"You're here, Alan of Trebond, to learn what it is to be a knight and a noble of Tortall. It's not easy. You must learn to defend the weak, to obey your overlord, to champion the cause of right." (2.6)
The way Lord Gareth describes the place of the knight and the noble in Tortall society, it almost makes it sound like part of an ecosystem. The knight/noble answers to the king, and in turns owes his services to those below him. Which sounds nice and all, assuming that everyone stays in his place like a cog in a machine. And as we all know, machines never break…
"If I were anyone else, they wouldn't have two words to say to me. But I'm the prince, and I think every man in that room wanted something from me" (7.43).
Even at a young, tender age, Jonathan has learned that being prince puts him at the center of attention now and forever. He has the sense to not let it go to his head, but just imagine having to always take what people say with a grain of salt because they might be talking to your status instead of you. We here at Shmoop have to deal with that all the time, and trust us: it's a mind-trip.
The next class was deportment, or manners as they were practiced by nobles. Alanna had learned very early to say "Please" and "Thank you," but she quickly realized that these were only the rudiments of deportment. She did not know how to bow. She did not know how to address a Lord as opposed to an Earl. She did not know which of three spoons to use first at a banquet. (2.100)
Apparently there's more to being a noble than being born into the right family. Nobles have to act proper and polite, know how to address each other so as not to give offense, and other boring business like that. How does knowing the right etiquette help uphold the social order, again?
Stefan shook his head. "It's th' rules—we don't mess in the nobles' fights." (3.129)
Okay, a couple ways to interpret this. On the one hand, it makes Tortall's society look very segregated, as though the nobles and the lower classes never intermingle. Clearly, they do—just not officially. On the other hand, rules like this serve to protect the lower classes. In societies with rigid hierarchies, when it's one person's word against another's, the higher-class person will often be seen as telling the truth. So perhaps the lower classes know better than to get caught up in noble nonsense out of a sense of self-preservation.
Duke Gareth's lecture the day after Alanna fought Ralon was long and impressive. He spoke to her about the duty one noble owes another noble, about keeping the peace on the palace grounds and about people who became bullies. He informed her that fighting with the hands was an undignified pastime taken up by commoners, or an art practiced by Shang warriors—and that she was neither a commoner nor a Shang warrior. (4.1)
Oy, where to start? All this duty business is making us reconsider living the luxe lifestyle. Nobles are constrained by duty more than other social classes—they can't even engage in hand-to-hand fighting. Sheesh. Is there anything nobles can do? Other than be polite to each other?
"I wonder what this is…Probably some back-country boy who thinks he's a noble." (2.37)
Oh, Ralon, you big bully. How we love to hate you. Not only is he mean, he's also a nasty elitist who seems to think being from the country is some terrible crime. We're pretty sure that being from the country doesn't automatically make you not noble, or bad, or whatever Ralon seems to think is going on.
"Truth to tell, were you not with Alan, I wouldn't have put myself in your way. We're not fond of nobles here." (2.194)
Preach it, George! We can imagine why the citizens of the lower city might not be that into nobles. In a feudal social system, nobles are theoretically supposed to care for the people who are within their protection…but in what social system does the upper class manage to actually to look out for all the impoverished and homeless people out there? Definitely not Tortall's, where the rich do what they like, and the poor get ignored. No wonder George and his kind generally stay away from nobles.
Here Jon was "Johnny," the rich merchant's son George had taken a liking to. At the Dancing Dove men didn't fall respectfully silent when Jonathan spoke…No one ever guessed that the heir to the throne was sitting there, sipping a tankard of ale and occasionally tossing a set of dice. (6.265-266)
If people treat you differently when they know you're royalty vs. when they're in the dark, that's a clue that your society might have some class issues. We think it's pretty cool that Jonathan masquerades as a non-royal in order to hang out with the lower classes and learn about their way of life. Maybe he's not as stuck up as other nobles seem to be.
"I've friends in the palace," George said. "There isn't much you can keep from your servants, Highness." (5.133)
Truth: high-class people tend to ignore their servants, acting as though they don't count as people. So if a servant is nearby when a noble just so happens to discusses something that's supposed to be a secret, oops! There goes that secrecy. Servants are probably supposed to keep that stuff to themselves, but the Rogue's people have their own priorities. George's well-informed network of spies gives him knowledge to bargain with, while the nobles have other advantages such as wealth and social status.
For a moment she wanted to turn and run, but Ralon was waiting back at home. Better to face George's friends—who were honest villains—than Ralon the sneak. (3.160)
Once she's at the palace, Alanna quickly learns that social class is not the main determinant of someone's worth as a human being. The way she sees it, lower-class folks who are up front about their agendas have more honor than nobles like Ralon. And it's better to confront an enemy openly than have someone back-stabbing you.