As Hank, Arthur, and the slaves march toward London, Arthur broods over the insult of being sold for a mere $7. No matter what subject Hank tries to divert him to, he always works back around to this issue. His noble bearing is a mark against him to potential buyers, who are wary of his “thirty-dollar style.” To cure this defect, the slave driver spends a week trying to beat him into submission, but he’s unable to dampen Arthur’s noble spirit. Faced with the knowledge that Arthur will remain a man till he dies, the slave driver gives up.
Although Hank also considered his selling price insulting, he judges Arthur for continually griping about being sold for such a small amount. In part, potential buyers interpret his noble bearing as a defiant attitude. This adds to the sense that Arthur’s kingly attitude arises from his character and not just his training and the external circumstance of being given power, since he retains it even when his power is gone. His dignity won’t even succumb to violent beatings.
One good thing comes of the experience: Arthur completely reverses his opinion on the question of abolishing slavery, something he refused to even talk to Hank about when they were at Camelot. His change of heart increases Hank’s desire to escape. But true to form, he prefers a theatrical, attention-grabbing plan rather than an expedient one. He’s even willing to delay their freedom by months for the sake of making a dramatic getaway.
Never one to waste an opportunity, Hank uses the experience to bring about one of his cherished political goals: the abolition of slavery. This also demonstrates the importance of experience to empathy—earlier the king couldn’t imagine the life of a commoner or a slave, but having experienced both, he has more compassion. Notably, too, Hank’s desire to put on a good show—to shame his captors and increase his own reputation yet further—prevents a timelier escape.
Along the way, they have several adventures that show how brutal and dehumanizing life is in sixth-century Britain. Once, a snowstorm catches the band by surprise on the road. Several slaves die of exposure. While the rest jump about trying to stay warm, a woman rushes into their midst, pursued by a mob that wants to burn her as a witch. The slave driver relinquishes her to the mob after they promise to erect the stake right there, and the heat of her execution prevents the rest of the slaves from dying.
The episodes from the slave drive emphasize how dehumanizing slavery is and highlight the injustice of the medieval society, opposing the old guard’s hierarchy to the democratic impulse of Hank’s 19th-century America. The slave driver’s inhumane but utilitarian use of the alleged witch leans on hyperbole to reinforce the book’s anti-superstitious, anti-elitist social commentary.
Then, on the outskirts of London, they watch as a young mother with a baby at her breast is carried to her execution. A priest accompanies the woman and tells her sad tale to the assembled crowd, and Hank paraphrases the priest’s words in his account. He notes that sometimes justice fails, as in this case. The woman’s husband was (legally) forced into naval service without her knowledge. In his absence, she could no longer support herself and their child, and when she reached a truly desperate stage of poverty and starvation, she stole a piece of cloth which she intended to sell so she could buy some food. The cloth merchant caught her in the act and pressed charges.
For the third time, the book uses the tragic story of an oppressed woman to show the depths of depravity and injustice inherent in feudal society. The book borrows ideas from other time periods to create this vignette—press gangs like the one that forced the woman’s husband into the navy were indeed a danger to English men in the 17th-19th centuries. Nevertheless, the story criticizes the cruelty of a system that further represses the powerless and which treats the lives of common men and women as property of the state.
At the trial, the woman admitted her guilt but explained her pitiful extenuating circumstances. Everyone—including the cloth merchant—wanted the judge to show her mercy. But the judge, noting an increase in petty theft, was afraid that leniency would encourage more crime, so he upheld the sentence of death. The cloth merchant was so horrified that he died by suicide.
The pitiable woman exemplifies extenuating circumstances—the idea that the seriousness of her crime and punishment should be considered in light of the challenges that led her to commit it. Yet, the judge, protected by noble privilege and unable to imagine such desperation and hunger, upholds the law and makes an example of the woman.
In the present, the priest contends that the rulers and lawmakers of Britain are guilty of murdering both the merchant and the woman. When the noose is around the woman’s neck, the baby is pried from her arms, and as she gives it one last kiss, the priest promises to be its “father […] friend […] and mother” until his death. There are no words to describe the look of gratitude the woman gives the priest.
The priest’s actions stand in stark contrast to the inhumanity of the judge and the general inhumanity that Hank and the book have attributed to the Roman Catholic Church up to this point. In this way, the priest represents the best impulses of religion—charity, kindness, and love—when it’s divorced from the corrupting influence of political and economic power.