“Varys giggled like a little girl…”I wonder if we might trouble you to show us the dagger?”
Catelyn Stark stared at the eunuch in stunned disbelief…
Littlefinger was lost. “I feel rather like the knight who arrives at the battle without his lance. What dagger are we talking about?”
Synopsis: Catelyn arrives at King’s Landing. While Ser Rodrick goes to talk daggers with Aron Santagar, Catelyn is summoned to the Red Keep to meet with her old “friend” Petyr Baelish and Varys “the Spider,” and is told that the dagger used in the assassination attempt against her son belongs to Tyrion Lannister.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
I have been looking forward to this chapter for a long time, because it’s so damn rich in political intrigue and different conspiracies coming together. It’s also the moment at which a lot of the key political players that we hitherto have only have been mentioned in the third person show up in the flesh, so that the reader can begin to make their own assessments independent of the point-of-view narrator.
There’s a lot to talk about, but I’m going to concentrate on Peytr Baelish and the Littlefinger Conspiracy, and Varys and the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy, because I really see the two of them as contrapuntal figures, who would be far less interesting or meaningful without someone to compare themselves to, compete against, and manipulate.
The Baelish Conspiracy:
I’ve written a bit earlier about what Littlefinger is up to, but it’s a good idea to go over the basics: Littlefinger, using his control over Lysa Tully’s emotions and Arryn’s reliance on his evident gift for finances (more on this later) has worked his way up from a hedge lord to customs collector at Gulltown to the Master of Coin, through which office he has created a vast network of influence. Recently, he convinced Lysa Tully to murder her husband and send her sister a letter placing the blame on Cersei Lannister once it became clear that Eddard Stark would be the next Hand of the King, with the intent to set House Stark and House Lannister against each other.
And now Catelyn Stark arrives in King’s Landing. Baelish is informed of this by Varys, and understanding as a good covert operative must the importance of information, tries to pump Catelyn Tully for information by playing on their shared history and his understanding of the Tully mindset (this understanding and calculated use of personal relationships and pasts is a signature of the Baelish conspiracy). When Varys arrives, Baelish is informed of the attack on Bran’s life (probably for the first time) and sees the knife in question. It is at this moment that Baelish makes a critical decision: knowing the dagger for his own, he concocts the story of losing it to Tyrion Lannister at Joffrey’s nameday tourney.
It is hard to state how much of a gamble this decision was. Baelish, improvising in reaction to a potentially transformative unforeseen event, departs from his previous narrative – that Cersei Lannister is the threat to the realm – in a flagrant and easily disprovable lie. Had Catelyn or Eddard or any of their staff asked any of the hundreds of people who were nearby during the joust, he would have been instantly exposed. It has been argued that Baelish somehow could judge Catelyn’s and Eddard’s (who he had never met) temperaments to such an extent that he knew they would trust his word rather than verify. However, we have to consider that Littlefinger couldn’t have known whether they might have simply picked up the fact due to an unknowing exchange (Ser Rodrick Cassel was talking about the dagger with the master-of-arms of the Red Keep at the time!), and that he was saying this in front of Varys.
While Littlefinger claims to Catelyn that he holds Varys’ “balls in the palm of my hand…if he were a man, or had any balls,” it’s not clear whether he believes this when he says it. If he doesn’t, then Littlefinger at the moment he spoke Tyrion’s name knowingly handed Varys a knife to put into his back if the spymaster wanted to shiv him. If he believes or believed it, that’s an astonishing failure of judgement in a man who clearly prides himself in his ability to understand and manipulate others.
Given that he could have just as easily said, “I lost it to King Robert; the Queen must have stolen/borrowed it from her husband to sow distrust between your husband and the King,” I think this choice shows a lot about Littlefinger as the mastermind of the Baelish conspiracy: he’s clearly talented at manipulating people whose character he’s familiar with, he is very decisive in seizing his chances, but he’s also reckless and impulsive. His spiriting away of Catelyn, the dramatic way he revealed his ownership of the dagger, and the way he will later needle Eddard all speak to a deep-seated need to prove his superior intelligence to those around him and insert himself into the foreground.
