Jun 15 2011 6:27pm

The Masterminds of Ice and Fire

Masterminds of Westeros

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 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 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. 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.

1. Azuaron
You need a better spoiler warning. You say:

"We’ll be immediately talking spoilers today, so if you’ve not read the series or watched HBO’s Game of Thrones, beware!"

...which implies that if I've watched HBO's Game of Thrones, I won't be spoiled. You then proceed to talk about events that happen in Storm of Swords (presumably season 3 of Game of Thrones set to air in two years). I stopped reading once you'd done that, but I assume you keep going with the SoS spoilers and possibly even tap into Feast of Crows spoilers. A more appropriate spoiler warning would be something like:

"We’ll be immediately talking spoilers today, so if you’ve not read the series through Storm of Swords beware!"

Whether or not you've watched HBO's Game of Thrones is completely irrelevant to the spoiler warner.

Basically, thanks for telling me Joffrey (or Tommen; I suppose I don't really know which) dies. I really wanted to know that just before I started Storm of Swords.
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
Elio - I don't know, Tyrion is pretty awesome at scheming. Gets private info out of Lancel and Kettleblacks. Gets rid of Slynt and cronies. Catches plan to pull Tommen out of town. Catches the turncoat out of Pycelle, LF and Varys. Successfully prepares for battle with wildfire and chain without Stannis figuring out the trap. Successfully brokers the deals with Myrcella and Margeary to weaken Stannis forces and bring in new allies. And...doing all of it with the hand behind his back of Cersei seeking to undermine him to his face and behind the scenes. His only real problem was deciding to step in physically to stave off the Stannis attack and, thereby, opening himself to partially successful physical attack from Ser MM. At that point, the enemies pile on -- but anyone strong enough to be effective against Cersei likely would have faced much the same sh*tstorm while being unconscious for a week or so and having power taken away during the period.

Competely random other question - was the song Bear and the Maiden Fair (sung at several points in the book) about Jorah and his second wife? I had never thought about it but a newbie reader in the office made that connection.

3. JeffR23
I've had that suspicion (about the Bear and the Maiden Fair) myself.

On the main topic here, I'd say that The Queen of Thorns deserved at least some mention as a would-be Mastermind. And I suspect that Magister Illryo has agendas of his own...
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
I agree, the spoiler warning is not nearly clear enough, and will end up aggravating and spoiling quite a few fledgeling fans. Things are already confused enough on this site about what constitutes a Song of Ice and Fire spoiler on which articles/threads, and unclear warnings like this only add to that problem.

On the other hand, the article itself was a pleasure to read, and summed up what is in my mind the most interesting aspect of the entire series.
Stefan Mitev
5. Bergmaniac
Great article. Littlefinger and Varys are awesome, I love master schemers done right, and those are two prime examples.
7. peachy
Undermining Aerys and being devoted to the realm don't strike me as being conflicting notions at all. Before he rode off to the Trident, Rhaegar promised that changes would be made (I think that's in a Jaime POV chapter), and perhaps that's what Varys was maneuvring for - muck things up enough that Rhaegar would feel compelled to push his father aside and take over governance himself. If the plan didn't work... well, blame that on Robert and his honking great hammer. :)
8. DarrenJL
@1, 4: If you didn't want spoilers; when you read the sentence "We'll be talking spoilers" you should have stopped reading. Period. Point blank. (Furthermore "read the series" implies the whole series of novels to date, but really, the first half of the sentence was enough.) I'm starting to think the anti-spoiler bullies just want to stop all discussion of anything. Like we should wait until season 4 airs (if ever) to talk about the greater ramifications of a season 1 episode...

Excellent post, by the way, Elio and Linda. Out of curiousity, though, why does everyone assume Varys is really any more in league/honest with Illyrio than he is with any of the other people he seems to share his trust with? I probably need to re-read the first couple of books, but I don't trust anything from the Spider.

As to Tyrion not being a mastermind, my own thinking is that Tyrion has never had the opportunity to work from the shadows like Littlefinger and Varys. What he's accomplished, considering even his own family are attempting to put an end to him since he appears in the novels, needs to be graded accordingly. My money's on him doing for Littlefinger, in the end.
Darren James
9. b8amack
Here's a question: You list Tywin's weakness, and Tyrion's. Littlefinger's weakness seems to be his desire for revenge on the Starks (and Tullys). What is Varys's weakness, though?
10. Ludwig Van
Great article, Elio & Linda! But I have to agree with JeffR23: Olenna Redwyne should feature on this list.

