The Hidden Depths of Wilbur Smith

Wilbur Smith was undeniably a popular author, selling over 140 million books in his lifetime. But while it’s easy to think of him has an adventure writer – and a good – one, some of his books go beyond that to have real poignancy.

It’s certainly true that his ancient Egypt books are essentially glorious, rolicking and not particularly accurate historical adventures – and all the more enjoyable for that. Others, such as Gold Mine or Wild Justice are straight-forward adventures reminiscent of Alastair MacLean: well rooted in their period and setting, but otherwise straight-forward action thrillers. And I should add, there is nothing wrong with this: I enjoy these books, as – clearly – have millions of others.

A few of his books go beyond this, as detailed character studies filled with raw emotion and poignancy that rivals any in literature. Today we’ll be taking a break from politics to look at two of these.

Contains extensive spoilers for When the Lion Feeds and Eagle in the Sky.

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When the Lion Feeds

The first of Smith’s novels to be published, and the first of many in his Courtneys of Africa sequence, When the Lion Feeds is a tale of two brothers. One is bookish, studious and doesn’t really like the physical labour of the farm or hunting; the other is brash, adventurous and typically strong and outdoorish. We all know which one is going to be the hero, right?

Wrong! In a move which completely wrong-footed me – so used I am to more modern subversions which have the more studious and retiring character(1), Garrick, the studious one, is indeed as he seems: weak, cowardly and easily led. Indeed, he is even worse than he is perceived, for at various times, through no deliberate action of his own, his actions become celebrated, and he becomes a respected man in the community. It is Sean, however, who is the better man by far. Though not without his flaws, he is big-hearted, brave, kind, generous with his both his abundance and his scarcity, a man with the strength, courage and compassion to make his mark in a harsh and demanding world. It was jarring at first, for me, that the character I instinctively identified with was the bad one, but I ultimately found the book all the more powerful for that(2).

The book is a tragedy, in the classic sense. Sean’s deeds bring disaster upon him time and again, through accident, through mischance or when his mistakes and flaws are punished with a severity far beyond that which they deserve. He falls in love with a woman who is shallow and cruel; when he is wounded and thought dead after brave deeds in battle, it is his cowardly brother who gets the public recognition – and his fiance marries his brother instead, turning Garrick against Sean and forcing him to leave home. He makes a fortune in a gold rush, but loses it all to his treacherous partner. Left, once again with nothing, he picks himself up and makes a new pile from ivory, finding love and marrying a Boer woman along the way. The book ends upon the bleakest note imaginable. Misunderstanding his relationship with another woman – the lover of a former partner – his wife commits suicide, leaving Sean desolate, with an infant son, his happiness wrenched away once more.

Something always dies when the lion feeds and yet there is meat for those that follow him. This is the proverb that gives the book its title – it is fairly clear that the lion refers to Sean, whose generosity and actions bring both prosperity and death. The two sequels continue the story of Sean and Garrick in a satisfying way – we see the Boer War, a rapprochement, and Sean is shown to be both a bad father and a good man – but neither can compare with the emotional rawness and intensity of When the Lion Feeds.

Eagle in the Sky

Whereas When the Lion Feeds is Smith’s first and perhaps best known book, Eagle in the Sky is less famous, though was still very successful when it was published. At first sight it is another adventure or thriller, but in reality it is a romance, the star-crossed but ultimately triumphant love of David Morgan and Debra Mordecai.

it is set around when it is written, the early 70s.

David is another character utterly unlike me: a rich, South African playboy who loves the good life and the thrill of risk-taking and speed, particularly in fast cars and planes. When travelling in Europe, he meets three young Israelis – Joe, Joe’s fiancee, and Joe’s sister Debra. Returning with them to Israel, he joins the Israeli air force as a fighter pilot, putting his thrill seeking to good use and, for the first time, finding a purpose in life. He and Debra fall in love and all seems well.

Their happy life is interrupted by a terrorist attack at Joe’s wedding, which grievously injures Debra, blinding her, as well as killing a number of those close to her. Distraught, she rejects David and becomes a recluse. David, acting recklessly, disobeys orders and gets in an unauthorised dogfight with Syrian MiGs, that ends with his plane being shot down, himself being horribly wounded and disfigured, and then being court-martialled out of the air force. His life destroyed, he reaches out to Debra who takes him back: she can stand to be with him now that he has suffered loss, and he takes comfort in the fact that she can no longer see his hideous appearance. They rebuild their relationship and marry, but are hurt by the constant whispering of those around them (due to David’s disfigurement) and move back to a more remote location in South Africa.

David throws himself into conservation work and Debra adjusts to her blindness, as they begin to build a new life – until a violent incident with poachers causes Debra, pregnant, to lose her baby. While being operated on, the doctors realise there may be a way to restore her sight. David, selfishly, tries to dissuade her, ostensibly due to the risk of complications, but actually because he fears that if she can see him, she will no longer want to be with him.

The operation is successful. As she opens her eyes, still groggy from the operation, Debra is so shocked by her first sight of David that she does indeed momentarily reject him. Thinking his life is over, David leaves immediately and climbs into his plane, intending to commit suicide by flying it higher and higher until it runs out of fuel. Unlike When the Lion Feeds, however, this book ends on a happy note. The final paragraphs involve Debra calling to him over the plane’s radio, telling him she loves him, and he desists from his course and turns to live again.

Far from being a simple thriller, Eagle in the Sky is a tale of love and grief, of the impact of disability and disfigurement, and of people finding meaning – and love – in life despite tragedy. It is inspiring and uplifting, and a romance that is not in the slightest soppy or effeminate.

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(1) No doubt because authors know people like this are more likely to read books!

(2) A lesson for those for whom ‘representation’ is all about sex and race: Your classic bookish heroine in fantasy is far more like me, amd far more easily relatable to, than Sean Courtney.

One thought on “The Hidden Depths of Wilbur Smith

  1. They are indeed really good books. I have only two left on my book shelves now – The Seventh Scroll and The Burning Shore – but your post has encouraged me to re-read them.

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