Like a classic pulp villain, he can’t stop himself from monologuing (even when bragging about the maidenheads of other men’s wives). And the targets of his monologues are universally either Starks or Tullys, because I think another part of the signature of the Baelish Conspiracy is his emotional obsession with his own past: he fell in love with Catelyn Tully, was seduced by Lysa Tully, was nearly killed by Brandon Stark when he tried to win the Tully he wanted, had his child aborted at Hoster Tully’s command, and is exiled back to his despised birthplace. In his conspiracy, he murders the liege lord who raised him up from obscurity (an ultimate victory of the underdog) by seducing the Tully who loves him, then turns Lysa against Catelyn in order to betray the man she married instead of him, then seeks the position of Lord Paramount of the Riverlands that had belonged to Hoster Tully, then kidnaps the daughter who most resembles Catelyn, then murders Lysa and slowly poisons the last Arryn in order to seize the Regency of the Vale. My suspicion is that this idée fixe will be the cause of his downfall.
At the same time, there are a number of questions that are up in the air:
- Why did Littlefinger murder Jon Arryn when he did, and did he do it only on his own behest? The murder of Jon Arryn follows Littlefinger’s overall strategy of turning Stark against Lannister, but the precise timing interests me – Littlefinger clearly knew that Queen Cersei had cuckolded King Robert, and that his own plans would require House Lannister to remain powerful enough to keep the war going (which they wouldn’t have had Cersei been exposed and the House politically isolated prior to Robert’s death). Given what we know about the fostering of Robert Arryn, it’s possible that Littlefinger saw that Arryn was getting ready to make his move, and then used the move to leverage Lysa to act as his poisoner. It’s also possible that Littlefinger accomplished this by spying on Jon Arryn through bribing Ser Hugh of the Vale (hence the sudden inheritance and his equally sudden death). However, Cersei’s seeming passivity in the face of an existential threat from Jon Arryn makes me wonder whether Cersei sought to use Littlefinger as her catspaw in turn (which might further explain how it is that Gregor Clegane came to end Ser Hugh’s life).
- What was Littlefinger up to as Master of Coin? I raise this mostly as a placeholder, to make sure that people are paying attention to this question, which I will address in detail in Eddard IV.
- What did Littlefinger think Varys was up to? While Littlefinger later displays a fairly good grasp of Cersei’s motivations and actions, we don’t get any sign that he had any grasp on Varys’ plans. Perhaps he thought Varys was simply a gun-for-hire with no motivation of his own, but it would be interesting to know what the hypothetical balls Littlefinger thought he had.
Comparing Varys to Baelish, we might as well be comparing a classical composer to a jazz soloist, or perhaps comparing the relative virtues of wisdom versus cunning. Recapping the Varys/Illyrio conspiracy is far more complicated: for all that Varys seems to be a Targaryen loyalist, his history of running cons with Illyrio where he steals objects for Illyrio to sell back to their original owner suggests a more complicated long con is in the works.
As spymaster for King Aerys II, Varys cemented his own power by encouraging the King’s paranoia, building an enormous network of spies, and mastering the system of tunnels under the Red Keep. While Varys argued against opening the gates to Tywin, which would suggest Targaryen loyalty, the fact that he deliberately encouraged a split between the reformist Rhaegar and his father (see Barristan III in Dance With Dragons) and switched the baby Aegon rather than hide or smuggle mother and children out of the capitol (which he demonstrably has the ability to do so) suggests that his long-term goal was to destabilize the monarchy, provoke a rebellion (while notably keeping his hands clean enough of the lawless executions and tortures to avoid execution by the new regime), and use the chaos to steal the rightful heir to the throne so that Varys could have him trained to his precise specification.
