We’ll be immediately talking spoilers today, so if you’ve not read the series or watched HBO’s Game of Thrones, beware!
Once more, with feeling: This article is chock full of SPOILERS for ALL of the released books in the series, which means it also includes spoilers for the TV show.
The “A Song of Ice and Fire” series has a lot of terrific qualities, but one of the ones that seems to most strongly drive reader participation in communities like the Westeros.org forum are the conspiracies and intrigues. The very first novel is set up by two key, inter-related conspiracies: [highlight to read] the alleged assassination of the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, and the conspiracy to keep secret the incestuous love affair of Queen Cersei and her brother Ser Jaime Lannister. Untangling these mysteries is something that takes three novels to really resolve entirely. They motivate a great deal of the action....
And it’s all thanks to masterminds, it seems, the clever, ambitious schemers.
There’s quite a few schemers, of course, but we can’t say all of them are terribly clever. Queen Cersei seems early on to be one such... but when Lord Tywin rages (as much as he ever rages) about her foolishness in handling matters with Ser Barristan Selmy, Eddard Stark, and so on, we’re reminded that what seems like genuine cleverness may be nothing more than the result of having such weak sauce for competition: neither Ned or Robert were ever going to take prizes for intrigue and subterfuge, constitutionally incapable of taking part in such activities as they were. So much fell into her lap in A Game of Thrones, and by A Storm of Swords she has been so thoroughly sidelined by her father that even Tyrion feels pity with her. When the reins of power finally come into her hand, the trauma of her son’s death, the stress of ruling (which leads her to drink, gluttonous eating, and putting on weight in an echo of Robert’s dissolute deterioration), and the fact that she finally has no restraint and no longer feels her back is to the wall reveals just how out of her depth she truly is, and always has been. Cersei fought best when she was cornered.
No, if we’re looking for genuine masterminds, we need to look elsewhere. Lord Tywin, of course, is an obvious choice—he is Machiavelli’s ideal prince, alive in Westeros. Forceful, preferring to be feared than loved, able and willing to show mercy and compromise, Tywin Lannister really did seem like the sort of man who came along in a thousand years, as Grand Maester Pycelle eulogizes. He had his flaws—boy, did he ever!—but what we see of him as Hand, both past and present, shows a man who was extremely capable, who had a facile way with power. His pride may have been overweening, and he was certainly an awful father... but he knew how to get the job done when it came to ruling a realm. His pragmatic ruthlessness and the fact that his actions were so very rarely personal—simply the results of cold calculations—makes him enticing. He owns half the realm’s debt, doubtless a deliberate policy to tie Robert closer to him; he positions his daughter as queen; he prepares to take Robert Arryn (that’d be Robin, on the TV show) as his ward, until Lysa runs off with him; and when it comes to war, he provokes the riverlords with predictable results, smashing their forces and rolling them up.
But he makes too many mistakes to be a real mastermind. His plotting is relatively straightforward, not deep, Byzantine intrigues that are unfathomable (well, except that one time that he set up the failure of Robb’s efforts to get an heir...) And what he wants is very clear: his due place as the most powerful man in the realm. He botches things on the battlefield, misreading Robb Stark as a “green boy,” a curious blindspot since it’s probable that the Red Lion of Castamere—a famed soldier and the most powerful bannerman of the Lannisters—thought much the same when young Tywin defeated him in the field, crushing his rebellion, destroying House Reyne entirely and leaving their castle of Castamere as an empty ruin that served as a warning. I’d note that a bit of luck fell into his lap, as well, that Robb Stark was quite so much his father’s son as to decide to marry Jeyne Westerling (yes, Tywin had a hand in it, too, but it must have been a bit of a longshot!), the catalyst for Robb’s ultimate downfall....
But maybe a true mastermind makes his own luck. Which is probably why Tyrion isn’t really a mastermind, because he’s as without luck as anyone you can imagine. Sharp, clever, decent but with the ability (or the flaw) of being able to force that quality out of the way to do the occasional ugly thing, his brief reign as acting Hand showed a great deal of promise. He made what use he could of his sister’s few decent plans, and spent much of the rest of the novel effectively keeping her in check—everything he wants to do, he does, despite her efforts to deny him—while tending to the defense of King’s Landing with skill enough to impress Lord Tywin. But he has an Achilles’ heel or two. His misshapen appearance makes him an easy target for hatred, and so he has all of Cersei’s ire aimed at him, and Tywin’s... and Joffrey’s, which plays directly into his downfall when he’s at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in a situation that highlights their mutual dislike right in time for Joffrey to be poisoned. Besides that, he wants to be loved and respected, and wanting these things—wanting applause like mummers, monkeys, and the Mad King, as Tywin notes—is a genuine weakness. His political downfall was remarkable, but something that tends to go unnoticed is that his moral downfall takes place, all quite due to love; his neediness for Shae gives the Lannisters more rope to hang him with, as she testifies against him, and his disastrous love affair with Tysha motivates both the murders of Shae and Tywin. Those acts are not things to cheer about, because it’s easy to see that they’re acts done when the decency has been crushed out of him by events.
