Sep 18 2009 10:32am
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.

Marcus W
1. toryx
The revelation of all this: Littlefinger's constant manipulations, Lysa's murder of her husband (and eventual death at the hands of Littlefinger) is probably the best part of aFfC.

The machinations and political intrigue of the series never ceases to impress me. It seems so intricate and complex but at the same time strikes me as very real. If those kinds of things actually go on in our own (American) political system (with outright murder replaced by political assassination) it'd explain a great many things.
2. EmmaPease
I wonder how much Littlefinger knows about the machinations of Varys (not yet sure of what his plans are) and Dorne (place Daenerys on the throne married to a Martell).
3. Steven Till
Good article, Jo. It will be very interesting indeed to see how Littlefinger plays out in the next installment. He is in a strong position for sure. It will also be interesting to see how the arrival of Daenerys -- if and when she comes -- affects the political scale in Westeros. There are so many complex plot points that I hope George can tie them all together. I heard yesterday that A Dance with Dragons was not going to be released until the fall of 2010 now.

Steven Till
4. SimplyAmazed
After reading this article and having read the series quite a while ago, I'm glad I'm rereading the series. All the intrigue has me on edge and hoping for more in anticipation of the release of the new book next year.
Ellen B. Wright
5. ellenw
Are you going to be doing posts for other unresolved mysteries/questions of motivation? ("Who are Jon Snow's parents?" being an obvious one...) This was a good refresher on some details I'd forgotten.
6. Lsana
I'm pretty sure that Littlefinger didn't want to protect the Lannister secret. I'm pretty sure that he was the one who let the cat out of the bag in the first place by raising Stannis's suspicions.

My belief is that Littlefinger orchestrated Jon Arryn's murder for the purpose of bringing the Starks into the conflict. Littlefinger's motives are a bit obscure, but he unquestionably wanted Catelyn back and it seems likely he wanted revenge on the Starks for taking Catelyn away and for his humilation in the duel with Brandon. Littlefinger could have pulled off the civil war with or without murdering Jon, but the Starks would have been in the North and might very well have decided to sit the whole thing out. That doesn't suit his purpose.

As an aside, I have to take issue with the idea that Maergery would have made such a great queen. She would probably have been better than Cersei, but that isn't a high bar. The more I re-read the series, the more I think that Littlefinger-speaking-through-Dontos was right: the Tyrells are no more than Lannisters with flowers.
7. Jeff R.
Littlefinger did, in fact, want to be married to Lysa, as a way of securing the Vale. I think that throwing her out the Moon Door was as impulsive and uncalculated an act as he has ever committed, motivated by his learning that he had not actually managed to bed Cersei after all (but rather Lysa-pretending-to-be-Cersei) and his having Sansa as an even better Cersei-substitute.

(Second the request for a Snow post, or perhaps a broader Three Heads of the Dragon one...)
8. LadyBelaine
The Tyrells are umpjumped parvenues who lust for power and riches and high status, but are simply much better at public relations than the Lannisters.

This is why Margaery might have been a decent queen - she knows all about how to use the machinery of glamor and style to affect the public will.
9. Superquail
Margaery as Queen is something I've been looking forward to. Under the tutelage of her nastily sharp grandmother she is unlikely to fall easy victim to the court intrigue that destroyed Ned Stark. Cersei did manage to get Margaery thrown into the church's prison, but on evidence so flimsy that I think she will be exonerated through the trial process rather than condemned by it.

Littlefinger is one of my favorite characters, right up there with Tyrion. He is extremely intelligent and he's looking at the big picture, the state of the realm as a whole. I think he knows perfectly well what Dany has been up to (his comment about the three queens could be a reference to Cersei, Margaery and Stannis' wife, but I don't think so) and wants to make sure he's on her side when she comes.

As Lord of Harrenhall and Protector of the Vale, Littlefinger essentially controls 2/7 of the Westeros. With Sansa under his control, Littlefinger could make a claim on the North, putting more than half the landmass of Westeros under his control. I don't know if he intends to be king, but he certainly plans on being a major player.
Evan Leatherwood
10. ELeatherwood
Littlefinger is not only an amazingly well-drawn character, he is immensely useful for Martin as well.

I'm sure Martin has a set of good, deeply buried motivations for Littlefinger, but it seems like he is also used as a "WTF!!???" plot randomizer. Whenver something needs to happen in any direction, along comes Littlefinger. Every good story of political intrigue needs a Littlefinger.
11. Lsana
@9 Superquail,

Don't forget that Littlefinger also knows about the Tyrell involvement in Joffery's death. If he has any proof to that effect (and I know him well enough to at least suspect that he does), he's got a pretty good hold on the Reach as well.

