A Song of Ice and Fire

Who killed Jon Arryn? George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

A Game of Thrones begins with the small scale question of the murder of Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, brother-in-law and foster father of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell. Ned is asked to become Hand in Arryn’s place, and is at once informed by Lysa, Jon’s widow, that Jon was murdered by the Lannisters. Ned begins to investigate, cautiously, and at last learns the secret Jon learned. Everything else flows from this, and the murder investigation introduces us to the complexities of the world and the court and gets us interested. It’s far from the only question raised, but it’s the first question. The actual solution to the murder is revealed at the end of A Storm of Swords, and I thought it might be interesting to look at this a little more closely.

The issue of Jon Arryn’s murder is complicated by the issue of the two attacks on Bran. The first attack—when Jaime throws him out of the window, saying “The things I do for love!” is unquestionably the work of the Lannisters, and directly related to the secret—Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous adultery and the consequent bastardy of Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen. The second attack, with the dagger, is different. Catelyn believes Littlefinger when he says the dagger was his and lost in a wager to Tyrion, and because of this she imprisons Tyrion and takes him to Lysa, where he is imprisoned and then escapes after a trial by combat. But the dagger isn’t Tyrion’s, and Tyrion finds out in A Storm of Swords that it’s Robert’s and was given to the assassin by Joffrey. I suppose Joffrey, with two Lannister parents, is about as Lannister as you can get. But the conclusion everyone jumps to, that they were trying to kill Bran to shut him up because he knew the Lannister secret, isn’t true—Joffrey doesn’t know the secret, and doesn’t know that Bran knows it.

By the end of A Game of Thrones we know that the Lannister secret must be the motive for the murder of Jon Arryn, and it makes sense that it should be. We also know that Cersei had access to poisons via Grand Maester Pycelle. It makes perfect sense for her to have done it. But she didn’t.

At the end of A Storm of Swords, Lysa says to Littlefinger that she did it on his instigation. Far from fleeing because she was terrified of the Lannisters who poisoned her husband, as she wrote to her sister, she was actually guilty of murdering him herself. Now that Lysa wanted to get rid of Arryn, to marry Littlefinger, makes sense, but why did Littlefinger want him dead? Littlefinger doesn’t want to be married to Lysa—he throws her out of the Moon Door!—he might want the Vale, and he might want to be king and see it as a stepping stone in that direction. He might have wanted to be Hand. But why did he want to protect the Lannister secret? Or did he want what happened—civil war, the secret exposed but without proof and after Robert’s death? If Arryn had revealed the secret, Robert would have put Cersei aside and disinherited the children and married Maergery Tyrell, who’d have made a pretty good queen and probably done a good job of managing Robert. There’s no reason why Robert couldn’t have lived long enough for an heir to grow up—and if not, Mace Tyrell and Jon Arryn and Ned would have been there to help. The person who would have been very angry would have been Tywin Lannister, but with proof of incestuous adultery on the part of his twins, there wouldn’t have been much he could have done.

Having said all that, Littlefinger couldn’t have predicted all the results of Jon Arryn’s murder. But he could confidently have predicted chaos, and quite likely Robert’s murder, from the combination of killing Jon and telling Ned the Lannisters had done it. Littlefinger also gives Ned other clues to the Lannister secret—showing him Gendry—and outright lies, like the provenance of the dagger. Littlefinger certainly comes well out of it—he’s positioned himself much better for the next round of chaos. He was also in favour of killing Daenerys when that was still possible—it’s interesting that from the point of view of the stability of Westeros, killing her really was a good idea. She’s going to come back with dragons.

When Lysa revealed her part in her husband’s murder I thought at first that this didn’t make sense of her behaviour with reference to Tyrion. Thinking about it this time, I was wrong. The way she acts makes just as much sense if she knows she’s guilty as if she believes he is. He shames her into allowing the trial by combat in open court in front of everyone, and then she cheats by picking her best knight even though he hasn’t volunteered. Lysa’s not someone I’d want to rely on, and Littlefinger doesn’t, he tells her to stay in the Vale and do nothing and stays away from her for as long as he can. Littlefinger, on the other hand, can lie to everyone in every breath and keep smiling, he’s a man to watch and likely to continue being a problem in the long term. Cersei murdering Jon Arryn to keep her secret would have been practically honourable compared to Littlefinger murdering him to maximize chaos and chances for his own advancement.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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