The Spider’s Greatest Intelligence Failures or Something Else?


“I served Lord Arryn and Lord Stark as best I could. I was saddened and horrified by their most untimely deaths.” (ACOK, Tyrion II)

Lord Varys was feared throughout the Seven Kingdoms on account of his inexplicable ability to gather any and all information. The whispers, as he called it, were the lifeblood of his work and kept nobleman and commoner alike in fear of what Varys could report to the king and his small council. And the man was effective. High and low treason was discovered and punished. The activities of ships captains, high-born ladies, great lords and mountain clansmen were all monitored by Varys through his vast intelligence network.

But despite Varys vast network of little birds, there were major intelligence failures — two of which will be the focus of this analysis.

1. Did Varys know of Jon Arryn’s poisoning, and if he did, why did he stand aside and allow it to occur?

2. More importantly for the main story, how did Varys not hear whispers of Eddard Stark’s execution?

Both of these questions have perplexed me in my current re-read. The easy answer is that Varys and his intelligence network were fallible, but in light of information from all 5 books, I think the answer is much more muddled than a simple lapse in intelligence.

The Methods of the Spider

“Nothing happens in this city without Varys knowing. Oftimes he knows about it before it happens. He has informants everywhere. His little birds, he calls them.” – Littlefinger on Varys (AGOT, Catelyn IV)

Traditional human intelligence collection can be broadly defined as espionage where the intelligence collector recruits agents through bribery, co-option or intimidation. But while there were certain elements of that in Varys’ arsenal, he had a unique method — one which belied traditional methods of intelligence collection. Varys used mute children who had the ability to read and write as his agents.

The first hints of Varys’ use of children came early in ASOIAF. While fleeing Tommen and Myrcella Baratheon, Arya Stark overhears Varys and Illyrio talking in the dungeons below the Red Keep.

“So many?” The voices were fainter as the light dwindled ahead of her. “The ones you need are hard to find… so young, to know their letters… perhaps older… not die so easy…”

“No. The younger are safer… treat them gently if they kept their tongues the risk…” (AGOT, Arya III)

So, what we can take away from this passage is that Varys uses mute, literate children as the primary agents of his intelligence network. As an aside, George RR Martin confirmed that Varys’ little birds have been cruelly muted before they are put to use.

Varys’ little birds do have their tongues cut out. They are “provided to him” that way. GRRM, Conquest 44

But while muted, literate children had their uses in the open, Varys needed to know what went on behind closed doors. Fortunately, Maegor the Cruel had provided a means for Varys to achieve that end. Maegor the Cruel constructed the Red Keep and then ordered all of the builders and stone masons put to death. But Varys had discovered his way around the tunnels, so much so that when he spirited Tyrion away in ASOS, he easily navigated the tunnels in complete darkness, verbally pointing out specific features to Tyrion.

Varys walked quickly, from time to time whispering, “Careful, there are three steps ahead,” or, “The tunnel slopes downward here, my lord.” (ASOS, Tyrion XI)

With tunnels running throughout the Red Keep, Varys could infiltrate his little birds into them. They could overhear conversations, write them down and report them back to Varys. It was a seemingly perfect network. So, it begs the question: how did it so utterly fail in the cases of Jon Arryn and Eddard Stark?

The Poisoned Chalice

“Jon Arryn had been Hand for fourteen years. What was he doing that they had to kill him?”

“Asking questions,” Varys said, slipping out the door. (AGOT, Eddard VII)

When Jon Arryn came to court as King Robert Baratheon’s Hand, he brought a desire to create a just and realistic political system in the wake of the reign of Mad King Aerys II. However, he also brought his wife, Lysa, with him to court. At her insistence, Lord Arryn invited the Master of Customs of Gulltown, Petyr Baelish, to accompany him to King’s Landing. Unbeknownst to Jon Arryn, Lysa and Petyr were lovers, and both would prove to be his undoing in King’s Landing.

Lady Arryn was in a loveless marriage to Jon Arryn. Her depression was compounded when Jon Arryn decided to foster their only child away from King’s Landing. As a result of this and her life-long infatuation, she was involved in a clandestine love affair with Petyr Baelish. Baelish, on the other hand, thrived at King’s Landing. Littlefinger would rise high at King’s Landing — all the way to Master of Coin. But he wasn’t content just to count coppers. He needed to rise higher. For that, he needed someone to die: Jon Arryn. In Lysa, he found a perfect catspaw to accomplish this.

