Essays and Criticism

The Politics of Love and Violence in Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow

In her Newbery acceptance speech for The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth Speare spoke to the purpose of her novel by indirectly commenting on the situation of the world at that time and the anxiety it generated in young people who “do not want to accept meaninglessness” in their lives. Looking for values, she said, they turn “urgently to the adult world for evidence that we have proved our values to be enduring. . . . They demand an honest answer. Those of us who have found Love and Honor and Duty to be a sure foundation” must find the words to communicate this to them (quoted in Randall 2001, 129). Significantly, in the text of her speech Speare capitalizes these virtues to signify their monolithic meaning—that their definitions transcend relativity and are not up for debate. They are, like Plato’s Forms, eternal truths. She also argues that “words” rather than actions have the ability to contain these meanings young people seek, thus giving power to “the word” as a reliable vessel for such truths. Western culture has traditionally located such words in the Bible, where, indeed, “in the beginning was the Word.” If there is a final foundation for undisputed truth, many would agree that it lies in that particular book.

That is precisely what Speare shows in The Bronze Bow, for in this historical novel she locates this foundation of meaning that embodies love, honor, and duty in a narrative about Jesus sometime around AD 26 when he was choosing his disciples and beginning his ministry. At first, however, Jesus provides background to the more immediate plot of oppression and resistance, for the time of Jesus was characterized by Roman rule and the desire of Jews to free themselves. Romans had occupied Israel since 63 BC, and during these years (as they had for hundreds of years previous to this), Jews prayed for a savior who would free them from the subjugation brought about by the brutality and humiliation of rule by a conquering force. Eventually, some organized themselves into a group called the Zealots, who fought violently to eradicate Romans from Israel.1 Speare contrasts the ideology and actions of Zealots with that of Jesus to reveal love, honor, and duty as moral answers to her contemporary audience. In this way, she constructs her story not around people praying piously for a messiah but through an action-packed drama of young people committed, through violent means if necessary, to free Jews from Roman tyranny, which they characterize as “God’s Victory.” The conflict emerges from the different meanings of and solutions to tyranny provided by the Zealots, represented by Rosh, on the one hand, and Jesus, on the other.

The protagonist is Daniel bar Jamin, who as a young boy had witnessed the crucifixion of his father by the Romans for a matter related to taxes, and then endured his mother’s grief and subsequent death as well as his younger sister Leah’s complete withdrawal from society as a result of this horror. Now, at eighteen, Daniel identifies himself as a Zealot: “All I know is I hate the Romans. I want their blood. That is what I live for.” He vows he will “pay [the Romans] with [his] whole life. That [he will] hate them and fight them and kill them.”

His first step in avenging the suffering of his family is to leave his grandmother and Leah to live in the mountains with Rosh, a leader of the Zealots. Rosh, who in our contemporary parlance is an “insurrectionist,” launches small guerilla attacks on Romans while also attacking and stealing from Jews to raise money and feed his group, with the ostensible and final goal of creating an army that will rise up against and defeat the Romans. Through Rosh’s leadership, Daniel hopes he can best accomplish the revenge he seeks. After meeting Joel and his twin sister Thacia, however, Daniel’s views begin to expand, for they offer a friendship he has never known. They, too, commit themselves to the cause of the Zealots, but Joel’s familiarity with the scriptures together with Daniel’s uneasy attraction toward Thacia provide him with a perspective that begins to rattle his earlier surety about his mission in life. As the plot moves forward, Daniel returns to his village to care for his dying grandmother, assume care for Leah, and take over the blacksmith business of his friend Peter, who has left town to follow Jesus, a rabbi intriguing people through his calm charisma, his kindness, and his words that describe and promise a new sort of freedom that Daniel and his friends struggle to understand.

Events grow around Daniel’s choice concerning how best to fulfill his promise to avenge the cruel death of his parents; help free his people from tyranny of Roman rule; and, the real core of his dilemma, free himself from the hate, fear, and anger that has lodged in his heart. Does Rosh, whom Daniel considers as “one man who still dared to act” and whose very name in Hebrew means “leader,” provide the way? “Rosh is the finest leader you could ask for. . . . He is afraid of nothing on earth, nothing,” Daniel tells Joel. “One of these days Rosh would show them all.” Or does Jesus offer Daniel the leadership necessary to allow him to obtain the blood revenge he seeks? Although some speculate Jesus might be a Zealot, he seems an unlikely candidate to lead an army against the Romans, for he knows nothing about fighting and is as gentle as Rosh is fierce. Yet when he first meets Jesus, Daniel observes “how strong he is. . . . The impression of strength came from an extraordinary vitality that seemed to pulse in the very air around him.” The more Daniel learns about Jesus, the more perplexed he becomes. Rosh has warned Daniel about “softness,” calling it “a soft streak. . . like a bad streak in a piece of metal.” According to Rosh, when they are ready to fight the Romans, “there’ll be no place for weakness.” But if Rosh speaks with “scorn” about Daniel’s “weakness,” the voice of Jesus is at times joyful and other times commanding, but often “its gentleness rested on the suffering people [who come to hear him] like a comforting touch.” Yes, Jesus certainly would be considered “soft” in Rosh’s value system, for he says things such as, “Each one of you is precious in His sight.” Here Daniel locates the core difference...

