This is just a series I’m working on in /r/asoiaf. You can find the original post and discussion here!
Littlefinger . . . the gods only know what game Littlefinger is playing. (AGOT, Arya III)
Petyr Baelish: master player in the game of thrones or reckless opportunist motivated by personal reasons? The question is one that divides the fan-community, but I’d say that a majority favors the view that Littlefinger is a master strategist and player in the Game of Thrones. But is that sentiment true? Or is Littlefinger a reckless opportunist?
To spoil my main point, Littlefinger is both. Both sides of Littlefinger come through in A Song of Ice and Fire, often working in tangent with one another. But to come down squarely on one side of the debate does a disservice to the complexity of Petry “Littlefinger” Baelish. He is both a master player in the Game of Thrones and a reckless gambler motivated by personal grievance.
A Climber With a Grudge
“He was my father’s ward. We grew up together in Riverrun. I thought of him as a brother, but his feelings for me were . . . more than brotherly. When it was announced that I was to wed Brandon Stark, Petyr challenged for the right to my hand. It was madness. Brandon was twenty, Petyr scarcely fifteen. I had to beg Brandon to spare Petyr’s life. He let him off with a scar. Afterward my father sent him away. I have not seen him since.” (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
Petyr Baelish’s upbringing and early life speak to his future role as a player and a gambler. The son of a low-lord and a small boy to boot, Littlefinger was fostered by Hoster Tully, a high lord, at Riverrun. There, he fell in love with Catelyn Tully, the daughter of Hoster. Unfortunately for Littlefinger, Catelyn was betrothed to Brandon Stark, heir to Winterfell. And so, Baelish made a fateful move: he challenged Brandon Stark to single combat. He lost roundly to Brandon and was only spared when Catelyn intervened for his life.
Here we get our first glimpse of Littlefinger the reckless. He was both small and low, but he had high ambition. He was also ruled by his passion, not his intellect. Had he thought through his actions, he might have saved himself both his dignity and a scar. Consider the remote possibility of Littlefinger winning the duel with Brandon Stark. Would Hoster Tully have given his blessing to any union between Catelyn and Littlefinger? No. Littlefinger was heir to a low title that provided little strategic benefit to the Lord Paramount of the Trident. And not that Littlefinger would have had any idea, but if the southron ambitions theory is true, there would be no way that Hoster would consent to the marrying his daughters off to anyone other than a high lord (especially a warden) or an heir to a high lord.
Still though, Littlefinger’s duel with Brandon was a turning point for the young heir to the Fingers. Prevented from marriage due to his low status, Baelish reacted by increasing his station in life. Some of the increase came through careful planning; most of it came through sheer luck.
Bad Luck and Grievence as Ladders
The first step in increasing his social standing came as a direct result of his duel with Brandon Stark. He was banished from Riverrun. Dueling with the son of the Warden of the North was probably enough to get Littlefinger banished from Riverrun, but he cemented his fate by impregnating Lysa Tully while wounded and in a delirious state. When the pregnancy was discovered by Hoster Tully, he gave Lysa an abortifacient and promptly banished Littlefinger. Lysa then was married off to Jon Arryn. Littlefinger talked a still-enamored Lysa into having her husband name Littlefinger as custom controller in Gulltown in the Vale. This move quickly netted Littlefinger a massive windfall.
Ten years ago, Jon Arryn had given him minor sinecure in customs, where Lord Petyr had soon distinguished himself by bringing in three times as much as any of the king’s other collectors. King Robert had been a prodigious spender. A man like Petyr Baelish who had a gift for rubbing two golden dragons together and breeding a third, was invaluable to his Hand. Littlefingers rise had been arrow swift. Within three years of coming to court he had been made master of coin and a member of the small council. (ACOK, Tyrion IV)
But though Littlefinger’s climb from Gulltown to King’s Landing had been masterfully planned and executed, he was still a man of grievance. And this grudge would be interwoven with all of his strategic planning. While Littlefinger’s work in Gulltown and then King’s Landing increased his station in life, he was not content to stop there. He had to prove that he was not a man of low status. He had to advance.
