“Delay you say. Make haste, I reply. Even the finest juggler cannot keep a hundred balls int he air forever.”
“You are more than a juggler, old friend. You are a true sorcerer. All I ask is that you work your magic awhile longer.”
Synopsis: chasing cats through the palace, Arya literally runs into Tommen, and in escaping from his guards, finds herself in the cellars of the Red Keep where the dragon-skulls of House Targaryen are stored. Hidden inside one of the skulls, she overhears Varys and Illyrio conferring about the status of their conspiracy. She manages to escape undetected and report back to her father, but her warning is garbled and Eddard dismisses it as the rehearsing of mummers (ironically, not that far off from the truth. Yoren arrives with bad news.
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.
Arya II is one of my favorite chapters in A Game of Thrones because, along with Bran II, it’s one of the rare times when we see the major political actors of Westeros speaking completely freely about their intentions, interests, and plans. Illyrio Mopatis and Lord Varys the Master of Whisperers are some of the most secretive individuals in a series with more than its fair share of shadowy conspirators, to the extent that their true objective has remained an almost-total mystery up until early drafts of A Dance With Dragons (and even then we can’t be totally sure). Feeling securely guarded by Varys nigh-exclusive knowledge of the secret tunnels of the Red Keep, they meet and speak frankly about their conspiracy. Indeed, the fact that Illyrio meets with his old friend (and possible lover) the one and only time in five books in this scene suggests something of how confident they feel.
And yet they are overheard. (Incidentally, there’s some fascinating stuff in this chapter about how Arya’s gender presentation interacts with people’s knowledge of her – she’s able to “disappear” in the Red Keep, to step out of the role of the Hand’s daughter, long before she becomes Arry – that I probably won’t have space to get into in this recap, but I did want to highlight it.)
So what do we learn about the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy in this chapter?
Eddard is a few weeks away at most from finding out the truth that Jon Arryn had uncovered.
This points to the critical importance of timing in A Game of Thrones: first of all, we can see how the short schedule influences the various conspiracies – Varys and Illyrio are wrong-footed, because they need more time to unite the Dothraki horde with the Golden Company; Renly and the Tyrells have a sudden opportunity to bring forward their plan, but they have to adapt quickly when Robert suddenly dies; Cersei has to accelerate her plan to assassinate Robert; and Littlefinger has to make some quick calculations about who to back and who to betray. Secondly, we can see how intricate GRRM’s plotting is – the news of Daenerys’ pregnancy arrives just in time to prompt Eddard to resign (since he likely would not have done so knowing the truth), and Eddard’s injury has to happen in order to throw off Eddard’s schedule long enough for Robert to die before Eddard can prevent Joffrey’s coronation.
Varys and Illyrio (correctly) think a civil war is about to break out, and feel differently about it.
Varys knows before everyone else aout Tyrion’s abduction and instantly understands the consequences thereof: “Tywin will take that for an outrage…If the Lannisters move north, that will bring the Tullys in as well,” and once that happens a vendetta between two families begins to spiral out of control as their relatives and vassals are called in to aid them. However, there’s an interesting element of disunity in their reaction to this news: Illyrio wants to delay the civil war by killing Eddard Stark, saying “If one Hand can die, why not a second…You have danced the dance before.” Our evidence for Lysa and Littlefinger’s direct responsibility for Arryn’s murder is too strong, but given Varys’ knowledge about the tears of Lys (quite possibly, Varys has spies watching the city’s poisonmakers for this very purpose) it’s quite possible that he stood back and allowed Arryn to die. Alternatively, Illyrio may be referring to Varys’ previous influence over Aerys II and suggesting that it was Varys who suggested the appointment of the ineffectual Owen Merryweather and the sacking of Jon Connington as part of his larger scheme to destabilize the Targaryen dynasty.
