In Arrow of God, the main character Ezeulu’s pride gets him in trouble from the very beginning. Angered by the Umuaro community’s decision to ignore him in the matter of going to war with Okperi, he nurses his silent grudge for years. Since Ezeulu is the priest of Ulu, the highest god in Umuaro, Ezeulu shouldn’t worry about being #1 – but his jealous pride for his status eventually causes him to take revenge against the people of Umuaro. Ezeulu isn’t the only one who is proud. Winterbottom accuses all Igbo men of putting on airs; he argues that if you give an Igbo man a little bit of authority, he will soon be abusing even his own relatives. Winterbottom says that Igbo men love titles, not realizing that his men, Clarke and Wright, have made similar comments about how much Winterbottom loves his own title, “Captain.”
In Arrow of God, differences between Africans and the British are interpreted racially by both Igbo and British characters alike. Race is associated with culture and, thus, is offered as one of the identifying characteristics of British power. Winterbottom recognizes the power inherent in moral suasion and argues forcefully that white men in Nigeria must behave a certain way in order to maintain their political superiority.
In Arrow of God, both the British Captain Winterbottom and the Igbo Ezeulu have inflated senses of duty, which might be why the two men like each other. Winterbottom believes it is his duty to maintain decorum, keep a high moral standard, be an example to others, and be obedient to the Administration’s whims even when he doesn’t agree. Ezeulu, alternatively, believes that he must do whatever the god Ulu requires of him, even when it’s distasteful, and even when he personally suffers as a result.
Arrow of God revolves around competition. We see competition between Ezeulu’s wives for his attention; between Ezeulu, the chief priest of Ulu, and Ezidemili, the chief priest of the lesser deity Idemili; between the communities of Umuaro and Okperi; and between Ezeulu’s village and Ezidemili’s village. But the most important competition is between the god Ulu and the Christian god. This fight is always in the background, and we realize that Arrow of God is an illustration of the saying “When two brothers fight, a stranger reaps the harvest.” As the region roils in division, Christianity quietly steps in and takes the respect and place of honor that had previously belonged to the god Ulu.
Much of Arrow of God‘s plot is precipitated by revenge. If Umuaro hadn’t wanted to claim ownership of that land, they wouldn’t have sent an emissary to Okperi who was clearly bent on starting a war. That emissary causes his own death, but Okperi fails to send a courteous message about it, so Umuaro must respond by starting the war. Just as entire regions seek revenge, individuals seek satisfaction for real or perceived wrongs. Ezeulu seeks revenge on the people of Umuaro, who fail to give him proper respect as the priest of Ulu. Ezeulu’s revenge results in famine and ultimately causes the demise of his own deity.
Arrow of God explores how Igbo spirituality and religious life dies an ignominious death when confronted by Christianity. Christianity is backed by the white man’s military and political power. As a result, Christianity is also identified with the source of their power. When the people of Umuaro are faced with famine because the chief priest of Ulu refuses to break tradition, the catechist at the church offers protection so the people can harvest their yams. When Ezeulu’s son Obika dies, the people interpret that as a sign that Ulu was punishing his priest. With Ezeulu’s power broken, Umuaro turns to the Christian god for help.
Traditions dictate the lives of the people of Umuaro. Seasons are punctuated by rituals, and festivals are managed by the priests of the various deities associated with each village. The overall deity, Ulu, provides the important purification rites as well as feast associated with the rhythms of agriculture. In Arrow of God we see that these traditions are undermined by the coming of Christianity, the power of the British colonial office, and, most importantly, by Ezeulu’s inflexibility and insistence on adhering to tradition. Ezeulu insists on waiting a full month to eat each sacred yam, even though that means he can’t call the Feast of the New Yam for another three months. Meanwhile, the people’s crops are rotting in the field and people are starving to death. The elders of Umuaro offer to take the punishment on themselves, but Ezeulu refuses. While Ezeulu is stubbornly following tradition – and punishing his people – the people of Umuaro slowly begin to starve because they are unable to harvest the crops.
A lust for power motivates many of the characters in Arrow of God. As the British administration’s power rises, the men in Umuaro discover that their power is diminishing. All the men discover that their power is limited when the British administration steps in and stops the war with Okperi. Meanwhile, Nwaka and Ezidemili accuse Ezeulu of desiring power in order to mask their own attempts to unseat him and usurp his place. Ezeulu punishes the people of Umuaro because they didn’t accord him and his deity Ulu proper respect. The power struggle between Ezeulu and the people of Umuaro gives the Christian catechist, Mr. Goodcountry, the opportunity to win converts. The book concludes with Ezeulu’s power receding as Christianity takes precedence.
Manhood in Igbo life is marked by stages of life – marriage, fatherhood, gaining titles, becoming an elder. A man accrues respect, rights, and power as he moves through the stages of life. Though Obika may drink too much, he is still admired as a man because he is handsome and has physical prowess. Edogo, on the other hand, is steady and dependable, but not flashy; he gets little respect from the people of Umuaro.
Respect and Reputation
In Arrow of God, respect and reputation are highly valued in both Igbo and British cultures. The careers of colonial officials are built on their reputations, as are the careers of men in Igbo culture. In both cultures, titled men and elders have more power than young men or men who lack titles. We see Wright and Clarke gossip about Winterbottom; their attempt to destroy his reputation is also an attempt to build themselves up. Ezeulu feels the sting of the people’s lack of respect, first when they ignore his opinion and go to war with Okperi and finally when they continue to blame him for the white man’s arrival. Ultimately, it is the destruction of Ezeulu’s reputation that causes the people of Umuaro to convert to Christianity.