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Masculine Identity in The Bronze Bow

Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow centers on Daniel bar Jamin, a young boy living in Israel during the time of Jesus. The novel deals in rich detail with the themes of growing up, love, loss, and faith. Yet the theme that unites all of them is Daniel’s formation of a masculine identity. Throughout the novel, we watch Daniel become a man, and this evolution is achieved through several male figures that exert an important influence over his developing character. To balance the male influence, Speare also employs a few key female relationships to highlight Daniel’s growing understanding of his own mature, masculine identity.

Daniel begins his journey in the caves above Galilee with a vagabond tribe of men known as Zealots. The Zealots are led by Rosh, a controversial figure in Galilee. He is known as something of a Robin Hood figure, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor in his quest to drive the Romans from Israel. At the outset, Daniel is a hardheaded, angry youth who latches desperately onto this cause to fill the loss and the emptiness in his life. Gradually, throughout the book, we discover that Daniel’s father was killed by the Romans ten years earlier. Daniel’s mother died shortly afterwards, and Daniel and his sister, Leah, then had to live with their grandmother for several years. During that time, Leah began to show signs of being “possessed” and stopped going out of the house. Daniel was sold to the local blacksmith, Amalek, who treated him badly. Eventually, Daniel broke his bond, ran away to the caves, and found protection and some semblance of family with Rosh and his ragtag band of men.

Ultimately, Daniel is on a path to find himself and to learn what it means to be a man. At first, he is content to do whatever Rosh asks of him, even if it includes hurting others or taking money and food from the poor. Once Daniel meets Joel bar Hezron and his sister, Malthace, things change. Daniel is at first wary of the two interlopers who find him in the hills, but he gains respect for Joel, and eventually Malthace, as they show interest in helping Rosh’s cause.

Though its context is Biblical, The Bronze Bow is much less a story about religion than it is about inner faith and the choices that determine how a boy grows up and becomes a man. Daniel’s deep attachment to Rosh is clearly born of his deep need for a father figure. Daniel is happy to do whatever Rosh asks of him as long as Daniel receives the slight companionship and praise he finds in the hills. Daniel is one of the smarter boys in the group, so he is given more difficult and complicated tasks to do and finds comfort in knowing that he pleases Rosh.

Daniel’s relationship with Rosh grows strained, however, once Daniel helps free the slave Samson. Samson is huge and powerful, but not terribly bright. He will obey only Daniel and serve only him. At first, Daniel is angered by Samson’s devotion, but it grows into a tender relationship, and he begins to have almost fatherly affection for the big man. This is the first time Daniel has truly felt responsible for another human being, and it is the catalyst that eventually leads him to find his own way in the world.

Daniel is originally jealous of Joel and his wealth and privilege. He quickly realizes, however, that he has mistaken Joel for a privileged rich boy when Joel is really a fighter at heart, like Daniel himself. Daniel continues to gain respect for Joel and ends up relying on him like a brother. Their growing relationship is crucial to Daniel’s evolution.

Another man who crops up in Daniel’s life is his old friend Simon, who was a blacksmith’s apprentice when Daniel was working for Amalek. Simon ends up becoming a benefactor to Daniel and eventually lures him back to his old life in the town. Simon brings news of Amalek’s death, so Daniel feels safe going back. When he sees the sad state that his grandmother and sister live in, Daniel feels guilty about not being there for them, but he also wants to run away to his old life. Simon is instrumental in bringing Daniel away from his life in the caves. Simon is also a Zealot, but he is a follower of Jesus and is the first one to tell Daniel about the preacher. Daniel finally embraces his responsibility to his family when his grandmother dies and he sees how much Leah needs him. He takes over Simon’s blacksmith shop when Simon begins to follow Jesus full-time.

Another of Daniel’s important male relationships...

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