“Always keep your foes confused. If they are never certain who you are or what you want, they cannot know what you are like to do next. Sometimes the best way to baffle them is to make moves that have no purpose, or even seem to work against you.” (ASOS, Sansa V)
When I was younger, I had delusions of playing poker professionally. After losing money early on, I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. So, I read books to improve my game. While I was never able to really turn a profit in playing, I did learn about the various styles of play which made the actual pros tick. One of those styles of play is known as loose-aggressive. Loose-Aggressive players (sometimes pejoratively known as maniacs) play a lot of the hands dealt to them no matter the strength of the cards in hand. In this way, they consistently keep other players guessing what the true strength of their hand is.
If Littlefinger were a poker player, he would be a maniac. Like me, his early forays into the game resulted in losses for him — a scar and a broken heart being the most prominent. Unlike me, his later maniac style of play netted huge personal profits. But how did Littlefinger achieve this feat? We’ll pick up the story chronologically from part 1. I’ll talk about the knife and Littlefinger’s early intrigues of the court with Ned as Hand.
“Such sweet balance. You want to find the owner, is that the reason for this visit? You have no need of Ser Aron for that, my lady. You should have come to me.” (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
When we last left off, Eddard Stark was on his way to King’s Landing to take up Jon Arryn’s former position as Hand of the King. Lord Arryn’s death had likely been orchestrated by Littlefinger and Lysa Arryn. This action was motivated by Littlefinger’s desire to advance his own station in life as well as by his personal grievance against nobility in general and the Starks and Tullys in particular.
After Eddard Stark left Winterfell, an assassin attempted to murder Bran Stark. The attempt was unsuccessful, and the knife that was used by the assassin was recovered by Catelyn Stark. In an attempt to determine the knife’s owner, Catelyn Stark sailed south to King’s Landing to investigate who sent the blade against her son. When Catelyn finally made it to King’s Landing, she was approached by gold cloaks who directed Catelyn to a meeting with Littlefinger and Varys.
The meeting between Catelyn Stark and Petyr Baelish was the first time the two had seen each other since Baelish had been banished from Riverrun after his duel with Brandon Stark. The encounter did not go well at first. Catelyn was upset and suspicious. But Littlefinger disarmed Catelyn’s suspicion.
“I beg of you, let me help. Old sweet friends should never hesitate to rely upon each other.” (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
Catelyn was wary at first, but somehow she allowed Littlefinger to instill a small amount of trust despite herself. Consider how Catelyn regards Littlefinger in her conversation with Ser Rodrik and later in her inner monologue.
“He was always clever, even as a boy, but it is one thing to be clever and another to be wise. I wonder what the years have done to him.”
He had been a sly child, but after his mischiefs he always looked contrite; it was a gift he had. The years had not changed him much. (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
Despite her wariness, Catelyn trusted Littlefinger. In a way, Littlefinger’s appearance of contriteness and sincerity swayed Catelyn’s emotions despite her head knowledge of who Littlefinger had been in their youth and how he actually was in his adulthood.
But while Littlefinger knew that Catelyn was in King’s Landing, he didn’t know why she was in town. Catelyn lied at first and claimed that she was there merely to see her husband. Littlefinger was quick to discern this dishonesty.
Littlefinger laughed. “Oh, very good, my lady, but please don’t expect me to believe that.” (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
When Varys arrived in the room, Catelyn produced the dagger for the both of them to examine. Varys was in the dark as to who the dagger belonged. But Littlefinger knew. To everyone’s astonishment, Littlefinger claimed ownership of the dagger,
“I would have told you that there was only one knife like this at King’s Landing.” He grasped the blade between thumb and forefinger, drew it back over his shoulder, and threw it across the room with a practiced flick of his wrist. It struck the door and buried itself deep in the oak, quivering. “It’s mine.” (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
But claimed that it was lost to him in a bet with Tyrion Lannister. Now, pause for a minute. This is a huge gamble on Littlefinger’s part. More than a gamble, it’s a maniac move. To use the poker analogy, Varys could have called Littlefinger on his bluff here OR Eddard could have asked any number of people in King’s Landing for confirmation for Littlefinger and Tyrion’s bet. Steven Atwell made a similar point in his analysis of Catelyn IV.
Had Catelyn or Eddard or any of their staff asked any of the hundreds of people who were nearby during the joust, he (Littlefinger) would have been instantly exposed.
