When the Lion Feeds

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When the Lion Feeds
When the lion feeds - wilbur smith.jpg
First edition
AuthorWilbur Smith
CountrySouth Africa
SeriesThe Courtney Novels
Publication date
Followed byThe Sound of Thunder 

When the Lion Feeds (1964) is the debut novel of Rhodesian 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 to be published.[1]


The novel begins in Natal in the 1870s, with the introduction of twin brothers Sean and Garrick, the sons of ranch owner Waite Courtney. After one of Sean's hunting accidents results in Garrick losing his leg, a guilt-ridden Sean becomes Garrick's protector, with Garrick later manipulating Sean's guilt for his own benefit. Sean and Garrick are both expelled from school after Sean assaults a teacher who attacked Garrick in order to antagonize Sean, after which Waite hires the two to work for him.

Sean, Garrick and Waite all participate in the Anglo-Zulu War. Waite is killed in battle, and Sean is later presumed dead after getting caught in an ambush. Garrick meanwhile becomes a war hero after inadvertently preventing the Zulus from forcing their way into a makeshift hospital ward, earning the Victoria Cross for his efforts. Upon learning that Sean's girlfriend Anna is pregnant, Garrick marries her to prevent her giving birth out of wedlock. The two fail to consummate their marriage due to Garrick proving to be impotent, and when they return, Sean is revealed to have survived after escaping the ambush and subsequent pursuit with the help of Mbejane, a Zulu who turned against his people after his father was murdered by supporters of Cetewayo. Anna tries to return to Sean, but he refuses her due to her marriage to Garrick, even after learning that she bears his child. A bitter Anna fakes being raped by Sean, turning Garrick against his brother, though Sean assumes that she told Garrick the truth of her pregnancy.

Sean and Mbejane travel north, where they meet Duff Charleywood, an assistant mining engineer. After learning of the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, Sean and Duff agree to pool their resources to make their fortunes in the subsequent gold rush. Buying land off of Candy Rautenbach, a hotel owner who Duff becomes engaged to, the pair soon establish a profitable gold mine for themselves and become millionaires. Before long the pair are two of the wealthiest individuals on the Witwatersrand, second only to jewish diamond tycoon Norman Hradsky and his business partner Max, the former of whom Duff pursues a personal rivalry with owing to Hradsky's similarities to his overbearing father.

Despite this antagonism, Sean, Duff and Hradsky work together for mutual profit, setting up a stock exchange in Johannesburg alongside the other mine owners, and eventually merging their companies into a single enterprise, Central Rand Consolidated. During this time Sean gradually loses his moral compass, helping to drive another entrepreneur to financial ruin and suicide, and later forcing Mbejane to wear a livery. He returns to normal after being trapped in a cave-in and saved by his workers, during which time he resolves never to hurt another if he can help it. Duff deserts Candy the morning before their wedding, fearing it will just be a repeat of his miserable first marriage, and returns to the Witwatersrand a few months later. Shortly afterwards, Sean and Duff are tricked out of their CRC shares and fortunes by Hradsky (albeit by using their own greed against them), and Sean decides to leave Johannesburg.

Sean, Duff and Mbejane travel into the Bushveld to hunt for ivory. During this time, Duff is bitten by a rabid jackal and contracts rabies, eventually forcing Sean to euthanize him. After grieving for his friend, he encounters the Lerouxes, an Afrikaner family also hunting in the Bushveld, and falls in love with their youngest daughter, Katrina. The pair of them later marry and have a child, who they name Dirk Courtney. Shortly afterwards, Katrina contracts malaria, and Sean travels back to Johannesburg to enable her to recover. While there however, Katrina mistakenly assumes that Sean misses his old life there, and wrongfully suspects Candy to be a mistress of Sean's after seeing them interact with one another. Considering herself a failure as a wife, she commits suicide. Though affected by his grief, Sean resolves to keep living for Dirk's sake, and he heads back into the Bushveld to collect enough ivory to pay for a farm, as he and Katrina had talked about doing.


Before publishing The Lion Feeds, Smith was working as an accountant and had already written a novel, The Gods First Make Mad, for which he had been unable to find a publisher.[2] After his first marriage failed, 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 2000 pounds and an initial print run of 10,000 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 mentor and agent.[4]

Smith dedicated the book to his 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.[5]

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.[6] However, this was reversed on appeal, and the ban stayed.[7]

Smith did not originally envision the Courtney family would become a series, but he ended up continually returning to them in later novels.[8]

Proposed adaptation[edit]

Stanley Baker bought the film rights and announced plans to make a movie version after Zulu (1963), but no film resulted.[9]


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