As for the other realms, we'll see. He's got the Vale pretty much under his thumb. Whether he can take control of the North depends on whether the Northerns see Sansa or "Arya" as the legitimate heir; that one could go either way. The realm that I see him having the most trouble with, ironically, is the only one that is nominally his: the Riverlands. He may be the de jure leader, but de facto, everyone looks to either Riverrun or the Twins. If he wants to take control of the Riverlands, he's going to have to be physically present at Harrenhal, and he seems reluctant to go there for some unknown reason...
Elio García
12. Egarcia
@7 Jeff R.,

I think you mean Catelyn, not Cersei. And personally, I don't think he believes it was because of learning that it wasn't Catelyn. In fact, I'm not sure he has learned it wasn't Catelyn: he wasn't in the room when Lysa revealed that.

@11 Lsana,

Not only does he know about it, he was intimately involved -- he provided the poison and the means to get it to the Tyrells at the banquet. It cuts both ways, reall. Both he and the Queen of Thorns seem to have struck something of a balance, where they can intrigue together, or they can intrigue apart, but there's a limit to how far they'll take the game.

The same may be said of Littlefinger and Varys. Littlefinger believes he has Varys by the stones, so to speak. Varys remarks about how he doesn't understand what Littlefinger is up to with his meddling. I think in this, Littlefinger's proven more devious than Varys: his occasional choice to perform a random action (like killing Joffrey) to keep the other players in the game unbalanced seems very clever.

He's a wonderful schemer, one of the best I've had the pleasure to read, in part because his genius feels like ... well, like human genius. Steven Erikson has a manipulator character introduced later in his series who is just more of a deus ex machina in his awful cleverness. Dorothy Dunnett, of course, has the likes of Niccolo, and those are great fun, but the brilliance of her characters is not quite on a human scale if that makes sense. They're awe-inspiring, but the games they play are too deep for most readers to be able to figure out.

There's nothing that Littlefinger does that feels out of place, that doesn't seem like something an ambitious, clever, audaciously ruthless person could come up with.

I'm not sure what his aim is, though, at the end of the day. Becoming the power behind the throne, perhaps, with Sansa and Harry the Heir ruling the Seven Kingdoms?
13. peachy
The key question with Littlefinger for me is whether he's a free agent (ie, sowing chaos to create opportunities for his own advancement and vengeance) or part of the pro-Targaryen faction - though it's far from clear whether the different elements of that faction (in particular Dorne and Varys/Illyrio) are aware of each other, much less co-operating. (It's true that he was in favour of Dany's assassination, but with Littlefinger it's difficult to believe anything he says, especially in public - and in any case, the person directly responsible for setting it up is almost certainly on her side.)
14. Lsana
@12 Egarcia,

We know that Littlefinger was intimately involved in the poisoning of Joff, but I'm not positive that the QoT knows. The description he gave to Sansa about how the whole thing works made me think that he used several intermediaries. She may not be entirely sure about who was the source of the poison.

The "why" of what Littlefinger is doing still eludes me, though. He wanted revenge on the Starks, and he's gotten it. He wanted Catelyn, but that ship has sailed. At this point, I'm wondering if he still has a concrete goal or if he's just playing the game because that's what he does.
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Superquail: I think by "three queens" he means Cersei, Margaery and Myrcella -- they're the ones Feast is concerned with, and the ones wrecking the kingdom.
16. Peter S.
I've been wondering whether the story of Jon Arryn's death might even be a little more complicated. Did Littlefinger tell Cercei that he had Jon Arryn's squire Hugh poison Jon to keep Cercei's secret from being discovered? This could have led to Cercei getting Gregor to kill Hugh in the tournament.

Pycelle (who was in league with Cercei) said that Hugh did it; the circumstances of Hugh's death are suspicious; and this wouldn't be too surprising from Littlefinger.
17. Jeff R.
Ack! Of course; Catelyn.

And I think that the toss coincides fairly closely with the point where Littlefinger has enough information (between the nature and strength of Catelyn's denials and his current regular experience of Lyta, among other things) to put it together even if he didn't have ears hidden somewhere in that scene.
Elio García
18. Egarcia
Lsana @14,

I don't believe Daenerys was on his radar when he started his manipulations. Now, it may be that now that he's aware of her (because we know he has Free Cities resources of his own), he's already got contingencies in place in case he ends up having to side with her, and making sure he gains maximum profit from it. But overall, I don't think he's loyal to anyone but himself.

I can imagine he's not really passionately interested in anything beyond winning for the sake of winning, and that he doesn't really have any better goal than that.

bluejo @15,

Yes, that's one reading. The other may be that Daenerys is being counted as one of the three, but it seems hard to fit that into the context -- while I'm sure he's aware of her, it's going to be a good while yet for her to actually stir trouble in Westeros-proper. Myrcella might well be the better option.

Peter @16,

I've always supposed Varys took advantage of the coincidence of Gregor killing Ser Hugh (which was rather unpredictable, requiring Ser Hugh to win his first match, to have his second match be against Ser Gregor, and to fail to properly affix his gorget so that he'd be vulnerable) to make Ned trust him more.

