Chinua Achebe’s novel Arrow of God was published in 1964. This is Achebe’s third novel after his books No Longer At Ease and Things Fall Apart. Together these three books are often referred to as the African Trilogy. This book was published as part of the prominent Heinemann African Writers Series.
Arrow of God is set in Igboland in southeastern Nigeria in the second decade of the twentieth century. The narrative takes place primarily in six federated Igbo villages called Umuaro (Achebe’s invention). Like the other books in the trilogy, Arrow of God gives an intimate portrayal of a traditional culture facing the challenges of colonial presence and shifting times.
Along with the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba, the Igbos, or Ibos, are one of the main ethnic groups of Nigeria (though Igbo as a strong ethnic identity only emerged in the wake of colonialism, with Igbo-speaking people historically decentralized). As we see in the book, every village in Igboland has a marketplace, distinctive gods, and its own shrines. Every male and female is given a personal god, or chi, at birth. The supreme Igbo god is called Chukwu.
In the early 1900s the British cohered the many native tribes of the region into one, then two protectorates of “Nigeria,” establishing a system of rule administered by the Colonial Civil Service. They eventually favored a system of “indirect rule,” which appointed local emirs and native chiefs to serve as puppet rulers and symbolic regional representatives, a system that remained in place until 1960.
In Chinua Achebe: A Biography, Ezenwa-Ohaeto claims multiple strands inspired Achebe’s conception of Arrow of God, including a story the author heard in 1959 about a District Officer imprisoning a Chief Priest, Igbo artifacts excavated by the archeologist Thurston Shaw that sparked his imagination, and a series of papers by British officers he read while surveying colonial policy.
Like much of Achebe’s writing, Arrow of God makes ample use of folk idioms and phrases. The book’s title refers to the notion that people and events are sometimes merely the instruments of a divine plan. The novel’s protagonist, Ezeulu, is the chief priest of Ulu, created by the six villages as their overarching divinity many generations before the events of the book to protect them in a time of crisis.
Critics praised Arrow of God upon its release. Many see the book as Achebe’s masterpiece. Marcel Ikechukwu Sunday Onyibor argues, “Ezeulu is his most successful delineated hero and the most impressive. The work shows Achebe’s genius at its most ironic, most challenging and most rebellious,” ("Igbo Cosmology in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God: An Evaluative Analysis," Marcel Ikechukwu Sunday Onyibor), while Michael Echeruo states that Arrow of God is “much denser and more technically sophisticated” that the earlier two novels ("Chinua Achebe," Michael Echeruo). In 1974 Achebe published a revised version of the book in which he felt he corrected "certain structural weaknesses." Arrow of God was the first novel ever to receive the Jock Campbell/New Statesmen Prize for African writing in 1965.