That Littlefinger knows about Varys' connection to Illyrio could yet turn out to have been a grave mistake by the writers. Hopefully, they consulted Mr Martin on the issue and received his OK... I guess we'll know in a couple of years.
11. Yenvious
"The television show makes this much more naked..." Hah! No kidding.

Good thought-provoking article. I've gotten out of the habit I developed in the first few books of mistrusting Varys. I'll have to rethink my trust now.
Iain Cupples
12. NumberNone
@RobM: Tyrion's problem after the Blackwater is not that he is injured (although that doesn't help). His problem is that Tywin has arrived and takes over. Even if he'd been awake, there's nothing Tyrion could have done about that.

Unlike Varys and LF, who have made their own place, Tyrion's ability to influence events was entirely derived from Tywin's patronage (literally). He hasn't developed the ability to influence events in his own right, to parlay his own gifts into real power: only to exercise his father's authority intelligently. So I think that it's fair to say that this means he's not on the level of a LF or a Varys - at least, not yet.
Dorothy Johnston
13. CloudMist
As for who takes out Littlefinger, I have a suspicion that Sansa (possibly with Tyrion's help) will do that. Littlefinger still thinks of her as a frightened girl who'll do anything he says but hasn't noticed that Sansa's starting to mature in more than physical ways.
Antoni Ivanov
14. tonka
And Littlefinger... well, we doubt he knows anything about Varys’sinvolvement with the Targaryens and Illyrio (unlike in the show, we notice)

Hmm , that's not certain. In the books it is implied that he has some levarage over Varys ("holding his 'balls' "). So it's quite possible that this is that.
15. Bourgeois Nerd
"What is Varys's weakness, though?" Probably that he's a foreigner and that no one really trusts or likes him. Also, he's totally dependent on King's Landing and his little birds. The farther away from them you get, the less ability he has to influence events.

The Tyrells and the Queen of Thorns DEFINITELY deserve some discussion. Who knows if they're really as dastardly as they seem, but they do seem it.
16. mochabean
Great post, thank you. Agree with other about the Queen of Thorns and whole Highgarden contingent. I would also add Walder "The Late Lord" Frey to the list of minor schemers. Even though as a reader I knew he was up to something, I was utterly unprepared for the Red Wedding. Because the ramifications for same will (I hope) eventually take the Freys down, and because I don't think he was motiviated by anything other than revenge, I wouldn't classify him as a major schemer, but he's in the lower ranks. I'd also give Theon Greyjoy his due, as much as I hate to. Sure, his plans didn't exactly work out, but hardly anyone still around at the end of AFFC knows that Bran and Rickon are alive, which counts as a successful scheme in ASOIAF, I'd say.
17. mountain
A few points about spoilers in this series, from someone who has only recently discovered (and completed) the books and who was convinced to read the first one after reading a full plot summary touching on all the high points of GOT up to and including Ned's death:

1) because this series is still being written, nobody, not even diehard analysts of all four published books, knows what's really going to happen. I would hazard a guess that even GRRM doesn't know for sure and certain, as characters like these are wont to acquire a life of their own after 4,000+ pages.

2) because of the level of intrigue that is the topic of this blog post, events aren't always what they seem, and so even knowing a "spoiler" like Ned/Joffrey/Tywin/etc. dies requires a certain amount of reflection on "what the hell just happened? who made it happen? why?" In effect, these individual plot points in and of themselves don't matter as much as they might in a more linear narrative.

3) one of the cool elements of GRRM's narrative is that characters are constantly receiving pieces of information at an uneven rate. Ravens are not 24-hour news! And the information is often distorted: Beric is dead, no he's alive, no he's a zombie, no he's dead... Readers might think they know the true story--of the Hound, for instance--but in fact we're often being given just as manipulated and distorted a picture as the characters. It's possible to think about "spoilers" as distorted raven messages that are part of the game.

4) has anyone ever read Anna Karenina without knowing Anna dies in the end? If you read or see a Shakespeare play, you know that by the end of Act V everyone will be married or dead, depending on whether it's a comedy or a tragedy. I'm not discounting the beauty of first reads, but if you read the account in Swords of Robb et al. journeying to the Twins and didn't think something bad was about to happen, you weren't paying attention. IT READS MORE INTENSELY THE SECOND TIME. Plot is not all there is to literature.

18. Patrick C
Great article, this is probably the topic I'm most intrigued with. I do have a couple points/comments, that I will conveniently put in list form!