Varys, by contrast wants to accelerate the plan and thinks assassinating Eddard won’t work (I’m not sure why he thinks that). Correctly, he understands that the Stark/Lannister feud is accelerating too quickly and that even if Eddard dies (especially if he dies, as we’ll see) it’s not going to stop. Now, the more interesting question is why Varys thinks Drogo might be too late if he waits for his son to be born. Part of the reason has to do with the overall strategic picture, as discussed below, but I think part of it has to do with the fact that Varys doesn’t want the civil war to be over before they can get there and if Eddard discovers the truth (and Varys has no way of knowing that he’s about to get sidelined by his injury), it’s possible that he could gather enough allies to make the Lannister coup impossible. This certainly fits his actions in ACOK in aiding Tyrion (he doesn’t want Stannis to take the city and knock the Lannisters out of the war), or in ASOS of engineering Tywin’s assassination and in ADWD of assassinating Kevan and Pycelle to prevent the Lannisters from consolidating power; he’s keeping the civil war going so that Aegon/Daenerys can arrive as a savior/compromise monarchy. However, it’s equally dangerous to get there too early, since it raises the possibility that the Seven Kingdoms unite against the foreign army…unless Varys was planning to use the army as a giant bluff/bargaining chip to force the succession by making an alliance that’s impossible to stand against, or throwing the whole thing to a Great Council he could manipulate.
Interesting hypothesis: if Varys knows about R+L=J, it’s possible that he’s thinking that the Starks might accept a Targaryen monarch because of Jon Snow’s heritage, because at the outset of the War of the Five Kings most observers would guess that the Stark/Tullys would resist a Targaryen because of the Mad King, the Lannisters out of fear of retaliation for the sack of King’s Landing, the Baratheons because of Robert, and the Tyrells because they’re committed to Renly, which isn’t a good strategic picture.
Varys and Illyrio know that the game has spread beyond a “game for two players.”
Who the other player was that Varys/Illyrio thought they were playing against is hard to say – certainly Littlefinger makes the most logical sense, but Varys’ statement that “the gods only know what game Littlefinger is playing” suggests otherwise. What’s interesting is that their perspective on the overall strategic situation is an odd mixture of perspicacious and obscured: they know that Stannis and Lysa are gathering soldiers (but they don’t seem to realize that Lysa is Littlefinger’s puppet); they know all about the Renly/Tyrell plot, but they don’t seem to know what Littlefinger is up to precisely (although Varys knows he’s manipulating the situation to bring the Starks and Lannisters into conflict).
Typically for the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy, they don’t directly intervene against Renly/Tyrell, Stannis and Lysa, and the rest, preferring to sit back and watch the situation unfold. Part of this has to do with their larger strategic interest; the more sides in the civil war, the less chance there is of a conclusion, and the more the various parties will be worn down when the experienced yet fresh forces of Khal Drogo and the Golden Company arrive. But another part of it has to do with Varys’ signature strategic caution – he hangs back to see what Eddard is about, and then interjects with his assistance when it suits Varys, but no so much that Varys falls when the Hand does; he’ll do the same thing when Tyrion arrives to become the new Hand of the King; he completely disappears for the whole of AFFC, using his knowledge of the secret tunnels and his disguises, only to reappear with devastating effect in ADWD.
As a method goes, it has to be admired. While Littlefinger’s manipulations in ACOK and ASOS in forging a Lannister/Tyrell alliance, abducting Sansa and eliminating Lysa are quite impressive, leaving him in control of Harrenhal and the Vale (and potentially the North as well) , it’s also the case that his assassination of Joffrey, (meant mostly as a smokescreen but also to put Tyrion back in the dock) doesn’t accomplish that much strategically – Tywin is the real power behind the Lannisters and arguably Joffrey’s death improved matters by replacing a potential Aerys with a pliable and good natured child. Through his assassination of Tywin and then Kevan and Pycelle, Varys neatly undoes the Lannister/Tyrell power bloc even as he puts the Golden Company and Dorne into play. So far, I think the score between the eunuch and the whoremonger stands at a draw.
