Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827
Set in the 1920’s, the period in which the British were making the transition from direct to indirect rule, Achebe’s Arrow of God describes the efforts of Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of Ulu, to assert and to maintain his religious authority. Ulu is a god created by the people of Umuaro in a time of crisis to rule over the individual gods of the six federated villages and thereby to increase the security of the loose federation. Thus, Ezeulu is the chief authority figure in Umuaro, but the traditional independence of Igbo social structure leaves the true extent of his authority in doubt.
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Moreover, Ezeulu’s Umuaro is a divided community, and his religious authority is threatened in two ways. On the one hand, its traditions are undermined by the proselytizing of the Christian missionaries who have built a school and a church nearby. On the other hand, Ezeulu’s authority is challenged from within the community, particularly by Nwaka and Ezidemili, the Chief Priest of Idemili, the leader of the cult of the python. Ezeulu’s situation is paralleled by that of District Commissioner Winterbottom. Winterbottom, a veteran of fifteen years in the colonial service, resists the new British policy of indirect rule because it will force him to delegate some of his secular authority. Each of the two leaders, therefore, is defending his authority against the encroachments of historical change.
Ezeulu’s debate with Umuaro begins when the community, led by Nwaka, insists on going to war with neighboring Okperi over a piece of land. The Umuaro ignore Ezeulu’s warning that Ulu will not support a war that is not just. Their five-day battle with Okperi is halted by the intervention of colonial troops, and Winterbottom orders all the guns in each community destroyed. After a hearing at which Ezeulu is a witness against Umuaro’s claim, Winterbottom awards the land to Okperi. To Ezeulu, this result is a vindication of his judgment, but many in Umuaro see it as betrayal. As the central proverb in the novel warns, “no man however great was greater than his people . . . no man ever won judgment against his clan.”
Three years later, Ezeulu’s ambition leads him to send his youngest son, Oduche, to study with the missionaries. In this way, he hopes to add their knowledge to his own. Although self-serving and manipulative, his action indicates a healthy openness to a variety of perspectives: “The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.” Ezeulu’s statement reflects the adaptive nature of Igbo society, the flexibility that had allowed the creation of Ulu; yet Oduche becomes a militant Christian, and to demonstrate his new faith, he tries to kill the sacred python of Ezidemili. The python is saved by Ezeulu, but his son’s sacrilegious act widens the division in the clan.
Meanwhile, Winterbottom, who remembers Ezeulu’s honesty at the hearing, is under pressure to implement indirect rule, and he decides to name Ezeulu secular warrant chief in Umuaro. This appointment would give Ezeulu secular authority to complement his religious authority, but the insulting manner of the messenger who summons Ezeulu angers the priest, and Ezeulu haughtily refuses, maintaining that he will only serve Ulu. Outraged at Ezeulu’s rejection of colonial authority, Winterbottom jails the priest and demands that he accept the position. Instead, Winterbottom comes down with fever, and Ezeulu, flush with anger at Umuaro and pride in his victory over the white man, is released after thirty-two days of incarceration.
Ezeulu is greeted as a hero by the clan, but he is driven to explore the extent of his power, and he is convinced that he must become the terrible agent of Ulu’s vengeance, the “arrow in the bow of his god.” While in prison, he was unable to eat the ritual yams, an act that marks each new moon of the Umuaro calendar; therefore, he adamantly refuses to perform the Feast of the New Yam, the festival which sanctifies the harvest, until two more moons have passed. Unharvested, the crop will rot in the fields, and the cycle of planting and harvest will be permanently disrupted. Unmoved by the pleas of his hungry clansmen, Ezeulu convinces himself that he is responsible only to Ulu, forgetting his parallel duty to the survival of the clan.
Ezeulu’s act of will comes to a disastrous end. Obika, his eldest son, rises from a sickbed to run through the village as a part of a funeral ritual. As Obika finishes his run, he drops dead. Ezeulu believes himself betrayed by Ulu, and the people of Umuaro use Obika’s death as an excuse to accept the missionaries’ opportunistic offer of a Christian Feast of the New Yam in which the foodstuff can be harvested in the name of Christ. Ezeulu falls into madness, and the Christian dominance of the community begins.