Figuring out Varys’ true loyalties is truly ambigious – on the one hand, Varys’ commitment to serving the realm is belied by his repeatedly successful efforts to destabilize the kingdom during the reign of King Aerys II and then again by executing the remaining competent members of King Tommen’s Small Council, and his placement to gain personally from installing his “mummer’s dragon” on the Iron Throne. On the other hand, one could argue that Varys’ ultimate objective of placing the perfect king in charge of Westeros suggests a genuine if extremely utilitarian approach to long-term reform, and Varys does at least try to mitigate the brutality he instigates (as we see through his efforts to save the lives of Eddard Stark, Gendry Waters, Tyrion Lannister, et al.).
In this scene, the Spider executes a quietly understated piece of intrigue – through his massive network of spies, he knows about Catelyn’s trip to King’s Landing (by paying off either the captain or through an agent he undoubtedly has in White Harbor), and he knows about the attack on Bran (probably through a “little bird” overhearing Ser Rodrick at a tavern, although that requires some very quick footwork). He alerts Littlefinger with the irresistible bait of Catelyn’s presence, thus allowing him to observe his rival closey. When he’s handed the dagger, he undoubtedly recognizes the blade as Littlefinger’s, but says nothing about the blade’s owner even after Baelish lies about who ended up with the knife. This reticence and self-control is the signature of Varys’ conspiracy, as we will see later when he carefully conceals what he knows when he deals with Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister.
To me, it is this quality that puts Varys ahead of his rival – unlike Baelish, Varys knows to keep to his shadowy web, only ever revealing himself in a supposedly deserted storeroom with his co-conspirator or while explaining himself to a man who’s murdered. Varys at least, knows that dead men tell no tales.
Sometimes it’s hard to find an exact historical parallel for a historical figure. There are dozens of palace eunuchs who wielded enormous power through their bureaucratic skills, court intrigue, and espionage who could serve as models for Varys: the Dar al–Saada Ağası (Chief Eunuchs) of the Ottomon Emperors who operated eunuch spy rings in the imperial palaces, oversaw the education of princes, and ruled from the shadows behind the thrones for centuries; the palace eunuchs who served the Emperors of the China in much the same capacity, and so on. In Peter Baelish’s case, the historical parallel is blindingly obvious:
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, began his life as the ruffian child of a Putney blacksmith. Running away from home in his teenage years, Cromwell served as a mercenary in Italy before entering business as a banker, merchant, and spy in Italy, France, and the Low Countries. Returning home a wealthy, cosmopolitan, and multilingual expert, Thomas became a London barrister and Member of Parliament before the age of 40. Entering into the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell orchestrated the dissolution of the monasteries, but managed to survive his master’s downfall and within a year was appointed by King Henry VIII to the Privy Council.
Within a year, Cromwell was the chief legal and parliamentary adviser to the King, and over the next few years successfully orchestrated King Henry’s divorce, his installation as spiritual head of the now independent Church of England, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the conviction and execution of his spiritual and political rival Sir Thomas More (Cromwell was a reformist Protestant, More a staunch Catholic). Handily dispatching his new rival Anne Boleyn, by 1536, Cromwell was Master of Jewels, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principle Secretary and Chief Minister to the King, Vicar-General of the Church of England, Lord Privy Seal, and Baron Cromwell. His downfall – due to his selection of the over-hyped Anne of Cleves as Henry’s next bride – came in 1540, mere months after being appointed Lord Great Chancellor and Earl of Essex.
This combination of lowly birth, immense talents and ambition, and a precipitous rise to power in periods of social change and disorder makes him a perfect model for the undersized son of a lord of sheepshit and rocks. If the gods are just (and if GRRM has any gift for dramatic character arcs), his fall from grace will be as precipitous as his ascent.