Lysa had means, motive and opportunity to help poison Jon Arryn. So, it is likely that Lysa poisoned Jon Arryn, which resulted in his death.

I bring all this up, because I’m a bit dumbstruck. Where was the hell was Varys in all this? He had a vested interest as spymaster in keeping tabs on both Jon Arryn, Lysa Arryn and Petyr Baelish. And his Little Birds probably witnessed the sexual liason between Lysa and Littlefinger. They also probably overheard some of the details of the conspiracy between Lysa and Littlefinger. Varys wanted to sow chaos in Westeros, but only when the time would be ripe.

For Varys part, he claimed that he tried to warn Jon Arryn of the danger.

“I begged Lord Arryn to use a taster, in this very room I begged him, but he would not hear of it. Only one who was less than a man would even think of such a thing, he told me.” (AGOT, Eddard VII)

I’m not sure whether this conversation was a fiction invented by Varys or a real conversation that occurred. Jon Arryn’s death would likely (and did) usher chaos well in advance of when Varys needed to unravel Westeros. So, why did Varys sit idle while the Hand was poisoned? For this, I’ll offer the possibility that Steven Atwell brought to the forefront.

Indeed, one could say that overall, Varys consistently acts to remove any political figure of the generation of the Rebellion who would presumably be adamant against the return of the Targaryens – he does nothing when Jon Arryn’s death is plotted. – Race for the Iron Throne Analysis of AGOT, Eddard XV

I think this is probably the best explanation I’ve seen for why Varys stood aside, but Jon Arryn’s death took place some 3 years prior to the arrival of Aegon. Varys’ plan for Westeros wasn’t ready to take shape, so it remains an open question why Varys allowed the plot to go forward.

Of even stranger note is why Varys tells Eddard that Jon Arryn died for asking questions. Why was Varys forcing Eddard down a path where he would see the Lannisters as the culprits of Jon Arryn’s murder? How does this help Varys if there are armies in the field when Aegon invaded? If the North mobilized against the Lannisters (as they did), and the Lannisters would do much the same, any force that Aegon would bring to Westeros would be vastly outmatched and outnumbered. And the eventual destruction of the Riverlander and Northern army is not as important as what Varys knew at the time.

A Way Out for Eddard Stark

“Cersei is no fool. She knows a tame wolf is of more use than a dead one.” (AGOT, Eddard XV)

“If you will give her the peace she needs and the time to deal with Stannis, and pledge to carry her secret to your grave, I believe she will allow you to take the black and live out the rest of your days on the Wall, with your brother and that baseborn son of yours.” (AGOT, Eddard XV)

Eddard Stark succeeded Jon Arryn as Hand of the King to Robert Baratheon. To cut a long story short, Eddard’s brief reign as Hand of the King ended with his betrayal by Littlefinger, the death of his men and his imprisonment. Deep in the black cells of the Red Keep, Eddard awaited his execution when Varys appeared and offered Eddard a way out.

Varys made his appearance at Eddard’s most dire hour. Ned was in a delirious state from the wound to his leg suffered earlier, and he loathed himself for his failure to keep Robert Baratheon alive and to perceive the Lannister threat. Varys’ arrival came as a crucial time for Eddard. Ned expected to die in the black cells, but Varys had a plan that would spare his life of someone that Ned held dear.

Varys plan was simple: If Eddard would denounce Robert’s brothers as pretenders to the throne and acclaim Joffrey as the true king, he would be allowed to join the Night’s Watch. Eddard refused on account of his honor. So Varys switched tact from carrot to stick.

Varys tsked. “Cersei will not want to hear that, I promise you. Stannis may win the throne, but only your rotting head will remain to cheer unless you guard that tongue of yours. Sansa begged so sweetly, it would be a shame if you threw it all away. You are being given your life back, if you’ll take it.” (AGOT, Eddard XV)

Confronted with danger to his daughter, Eddard relented. He would do as Varys bid and his life and his daughter’s life would be spared the king’s justice except that a small man had other plans.

Who Truly Killed Eddard Stark?

