(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 827 words.)