Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill as Tyrion Lannister and Lord Varys (HBO)
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me-who lives and who dies?” –A Clash of Kings, Tyrion I
Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, men and women clash over power and authority, using any and all tools at their disposal, whether they be armies, laws, legacies, or dragons. Throughout the series, these tools gain and lose advantages over the other, resulting in a tumultuous back-and-forth of power politics that resembles an ocean at storm, with the users scrambling for power in situations where their tools gain or lose power from one day to the next.
During Tyrion’s tenure as Hand of the King, Varys notes that a crown, holy authority, and coin all have the ability to be these tools, as does the steel held by the sellsword. In his own peculiar fashion, the Spider asks Tyrion where the power really is in this scenario. While Shae easily thinks it’s the gold, Tyrion is less convinced, and later, Varys would give Tyrion the courtesy to answer the question the riddle posed.
“Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” –A Clash of Kings, Tyrion II
In his riddle, Varys shows us that he subscribes to the ideology that power is a trick drawn from the tools they use, and their use as symbols. Men believe in the power that the symbols have, and, thus, the symbols have power in an almost bizarre, self-sustaining ecosystem of power. But this is only a half-truth. To complete his riddle, it is not enough just to see the shadow and claim its power, but to cast the shadow and craft the power. The true wielders of power recognize this fact, and take it upon themselves to fashion the symbols they need and project them in such a fashion that power flocks to them.
“Every great lord has his maester, every lesser lord aspires to one. If you do not have a maester, it is taken to mean that you are of little consequence. The grey rats read and write our letters, even for such lords as cannot read themselves.” –A Dance with Dragons, The Prince of Winterfell
This is helped because Westeros is a largely illiterate society. Even some nobles such as Borros Baratheon are unable to read and rely upon maesters to handle matters of letters, and most of the smallfolk spend almost all of their time upon their farms, and cannot be bothered to learn how to write. Writing and its trappings are largely useless to influence the smallfolk, and so rulers and commanders must use symbols to influence the people of Westeros. The four candidates for the Iron Throne at the end of A Dance with Dragons — Tommen Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Daenerys Targaryen, and Aegon Targaryen — have all had varying degrees of success with the use of symbols, and how they influence others.
Symbols draw their strength from the way that they emphasize their targets’ characteristics to the point where they are the only thing that makes an impression upon the observer. Whether it’s Stannis’s legendary stubbornness or Tywin’s legendary ruthlessness, these serve to emphasize the individual behind them until they are seen as less than a person and more as a force or idea. This serves to de-emphasize the mortal trappings of an individual, such as the ability to be defeated, and serves to create a psychological rallying point for others either for or against. As Euron says, “men are meat,” but ideas are far more powerful than flesh.
And, so, we cast close scrutiny on the four remaining contenders of the Iron Throne, and what ideas they have behind them. Given that Varys is one of the most influential subscribers of symbol politics, and it was his riddle, it is altogether fitting that we start with him and his chosen candidate, the returned Aegon Targaryen.
A younger Varys and Ilyrio, by Pojypojy
Lord Varys. The Spider. This name conjures images of a Machiavellian schemer, an absolutely perfect plotter with moves planned dozens of steps in advance. He achieved infamy for knowing everything and his uncanny ability to predict the moves of others. Despite these unbelievable powers of intelligence and manipulation, the Spider tells that he came from humble origins. He was a young mummer’s boy, sold like a piece of furniture and castrated at the hands of a cruel sorcerer. From this utter low, he formed a partnership with a young sellsword named Ilyrio Mopatis, and the two would establish a formidable duo. Varys, using the tricks of the trade he learned as a child, would steal the private documents of his target, and Ilyrio would get himself hired to track down the documents. The mark would never suspect that Varys and Illyrio would be two halves of the same coin, instead trusting in the image presented. Varys was a thief looking to steal, and clever enough to steal letters instead of jewels and other finery. Illyrio was a poor sellsword with a knack for tracking down thieves. The idea of a down-on-his-luck warrior looking to win money by tracking down thieves touches more than a few storytelling tropes, the wily rogue, the brave swordsman righting the wrong, and the duo relied on this mythic trope to help sell their scheme.
