arrow of godArrow of God is a subtle, weighty tale that portrays the dramatic shifts that occurred in West African society due to British colonization of the region in the 1800s and early 1900s. (The novel is set in the early 1900s.) Achebe reveals to readers a traditional culture that’s adjusting to the reality of the European presence in its homeland.

The novel follows the Igbo man Ezeulu, High Priest of the deity Ulu, who is the most important official of Umuaro, an association of six villages that have banded together for mutual protection. As Ezeulu struggles with strife between Umuaro and a neighboring Igbo power, Okperi, the British Administration in the region plans to appoint him Warrant Chief, part of a colonial strategy of indirect rule. But we see very little of the British officers for the first three-quarters of the novel, even though the narrator often refers to various incidents and histories of the white man and his actions. Instead, we are immersed in the life of the village.

The villages are ruled by a group of elders who make decisions together, but as priest of the highest deity, Ezeulu is responsible for certain critical decisions, such as when the villages’ yam crops can be harvested. The fundamentally different methods of rule employed by European and Igbo society is an important theme of the novel. It reveals the misunderstandings and other pressures that invade a society when two societies of uneven power collide. A good part of the novel is a commentary on how customs and cultures shift to accommodate new powers. It’s almost as though we see in the villages of Umuaro the last traditional Igbo villages: their society is becoming something new. This is even clear to some characters, who advocate for change of a tradition that they feel is no longer relevant to their time.

But the struggle for power is not limited to the interactions between the Africans and the white men. Most conflict in the novel is within the society of Umuaro itself. The elders and priests compete for loyalties and power; their interactions are an incessant tug of war. In families, wives and children compete for status and favor. But within these struggles are revealed strict codes of behavior and a strong belief system.

Achebe uses many Igbo terms in his story, many of which are used to name religious rituals, objects, or ideas. While the terms do not make the reading easier, they do make it more interesting and precise. After all, most of the Igbo terms used in the novel likely did not have precise English equivalents because many of the objects and concepts of traditional Igbo life did not exist for the English.

This is the second of Achebe’s novels that I’ve read. The other was Things Fall Apart. Both novels are classics; both are a sort of history of colonization from a Nigerian’s point of view.

If you’d like to read more about how Achebe became a writer and why he writes, there is an interview with him in the Paris Review.

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