When the Lion Feeds

When the Lion Feeds

First edition
Author Wilbur Smith
Country South Africa
Language English
Series The Courtney Novels
Publisher Heinemann
Publication date
ISBN 978-0333902158
Followed by The 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]


When the Lion Feeds is a gripping saga beginning with the introduction of twin brothers in Natal in the 1870s. 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 that leaves 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 and greatly outnumbered by Zulu tribesman, Garrick stumbles, jamming his arm through the door locks just as the Zulus are breaking in. The pain from the resulting compound fractures is so severe that Garrick goes into shock and does not remove his arm as the Zulus continue to try breaking in; thus, he saves many lives, making Garry a hero. This event changes 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. 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 drink. When the great cattle disease strikes he loses half the stock and has to remortgage the family estate.

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 are 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.

Sean 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.


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

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. 1 2 "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 Jan 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.
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