"Far more merciful than you deserve:" Feudal Vigilantism and Noblesse Oblige in the Works of Tamora Pierce
Tortall is a country of the High Middle Ages, perhaps even the early Renaissance, where a strong, centralized government standardizes and enforces a common law. Through the course of Ms Pierce's three series, we see the institution of the nobility become more and more obsolete, as the merchant class rises and begins to demand its rights. Noble privilege is being curtailed, and even the aristocracy is being made to submit to royal authority. For all the talk of this reform, though, justice, in serious cases, seems to rest outside the sphere of kingly jurisdiction. That is to say, few major criminals are brought to trial and duly sentenced and executed. Rather, they are killed in the heat of battle, or simply killed. Both Alanna of Trebond and Keladry of Mindelan, as knights of their realm, take justice into their own hands in this manner without censure and often with approbation.
Distrust of the legal process seems thus to be a prominent theme in Ms Pierce's novels. Twice the law fails to bring Duke Roger to justice: both times he must be challenged and defeated by a lone, courageous individual who cuts (literally and figuratively) through layers of deception to expose and kill the traitor. It is a convenient situation, convenient in that it protects the character of the king. Jonathon is never faced with the troubling prospect of executing his only remaining relative, a scenario that could not help but be awkward. Instead, he is allowed to remain aloof and unquestionable, and his hands stay clean.
The courts, as they stand, generally represent a failure of justice in Tortall. Duke Roger is legally reinstated, despite his treason, and although Alanna does not circumvent the law when she kills him a second time, she serves him justice without its aid. Keladry, too, works outside of the law in order to see justice done. She disobeys express orders to find the "Nothing Man," even contemplates killing him in cold blood, although she eventually disposes of him in a battle. Daine may be the only one of Ms Pierce's heroines who captures an enemy of the crown alive, as she does to Yolane of Dunlath in Wolf Speaker. This fact is most interesting when compared to what has been previously noted about Alanna and Keladry's records. Wherein does the essential difference lie between the three women? Alanna and Keladry are nobles. It is the heritage of their caste to judge and deliver justice as they see fit. They hearken to an earlier time, a period that presumably existed in Tortall before its dominance by the Conté line, where nobles dealt out "high justice" to those in their domains. Daine, by contrast, is a peasant. She has neither right nor precedent to act in such a way, and she does not presume to it. When she is given divine mandate however, as in Emperor Mage, she does not hesitate to mete out summary justice, even to a monarch. Due to their noble caste, Keladry and Alanna have such a mandate in their blood. They need no special permission.
It is not only in matters of treason that Tortall's nobles take the law into their own hands. As the crown prince, Jonathon of Conté disobeys express orders to the contrary when he crosses into enemy territory to rescue his squire. This instance archetypifies the feudal bond that transcends the law of the State. As his squire's overlord, albeit a temporary one, Jonathon is obliged to rescue "Alan." To do otherwise would be to betray the oath of fealty that presumably exists between them.
Keladry as well takes her obligations very seriously. She, too, acts in direct contradiction of orders to rescue her people, to whom she feels a paternalistic duty. She feels it more important to protect her inferiors than to follow orders, if the two are in conflict. This too is a distinctly feudal and manorial perspective. This example does not require her to mediate a dispute between two commoners, or to deal out justice, but Keladry and her companions in knighthood seem to have few qualms in that area as well. Nealan of Queenscove imposes a harsh magical penalty, the illegality of which is more than hinted at, on an innkeeper as punishment for beating his servant, acknowledging the while that village justice is not to be trusted. In other words, the lower and middle classes cannot be relied upon to deal even with each other fairly. Without nobles, it is implied, the weak would be downtrodden and corrupt and stupid, but strong, folk would flourish. Nealan brushes the innkeeper's protests off, not by pronouncing the righteousness of the man's punishment, but by simple annunciation of his own power as a noble: "Who will impress the Crown more, swine? The oldest son of [the Duke of] Queenscove, or you?" The implication is that he can do whatever he wishes, just or unjust, by virtue of his position. He, and the rest of his class, ought to be obeyed not only because they are right, but also because they are powerful. And this comes from one of the more liberal, reformist nobles of the realm.
A central government has come to power in Tortall, and it is gathering in the power of the nobility. That gathering is far from completed, however, and relics of the old, personal bonds of feudalism are still too common to be even called such. And for all the talk of reform, the personage of the lone knight, powerful and righteous, still holds sway over all.