Fortunately for Petyr, Varys didn’t call Littlefinger. And as we’ll see, Littlefinger successfully maneuvered Eddard Stark into a position where Lannister involvement in Bran’s attempted murder was a foregone conclusion in his mind. Baelish was playing a weak hand, but he was playing it aggressively, almost weirdly at first glance. After Eddard Stark arrived in King’s Landing, Littlefinger brought him to his wife at one of Littlefinger’s brothels. There, he repeated the lie that he hold Eddard and added a layer to his deception.
“A sweet piece of steel, but it cuts two ways, my lord. The Imp will no doubt swear the blade was lost or stolen while he was at Winterfell, and with his hireling dead, who is there to give him the lie?” (AGOT, Eddard IV)
Tyrion’s innocence was easily verifiable. He would claim innocence (mostly on account of his actual innocence). But Littlefinger was pre-empting this line of thought for Ned and Catelyn. A guilty man would deny his involvement, probably as fervently as an innocent man. And then Littlefinger gives Eddard a curious bit of follow-on advice.
He tossed the knife lightly to Ned. “My counsel is to drop that in the river and forget that it was ever forged.” (AGOT, Eddard IV)
Why would Littlefinger give this advice to Eddard? It ran counter to everything that Littlefinger had done to cast suspicion on Tyrion. I think the answer is cleverly simple: he’s using reverse psychology on Eddard knowing that he will do the opposite. Littlefinger manipulated Eddard’s distrust of him masterfully. He knows that Eddard didn’t like him (He nearly choked Littlefinger to death outside of the brothel just before Ser Rodrik Cassel intervened), and he suspected that Eddard distrusted him on account of Littlefinger’s history. So, he used this mistrust to further his own plot. Littlefinger’s advice was to throw the knife into the river — the knife sent to kill Eddard’s own son. Does Littlefinger’s reverse psychology work? Oh yeah.
Ned regarded him coldly. “Lord Baelish, I am a Stark of Winterfell. My son lies crippled, perhaps dying. He would be dead, and Catelyn with him, but for a wolf pup we found in the snow. If you truly believe I could forget that, you are as big a fool now as when you took up sword against my brother.” (AGOT, Eddard V)
But a major question arises. Why Tyrion? Here, I think that Littlefinger was improvising. And it wasn’t really a masterful improvisation. It was a carpe diem moment for Littlefinger that likely would have backfired. Had Catelyn not had a chance encounter with Tyrion at the Inn at the Crossroads, Eddard likely would have questioned Tyrion and determined the truth of Littlefinger’s accusation.
I think that Littlefinger saw an opportunity and lunged at it. First, he used Tyrion’s status as a dwarf. Westerosi looked down on Tyrion’s physical deformity. Take it from Tyrion’s lips.
“I am guilty of a more monstrous crime.” He took a step toward his father. “I was born. I lived. I am guilty of being a dwarf, I confess it. And no matter how many times my good father forgave me, I have persisted in my infamy.” (ASOS, Tyrion X)
So, by casting suspicion on Tyrion, Littlefinger was implicating someone who would already be mistrusted by Westerosi Society.
Secondly, Tyrion was a Lannister and the son of Tywin Lannister to boot. This made Tyrion look all the more damning. Eddard Stark’s dislike of Tywin Lannister was no secret. Eddard considered Tywin’s sack of King’s Landing to be an especially evil act. Littlefinger most certainly knew this. An accusation against the son of the Lion Lord would likely be believed by Eddard Stark. And believe, Eddard certainly did.
Littlefinger successfully played on Catelyn’s trust and Eddard’s mistrust to move the continent towards war. It was a bold, maniac style of play, and it would pay dividends.
The Appearance of Friendship
Littlefinger smiled. “I promised Cat I would help you in your inquiries, and so I have.” (AGOT, Eddard V)
Littlefinger’s role in identifying the knife’s owner gave him credibility to Eddard Stark. Ned’s only true friend at court was the king himself, but Littlefinger’s finger-pointing gave the appearance of friendship to Eddard. And Littlefinger would continue to exploit this friendship as Eddard started his brief tenure as Hand of the King. Interestingly though, Ned continued to distrust Littlefinger despite the appearance of friendship.