Varys and Illyrio consider the Stark vs. Lannister fight an even match.
I bring this up largely because the fandom I think tends to lapse into presentism when considering Robb’s rebellion and assumes that the North can’t possibly have ever succeeded and that the King in the North was doomed from the start (you also find this in Catelyn apologias that seek to shift blame to Robb rather than to reject it altogether). However, two of the smartest political analysts on two continents think that the Starks have a good chance against the Lannisters.
The Song of Ice and Fire RPG (endorsed by GRRM) is one of the few estimates that’s ever been done of the total military capacity of Westeros, and it puts the total strength of House Lannister at 50,000 men (which fits, given that the War of Five Kings starts with Tywin in the field with 20,000 men and Jaime with 15,000, and the Lannisters are able to hastily raise another 10,000 at Oxcross while keeping 5,000 at the Golden Tooth). The total strength of the Starks is…45,000, with the Riverlands able to mount another 40,000 (this latter estimate makes sense, given that the incompletely mustered Tullys had 4,000 men at the Golden Tooth and 16,000 at the Battle of Riverrun, and then have 20,000 men under arms immediately after the Battle of the Camps).
What people forget is that when Robb marched with 18,000 men to rescue his father, he did so at short notice in a desperate attempt to rescue his father. Because Catelyn Stark was sidetracked before Eddard’s instructions to mobilize the North were delivered to Houses Tallheart, Glover, and Manderly, the North doesn’t fully mobilize when it goes to war. My guess is that as many as 27,000 men were left behind or simply not mobilized – when you consider that the Boltons, Manderlys, and Tallhearts are have significant forces left in the North in ACOK (and the first two never fight the Ironborn), that the 3,000 men of the mountain clans were never mobilized, that the Karstarks and Umbers still have men to aid Stannis with in ADWD.
Again, note the intricacies of the plotting here: Catelyn Stark has to kidnap Tyrion, because otherwise Robb Stark doesn’t march south with not enough men to be the exciting underdog that inspires so much affection from the fandom (especially post-ASOS), so that Robb has to settle for capturing Jaime rather than going for the Lord of Casterly Rock, so that Tywin’s 20,000 men remain in the field to relieve the siege of King’s Landing, so that the defection of the Freys and the Karstarks are such a crippling blow to his hopes, so that Balon and Theon and Asha don’t run headlong into 27,000 mobilized Stark soldiers (which in turn means that Winterfall can fall and Theon be captured). To quote Detective Freamon, “all the pieces matter.”
I’ve already mentioned my pick for Varys’ historical counterpart(s), so in this section, I’d like to talk about the nature of espionage in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. Spying is one of the world’s oldest professions, dating back to the 13th century B.C, where we have evidence of spies being used in the wars between the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt and the Hittite kings to undertake missions of misinformation about the locations of armies. The Arthashastra, 4th century India’s manual on government compiled for Chandragupta Maurya, advises the use of spies to gather information on the loyalty of one’s people, guard the king from assassination, and carry out assassinations of high-ranking officials who might threaten the king.
Indeed, the main difference between historical spy networks and our modern intelligence services is the lack of formalized institutions. Spies tended to be recruited on an ad-hoc basis, often for particular military campaigns or to deal with particular political rivals: spies were used frequently in the Hundred Years War for example to provide intelligence on which towns held valuable supplies for English armies to sack, or to provide notice when the English navy left port to give the French armies time to mobilize. As the Middle Ages passed on to the Early Modern periods, we can see a slow movement to a more organized practice; the close link between spy networks and official embassies began to be forged as ambassadors were used as the “man on the spot” to acquire information, recruit agents, and carry out subversive missions, usually by the paying out of secret bribes. Francis Walsingham’s was one of the most sophisticated of Renaissance spy networks, employing moles and double-agents through bribery, blackmail, and threats, intercepting communications without detection by developing new techniques for breaking and repairing wax seals, and employing dedicated cryptographers to break codes used by foreign monarchs. The results were quite impressive: the Throckmorton Plot was broken up, the Babington Plot was infiltrated and turned into the legal pretext for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and plans for the Spanish Armada were uncovered long before the ships left Cadiz, giving England time to prepare for invasion.
