At the beginning of Arrow of God, we find Ezeulu sitting in his compound, watching for the new moon. When he sees it he beats his ogene to alert the villages, after which he roasts one of the twelve ceremonial yams set aside at last year’s harvest and prepares to eat it. He contemplates the real scope of his power as Chief Priest—which makes him the mouthpiece of the divinity Ulu, in charge of watching and heralding the festival days Ulu chooses and performing important rituals—and dares himself to consider what would happen if he decided not to announce a festival in its time.
With his children Edogo, Obiageli, and Nwafo in his hut, Ezeulu takes his ofo and says a prayer for the people of Umuaro. Yet he feels bitterly toward his people as he does so, thinking about the discord between the six villages that his enemies blame on him for speaking “the truth before the white man.”
At the onset of the novel, Achebe depicts the day-to-day life in Ezeulu’s compound and the dynamics and tensions between him and the different members of his family. His wives and son Obika arrive home from collecting water at a stream. Ezeulu fumes at his wife, Matefi, for always bringing him dinner so late, while she in turn fumes about how he finds fault with her but overlooks how Ugoye, his younger wife, skimps on food and uses her money to buy jewelry. Ezeulu confides in Nwafo, his youngest and favorite son, who shows an inclination toward Igbo religion. We learn that in the past, Obika had a vision of Eru, a god of wealth. We also learn that he is very handsome and resembles Ezeulu physically, and that he is prone to drunkenness and fits of anger, such as when he nearly killed Ibe, his half-sister’s husband, for beating her.
In Chapter 2, we learn about how Umuaro was founded when the elders of the six villages that comprise it—Umuachala, Umunneora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umuogwuwu and Umuisiuzo—hired powerful medicine men to install a unifying deity, Ulu, to protect them from the violent raids of the soldiers of Abam, with one Chef Priest—Ezeulu—for all. The text then recounts the story of a divisive episode that took place five years before the events of our story—a land dispute with neighboring Okperi—that led to the present ill-will between Umuaro and Ezeulu, who felt their claims were illegitimate and testified accordingly to the white man.
Ezeulu counseled against the war, maintaining that his father told him that Okperi initially lent the land to Umuaro, giving them no rightful claim to it, and that a father’s word to his own son must be taken as the truth. Yet Umuaro’s elders, especially Nwaka, upstaged him. Nwaka questioned the veracity of Ezeulu’s father’s story and rallied the elders against him. A diplomatic group was sent to Okperi carrying a piece of clay symbolizing peace and a palm frond indicating war, but the mission went awry when one of its members, Akukalia, was insulted by an elder from Okperi and preceded to break his ikenga, leading the man to murder him.
Led by Nwaka, some wanted to wage war to avenge the killing, but Ezeulu stated such a war would be morally unjustifiable, not only because the villages had no legitimate claim on the land, but also because Akukala committed a grave offense. Meanwhile, Nwaka publically insinuated that Ezeulu was exceeding his role as a religious servant by seeking the power of a king, and threatened him by reminding the men of a village that simply destroyed a deity who failed them. Two factions emerged, one siding with Nwaka and one with Ezeulu. In the end, the former won and a war ensued in which a few men on each side were killed. The British District Officer quickly stepped in, however, destroying the guns of Umuaro and ruling in favor of Okperi—thanks, in part, to Ezeulu’s testimony.
In Chapter 3, Captain Winterbottom gazes out from his residence on Government Hill in Okperi. It is the onset of the rainy season and the veteran colonial officer feels the telltale signs of an illness coming on.
Tony Clarke, the new Assistant District Officer, visits Winterbottom for dinner. Together the men discuss a (fictional) book entitled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger by George Allen Clarke, which the senior officer lent Clarke. Drinking “Old Coasters” (a mixed drink of rum and ginger ale), Clarke critiques the author for being dogmatic and smug, saying he doesn’t allow that there might be anything of value in the local native cultures. Winterbottom dismisses Clarke as naïve, asserting the inherent savagery of the natives. He critiques the British policy of “indirect rule.” Changing the subject, Clarke asks Winterbottom about a collection of guns on display, leading the latter to tell the story of the land dispute between Okperi and Umuaro. Winterbottom describes the noble-looking Chief Priest who, when questioned, told the truth about the land against the interests of his own people, thus gaining esteem in Winterbottom’s eyes.
The opening chapters of Arrow of God introduce us to the novel’s roving third-person-limited point of view, as we shift from the goings-on of Ezeulu’s compound from the vantage of the Chief Priest to Winterbottom’s perspective.
Ezeulu’s ruminative flight about the scope of his authority as Chief Priest foreshadows the end of the novel, when he will delay the New Yam Feast in a punitive gesture against the people of Umuaro. From the outset, we are confronted with the question of whether he is merely a divine mouthpiece, or an agential figure with a will of his own in how he exercises his authority. The issue is quickly accentuated when we learn that Ezeulu favors his youngest son, yet it is Ulu who will ultimately choose a rightful successor from among his progeny.
These early chapters also set up the book’s primary conflict: that between Ezeulu and his people, epitomized by the clash between Ezeulu and Nwaka. Rather than a force of balance—between different divinities, between the divine and the social, between social factions—Ezeulu sees Nwaka as representing a contemporary irreverence toward Ulu and a petty-minded self-interest indicative of the decline of Igbo society.
The beginning of the novel sets the dark mood that hovers over the book. Ezeulu seems convinced that the presence of the white man and the enmity among his people is an indicator of the end of the world of his fathers and ancestors. Obika sees an allegedly auspicious omen, yet one that comes in the form of a terrifying, white figure. The motif of agency and fate as its raised in relation to a religious cosmology also raises questions of power and agency in the colonial context that will become central to the narrative.
Winterbottom’s weakness in Chapter Three foreshadows the debilitating illness that will strike him later, contributing to Ezeulu’s prolonged detention. We are introduced to the cast of British figures on Government hill—Winterbottom, Clarke, and Wright, and Wade—who, with their different dispositions, each seem to stand as a synecdoche for the various styles of implementation and affective registers of colonialism as a whole: dutiful bureaucracy, fanciful idealism, and violent, predatory sadism.