The crowd roared, and Arya felt the statue of Baelor rock as they surged against it. The High Septon clutched at the king’s cape, and Varys came rushing over waving his arms, and even the queen was saying something to him, but Joffrey shook his head. (AGOT, Arya V)

We all know the sequence of events on Baelor’s Square. We all know that Joffrey ordered Eddard Stark’s execution in front of hundreds of onlookers. What is less explored is how the plan so intricately plotted by Varys went so awry. At face value, Ned’s death came at the behest of a willful psychopath who was acting alone, but I think there’s much more to the story than that. And that part of the story was a massive intelligence failure for Varys.

“Who truly killed Eddard Stark do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?” (ACOK, Tyrion II)

Eddard Stark’s execution would be the single event that sent Westeros spiraling into a continent-wide war. Was this the act of a mad tyrant or was he influenced by someone to order the deed done? And if so, by whom? In a word: Littlefinger.

It’s not an original theory by me, but I believe that Petyr Baelish convinced Joffrey to order Eddard Stark’s execution. He would gain much from this act, the most important of which was that Littlefinger would sow the maximum amount of chaos for the realm. He also may have ulterior motives in off’ing the man married to the woman he loved. But all that is neither here nor there for this discussion.

If Littlefinger convinced Joffrey to execute Eddard Stark, how did Varys not know of it. As seen previously, Varys had a vast intelligence network that listened to private conversations and recorded them for Varys. Joffrey’s comings and goings would have been of utmost importance to Varys. It would stand to reason that Varys would have his little birds constantly monitoring the king’s actions and words. Moreover, it would also stand to reason that Varys would have the same for Littlefinger and his minions. Consider Varys’ and Tyrion’s discussion of Eddard Stark’s execution after the fact.

“King Joffrey gave the command. Janos Slynt and Ser Ilyn Payne carried it out, swiftly, without hesitation…”

“… almost as if they had expected it. Yes, we have been over this ground before, without profit. A folly.” (ACOK, Tyrion II)

Varys seemed to be hinting that there was a plan in place to kill Eddard Stark. And this plan stood in dire opposition to his own plan to have Eddard take the black. If Eddard took the black, his son would likely recall his army from the field. The Lannisters would then only have to deal with the Baratheons and Tyrells. And those this would have been damaging to the realm, it would have been something of a slow-cooker in terms of the chaos and destruction to the realm — the exact thing that Varys wanted. I’m sure that Varys thought that honorable Ned Stark would remain at the Night’s Watch and honorably fulfill his vows there. Recall Steven Atwell’s quote from earlier regarding the removal of anti-Targ political figures. In this case, Eddard’s removal would have been a masterstroke for Varys — he would keep the North and Riverlands out of the war. When Aegon showed up, Varys likely calculated that Eddard would stay at Castle Black and take no part in the conflict between Aegon & the Lannisters/Baratheons/Tyrells.

It was a smart plan, but it failed likely on account of Baelish. But the other father of its failure was Varys’ intelligence negligence. Judging by his reaction at Baelor’s Sept, Varys heard no whispers on this. It was an utter failure for a man who claimed to be the Master of Whisperers.


Varys’ intelligence failures pushed Westeros into a war well before he wanted the continent at war. Varys was well aware that he couldn’t delay the war much longer in his conversation with Illyrio.

“Delay, you say. Make haste, I reply. Even the finest of jugglers cannot keep a hundred balls in the air forever.” (AGOT, Arya III)

But it’s clear from Varys’ actions that he didn’t want the realm sprinting towards war either, and he wanted certain players neutralized before the continent got too far along on its war parth. Unfortunately, Varys’ vast networks of whispers failed him at least once, if not twice.

I offer 4 scenarios for what happened.

