Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe [A Review]

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe showed us the forces at work in colonial Africa through the eyes of a simple man who can’t appreciate the complexity created by conflicting interests and a rapidly evolving world. In Arrow of God, Achebe shows us the next stage in this evolution, through the eyes of a man who can better understand the difficulties his culture faces but is confronted by no less danger and tragedy because of it.

Ezeulu, the chief priest of the god Ulu, worshipped by the six villages of Umuaro, watches out one night for the new moon. When he sees it, he strikes his gong and cooks and eats a sacred yam.

Ezeulu has a large family. His eldest wife has passed away and some of his eldest children have married and left to live their own lives, but his two remaining wives and their younger children still live with him. They are a complicated set, from his daughter Akueke who has returned home after leaving her husband who treated her badly; his son Obika, a handsome young man but a heavy drinker with a short temper; and his quiet, brooding, son Edogo. Perhaps most troubled is his son Oduche, whom Ezeulu has sent to be educated by the white man.

A dispute between Ezeulu’s village, Umuaro, and the village of Okperi is heading towards war. Ezeulu speaks against it but is unable to persuade other leaders. When envoys sent to Okperi are killed, in an act breaks several precedents and shocks the village, the war begins. It is ended by the white man who comes with his soldiers, ends the fighting, confiscates and destroys all the guns – earning him the nickname Otiji-Egbe (gun-breaker) by the locals – and then hands over the disputed land to Okperi.

It is all due to the white man who says, like an elder to two fighting children: You will not fight while I am around. And so the younger and weaker of the two begins to swell himself up and to boast.

This particular white man is District Officer Captain TK Winterbottom. Winterbottom’s view of the local Africans, reinforced by his investigation of the causes of the recent tribal war, is that they are like children and you cannot take what they tell you as fact. Except that is for a certain priest, whose testimony Winterbottom believes because he spoke against his own people. That priest was Ezeulu.

Winterbottom, though, is increasingly frustrated in his position. He is insistent that his views on how to govern the local populace is based on his years of experience while the highhanded policies dictated to him from London have only been counterproductive and bred corruption. But his encounter with Ezeulu has given him the idea that Ezeulu may be the right man to appoint to a position of authority.

The offer means Ezeulu faces accusations that he betrayed his clan to the white man but there are other problems he has to confront as well.

Ezeulu’s position is a potentially tenuous one. The god he is spokesman of, Ulu, was created as a sort of theological compromise as the villages and their religions unified. The priests of older gods resent being given secondary status to Ezeulu, a tension Ezeulu is conscious of.

Nwaka began by telling the assembly that Umuaro must not allow itself to be led by the Chief Priest of Ulu. ‘My father did not tell me that before Umuaro went to war it took leave from the priest of Ulu,’ he said. ‘The man who carries a deity is not a king. He is there to perform his god’s ritual and to carry sacrifices to him. But I have been watching this Ezeulu for many years. He is a man of ambition; he wants to be king, priest, diviner, all. His father, they said, was like that too. But Umuaro showed him that Igbo people knew no kings. The time has come to tell his son also.

Neither is Ezeulu unaware of the wisdom and growing power of the white man. It is for this reason, Ezeulu sent his son, Oduche to be educated by them and be his eyes and ears. Oduche was not happy to be sent away for reasons he could not understand and others in the family wonder if Ezeulu had other motives. Privately, Ezeulu has begun to regret his decision, finding his son becoming strange.

Within the community of African converts to Christianity, there is disagreement over how they should behave towards non-converts with some advocated destroying shrines and sacred animals. Oduche is one who agrees. When he commits an act of extreme sacrilege, it is his father who is most furious, even threatening to kill him. His hand is stayed as he sees his friends turn against him and enemies sensing opportunity.

Edogo was surprised by this depth of ill-will for his father and relented somewhat. He remembered what his mother used to say when she was alive, that Ezeulu’s only fault was that he expected everyone – his wives, his kinsman, his children, his friends and even his enemies – to think and act like himself. Anyone who dared to say no to him was an enemy. He forgot the saying of his elders that if a man sought for a companion who acted entirely like himself he would live in solitude.