By contrast, the state of espionage is rather underdeveloped in Westeros – other than Catelyn and Lysa, few of the great lords seem to encode their communications (which lends credence to the Maester Conspiracy theory), double-agents and moles are incompletely used (Littlefinger, Varys, and to a lesser extent Tyrion uses them, but none of the other Lannisters, the Starks, Baratheons, Greyjoys, Martells, Tyrells, etc. seem to), and Varys seems to have the only bi-continental spy network in existence.
One of the odd little details we learn in Arya III is that Varys’ particular spy network is comprised of what must be hundreds of children (since he places an order with his friend Illyrio the occasional slaver for fifty new “little birds”), who must be young and literate (highly unusual for this time and place) and then have their tongues removed – presumably because they’re less likely to accidentally spill some of Varys’ secrets. Partly, his decision to use children makes sense – one of his chief methods of gathering intelligence is by using the secret tunnels that honeycomb the Red Keep to spy on people, and children would have an easier time making their way through narrow, cramped passages to overhear conversations. On the other hand, there’s something deeply creepy about the way Varys is essentially recapitulating his own mutilation every time he has an intelligent, literate child maimed, suggesting an unending cycle of abuse and exploitation in the pursuit of secrets (GRRM is fond of recreating their own trauma: witness Cersei basically recreating her marriage to Robert but turned up to 11 with Joffrey and Sansa).
To me, there are three big hypotheticals in this chapter:
- Arya is discovered – well, this is something of a quandary. Murdering the youngest daughter of the Hand of the King is an incredibly risky step, but Varys and Illyrio can’t afford to let the Hand know about their plot to bring the Targaryens back to Westeros. So it’s possible that Arya might have died down in the darkness of some “accident.” Alternatively, Varys is good enough at spinning that he might have been able to recover the situation short of murder by convincing Arya that he’s working to save her father.
- Arya gives a more coherent warning – to me, this is the most interesting possibility. If Arya doesn’t get her message jumbled, it’s possible Eddard Stark would have believed his daughter that she overheard two conspirators in the cellars of the Keep. What precisely he would have learned is unclear – Arya naturally focused on the threat to her father’s life, and if Eddard took that threat more seriously he might have brought more guardsman with him to the brothel, and thus prevented his injury. He could have learned about Stannis and Lysa gathering troops (but that doesn’t particularly help), and he could have learned about the Renly/Tyrell plot (but he basically knows about it anyway). Most critically, he would know that Tyrion Lannister has been abducted because of Littlefinger, and at least been able to see the blowback coming instead of being suddenly confronted with it (which in turn might have influenced his decision to resign the Handship).
- Arya sends her letter to Jon Snow and it gets to the Wall – this one is a bit tricky, since it assumes that Yoren isn’t intercepted and the information gets there before Jon Snow goes off ranging with Jeor Mormont, at which point the information will not be of any use. How Jon Snow would react to this information is unclear – it might give him more impetus to leave the Wall earlier, which in turn could well mean he doesn’t go on the journey North, which in turn might mean Castle Black falls to the Thenns, and the Wildlings pour into a North torn by war, with no one left behind them to guard the Wall. Alternatively, he might pass on the warning to Winterfell – which means that Robb and the rest of the Starks will possibly mobilize earlier than they do in OTL, potentially changing the course of the War of Five Kings.
Book vs. Show:
The only major change from the books is that they leave out Arya bumping into Tommen as the reason she runs down to the depths of the Red Keep where the dragon skulls are kept, which is relatively minor and probably done to save a bit of money and the fact that Tommen is pretty much a glorified extra at this point (and will probably be recast for Season 4, unless I miss my guess).