This chapter contains yet another critical turning point moment revolving around Catelyn Stark, who seems to be Martin’s chief vehicle for advancing the plot in the most tragic fashion possible (incidentally, a thousand gold dragons to whoever writes an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire as a classic Greek tragedy). This meeting influences the rest of the plot enormously, as we’ll see:
- What if Catelyn Hadn’t Been Intercepted? If Catelyn had come to King’s Landing under the radar, or had Varys decided to observe rather than pull in Littlefinger, a lot changes. To begin with, Eddard gets the news about the assassination attempt on his son without interference, which probably leads him to make independent inquiries about who the knife belongs to. While Eddard probably would never suspect Robert of such a thing, the dagger points to someone in the King’s immediate household, confirming Eddard’s suspicions about the Lannisters. It also probably keeps Littlefinger outside Eddard’s investigations, which would make it far more difficult for Littlefinger to manipulate him. Quite possibly, Eddard avoids the ambush outside the brothel, leaves the city with his family, and then declares for Stannis when the two of them meet at Dragonstone on Eddard’s way home.
- What If Baelish Had Told the Truth/A Better Lie? Certainly, Littlefinger could have avoided potentially exposing himself to discovery had he just said the dagger was in Robert’s possession and therefore easily obtainable by Cersei or any Lannister agent in the King’s household. It keeps the Starks at odds with the Lannisters without confusing the plot, and accomplishes his interests. Unbeknownst to him, it also means that Catelyn Stark wouldn’t have arrested Tyrion Lannister, which in turn would mean no attack by Jaime on Eddard delaying his departure from King’s Landing, and no raiding of the Riverlands by Gregor Clegane. This means that when the War of the Five Kings breaks out, it does so with House Stark under Eddard’s command and with no children in harm’s way, and with House Tully aimed to mobilize its forces before it’s invaded. This greatly changes the strategic picture – Eddard Stark is at least the equal of his son when it comes to military tactics, would have been much better placed to make alliances (since he doesn’t have to worry about his own marital status but has five children to work with), and had a stronger reputation with the other lords of Weseros.
- What if Varys had betrayed Baelish to Catelyn and/or Eddard? On one level, I can see why Varys would want to avoid the Starks taking out the Lannisters before the succession can be screwed up, bringing about the war he needs when he needs it (i.e, he needs multiple claimants to be at war, but no one having won before his Targaryen claimant can land with his army). Delaying Eddard’s realization of what’s going on therefore makes sense, especially since he hasn’t yet made a judgement about his character. On the other hand, Varys missed out on an opportunity to discredit his chief rival when it comes to intrigue, potentially turning Eddard against Littlefinger, and supplanting him as the puppet-master leading the Hand along. If this is the case, Eddard could have avoided the ambush outside the brothel. Likewise, Varys might have led Stark to the truth via different means and via different timing, with huge implications about what happens when Eddard moves against Cersei.
- What if Catelyn had landed on Dragonstone? In the chapter, Catelyn notes that the stormy seas almost required their ship to seek shelter on Dragonstone. This could have changed things enormously if she had come to Stannis with her suspicions (or less likely, if Stannis had learned of what happened to the Starks and reached out): by combining the separate sets of information being held by Eddard and Stannis, Catelyn could have allowed the Starks to make a giant leap forward in their investigations when it comes to Cersei’s adultery, Jon Arryn’s murder, and the attempt to legally kidnap his son. With Stannis’ help, Eddard might have become the Cicero of Westeros’ own Cataline Conspiracy.
What I think this all points to is that, however much the fans like to dislike Catelyn, it’s not really her fault. In order for the plot to work, George R.R Martin needs Catelyn to fail. I don’t think we should judge her too harshly, any more than we should blame Oedipus or Cassandra or Orestes for their plights. In the Song of Ice and Fire, the god GRRM uses Catelyn for his sport as flies to wanton boys and all that.
TV vs. Show:
Not a huge change here, with the most important change being the movement of Catelyn from the Red Keep to Littlefinger’s brothel, which I like because it underscores his messed-up relationship with Catelyn Stark and her conception of Littlefinger as an annoying, handsy, but nevertheless beloved little brother.