It is when tensions are at their highest that Ezeulu receives his summons to meet with Winterbottom.

Published in 1964, Arrow of God is the last part of Chinua Achebe’s Africa Trilogy to be published but the story it contains comes second in chronological order. I decided to read it second after Things Fall Apart. In Arrow of God, we see the evolution of relations between African and white colonists since the earlier novel. If anything, the appeal of Christianity and colonial institutions has only grown in the interim. The challenge this presents is still largely being countered by a regression to a stricter adherence to traditional culture. And it is the African response to the challenge which is the core of the story more than relations between coloniser and colonised, between white and black.

In Things Fall Apart, we see this challenge from the point of view of Okonkwo; a commoner, albeit an exceptional one, and a simple man who sees things in black and white terms and one who follows tradition strictly and believes challenges must be met with force. In contrast, in Arrow of God our view is of Ezeulu, a priest offering a more intellectual perspective. Ezeulu recognises the danger of being ignorant of the challenges faced by his people and has taken steps to try and avoid it. His strategy is to try to encourage a more strategic response, and is undeterred in expressing his opinion regardless of who may be offended, while also maintaining a strict observance of his religious responsibilities.

‘Don’t make me laugh,’ said Ezeulu again. ‘So I betrayed Umuaro to the white man? Let me ask you one question. Who brought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? We went to war against Okperi who are our blood brothers over a piece of land which did not belong to us and you blame the white man for stepping in. Have you not heard that when two brothers fight a stranger reaps the harvest? How many white men went in their party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five. He held his right hand up with the five fingers fanned out. Five. Now have you ever heard that five people – even if their heads reached the sky – could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there; how then did they find the way? We showed them and are still showing them. So let nobody come to me now and complain that the white man did this and did that. The man who brings ant infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit.

In my review of Things Fall Apart, I mentioned a little about Achebe’s upbringing which exposed him to diverse perspectives and allow him to express them so believably in his work. In Things Fall Apart, this was mostly used to show the distinction between the traditionalist Africans and Christian converts. That distinction continues and, if anything, is more profound in Arrow of God, but Achebe also wields his empathetic muscles to take us into the minds of a few white characters as well. Winterbottom is more complex than a one-dimensional colonial governor with a racist outlook. His critique of the failures of those who would govern differently, seeking a more mutually beneficial relationship with the colonised, is quite effective. Though, that being said, if Winterbottom had everything his way, he certainly would look like a stereotypical colonial racist. Achebe’s ability to deliver the perspective of Winterbottom and other white characters is another powerful arrow in his quiver. It is the failures of all sides in understanding the customs and beliefs of others in this novel that creates the danger for tragedy.

One thing that makes Things Fall Apart such an enduring masterpiece is its brevity. To deliver a complex story in a concise form where the things left unsaid are unmissable but carry much weight is a great achievement. Arrow of God does not quite reach that mark. It is a longer novel and possibly more complex as well. It is restrained in the sense that it easily could have been twice as long. And it did leave me wishing for more; there were several rooms left unexplored and the weight of them was somehow greater and a missed opportunity.

If I might digress to a minor issue; a reason I have a favourable bias for Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics is that I appreciate the Introductions and Notes. I appreciate a knowledgeable person providing the reader with context and background to the work I have just enjoyed. It is therefore disappointing that this edition of Arrow of God and the third novel in the trilogy, No Longer At Ease, do not have Introductions.

One of the highlights of the story for me was the relationship between Ezeulu and his best friend Akuebue. The two are able to talk freely and honestly about difficult subjects without taking offense, often ending in respectful disagreement. Their conversations add commentary to the tensions in the plot such as when Akuebue points out that though Ezeulu’s reasoning is strong, it fails to be persuasive, to overcome the emotions and opinions of the clan. It is a point Ezeulu struggles to find a counterargument for.

Achebe is an important figure in twentieth century literature and especially within its post-colonial genre. But I suspect many readers don’t venture beyond his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which they probably read as a student. Arrow of God shows why it is worth your time to read more of Achebe and experience the complexity of the issues he addresses which he extends far beyond simple black and white terms.

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