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Chinua Achebe: Arrow of God

Achebe’s third novel is set during the colonial period, i.e. between the period of his two previous novels. It is the story of Ezeulu, chief priest of Ulu in the village of Umuaro. As with Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, Ezeulu is in full control at the start of the novel. He has a dispute with Nwaka, a chief who supports Ezidemili, chief priest of Idemili, the god supplanted by Ulu. Nwaka has persuaded the villagers to fight a neighbouring village in a territorial dispute. This gives the British the opportunity to intervene to pacify the natives. Captain Winterbottom is instructed to find an African who can act for the British and he summons Ezeulu to offer him the post. Ezeulu declines. Winterbottom falls ill but Ezeulu is imprisoned for his refusal. Because of his imprisonment, he cannot announce the new moons nor eat the sacred yams, which could have a harmful effect on the harvest. When he is finally released, as his people did not assist him, he refuses to eat the yams. As a result the yams cannot be harvested and they rot in the ground, causing starvation. When his son dies unexpectedly, the people take it as a sign and turn from Ezeulu and Ulu, many of them embracing Christianity. The tragedy – and this novel is certainly a tragedy – results in Ezeulu going mad.

Some critic have said that this is Achebe’s finest novel. It shows clearly the tensions both within the tribe, between different views of the local culture and between the duty towards men and duty towards the gods. But it also shows the conflict between the Igbo and their colonial masters and how the colonial masters inevitably win. Again, Achebe does not take the easy way out and paint the Igbo as saints. And, while the British may be the bad guys, Captain Winterbottom is a more complex character with some decency in him – for a colonialist.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Heinemann