Later, Varys would grow in power and prestige, being appointed the spymaster of the Seven Kingdoms by Aerys II Targaryen. From there, Varys would manage the information network of a nation, and his skill at that position is well-demonstrated throughout the novels. He utilizes his ‘little birds,’ mute children who can act as his eyes and ears everywhere, bringing him pieces of information.
It seems difficult to unravel anything of Varys’s, but many of his schemes are simple evolutions of the stories put on performance by his troupe while he was a mummer’s boy. They utilize the audience’s reliance on the tropes that the stories tell to great effect, the stage has merely changed from an Essos theater to the national level of Westeros. To whit, Varys’s master scheme seems largely to craft a narrative to which the smallfolk and disenfranchised nobles of Robert’s regime will flock to, scoring a quick coup with Westeros largely intact. This is largely sensible, of course, as disunity plagued the reigns of many kings such as Aerys I, Maekar I, and Aegon V. Varys studied his history after all, and knew the traits of good kings and bad ones, and how to make them work to his own end goals.
Lord Varys, by Mike Capriotti, of Fantasy Flight Games
The Importance of Playing a Role: How to Make a Hero and Villain
“The King’s Justice must be fearsome, the Master of Coin must be frugal, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard must be valiant … and the Master of Whisperers must be sly and obsequious and without scruple. A courageous informer would be as useless as a cowardly knight” –A Game of Thrones, Eddard XV
“But Varys has ways of learning things that no man could know. He has some dark art, Ned, I swear it.” –A Game of Thrones, Eddard IV
As the Master of Whisperers, the eunuch plays up his role for all it’s worth, even going so far as to wear slippers that allow him to move quietly to add to his image. He states to Eddard that the Master of Whispers must be sly and obsequious, and Catelyn Tully comments that Varys “has some dark art.” To everyone, whether they be Cersei, Catelyn, Eddard, or even Aerys II, the Master of Whisperers is truly talented and conniving as any respectable spymaster should be. His business is in knowing as much as possible, and all believe it to be so as long as he holds the position.
Of note, Qyburn notes that many informants come to him with information, leading Cersei to believe that Varys used the symbol of his office to present himself as more invaluable than he actually was, though like much regarding the Spider, the truth is hard to discern. Given his status as a former Targaryen loyalist, making himself out to be invaluable could be simple self-preservation, or perhaps those informants are not as genuine as Qyburn makes themselves out to be.
In this, the Spider crafts this perfect symbol of himself as a master manipulator, a consummate schemer who plays people the way bards play lutes; a master of spies in the truest sense of the words. However, Varys goes far beyond simply crafting a persona for himself, as many men have the ability to craft symbols for themselves. Tywin Lannister is ruthless and relentless, Rolland Storm is pious and as skilled in battle as the Warrior, and Jon Arryn was held as a man of exemplary honor. Even Robert Baratheon was a symbol of both incredible battle prowess and boundless mercy during his rebellion, the idea of which undoubtedly contributed to the success of his rebel campaign. Where Varys excels in not just in crafting symbols for himself, but in incorporating others into the narrative he spins for observers to see, both for good and for ill, in order to accomplish his aims.
Contrary to popular perception, Varys’s primary symbol is not his candidate Aegon, as conventional wisdom would state, but the Baratheon dynasty. As a member of the small council with a vested interest in seeing the dynasty fail, Varys ensured that Robert’s excessive wastefulness and disinterest in ruling was played to the hilt to the outside observer. While Robert did little on his own, Varys ensured that the members of court would ruin the realm. He watched as Littlefinger financially crippled the realm, Cersei stocked the court and Kingsguard with toadies, and Jaime remained in the Kingsguard unpunished, emphasizing Lannister pomposity and disregard for other people’s opinion, both highborn and lowborn alike. All the while, Robert feasted, drank, and whored, drawing a similarity between the (false) image of Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned in our timeline. All of this together, corruption and neglect, builds a resentment that was almost was palpable, and as Hitchens said in his column on the Egyptian protests at the beginning of the Arab Spring: “It’s possible that people will overlook outright brutality sooner than they will forgive undisguised contempt.”