  1. In the case of Varys and Jon Arryn, he allowed Arryn to die. Though he was a man of about 72-73 years, Jon Arryn was still a potent force and could rally the Vale against any new Targaryen uprising
  2. Littlefinger and Varys were working together. I don’t think this fits the narrative, but perhaps Varys’ attempt to forestall Eddard Stark’s execution at Baelor’s Sept was an elaborate mummer’s show. Perhaps both parties were working in sync. Of course, I don’t think this makes any sense. Really, why would Varys make the trip into the dungeon, consult with the Queen and make the offer he did to Eddard if it was all a trick? If he wanted the maximum amount of chaos, he could have simply counseled Joffrey and the Queen to take Eddard’s head — this would accomplish the goal of setting the Starks and Tullys on a long-term war footing with the Lannisters.
  3. Varys intelligence network was not as effective as he claimed. In this scenario, Varys was unable to monitor the actions of all the comings and goings of King’s Landing. I think this case is best bolstered by Varys’ request to Illyrio for 50 more little birds. However, I think this case is also weak. In AGOT, Catelyn IV, Varys has accurate intelligence on the conversation between Ser Rodrik Cassel and Ser Aron Santagar — intelligence that could have only been obtained if Varys was monitoring Ser Aron Santagar. If Varys was monitoring the Master-of-Arms of the Red Keep, how much more would he be monitoring the Master of Coin, Commander of the City Watch and the King himself?
  4. Joffrey was acting alone. In this scenario, Littlefinger did not counsel Joffrey to have Eddard executed. Instead, Joffrey wanted to see a traitor killed. The weakness of this theory comes again from how ambivalent Joffrey was when Sansa pleaded for her father’s life. He didn’t seem to care one way or another so long as Eddard declared Joffrey the one true king. Also, I find the circumstantial evidence of Littlefinger’s involvement in Eddard’s death fairly compelling.

All of this leaves me with a big question mark. What exactly happened? How could the Master of Whisperers be so deaf to the conspiracies swirling around him. I’ll leave it to you all to theorize in the comments below or in the comment section on Reddit.

Thanks for reading! As an admin note, I’ve put the Littlefinger series on another hold. I do plan on returning to it at some point. If it’s any consolation, this new series I’m working on will be a return to form and will be a battlefield and command analysis that many of you previously enjoyed reading. I hope that when they come out, they will meet and exceed your expectations!


Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Political Analysis, ASOIAF Speculation

31 responses to “The Spider’s Greatest Intelligence Failures or Something Else?

  1. beto

    Littlefinger just knows how the Spider´s spy network works, therefore he knows how to fool him.
    Littlefinger is always way too confident when it comes to Varys

    • beto

      BTW, as always great post.

    • Darkdoug

      Was he too confident? When has he been tripped up or beaten by Varys? He seems to have pulled off his own coups without interference, and for certain he appears to have been right about Varys’ lack of ability to eavesdrop in the godswood.

  2. Why wouldn’t Varys want all out war just how it occurred? That way when Aegon lands, the North army is splintered, fighting each other, and delayed by the elements, the Lannister and Tyrell armies though still potent are not at full strength, the Riverlands are in shambles, Stannis is stuck up north (though of course Varys couldn’t have predicted that), and Dorne is ready to strike when the iron is hot? This is a MUCH better situation for Aegon than it would have been had there not been a brutal war for the last 2-3 years.

    • Simply because Varys needed a slow-burn when it came to war in Westeros. Having the Baratheons and Lannisters fight it out was one thing, but to have 4-5 armies in the field when Aegon arrives with the Golden Company is quite another. Foreign invasion might be the one thing that would pull the combatants together. Think of how the Greyjoy Rebellion united all the major houses to put down Balon’s claim.

      With the North, Riverlands, Stormlands, Reach and Westerlands all in the field at the same time, Aegon’s chances aren’t that great even if he’s able to land the Golden Company in its full numbers. He would be outnumbered something like 5 to 1. Dorne would like not join a suicide mission even if Doran was nursing a grudge against the Lannisters/Baratheons.

      Keeping the Starks and Tullys out of the war would likely grind the Baratheons, Lannisters and Tyrells against each other. They would wear themselves out so that when Aegon arrives in the Stormlands, he would have an easier time against the combatants in the south.

      • Jeff

        Another thing to consider Mace Tyrell wasn’t exactly a fanatic when it came to fighting for the Targaryans. Didn’t someone say that he could have taken Storm’s End at any time but then he would have to risk defeat or take his army all the way North to the fighting around the Riverlands. A long hard struggle with Stannis controlling the fleet would make the landings easier. And if Varys is just a straight up Blackfire Loyalist then he might be using the big strong Targaryan supporters in a Uraiah’s gambit kind of thing.

  3. Amaltea

    He failed tracking Arya too,then again Arya later would blackmail a Faceless Man so it’s in part her abilities as well as luck (Yoren).

    Spoiler for TWOW
    Is Varys prepared for early Aegon’s Landing?