So, who are the real masterminds? It seems impossible to deny that the two men who are the greatest puppetmasters in the realm are the two who’ve done what they can to avoid the trappings of power, to work from the shadows, going unnoticed, making themselves seem like nothing more than yes-men who provide whatever is needed (gold or information) when needed. Varys the Spider and Petyr Baelish both come from relatively mean existences—Varys as a former mummer who is castrated as a sorcerer’s sacrifice (or so he claims) and has clawed his way up to master of whisperers, Baelish as the smallest of small lords who had disgraced himself when he fought for and lost Catelyn Tully’s hand—and made something of themsleves. What do they want? The answers are very different... and it’s strange that only one of them has volunteered an answer, and he’s the one I trust least.
Of the two, Varys has been at the game longer. His whisperers helped fuel the Mad King’s paranoia, when Aerys brought him over, and he then smoothly transitioned into the same role for King Robert. A foreigner, a eunuch, and a spymaster are three qualities that wouldn’t endear him to the populace. We learn in the course of the series that he’s adept at disguises and playing parts, that his unctuous, vaguely effeminate public behavior is just one of many charades. What no one realizes in the Seven Kingdoms is that he acts to destabilize the realm, for his own ends. Curiously enough, he claims he does it for the realm—that the realm is who he really serves. Is that true? Maybe. But there’s many different visions of how to serve the realm, and we’re not sure we should buy his. Why, in any case, does he care for the realm so much? He’s a foreigner who came to Westeros late. And if he knew of so many plots and treasons... how is it he never seems to stop the ones that matter? A word in the right ear might have sent Cersei and Jaime to their deaths a long time ago.
Whether he serves the realm or not, he does it in his own particular fashion. As slowly becomes clear, he’s in fact allied with Magister Illyrio Mopatis of Pentos... and their goal appears to be the restoration of the Targaryen dynasty, no more or less. Curious, then, that Varys fed Aerys’s paranoia, apparently driving him and Rhaegar further apart. Just an error, the unexpected result of being too good at his job for a king too unstable to handle it? We’re dubious. If they want the Targaryens to rule... they must want Targaryens who are in their pockets. Some of the things Varys does to bring about the situation in the novels are subtle, and perhaps the subtlest is one where the TV show drifted rather far away from the novel: the assassination attempt of Daenerys. In the books, it transpires that Varys purposefully brought the information to Robert precisely to bring about his effort to kill her, which he then made sure to have Illyrio warn Ser Jorah of so that he would be there in time to stop it. End result? Khal Drogo, who comes from a particular sort of culture, wants revenge (as warlords tend to do) and turns on a dime to vow that he’ll invade Westeros, something he was no longer planning to do. Varys wanted that to happen, which we might have guessed from his almost-secret conversation with Illyrio beneath the Red Keep (a little conveniently delivered in the common speech, so Arya could understand it, but lets not look too closely at that!) where he was arguing with the magister and urged him to get things moving more swiftly because matters were spiraling out of control.
Littlefinger has never really been asked the question of why he does what he does, but the answer in his case seems clear enough, and trustworthy enough: power for the sake of power, and perhaps a measure of revenge. The television show makes this much more naked, that it’s just a desire for “everything,” which I think may be simplifying it a tad. But in broad outline, we’re sure it’s spot on. His particular method? Chaos, which he thrives on. His pinning the blame on Tyrion for the attempt on Bran’s life was a gutsy move that further drove things to the brink: he made Ned reluctantly accept his help, eventually growing into a confidant... and then a betrayer, selling Eddard Stark with a smile. When we learn that he was the one behind Jon Arryn’s death and—more importantly—that he exploited the situation to set the Starks and Lannisters at one another’s throat (thanks to Lysa’s secret message warning Catelyn that Jon was murdered), it was an amazing moment. Not least because, well, we predicted it (we’ll not speak further on our Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory, that rather expansively connected Littlefinger to a number of things he wasn’t involved in...) and that’s always fun. But it’s the realization of just how much he’s had a hand in the utter disaster that’s befallen the Seven Kingdoms. And why? For his ambition.
His efforts to cause chaos don’t stop there, of course; his ambition seems boundless. The moment so beautifully captured in “Baelor,” of Ned’s death? It seems clear that “someone” put that notion into Joffrey’s head... and who else could do that, if not Littlefinger? Perhaps it was nothing but petty revenge, but given the fallout that follows, and the way that Littlefinger suddenly climbs by leaps and bounds—Lord of Harrenhal, Lord Paramount of the Trident, Lord Protector of the Eyrie—all because he gets the opportunity to play a vital role in violent, cutthroat times. And his plots aren’t done, nor his ambition, as we see in A Feast for Crows. He really is playing for the whole ball of wax. He may not have any illusions about putting a crown on his head... but being the kingmaker and the power behind the throne? That would suit him just fine.
The best thing about Varys and Littlefinger is that they’re both on to one another, to some degree. Varys knows Littlefinger is up to something, even if he can’t quite define what it is. And Littlefinger... well, we doubt he knows anything about Varys’s involvement with the Targaryens and Illyrio (unlike in the show, we notice), but he certainly is aware that Varys is always watching, and that he’s up to his own games. Was Varys right when he called Littlefinger the second cleverest man in King’s Landing—apparently leaving himself the first possession?
We’ll have to wait and see. When it comes to it, though—if it comes to it, we should say—we expect the results of a direct contest of wits and intrigue between these two masterminds will be spectacular (and very probably disastrous).
Every Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal Westeros.org present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index. Some spoilers inherent.
Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio Garcia crossed an ocean to join Linda Antonsson in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. Westeros.org can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.