techniques, styles, and forms. Members of the club have included the writers John Pepper Clark, Christopher Okigbo, and Wole Soyinka (see Death and the King’s Horeseman , also covered in African Literature and Its Times).Tutuola is associated too with the Oshogbo artists movement—a group of artists who came together in the late 1950s to renovate a shrine of the traditional religion in the Nigerian city of Oshogbo and whose art, like Tutuola’s writing, often contains imagery of the sacred and the supernatural. Oshogbo painter Twins Seven-Seven created several works based on episodes from Tutuola’s novels.


In the early 1950s Western and African critics greeted The Palm-Wine Drinkard quite differently. Western reviewers reacted positively to the novel’s distinct language and departure from the conventional novel. The Welsh author Dylan Thomas wrote a glowing review in which he called the book a “brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story, or series of stories” (Thomas in Lindfors, p. 7). Arthur Calden-Marshall praised “this strange, poetic, nightmare volume” (Calden-Marshall in Lindfors, p. 10). Others remarked on its use of folklore; Anthony West praised Tutuola for combining the folktale’s “freedom of embroidery” with the novel’s “freedom of invention” (West, p. 17).

However, the same qualities that were praised by English and American reviewers drew disapproval and even disgust from Nigerian critics. They regarded the language as a poor relative to standard English. Babasola Johnson wrote that the novel “should not have been published at all. …It is bad enough to attempt an African narrative in ’good English,’ it is worse to attempt it in Mr. Tutuola’s strange lingo” (Johnson in Lindfors, p. 31). I. Adergbo Akinjogbin censured Tutuola’s use of folktales since it perpetuated European misconceptions of African as primitives, and wrote that the novel had “no literary merit” (Akinjogbin in Lindfors, p. 41). These Yoruba reviewers also criticized Tutuola’s use of folktales as derivative from the very popular work of Fagunwa, and as receiving undeserved praise from foreign critics. Later African critics reversed such assessments of Tutuola and recognized The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his subsequent novels as vital works of fiction that reflect African concerns and traditions. Western critics, on the other hand, neglected Tutuola’s later works when the novelty of The Palm-Wine Drinkard had run its course.

—Kimberly Ball and John Roleke

For More Information

Ajadi, Gabriel Ajiboye. “A Critical Introduction for and an Annotated Translation of D. O. Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare (The Forest of God).” Ph.D. diss, Ball State University, 1984.

Atanda, J. Adebowale. “The Yoruba People: Their Origin, Culture, and Civilization.” In The Yoruba History, Culture, and Language. Lagos: Ibadan University Press, 1996.

Courlander, Harold. Tales of Yoruba Gods and Heroes. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1973.

LaPin, Deirdre Ann. Story, Medium and Masque: The Idea and Art of Yoruba Storytelling. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.

Lindfors, Bernth, ed. Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola. Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1975.

Olusanya, G. O. The Second World War and Politics in Nigeria 1939-1953. London: Evan Brothers, 1973.

Tutuola, Amos. The Palm-Wine Drinkard. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

West, David S. “The Palm-Wine Drinkard and African Philosophy.” The Literary Half-Yearly 19, no. 2 (July 1978): 83-96.

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The Palm-Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town

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