This chapter is all about Alanna's rivalry with Ralon of Malven. After Ralon picks her for his next target, Alanna turns to the different men in her life to figure out a way to beat him so badly he leaves her alone. She eventually does, but the experience leaves her with a bad taste in her mouth. However, it cements her friendship with Jonathan, so that's cool.
I spent the last chapter beating toxic masculinity like a dead horse, and guess what? I'm going to do it again. After all, this entire chapter happens because the knighthood system fails. Ralon is a disgusting person and a bully, but he kept up with his training well enough to become a squire. (I doubt he would have beaten the Chamber of the Ordeal, but Roger got his knighthood, so...) And even though everyone, and I mean everyone, at court acknowledges that Ralon is living garbage, Alanna can only make him leave by learning enough dirty tricks to beat him in a duel and humiliate him. And if Ralon had decided to stay despite that humiliation, well, then, everyone would just have to accept it--or, more likely, gang up on Ralon and find a way to hurt him even more.
But I already talked about how that system punishes the men within it, so instead I want to look at the different ways the men in this chapter cope with that punishment. Since Alanna asks all of her friends for advice, their comments and reactions make for an interesting cross section of the different ways to be a man in Tortall. We'll take this in two parts, first focusing on the men who work outside the system and then focusing on the ones who work within its bounds.
Myles is first to try and give Alanna a way to deal with the situation. By even acknowledging that Alanna is being bullied, Myles is stepping outside his prescribed bounds. The other pages are allowed to point out that Ralon is dangerous and that he might kill Alanna, but the adults are meant to turn a blind eye. Instead, Myles reaches out to Alanna, making it clear that while he's the court drunk and not considered much of a knight, he's still a safe person for her to talk to.
Alanna denies what's going on, since she knows she's not allowed to admit that she's suffering or that this might be too much for her to handle. And Myles is... unsurprised, to say the least. You thought last chapter's rant about how the Code of Chivalry is designed to break people was bleak? How about this throwaway line that I somehow never noticed in fifteen years of reading this series:
"I see much of what goes on here. It's one reason I drink so much."
Myles isn't a lush for the sake of being a lush, or even just to distract people from his position as court spymaster. He's spent his whole life trying to change a system that he knows is not good for the men within it, and he's gotten nowhere. So he drinks. THIS IS A FUN BOOK FOR CHILDREN.
Anyway, Myles is the first person who points out that Alanna has no choice but to fight Ralon, and that it's garbage. Alanna being Alanna, she doesn't understand:
"I truly love our Code of Chivalry. We are taught that noblemen must take everything and say nothing. Noblemen must stand alone. Well, we're men, and men aren't born to stand alone."
"Nobles are," Alanna replied. "Or they have to. Isn't that the same thing?"
Myles shook his head. "No, it isn't." He sighed. "You'll have to fight him in the end."
He goes on to point out that Alanna has almost no chance of beating Ralon, who as a squire is at least four years older than her, in addition to everything else. Alanna says she doesn't mind enduring the punishment--because, after all, that's what she learned in the last chapter, that she has no other choice.
Myles finally gives up on trying to convince her otherwise and offers one last piece of advice: "If you have to hit--hit low."
Alanna grins and thanks him for this advice, but Myles is not happy about having to give it. No one expects Alanna to beat Ralon--they expect her to get her butt handed to her over and over and over again, until he hurts her badly enough that she gives up and quits. Myles has doubtless seen dozens of pages fail this way, and given his position as spymaster, he's seen plenty of grown men treated badly as well. He gives Alanna this advice expecting to see her driven from the palace, and to lose a young person he's come to care for.
I mean, she kicks Ralon's ass, so that's great, but everyone ends up feeling shitty about it, so... less great.
The other character who works outside the system is George, of course. At some point I'll get to writing a post about how the shadow court works within the structure of Tortall, but that'll probably come in Lioness Rampant, when George is dealing with dissent among the ranks. For now let's look at how George deals with Alanna's issue.
George makes no highhanded claims to honor or glory, but he still upholds the same ideals as Alanna. He believes in a fair playing field, and in making sure his people are taken care of. He's just concerned about a different type of person and has a different definition of fair. When Alanna says she's having a problem with Ralon and that she wants to handle it herself, he doesn't waste any time telling her she shouldn't have to or that she will probably lose. Instead, he's just interested in making sure she's not trying to use him and that she wants to be friends for more than her own personal gain. (1) Once he's got the terms established, George is happy to help her. He doesn't waste any time on telling Alanna how things should be; he's more interested in what is.
So we have two very different approaches to dealing with Tortall's particular brand of patriarchy here. Myles wants to change the system from within, but he despairs of his ability to do that and remains realistic about what's necessary to survive. George, on the other hand, sees a system that isn't built for him, shrugs, and finds a way to exploit it. Neither is ideal, but at least they're better than the downright stupidity we encounter when we talk about the "honorable" characters. Which we'll do next time, because this is already long.
Let's also talk about Alanna for a minute since, you know, she's our main character. I feel like I don't spend enough time doing that, but to be honest, Alanna doesn't come into her own until the second book. Here, she's just fighting to stay alive and out of trouble. In book two, Alanna starts grappling with questions of character and who she really is, as opposed to fighting against who she doesn't want to be.
Alanna's interactions with George are the first sign she's the right person to change things in Tortall. When she approaches George for help, he assumes she only befriended him for personal gain instead of liking him for himself. Alanna bristles at the very idea:
Alanna stood, shoving her chair from the table so hard that it fell over. "If that's what you think I want, I'm off," she snapped. "I--I thought--" She bit a trembling lip. How could he think she would make such a disgraceful request? (2)
Alanna is committed to the ideals of knighthood. She believes in defending the weak, working hard for what you want, and supporting your fellows. But she's not married to the actual system. If the system fails to live up to what it preaches, Alanna will step outside of it to find what she needs. She would never order an anonymous hit on one of her enemies because that's dishonorable. But she would go and learn "dirty fighting" from a thief, also supposedly dishonorable, in the interests of making sure she can do it herself.
(1) I mean, Alanna's intentions should have been obvious, because Alanna is about as subtle as a brick dropped off the side of a building, but, you know, our favorite bisexual is probably already falling for her, and love makes a man stupid.
(2) I love small angry Alanna more than anything in all the world. Luckily, she stays small and angry forever.