In July 2012 I read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman for the first time. I loved it, and since then I have been an evangelist for this book, telling everyone and their mom (literally) that they should read it. It’s been on my TBRR list since that first read, so I finally decided to do it. I put aside the big stack of unread books and once again jumped into the world of Masada.
I have to say: this book was even better the second time. Then, I was pretty sure this book made my top five. Now I know it is my #1 historical fiction novel. (Note that it does not replace JE as my #1 of all time ever.) So, seriously. Stop reading this post and go read The Dovekeepers. Well…you can keep reading if you want to.
Today I really want to dig in to one of the major thematic images and symbols throughout the novel: the lion. Or, rather, the lioness.
I picked up on the mention of lions right away. My name, Ariel, is Hebrew for “lion of God,” and I’ve always been fascinated with the many implications my name has. I won’t pretend like the connection between my name and the book isn’t one of the reasons I love the book so much; it is. Let’s just say “Roar” is totally my anthem.
From the earliest pages, Yael tells us, “I always knew a lion would be waiting for me.” She dreams of lions, and in her dreams they attack her, eating her alive. They seem to follow her everywhere, and her feelings toward lions are complex. Obviously, she fears them, but she is drawn to them just as they seem to be drawn to her.
When she and her father flee from Jerusalem when the Temple is destroyed, they are accompanied by Jachim Ben Simon and his wife, Sia. Both her father and Ben Simon are reknowned assassins, known for their fierceness and merciless slaughter. Yael should be afraid of Ben Simon. He is marked by a terrible scar on his face, which he got while fighting a lion as a gladiator in Rome. Miraculously, the lion died and Ben Simon was just left with the scar. After a short time, Yael falls in love with Ben Simon. She calls him her lion, because she knows he has the ability to hurt her and that she will never be the same after him.
But the lions in Yael’s thoughts are not just fierce destroyers. In one of her dreams, a lion allows himself to be eaten whole by a snake. She feels compassion “for this wild beast, the king of the desert, for in my dreams he had given in to the snake without a fight.” Although Yael loves Ben Simon and is pregnant with his child, Ben Simon, too, gives in to the illness that takes over his wife and family, choosing to stay with them instead of going with Yael and her father to seek medicine. Losing him scars Yael, just as Ben Simon was scarred. “I’d been bitten by a lion,” she says, “but you had to look inside me to see the scar.”
Yael is not so reconciled to death. “What bitter, brutal thing would I not be willing to do? In the cave I had grown teeth and claws.” She does whatever is necessary to keep herself and her father alive—killing doves and anything else so that they could eat. When they finally arrive at Masada, Yael is as fierce as lioness, since she has nothing left to lose. Which is why it is ironic that she is sent to work in the dovecote, caring for the thousands of doves whose droppings keep the fortress’s orchards and crops well fertilized in the midst of the desert. But that part of her, the part that knows what it’s like to starve and what it takes to survive, does not die. “Once a lion attacked, it would not back away. It would fight to the end, until there was a surrender and nothing was left but bones.” When her son is born, she names him “Aryeh,” which is Hebrew for lion.
Yael’s time in the wilderness has taught her something important about dealing with animals: patience. She can sit still and persuade any animal to come to her, a talent that proves very useful throughout the book.
Yael’s storyline climaxes when the Romans finally come to lay siege to Masada. The Romans bring with them a lion, whom they chain up where the Jews can see it. The lion is not just important to Yael; the lion is the symbol of Judah. So the Jews in Masada get the Romans’ point. A challenge starts spreading throughout Masada: can anyone free the lion? I’m sure you can guess what happens next. I was reminded of Eowyn killing the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings; another narrator calls Yael their bravest warrior, “for surely no man would have dared to approach a lion.” That scene is EPIC.
There is so much more to this book, so I promise I didn’t just ruin it for you. Other themes/images are perhaps even more dominant than lions: magic and sorcery, water, desert, animals in general. But the lions in Yael’s story—and Yael herself, as a lioness—really captured the fierceness of the Jews, their loyalty to God, their determination to never surrender to the Romans. The lions are constantly having to choose between survival and standing their ground no matter the cost. If you know me, you know I love a good ethical dilemma storyline. Somehow, in The Dovekeepers, Yael is able to accomplish both: she knows how to survive, and she manages to never quite give up her true identity.
I hope with my name I can live up to that model of fierceness.