John Updike wrote that the ending of Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God "proved unexpected and, as I think about them, beautifully resonant, tragic and theological. That Ezeulu, whom we had seen stand up so invincibly to both Nwaka and Clarke, should be so suddenly vanquished by his own god Ulu and by something harsh and vengeful within himself, and his defeat in a page or two be the fulcrum of a Christian lever upon his people, is an ending few Western novelists would have contrived."
Achebe's novel, like his first novel, Things Fall Apart, focuses on an impressive but ultimately doomed representative of the old Igbo culture that is collapsing under pressures from the British Colonial administration and the church. Ezeulu, the chief priest of the God Ulu, is caught between the two cultures, and in spite of his firm commitment to the past becomes what Updike aptly calls "the fulcrum of a Christian lever."
Ezeulu's tragedy is partly of his own making, the result of his own arrogance, his strong identification of himself as the "arrow of Ulu" against his people, his vengefulness at his people. At the climax of the novel, he refuses to announce the date for the yam harvest and the New Year, one of the main duties of the chief priest, and as a result the yams rot unharvested in the field. The people get desperate for food, and eventually find they can harvest if they bring an offering of yams to the church. Ezeulu forces the people to choose Ulu's priest and the survival of the tribe, and their actions show the truth of the dictum that "no man however great was greater than his people; that no one ever won judgment against his clan."
Throughout the novel, Ezeulu is playing a dangerous game at the boundary between tribe and colonialist. In a flashback early in the novel, we learn that he testified to the Col. Winterbottom against one of his own tribesman after the British had intervened in a tribal war that Ezeulu had opposed. Winterbottom is impressed, but the testimony puts Ezeulu at odds with Nwaka and other members of the tribal council of Umuaro.
Further, Ezeulu has sent one of his sons, Oduche, to the missionary school to be his "eye" there, gaining what he can from the missionaries but also assessing the nature and extent of British power, and their intentions in Nigeria: "I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share." Ezeulu describes his son's role in terms similar to his own; he is the "watchman" for the tribe, who pays attention to the new moon and other natural phenomena, so he can discern the will of Ulu and direct the people accordingly.
Oduche is quickly taken by what he learns at school. He sits to the side with his slate and chalk writing while others listen to tribal stories. At the missionary's urging, he tries to suffocate a sacred python (and Ezeulu refuses to punish him for it).
The church not only impinges on Ezeulu through Oduche, but more directly. Church bells, for instance, distract the chief priest during the performance of one of Ulu's rituals. Oduche's shutting of the sacred python in a box constructed by a missionary symbolizes the larger social movement.
While the church offers food and survival to Umuaro, its redemptive effect seems accidental. It seems that if the Hare Krishna had been nearby offering yams, the people would presumably have flocked there and left Ulu behind. Does Achebe see anything distinctive about Christianity ? Could Ezeulu have served as a fulcrum for any available alternative?
Mark Mathuray offers an analysis of the novel (unfortunately pockmarked with critical jargon) that helps to answer these questions.
He notes, "Of the elaboration of symbolic oppositions in Arrow of God, one can note the pre-eminence of a continuity/change opposition, one that narrates both loss and alienation, specifying the ambit of archival realism. The symbolic code of the novel proceeds through a series of antagonisms: Winterbottom/Ezeulu (colonial power/traditional power); Nwaka/Ezeulu (political power/sacred power); John Goodcountry/Moses Unachukwu (desacralization/retaining the sacred); Oduche/Nwafo (conversion/fi delity). The left side of these oppositions represents change to the sociopolitical and religious framework of Umuaro and metonymically to actual Igbo society, while the right side asserts the importance of continuity. It must be
remembered that although Ezeulu is open to change, he is ultimately interested in preserving the religious order of his society."
Within this situation, Ezeulu is a mediator between the binaries, and he functions as a mediator of the sacred in more fundamental ways as well. Mathuray calls attention to Ezeulu's role in the an annual festival in which he bears the sins of the tribe so they can be disposed of - a sort of Day of Atonement. He is both accursed and glorified, victim and hero, venerated and despised, embodying the ambivalent attraction and danger of the sacred in himself.
As the story progresses through a series of failed and false sacrifices, it finally climaxes in Ezeulu's own sacrifice: "it is at the New Yam feast, the festival that should inaugurate the new cycle and the New Year, that the sacrificial victim is absent. It is here that the text identifies the pre-eminence of Ezeulu's role as victim and, through the demands of narrative closure, accomplishes the fulfillment of that role. Narrative closure and the beginning of the new cycle are achieved through Ezeulu textually enacting his most significant function in Umuaro and the novel. The dialectical opposition of the dual series of epic heroism and sacrifice is superceded by the text's ritualistic closure, revealing the text's
desire for ritual status." In other words, Ezeulu performs the function of sacrificial victim not only in ritual but in life, and just as his bearing of the sins of the tribe makes possible a new year, so his status as sacrificial victim in the history of the tribe makes way for the tribe's new beginning.
Mathuray writes, "In the preface to the second edition of Arrow of God, Achebe writes: 'For had he been spared Ezeulu might have come to see his fate as perfectly consistent with his high historic destiny as victim, consecrating by his agony—thus raising to the stature of ritual passage—the defection of his people.'" From this angle, "the 'triumph' of the Christian religion does not represent a rupture, a rending of the world; rather, the 'defection' reinforces the symbolic order of traditional Igbo (and African) society, through the formal 'totality' of the text." Christianity, it appears, is not so much a departure from traditional religion as its fulfillment.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 03:01 PM
Permission is given to use material on this site, provided the source is cited, blog entries are republished in full, and the author is notified in advance.