    In Westeros:
    Let me recapitulate what I remember it’s going to happen: According to the released materials he has already taken Storm’s End, as far as I understood this, and Dorne will likely declare for him. Arianne already has her doubts about trusting Dany, who has fought hard for herself to share with Aegon just like that; JonCon’s days are numbered by greyscale.

    From this alone I expect a clash between the two, Dany and Aegon and a pandemic reaching Westeros to make things even worse. As if dragons weren’t enough.

    In Essos:
    Tyrion has joined in fight for Dany, and the Battle in Mereen seems to be in her favor. Victarion is coming with his ships, whether he’ll survive doesn’t matter, his ships do.

    If these other plots are not enough, something is happening in Braavos, which is getting more and more important and I’m pretty sure the time the largest number of Faceless Men gathered in Arya’s chapters, they were discussing about Dany.

    In both:
    Things are coming together, if Dany and Victarion join, she will indirectly get involved in the Ironborn subplot, which now, with Asha and Theon captured, has started to tie with the Wall subplot. The Wall will turn into a butchery after Jon’s “death” but for now it’s still one of the most disconnected subplots.

    Wild Cards:
    Sansa’s Vale storyline, Jon’s post assasination storyline, Stoneheart’s with Jaime and Brienne’s storyline, Bran’s storyline, Davos with Rickon’s storyline, Arya storyline in Braavos and Riverlands as Nymeria (wow all Starks, now that I think about it, most certanly not a coincidence) and Sam’s with “Jaqen’s” Oldtown’s storyline are still disconnected from what it seems it’s turning into a main conflict and likely the huge bloodbath.

    Is Varys prepared for this? Is Varys prepared for the dragons, Tyrion, Barristan, Dany, Unsullied and probably Dothraki and Ironborn to be Aegon’s enemies? Is he prepared for what it seems to be a Braavosi conspiracy? Is he prepared for the North actually returning to the game? Is he prepared for the Vale entering the game? Is he prepared for the Others? Best case scenario for him, one of these will certanly happen, worst case all of these.

    This turned out way longer than I expected so I’m concluding it here. In my opinion Varys lets the words about his amazingness (is that a word?) continue, but while good, he’s probably not that good. He wants people in Universe and GRRM wants readers to belive he’s better than he actually is. In my opinion, Varys might be good at planning in long-term but if problems arise, he won’t be able to solve them, he’s not a quick thinker he needs time to plan, and time is running out. On the other hand, Littlefinger seems to be better at thinking in short-term but not in long term, because in my opinion the Vale lords are going to turn on him, and Sansa too. Perhaps if the two were working together…

  4. WPA

    I think Varys’ long-term plans/strategy can be adaptable but sometimes depend on assuming rational actions by other actors. Presumably the “the gods only know what games Littflefinger is playing” might be evidence that Littlefinger’s fly-by the seat of his pants “Maniac poker style” (As Brynden described in his write-ups) is where Varys’ system slips a cog or two.

    Because arguably even Littlefinger isn’t often sure of his next move, he’s impossible to predict and even the “Sparrows” are of limited use. And once Littlefinger is up in the Vale, all bets are off in tracking him.

    • Yes, though the fact that Tyrion points out that Ilyn Payne and Janos Slynt expected the order given suggests a level of prior-planning on Littlefinger’s part — something the Spider should have picked up on.

  5. Kay

    I think it could still be jeoffrey acting alone. If you remember, Sansa didn’t outright plead for Ned’s life. She pleased for mercy, which he claims he still gave him through a quick death. Remember, he’s kinda crazy. Also, remember that Little finger knows the weak points of Vary’s network. For one, many places outside the RedKeep. Secondly, the Gods Wood. That’s how he manages to let her speak with Dontos.

    Additionally, there are many other ways to avoid being heard in converstation. Even the queen of thorns is smart enough to have her fool scream a song so that their private conversation cannot be overheard.

    • It should have set off alarm bells if Littlefinger was meeting with the king outside of the reach of his Little Birds. Instead, Ned’s execution catches Varys completely flat-footed. He has no idea that it was coming as evidenced by him running up to Joffrey flailing his arms.

  6. Julien Dubreuil

    Mr Brynden, I greatly enjoy reading your articles. You always exceed my expectations.