Promise or no promise, he could not find it in him to trust Lord Petyr Baelish, who struck him as too clever by half. (AGOT, Eddard V)
Baelish’s next move after implicating Tyrion in Bran’s attempted murder was to lead Eddard badly astray in his investigation of Jon Arryn’s murder. The first step in Littlefinger’s plan was to isolate Eddard Stark’s information flow. Outside of Varys, Littlefinger was probably the most knowledgeable man in King’s Landing. In this, he selectively fed true and false information to Eddard Stark.
Ser Hugh of the Vale would be the first morsel that Littlefinger would offer Eddard. Ser Hugh had been Jon Arryn’s squire until Jon’s untimely death. As readers, we’re aware that Littlefinger was the likely suspect in Jon Arryn’s death, but by implicating Ser Hugh as a Lannister catspaw, Littlefinger continued to push the continent towards war. Now, there’s a significant under-discussed theory here. Ser Hugh could have played a role in Jon Arryn’s death. If so, this would likely mean that Ser Hugh was an agent of Littlefinger’s. When Eddard, at the instigation of Littlefinger, sent his captain of his household guard, Jory Cassel to talk with Ser Hugh, the knight was unwilling to talk with Jory.
Ser Hugh had been brusque and uninformative, and arrogant as only a new-made knight can be. (AGOT, Eddard VI)
Eddard makes the assumption that it was an issue of class distinction. I suspect that it was more. I think that Ser Hugh was likely involved in Jon Arryn’s death as Littlefinger’s (not Cersei’s) catspaw. I think if Hugh were not the poisoner of Jon Arryn, he was knowledgeable of the plot and acted as a co-conspirator. If Ser Hugh was taking orders from Littlefinger, I think it likely that Littlefinger instructed Ser Hugh to stonewall Jory Cassel. So if this were the case, why would Littlefinger even give Eddard the information on Ser Hugh? I think that Littlefinger is making a loose-aggressive move here. He knows that Eddard distrusts and dislikes him. By giving Eddard true information, albeit information designed to mislead Eddard, Littlefinger forced Eddard to trust him, despite Ned’s better judgment.
And wouldn’t you know it, Ser Hugh dies in a tragic accident during the Hand’s Tournament – killed by a sworn bannerman of Tywin Lannister’s: Ser Gregor Clegane. This was a deft move on Littlefinger’s part. Littlefinger’s part? Yes. Steven Atwell again, turned me onto this idea in his analysis of Sansa II.
Consider the following: Littlefinger is one of only two people who know of his importance (the other being Varys), and was almost certainly the source of Ser Hugh’s sudden windfall that allowed him to fight in the tourney in the first place. He also had the means and the opportunity to either rig the lists to place Ser Gregor up against Ser Hugh (knowing that his psychotic nature would make him take the obvious kill-shot) or to simply approach him in a tavern and pay Ser Gregor to kill the inconvenient knight. But the most significant factors that lead me towards this being part of the Littlefinger Conspiracy is motive. As part of his larger project of steering Ned’s investigation, Littlefinger piques his interest in Ser Hugh and then arranges his assassination in front of the Hand, which (as we’ll see in Eddard VII) further convinces Eddard’s belief in the Lannisters as the main conspirators and denies Eddard a source of information (while making it look like Littlefinger is his ally).
Cersei and Jaime Lannister were many things, but as we find out in AFFC/ADWD, they are not conspiratorial masterminds. When I first read AGOT, I, like Ned, believed Littlefinger’s insinuation of Lannister complicity in Ser Hugh’s death. But now, I’m convinced that this was yet another maniac move by Petyr Baelish.
Littlefinger was not inching Westeros to war as much as advancing it by leaps and bounds. In a way, Littlefinger’s actions with the knife were the embodiment of carpe diem. With the knife, he improvised a plot on the spot with a very weak hand, but by playing it aggressively, he successfully advanced his standing with Eddard Stark. The Ser Hugh conspiracy shows Littlefinger playing a long game against the Starks that involved long-term strategic and tactical plotting. This would prove Lannister antagonism and further light the powder keg that would send Westeros hurdling towards war.
Petyr Baelish’s political maneuvering on Eddard Stark shows machiavellian brilliance. It also really highlights the dense plotting that George RR Martin uses throughout his books. The plots within plots aspect of Littlefinger’s moves was one of the first real hooks for me in the story.
In part 3, I’ll talk about Littlefinger creeping on 13-year old Sansa Stark and his role in Eddard’s downfall. I hope to have part 3 up a bit sooner than the month+ gap between parts 1 and 2. Comment below or on reddit!