As I discussed in my previous post, Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series follows Keladry of Mindelan as she trains to become a female knight in the fictional world of Tortall. Tortall is a feudalistic monarchy with a pantheistic religious system and a very clear division of social classes between the nobles, merchants, and working/farming commoner. Even within these classes there is further divide based on fortune, size of land holdings, or how long the family has served the crown. Also within this world is a system of hereditary magic, called The Gift, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. A subplot of Kel’s series is the negotiations between the Tortallan crown and the imperial family of the Yamani Islands (another country in the world with many parallels to Japan) where Kel’s father was the ambassador for many years. Kel’s world lends itself well to a Marxian framework of examination.
Marxism in the sense of literary critique developed in the 1920s following the October Revolution in Russia and is loosely based on the political and socio-economic theories of Karl Marx, one of the founders of the Communist school of thought. The theory proposes that everything, including literature, is a social institution with a specific purpose in terms of ideology and politics based on the background of the author and the time in which it was written. Marxist literary criticism proposes that these ideas are subconscious, and that the author’s social situation will unintentionally determine everything from the characters that will develop to the political ideas and economic statements revealed in the text.
Marxism can also be used to examine literature in the more traditional form of the concept. Traditional Marxism is a socio-economic and political theory that proposes a change to the standard structure to bring about state ownership of industry, rather than privately owned, and a classless society based on common ownership of all parts from production to distribution and exchange. Marxism is based in the physical world and observable fact rather than the assumed existence of a greater world or force beyond what is knowable. Marxism most commonly manifests itself in a struggle for power between social classes.
Once you understand what Marxism is, you can begin to use it to understand your world or a world you’re reading about. For Tortall, the application comes most easily in looking at through the latter lens, as a statement on politics and social standards, examining the class structure and substructures within the government system, and in particular the way the lower classes are viewed and treated.
The main power within Tortall is the King (and in some cases the queen if she acts as a co-ruler, such as in the most recent example of King Jonathan IV and Queen Thayet who are the kingdom’s rulers during Kel’s time). Below this, but still with significant power, is the kingdom’s prime minister and several councils: the Council of Lords, the Council of Commons, and the King’s private council, who all have power in that the monarch must listen to them as both advisors and independent powers within the realm. A step below them is the aristocracy, the nobles of the country who have various privileges and act as the leaders of their own lands (fiefs, baronies, duchies, etc.), governing their people according to their own rules and the laws of the country. Within this noble system there is division in multiple forms: the conservatives vs the progressives; location based divisions; and the age of the family and which book of nobility they are recorded in, the Book of Gold (where only the oldest noble families can be found), the Book of Silver (started several hundred years after the Book of Gold but still containing the old families), the Book of Copper (where the newer noble families are, beginning about a hundred years prior), or not in any book yet (some houses, including Kel’s house of Mindelan, are so newly created that they have not been recorded). Below the nobles are the merchant class, divided by their range of reach and how much money they make and the commoners who are the working class, servants, farmers, and serfs within the kingdom (in recent years this class also contains many of the peaceful Immortal races who have taken up residence in the mortal realm). This division of classes drives several major conflicts for Kel, both physically and morally.
**Be forewarned, here there be spoilers.**
A Page and her Maid
In the beginning of the second book, Page, Kel hires a maid named Lalasa Isran at the request of her uncle (who worked for Palace and had previously served Kel). Throughout the three years covered by the book the two girls forge a close friendship with Lalasa providing Kel with aid, support, and advice as she undergoes the changes of puberty and the stresses of page training and Kel providing the older girl with protection and training on how to protect herself from men who would take advantage of her meekness. Taking advantage of that friendship in order to either a) prevent Kel from being able to complete her tests to graduate from page to squire and have to repeat the four years of training or give up, or b) ruin her reputation by forcing her to fail to help the girl under her protection as is her obligation as a noble, someone pays to have Lalasa kidnapped and hidden at the top of Balor’s Needle (the highest point on the palace grounds) the night before the Examinations, knowing it will present Kel with a no-win situation.
While the two men who actually acted in the kidnapping plot are caught and sentenced to hard labor in the country’s mines for their crimes, it initially seems like their employer will escape unknown and unpunished. However, in Squire the Watch finds him and he is arrested once he leaves the safety of his own lands (where nobles have a form of immunity as one of their privileges), and it is revealed that his is none other than bully and long-time nemesis of Kel, Joren of Stone Mountain. Kel notes that unlike his employees, he is not kept shackled or seemingly inconvenienced in any way by his arrest. He is sentenced, after admitting to the crime, to pay a fine of 100 gold crowns, the largest portion of which was paid as compensation to Kel for the inconvenience of losing Lalasa’s service for the time she was missing, the next largest as payment for legal fees, and finally only five crowns to Lalasa herself as payment for her own suffering and the delays it caused her in her dressmaking work. Kel protests this result both publically before the court at the end of the trial and in private to the King and Queen (who had attended the trial) as if it had been her who was kidnapped even a powerful noble like Joren (who was from one of the older noble houses) would have served prison time or been subject to a trial by combat, and she feels that Lalasa should have the same treatment despite her lower status. In this way, she is challenging the class system and attempting to bring about the equalization of all classes under the law.
The Marxist Knight
Lady Knight, the final book in Kel’s story, introduces another opportunity for Kel to challenge the system in a very Marxian way. As Tortall enters full-scale war with their northern neighbor of Scanra, Kel is placed in charge of a refugee camp near the border, leading soldiers and fellow knights to protect the common folk displaced by the war and help them provide for themselves and reestablish their lives. Among these refugees are numerous children, some part of displaced families and others war orphans, who become in many ways Kel’s personal charges. Then, when Kel is off in another war-camp reporting to her superiors, the camp is attacked. Many of the camp’s civilian population were kidnapped and sold to slavers rather than killed, save for the camp’s nearly 200 children, who were kept and brought to the castle of Blayce the Gallan, a powerful mage who has been creating monstrous killing devices for the enemy. Kel, once able to get away, defies the orders of her superiors and enters the enemy land to save her people, feeling they are just as important, if not more so than her own life (which she would sacrifice as her actions are considered treason and desertion).
The other important Marxian notion in this adventure is Blayce’s method of creating the killing devices. The monstrous machines, which can only be killed if the head is punctured, are powered by the souls of dead children captured in the attacks by the Scanran warriors. When a device is killed, the soul escapes the machine through the puncture hole, appearing as a white vapor and can be heard for a few moments, usually expressing the same fear and confusion they were feeling at the time of their death. It is at one point determined that the quality of the device is heavily influenced by the child’s spirit that is powering it; at one point a Kel spots a device that is slower and clumsier than the rest, and hypothesizes that the child powering it was mentally underdeveloped or unsound.
Kel is immediately outraged by these discoveries, vowing to destroy Blayce for his horrific crimes even before it is her camp’s children who are taken. Beyond the initial horror of children being murdered, the concept of Blayce’s machines captures an essential anti-Marxism concept where the lower class is used quite literally to power machines for the economic and power gains of others (and that’s not touching the idea that the adults captured were sold for even more obvious capital gain). In fighting to free her people, Kel is also challenging the control of greater powers (other nobles of higher rank than her, the government structure as a whole) and the standing up to the idea that the commoners are less important and only of value because of their usefulness, bringing in a second Marxist ideal to her essential character.