“Which plan?” said Tristan Rivers. “The fat man’s plan? The one that changes every time the moon turns? First Viserys Targaryen was to join us with fifty thousand Dothraki screamers at his back. Then the Beggar King was dead, and it was to be the sister, a pliable young child queen who was on her way to Pentos with three new-hatched dragons. Instead the girl turns up on Slaver’s Bay and leaves a string of burning cities in her wake, and the fat man decides we should meet her by Volantis. Now that plan is in ruins as well.” –A Dance With Dragons, The Lost Lord
Once the regime was corrupted and despised by many, Varys began his master plan. The Spider recognized that despite Robert’s many faults, he remained a popular king attached to a storybook ascension to the Throne in his own right. In Westeros’s martial culture, Robert emphasized many of its most positive qualities: battle prowess, virility, and gregariousness. As such, he needed to be degraded before he could be destroyed. Varys’s first plan was to undermine Robert’s symbol as a warrior-king by attacking with a host of Dothraki, delivering Robert a decisive loss and robbing him of that connection to the storied legend of his ascension. While that was developing, however, Stannis Baratheon started to suspect Robert’s heirs of being bastards, and when Varys learned of this, the Spider ensured that Jon Arryn, and later Eddard Stark, would pursue this investigation in order to weaken the unity of the ruling coalition. Lannister gold could purchase many sellswords and finance a war machine, and the Baratheon-Stark-Tully coalition could be weakened by cold conflict with the Lannisters while keeping the country as a whole strong for Aegon’s takeover.
Roger Allem and Conleth Hill as Illyrio Mopatis and Lord Varys (HBO)
A Hundred Balls in the Air
“Even the finest juggler cannot keep a hundred balls in the air forever.” –A Game of Thrones, Arya III
Circumstances changed, however, and the leaders of the rebel coalition, Jon, Robert, and Eddard, all died in rapid succession under very suspicious circumstances. With their deaths, the symbols that they had crafted for themselves in Robert’s Rebellion of noble lords wronged by the mad excesses of Aerys II and Rhaegar Targaryen started to lose their power, and this served Varys just fine. Any or all of these men could serve as rival rallying points for others to flock behind, especially if someone remembered their histories and knew the stories of Targaryen madness. The new regime of Joffrey Baratheon did not have the power or influence that his father did. Indeed, the new king was openly contemptuous and an unabashed sadist, a bully with absolute power and almost no accountability. To help foster this, Varys suggested that Barristan Selmy, long held as a beacon of honor, be dismissed to take the blame for Robert Baratheon’s death. His dismissal, and the ascension of the Kingslayer to Lord Commander, helped paint the picture of the Realm at its absolute nadir, under the thumb of the arrogant and greedy Lannisters. The realm had become a place where ‘good’ men like Barristan the Bold are thrown out of the court and dishonored, when they aren’t out-and-out murdered like Jon Arryn or befall ‘accidents’ like King Robert. The parallels between Mad Aerys executing Rickard Stark and Mad Joffrey executing Eddard were certainly not lost on the people, just as Varys desired, even if it was not precisely the way he envisioned it happening. A storyteller, after all, must twist the story in new ways based on changing circumstances, and Varys was a master storyteller.
The imminent threat of Stannis Baratheon, however, forced Varys into an alliance of convenience with Tyrion Lannister. Varys understood that Tyrion knew the court was hostile, and so he needed to prove himself invaluable to the Imp lest Stannis destroy them all while they fought amongst themselves. When Tyrion Lannister’s boom-chain saved King’s Landing from Stannis’s invasion, however, Varys saw the beginnings of a heroic symbol that could potentially serve as a rival figurehead, and so Varys quickly testified against Tyrion at his trial to ensure that the dwarf was seen as a kinslayer and traitor, wise to the symbol that Tyrion could construct for himself despite his less-than-impressive physical traits. Most tellingly, where Varys labored to spare Eddard Stark by attempting to send him to the Wall, the Spider made no such overtures of amnesty for Tyrion, wise to how much trouble the politically-capable Tyrion could cause for his future plans. Varys keenly understood the power that symbols meant for both himself and others, and he took great pains during his tenure in court to ensure that the right ones were crafted by both himself and others, and that others
The end-goal of Varys’s generation of work was to paint a picture of the regime’s utter decay and to inspire a return of decency and rationality to the highest offices of government, a narrative that finds a great deal of traction today during election seasons in many countries of the world. The former was accomplished more or less successfully, given both Varys’s skill and the various vices and shortcomings of kings and courtiers within Robert’s court. For the latter, Varys went to the basics and crafted an ideal candidate from the ground up to sweep out the dirt of the previous regime: Aegon Targaryen.