1. Tyrion may be as intelligent as Varys/Littlefinger, but his pride is his downfall. And the fact that he couldn't get past his own pride (in my opinion) keeps him from being on their level. Also, it was revealed that while Tyrion and Cersei both thought they controlled the Kettleblacks, they were actually Littlefinger's men all along.

2. Littlefinger knows something about Daenerys (He mentions something about how "The realm survived the five kings, but will it survive the three queens?" in AFFC). This doesn't mean he knows about Varys' involvement with Illyrio/Dany, but I wouldn't be surprised at all.

3. I'm not sure what to think of Olenna Tyrell (and Margaery, who seemed to be her apprentice). She showed intelligence and quick thinking, but she was immediately out-maneuvered by Littlefinger when she tried to spirit Sansa away. And how smart is Margaery if she ends up in a cell being tortured right next to Cersei?

4. Do we know when Varys became the Master of Whisperers? Maybe the Mad King was too crazy to be controlled by Varys, and Varys' plan to replace him with Rhaegar was dashed by Robert's hammer? I'm just curious how long Varys was in King's Landing whispering in Aerys' ear before the rebellion.

5. I'm almost positive that "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" was also referenced in the Dunk & Egg stories, which would make it impossible for it to be about Jorah. I like that theory though, and I hope someone can double check (I don't have the hedge knight stories anywhere near me).
19. Lsana
I tend to think that people give far too much credit to Tywin, at least the Tywin we see in the books. It seems to me that what Tywin did was more or less take advantage of the schemes of others. The major achievement that let the Lannisters win the war was the alliance with the Tyrells, which was Tyrion's brainchild. Robb's downfall was due to the betrayal of the Greyjoys, something Tywin had nothing to do with, and Robb's own betrayal of the Freys, something Tywin probably had a hand in, but my guess is more after the fact than before. For the most part, Tywin loomed as a vague threat, but every time he went head-to-head with one of the other schemers, he lost. Robb managed to trap him twice. Tywin may have been more impressive when he was Aerys's hand, but the character we see is no better than average.
20. mochabean
@mountain: /applause/ Because no one I know other than my nephew who lives 2500 miles away had read the books, when I read them earlier this spring I was completely "unspoiled" but, having said that, I agree 100% with everything you say. Even when we think we know something as we read one book, it often turns out to be wrong down the road.
Joe Vondracek
21. joev
Chiming in: I would consider the Queen of Thorns to be a mastermind as well. The fact that some of her plans may have failed does not negate her ability to plot and manipulate.

It remains to be seen if Doran Martell is a mastermind or not. He's up to something; we know not what.

@Lsana: The major achievement that let the Lannisters win the war was the alliance with the Tyrells, which was Tyrion's brainchild.

Hmm. But the assasination of a certain Baratheon brother is what led the Tyrells to seek a different alliance, and that wasn't Tyrion's doing. At all.

I've never really understood the spoiler complaints. Whether reading a book or watching a movie, it's not the What that's important so much as the How. But, okay, different strokes and all that. So if you're someone that is just ruined by learning particular plot points before having come upon them yourself, here's a suggestion: stay away from websites that discuss in any way, shape, or form the particular media that you're consuming. Problem solved.
22. lisiate
I'm looking forward to find out more about Doran Martell's schemes. He certainly seems to be playing a longer game than most in AFfC.

I suppose we can add Thron Greyjoy ot the list of those who thought themselves masterminds but were not (although I guess you could argue that Theon thought himself a great strategist rather than a schemer in the shadows).
23. Patrick C
Doran Martell can't be that good of a schemer, as nearly everyone he wanted revenge against is already dead (through no fault of Doran's). Unless his plan was to hang out, do nothing, and wait for everyone else to kill each other, in which case maybe he is the best.

What was his other big plan? Secretly betrothe his daughter to Viserys, never tell Viserys, offer no support or help to Viserys so that he must beseech the Dothraki, which then gets him killed? Maybe there's information I don't know, but I'm with Arianne and the Sand Snakes on this one. Sitting around and doing nothing is not the same as being a master schemer.
24. congokong
You are exactly right about who's who. Cersei is too aggressive with her schemes that, like Baelish said, is utterly predictable. A good reason Tywin is not a true mastermind is that he has far more to lose while Littlefinger and Varys have much more to gain from their schemes. Tywin himself hasn't been manipulated much but he's been forced to go to war against others who have been manipulated to keep what he has. And Tyrion...? He has the wits to be a mastermind but his dwarfism will never allow him the respect he needs to manipulate as well as someone like Littlefinger.

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