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...
(The entire section is 2582 words.)