For me, the most interesting thing to consider is that Littlefinger is very probably the person who tipped Stannis off to the issue of the paternity of Cersei's children, which begins the ball rolling to the present state of affairs.

Jeff @17,

I don't think he was privy to Catelyn's repeated denials. She only denies it out loud once, to Tyrion, as far as I recall; and Tyrion never brought that up in the (fun) one-on-one scene in ACoK.
19. Superquail
Littlefinger seems to have spies, informers, and allies everywhere. He has the Queen of Thornes in Highgarden, the Kettleblacks in King's Landing, and quite a few people in the Vale working for him.

Do you think Littlefinger have any assets in Dorne? If so, who is it? My money is on Darkstar. He seems to be a bit of a wildcard. I have no doubt that he knows about the attempt to crown Myrcella, and the disastrous results thereof.

Do you think Littlefinger has any friends among the Ironmen? I find that hard to believe, but Asha is a canny one who might be persuaded to go along with a plan that she thought would be the best for her people. And she's been AWOL since the King's Moot.

Littlefinger's argument to Sansa that he had absolutely no motivation to kill Joffrey and that was why it was so awesome reminded me of the old movie "Strangers on a Train" where two strangers meet and each agrees to help the other kill someone. The killer would have no motive and the person with the motive would be sure to have a solid alibi. I wonder if Martin ever saw that movie . . .

The only thing I'm really sure about is that Littlefinger wants Sansa in a very sexual and creepy way. He knows that he can't marry her (at least not yet) and that he needs to keep her virginity intact if he wants to seal this deal with Harry the Heir, but it's clear that he sees her as a mini-Catelyn, and one who is entirely under his control. Talk about a fantasy come true!

One other possibility for a queen in Westeros is Robb Stark's wife, Jeyne Westerling. Since Robb's death the whole "king in the north" thing has fallen apart, but if she were pregnant, that baby would have a claim to Winterfell, among other things. Though it seems pretty clear that she isn't.

There's something about Jeyne that kind of bothers me. Check out this description of her from Catelyn's POV:

"She was pretty, undeniably, with her chestnut curls and heart-shaped face, and that shy smile. Slender, but with good hips, Catelyn noted. She should have no trouble bearing children, at least."

But when Jaime sees her, he describes her like this:

"Jeyne was a willowy girl, no more than fifteen or sixteen, more awkward than graceful. She had narrow hips, breasts the size of apples, a mop of chestnut curls, and the soft brown eyes of a doe."

How did her hips sudden go from "good child-bearing hips" to "narrow"? Is this the same girl?
Elio García
20. Egarcia
Jeff R.,

An additional objection to the idea that Littlefinger knew: you mentioned that his experiences of Lysa (as her husband, I assume) would raised doubts in his mind. But you should probably have said his experience of her in King's Landing over the last seven years should have done so, since it seems exceptionally probable that he was carrying out an affair with her over that entire time.

In fact, it seems possible that Robert is his son, not Jon Arryn's. Which will give a nice, cold-blooded turn to The Winds of Winter when he finally gets rid of little Robert with a dose of sweetsleep, and mentions to Sansa in passing that Robert was probably his son followed by a shrug.


Same girl. Just a small slip from GRRM; he should have sent the whole AFfC MS my way, I would have caught that one for him... ;)

Alternatively, perhaps Catelyn's standard for good hips is lower than Jaime's. But I'm betting a slip, right alongside the changing eye-color of Renly Baratheon, the gender of Bran's horse, and a number of other minor details like that.
Kristina Blake
21. kab1
@20 Egarcia, all good reasons for you to receive Dance early for proofreading!

So, we are assuming that Lysa never once told Littlefinger that it was her that night and not Catelyn, nor did she ever tell him about the lost baby? I find this hard to swallow especially if they were having an affair the whole time in King's Landing. Or maybe they continued to sleep together after that night and he assumed the lost baby came from subsequent couplings.
I do like the idea of Robert being his son, and the scenario Egarcia writes @20.

@6Lsanna- I totally agree with your thinking on why Littlefinger had Jon Arryn murdered. great comments!
Elio García
22. Egarcia
Kab1 21@,

Indeed, Lysa's pregnancy came from the second time they slept together, not the first. The second time was while Littlefinger was convalescing after his failed duel with Brandon Stark.

I believe Lysa explicitly states that that was the occasion when she conceived.

As to not having told him about the first time they slept together, I think we see she was aware that it mattered to him that he thought it was Catelyn. She said she didn't mind when he called out Cat's name that first time. Furthermore, over time we see her hysteria and her jealousy play out, and it seems to me that deep down she was afraid of what Petyr would think of her or do if she told him the truth about that night. She kept it as her little secret, I think.

Just my reading of the situation, in any case.

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