  7. Djinn

    Interesting article. I would like to point out other ”blindspots” of Varys network: Doran’s carefullness, Ramsay’s brutality at WF, Stannis discipline at Dragonstone and the Ironborn in general.

    • There are plenty of intelligence oversights for Varys — but I think all those areas are well outside of his zone of control. He has a good handle on matters in King’s Landing, but his network doesn’t extend to Dragonstone, the North, the Iron Island or likely Sunspear/Dorne.

      • WPA

        Kind of getting into the realm of know unknowns and unknown unknowns (I love that phrase distinction). Known Unknown: the Ironborn post-Balon crowning himself again- their immediate actions are not determined, but the fact they’ve taken to “reave and rule” again is a factor to be considered as altering any calculus. Unknown Unknown: Ramsay being almost uniquely skilled in alienating Northern would-be bannermen. Doran’s circumstance is interesting as I have no idea how to categorize that.

  8. Maybe Letters. The method of communication he used with Sansa. Surely Varys’s boys cannot read what’s in a letter.

    • Kuruharan

      If they could not it would defeat the purpose of the little birds being literate.

      It is a tempting explanation, however, personally I believe the best explanation is that Varys’ network is not as good as he believes it to be.

      • Julius

        Yes, that’s for sure. I know this was mentioned here already, but we are talking about Liittefinger (If we accept that he’s involved in Eddar’s death.). He knows as much or more than Varys, and his network works just as well.

        Both have failures from time to time, otherwise the Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been this thrilling. Littlefinger and Varys are two of the best players and I’m certain they have been fooling each other since the beginning of Robert’s reign.

        The question remains though, how? I hope we’ll get flashbacks in the next books.

        Good essay.

        Keep at it man.

      • Julius

        I know they can read. But only letters that are within their reach.

  9. I think the key to understanding the Spider’s intelligence network and its apparent ineffectiveness is to understand the methods of the Varys-Illyrio conspiracy. While Littlefinger is a ‘fly-by-the-seat’ maniac gambler Varys and Illyrio are long term planners. Once the long term strategy has been set tactics can become as flexible as need be to keep the long term strategic goal alive.

    This means, that the Spider’s plan *( the entirety of which has still not been revealed in my opinion ) is very long term and prolific in nature and can survive a number of contingencies. What I am hinting at is that these apparent ‘intelligence failures’ are in fact deliberate slip offs. If the North did get involved in the war, the only impact such a scheme of things would have is to delay the inevitable invasion from the east and not to stymie it completely. If anything, the conquest of the whole of Westeros might actually become easier if the North does weaken itself in a 5 sided war.

    While Varys’ immediate plan may have been to have Eddard take the black, *( and possibly open up a possibility of a North-Targaryen alliance with house Stark still alive *remember which side they took during the dance with dragons?* ) he was flexible enough to adapt it to a changed situation where the North would be drawn into a Southron war.

  10. One historical parallel comes to mind when talking about Varys, Chanakya. While their origins are drastically different, some of their methods seem strikingly similar. For one, the use of espionage to achieve political ends is common for both Chanakya and Varys. The way Varys and Illyrio were “honing” Young Griff to be a conqueror also bears some similarities with Chanakya’s training of Chandragupt. But most importantly, both sowed discord within the King’s court and successfully turned their enemies against each other’s allies to get them out of the way. Varys did this with Aerys, and Chanakya did this with the King of Kaykeyi.

    More on Chanakya here :

    Whilst Littlefinger’s approach seems more akin to Machiavelli and Thomas Cromwell. So what we have in effect through Littlefinger vs Varys is Chanakya vs Machiavelli.

  11. Jonathan Ellis

    Another possibility: Varys’s own intelligence network – the “little birds” – has been compromised by Littlefinger.

    Littlefinger’s own boast: “I have that man’s balls in the palm of my hand. Or would, if he were a man, or had any balls. When the pie is opened, the birds begin to sing, and Lord Varys would not like that.”

    Littlefinger knows of the Little Birds, and may have some of them on his side rather than Varys’s, so he knows more of Varys’s plans – and of his store of ill-gotten secrets – than Varys knows of him.

  12. Darkdoug

    I think it is as simple as Littlefinger being, ultimately, a panderer in all senses of the word. Varys is a master of information, but Littlefinger’s professional expertise is about meeting other’s needs.