Casting Shadows: Littlefinger, Stannis Baratheon and Jon Arryn
“Tears, tears, tears,” she sobbed hysterically. “No need for tears . . . but that’s not what you said in King’s Landing. (ASOS, Sansa VII)
Master of Coin would have been the highest that a smart nobleman of lower birth could aspire to. But Littlefinger was something more than smart, and he was not so noble. Littlefinger’s ambition and personal grudge would not allow him to remain content with high place in court. He needed power and a vacuum. And what better way existed to create a vacuum and further his power than war. Fortunately, for Petyr Baelish, the major noble houses of Westeros were ready to oblige Littlefinger’s lust for conflict.
The union between Houses Baratheon and Lannister through the marriage of King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei Lannister had been a political masterstroke by Littlefinger’s patron, Jon Arryn. Littlefinger set to undo Arryn’s work. By some means, Littlefinger discovered that Cersei Lannister’s children were not of Robert Baratheon’s seed. They were products of incest between Cersei Lannister and her twin brother, Jaime.
Stannis Baratheon, Master of Ships and brother to King Robert Baratheon, also discovered the truth of the parentage of Cersei’s children. How? It could have been that he saw evidence and came to his own conclusions. It’s also possible that Littlefinger provided the clues for Stannis to make the correct assessment. But, I’ll leave that debate open to the comment section.
Stannis brought his suspicions to Jon Arryn, Hand of the King. Together, they investigated and determined that all of the royal children were products of the incestuous union between Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Therefore, they were bastards and not true heirs to the throne. But if Cersei and Jaime were imprisoned and executed for treason and incest and their children disinherited, conflict would arise between House Baratheon and House Lannister.
And here, we see Littlefinger as the master player of the game of thrones. He didn’t want regional conflict between two houses. He needed more houses to join in the war, especially those houses which wronged him the most: House Stark and House Tully. Jon Arryn had to die. And so, he convinced Lysa Arryn (who was still enamored with Baelish) to poison Jon Arryn. Jon Arryn dead in suspicious circumstances, Robert Baratheon had to choose a new Hand, and likely, this Hand would be Eddard Stark.
Here, we see the intertwining of Littlefinger’s ambition and personal motivation. The choice of Eddard Stark and Littlefinger’s upcoming role in casting suspicions on the Lannisters for both incest and the murder of Jon Arryn would invariably steer Westeros towards war. And any war would have casualties, especially among the nobility. And it would be icing on the cake if some of these casualties included those who had slighted Petyr Baelish.
“In King’s Landing, there are two sorts of people. The players and the pieces.” (ASOS, Sansa VI)
As there are always multiple sides and perspectives among the in-universe characters of A Song of Ice and Fire, so too are there multiple sides and perspectives to Littlefinger. Early in his life, Petyr Baelish was both a reckless man and a man who matured into a great player of the game. But though a player, Littlefinger retained this reckless side and was willing to foment conspiracies which would cause the deaths of tens of thousands. And while this war would further Littlefinger’s station in life, so too would it ameliorate Littlefinger’s personal desire for vengeance for the grievences done to him by his noble betters. And that was nothing less than reckless.
Thanks for reading! I was turned onto the idea of Littlefinger as reckless by Steven Atwell in his excellent blog: Race of the Iron Throne and especially this entry. And while I have a strong interest in the military side of ASOIAF, I also have a fascination with the statecraft and politics of the series.
But unfortunately for today, I’ve run out of space to write further on Littlefinger in a substantive way. So I turn it over to you: Do you want to see this series continue? Or would you rather I return to the command and military analysis of ASOIAF? If you all want me to go on, I can’t promise that it will be a weekly thing, but I’d be happy to write when I can. Let me know in the comments below.
Thanks again for reading!