When the Lion Feeds

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
When the Lion Feeds
Author Wilbur Smith
Country South Africa
Language English
Series The Courtney Novels
Publisher Heinemann
Publication date
Followed by The Sound of Thunder

When the Lion Feeds is the debut novel of Zambian writer Wilbur Smith. It introduces the Courtney family, whose adventures Smith would tell in many subsequent novels. In 2012 Smith said the novel remained his favourite because it was his first.[1]


When the Lion Feeds by Wilbur Smith is a gripping saga beginning with the introduction of twin brothers in Natal in the 1870's. Sean and Garrick Courtney are as close as two brothers can be, and as different at the same time. Bonded from birth, their lives intertwine. Sean is the dominant brother—his father's favourite, and Garrick is mostly content to follow in his shadow. It is this dynamic that orchestrates the hunting accident leaving Garrick without a leg, and Sean responsible. With considerable guilt, Sean is easily manipulated, and Garrick uses this to his advantage regularly. Sean becomes his protector, his confidante, his get-out-of-work-free card, and his safety net until war changes everything.

When they are separated by assignments in battle, Garrick is left without his brother's helping hand for the first time, and inadvertently rises to the occasion. When set upon by Zulu tribesman outnumbering them greatly, Garrick stumbles, jamming his arm through the door locks just as the Zulus are breaking in, saving the lives of most. The pain is so severe when the compound fractures occur that in shock he does not remove it and the Zulus continue to try to break in. Garry is a hero. It is an event that will change the course of his life. With Waite Courtney's death in battle, fate takes a turn. Garrick believes Sean is dead also, and he resents the great wealth he now has, happy to give it all up to have Sean back. Feeling as though there is little to live for, he welcomes a visit from Sean's girlfriend, Anna. When she tells Garry that she carries Sean's child, he rises to the occasion and proposes. Anna, seeking relief from constant poverty and a father for her baby, accepts and while they honeymoon, Sean returns to Theunis Kraal. Anna's true feelings come to the surface in a shocking accusation that sets brother against brother and sends Sean on a journey of self-growth and discovery.

Garrick discovers the courage he can tap from alcohol, and covers his feelings of social ineptness by dulling them with alcohol. When the great cattle disease strikes he loses half the stock and has to take out a mortgage on the family estate again.

Sean leaves and has fabulous success in the gold rush on the 'Witwatersrand' with Duff Charleywood and the beautiful Candy in the new town of Johannesburg, where huge fortunes were made and lost in a morning's dealing on the Exchange. The atmosphere of this feverish, violent time is brilliantly drawn: the heavy drinking, the elaborate houses, the ruthless abandonment of the failure. Sean and Duff are caught at last in a trap laid by their rival, the sinister and clever Hradsky, and leave Johannesburg for the wilderness to seek their fortunes once more.

He goes on to rediscover the simplest pleasures, hunting ivory in the bushveld. He loses his best friend there, but finds the love of his life and what she gives him he treasures and values more than all the wealth he has ever had. The adventure finally sends him back out into the bush with his son alone, mourning the loss of his wife and thinking about Ladyburg.


Smith was working as an accountant and had already written a novel The Gods First Make Mad but been unable to find a publisher.[2] After the failure of his first marriage he tried again with a different story:

I wrote about my own father and my darling mother. I wove into the story chunks of early African history. I wrote about black people and white. I wrote about hunting and gold mining and carousing and women. I wrote about love and loving and hating. In short I wrote about all the things I knew well and loved better. I left out all the immature philosophies and radical politics and rebellious posturing that had been the backbone of the first novel. I even came up with a catching title, 'When the Lion Feeds'.[3]

His agent in London, Ursula Winant, managed to sell the book to William Heinemann for an advance of two thousand pounds and an initial print run of ten thousand copies. The book went on to be successful, selling around the world (except in South Africa, where it was banned) and enabling Smith to leave his job and work full time.[3] Charles Pick, who bought the book for Heinemann, later became Smith's agent.

The book was dedicated to Smith's father, whom the author idolised. "When I showed him he was a bit taken aback but Mum said that he always used to carry it around with him to show his mates," said Smith.[4]

The novel was banned in South Africa on the grounds of obscenity and blasphemy. Heinemann appealed this to the South African Supreme Court and succeeded in having the decision overturned.[5] However this was reversed on appeal and the ban stayed.[6]

Smith did not originally envision the Courtney family would become a series but he ended up continually returning to them in later novels.[7]

Proposed Adaptation[edit]

Stanley Baker bought the film rights and announced plans to make a movie version after Zulu (1963) but no film resulted.[8]


  1. ^ "Wilbur Smith: My Favourite Work is My First Book", The Tossed Salad, 31 January 2012 accessed 22 March 2013
  2. ^ "University Daya", Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
  3. ^ a b "Good Days", Wilbur Smith Books accessed 14 March 2013
  4. ^ "Wilbur Smith: 'I think every book I write will be my last' " By: Julie Carpenter Express 13 April 2009 accessed 22 March 2013
  5. ^ Belgian oil strike may end today The Guardian (1959-2003) [London (UK)] 16 Jan 1965: 9.
  6. ^ Publisher loses appeal Uys, Stanley. The Observer (1901- 2003) [London (UK)] 29 August 1965: 3.
  7. ^ "Interview with Wilbur Smith", 1989 accessed 21 March 2013
  8. ^ Hedda Hopper, 'Africa is Poiter's Choice', The News and Courier 30 August 1965 p3 accessed 24 May 2012