“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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.