    In the case of Ned’s execution, Varys probably knew that Slynt was in Petyr’s pocket, he just didn’t anticipate that Petyr would want Eddard dead. There was no rational motive for it, unless you count a boy’s long-nursed grudge. Varys wanted a controlled deterioration to preserve something for his Targaryen clients to rule, while chaos offered more chances for Petyr to advance his own interests. At that point, he misjudged the scope of Littlefinger’s ambition and the personal aspect of his grudge against Ned and Catelyn.

    I would take his hints to Tyrion in aCoK to mean that Varys knows Littlefinger is behind this stuff, but does not feel confident to expose him. He cites the precarious nature of his own position, how no one loves a spider, but Littlefinger is every man’s friend. Everyone fears Varys, and no one fears Littlefinger. Varys is concerned that if it comes to sacrificing the detested informer or the friendly dude who can get you whatever you need, most nobles and rulers would keep Petyr and ditch the Spider. Tyrion experiences some of the same hesitation about moving against the man who framed him for murder.

    Note that in Varys’ riddle about power, he mentions a rich man as one of the contenders for the swordsman’s allegiance, but when applying his musings about power to Ned’s execution he notes all the other types of power failing to prevent it, the legal authority of Cersei, the theological authority of the High Septon, and his own knowledge, but never mentions the financial resources of the master of coin, who was also present, failing to stop the beheading. Almost like he was obliquely trying to make Tyrion realize who might have been happy with the outcome. He certainly helps Tyrion get rid of Slynt, Littlefinger’s man, while apparently repeatedly pointing out Slynt’s complicity in the death. That instance would not have been a failure of knowledge so much as a failure to anticipate what Littlefinger was up to.

    In conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with Varys – it’s just that Littlefinger is better at some things, and much of his “intelligence failure” is in cases where Littlefinger had a hand in it, and moved to prevent the disruption of his ploys. As far as his inability to stop Littlefinger, he seems to largely lack the capacity for direct action, and it may be simply that he has some assurances that Petyr is not interested in interfering with his Targaryen restoration. Littlefinger’s comment about “three queens” suggests he might be aware of the Daenerys conspiracy. That might explain his assertion to Catelyn that he has something on Varys, and that the Spider would not appreciate having his cover blown.

    The whole thing could be as simple as a sort of mutual non-aggression pact between Varys & Petyr to leave each other pursue their own agendas without interference or exposing one another’s machinations. Varys will not directly rat out Littlefinger as the man who engineered the conflict between Stark and Lannister, nor interfere with his attempts to advance himself and build a power base, and Petyr will not expose Varys’ methods or connection to the exiled Targaryens or interfere with his attempts to restore them to power. He’d probably set about making himself as invaluable to a Targaryen regime as he did for the Baratheons and Lannisters.

    Oh, and my money is on Petyr as the one who set Stannis on the track of Joffrey’s true paternity. Note how Stannis never reveals how he came to know, and forgetting about his help or capabilities is a hallmark of those Littlefinger puts in motion, like the Tyrells.

  13. Kelly

    Good read. I just found your site and am thoroughly enjoying it. The notion that Littlefinger pushed for Ned’s execution feels right. And how easy it would be for him to suggest it to Joffrey. I think Petyr’s plotting would be done in his brothels which would be a singularly hard place for a eunuch with a network of children spies to infiltrate and that could be the cause of his failure in this matter.

  14. Sato

    Read this essay and also the 2 out of 6 you have available for your analysis of Baelish and they really got me thinking about the two characters. Wish I really had the time to reread the entire series and see what I might pick up that I haven’t before. I would have to say that Varys and Baelish are the two best players in the game I’ve seen for far. They also make great contrasts to each other as characters. Vary’s has a very clear goal to get a Targaryen back on the throne and Littlefinger’s only goal seems to be having just the right amount of influence and power without being on the iron throne itself. It’d be great to see one article written about the both of them and their deeds up to the point of where they’ve both left King’s landing. I always viewed the two as playing cat and mouse with each other for some reason.

    I somehow missed the little birds in the book, I’d been assuming all Varys’ intel came from just ordinary spies, the little bit of people whom sold him information, and some form of dark magic that was never quite witnessed from the reader’s point of view. I’m really glad your essay cleared that up for me. I got the latter idea of information gathering from the back story of Varys’ castration, and really I’m not sure why I had been under the impression that the man had learned dark magic while under servitude to his sorcerer master or even during his time out east period. I’m probably the only weirdo that got that impression from the character.

    Dark magic not being a factor in Varys’ collecting of information however, it now very much stands to reason that the man can’t actually live up to his reputation for knowing everything. Littlefinger was clever enough to get around his weaknesses, other characters he’s keeping tabs on are far enough away that the news doesn’t get to him until much latter, and there are other things he just can’t control since he’s not pyschic and can’t read thoughts. I think he did know about Eddard’s Execution, afterall he offered him a way out and had Ned taken him on his offer, he still may have been killed thanks to a crazy Joffery who tends to act impulsively and as a disturbed child. Had he any way of saving Eddard at all though, I’m not sure it would’ve furthered his goals to put Aegon and/or Dany on the throne as I’m uncertain how Eddard would’ve felt about that. Even if it did, Varys has to act a certain way in Kings Landing so to keep to the persona most of those he deals with on a daily basis is used to.

    I also believed a good handful of people knew through some means or other about Cersei’s children being born of Incest with Jamie. I feel Varys reason for keeping it hush hush was to prevent chaos from taking the realm entirely, not just to slow burn into a war. The original overthrowing of the Iron Thrown left much complication in its wake especially being that the only legitimate heir of the new monarch line was killed by its own mother Cersei. Revealing to all the seven kingdoms that there was highly conclusive evidence of this farce would have erupted in a far worse war than the one of the five kings as everybody with a lust for power would have competed for the Iron Throne. Only two of the five King’s in that war fighting for the throne are actually convinced of this deception, Stannis and Robb. Balon just wants the Ironborn to be as they once were and Renly was just doing it to be all “oh look at me! I can be King too!” Robb, Renly, Balon, and Joffery are all dead now, leaving behind the third product of incest Tommen to rule. Anyone at court who knows is perfectly willing to let this go on for whatever reason otherwise other high lords such as the thorns could just take the throne through means other than marriage.

  15. Very interesting to go through all of this. I am just pointing out that Varys had to take into account the military strength that existed at that moment of time. Except for Dorne, all the military might of Westeros would have risen against the rise of the Targareyn’s. Varys needed to weaken this. I guess Varys overall plan could be broken in to two:
    a) Weaken his enemies
    b) Allow the Targarayen children to be kept safe and free
    Jon Arryn and Ned Stark were his two prime foes in the first case. Both of them would have the military might and courage to counter the rise of the Targaryen rule while living. Both could forge powerful alliances through marriage and strength. So, he allowed Arryn to be poisoned and Ned Stark to be beheaded. He eliminated probably the greatest dangers to the rise of the Dragon’s rule. As Westeros in war, would greatly depreciate the military might of each house(which it did!), it would be easy for the Dragons to come to power.
    On the second point, he needed to keep the Targaryen safe as well. There were always plans to assassinate Dany. With the birth of the dragons, it became even more important to keep her alive and not be harmed. The chaos was the perfect recipe for that.
    Varys so knowingly allowed that chaos to occur and eliminated each & every person who could be the main oppositon to the Targaryen’s rise.

  16. JuanZaldivar

    I believe that GRRM simply wants to portray every single character as what they are, human, with flaws and that regardles how much you scheme, how flawless your scheming capacities can be. You simply cant control everything, yes I agree Varys slipped, but I also want to point out, every character that had a scheme things never went necesarily as they planed. Thats the point of the game, plots ans counter plots, thatswhy the series is so good too!!

  17. Rachele

    Varys didn’t have an intelligence failure, Littlefinger probably met Joffery in Maegor’s holdfast. In SOS Tyrion wanted Varys to bring Shea to him but Varys said he couldn’t because “King Maegor wanted no rats in his own walls, if you take my meaning. He did require a means of a secret egress, should he ever be trapped by his enemies, but that door does not connect with any other passages.” That was why Tyrion and Shae met in Varys’ room there was no way to bring her to Tyrion’s room, he was staying in Maegor holdfast. If you wanted to have a conversation that was not overheard it would have to be either in Maegors or in the gods wood because there was no place to hide. So the littlebirds could not over hear conversations in most of the holdfast or the gods wood.

  18. Pingback: Agujeros en la red de la Araña: ensayo sobre los fallos de la red de inteligencia de Varys

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