Look to the East
“On the morning of the fifth day, look to the East.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
“A savior come from across the sea to bind up the wounds of a bleeding Westeros.” –A Dance With Dragons, Tyrion II
The classic fantasy story can be boiled down to the hero defeating the villain over the course of the story, and Varys spent much time crafting all the players into their roles on the Westerosi stage. Aegon has been crafted into a symbol to evoke broad support throughout Westeros. Since the Seven Kingdoms has a strong martial culture, Aegon was trained in arms and positioned as a glorious warrior-king in the vein of his storied ancestor, Aegon I, but as Varys himself notes: “that was not the end of his education” (A Dance With Dragons, Epilogue). To distance Aegon from Robert Baratheon and the image of the oafish, absentee king that the Spider had helped craft, he ensured that Aegon was well-read and highly educated, despite these being considered secondary qualities for rulers in Westeros. As the Faith is a strong unifying force in Westeros, Varys ensured that Aegon’s education included a strong religious foundation. The Faith was a powerful symbol in its own right, and could unify the common people and pious lords alike against Aegon, so Varys made sure a septa was on-hand to instruct Aegon in matters of faith. Finally, and most importantly, to distance Aegon from the pomposity of the Lannisters, Varys worked to establish that Aegon had a bond with the smallfolk through shared trying experiences. All in all, Aegon was meant to be everything that the previous dynasty had lacked, and would ensure stability for his reign and beyond.
With Varys spending a generation crafting the players, he turned to setting into motion the tale he meant to tell. He had his villains, his heroes, but on its own, the tale wouldn’t resonate as well as Varys would prefer. Despite his skill with the craft, Varys understood that the Targaryen dynasty was despised by much of Westeros, and its seventeen-year hiatus off the Throne robbed the dynasty of its staying power, since any king that was overthrown could be overthrown again. Even worse, the last Targaryen king was undoubtedly insane, paranoid and vindictive. Nobles no longer held the support for the Targaryen dynasty that they had in ages past, and this meant that Varys needed to distance Aegon from the storied ‘Targaryen madness.’ To that end, he needed a supporting player: a ‘mad Targaryen’ for Aegon to defeat, to sway doubters that looked to Targaryens past.
That ‘honor’ was to go to Viserys Targaryen, Aegon’s cruel and vengeful uncle. At the head of a Dothraki horde, Viserys would cause chaos in Westeros, painting a picture of Westeros at its absolute worst, suffering under invading barbarians and mad pretenders, bloated and decadent from Baratheon rule, suffering the thousand wounds that it had been inflicting on itself for generations. When all hope seemed lost, however, a light would come from Essos. Aegon Targaryen, saved from death and back to heal his homeland. In a single stroke, Aegon would eliminate the Dothraki, slay his mad uncle for bringing ruin and despair to Westeros, and take up the mantle of his namesake to bring Westeros into a new golden age.
The idea of the reformist sweeping out the old and the corrupt is a powerful one, one that tugs deeply at the human instinct of optimism. Reformers promise that things will get better, and the long indignities of the past will eventually be over. If strides are made to improve conditions, or at least to cause the appearance of such, then many people gladly suffer the indignities that they are currently suffering because of the knowledge that it will not always be so. The logic and fulfillment is secondary, the optimistic emotions it engenders are what truly sell this platform, and Varys keenly understands this, which is why Varys labored for so long to establish the Baratheon dynasty as corrupt. Aegon can only be a reformer if there was something to reform, after all.
This devotion to storycraft is what makes Varys unique. No other political player is as fluent in the ability to craft memes and identities the way Varys does, and similarly, none are as masterful at manipulating public perception the way the Spider can. He goes about his tasks as a playwright or author, placing people where he’d believe they’d do the most harm or good, depending on the role they need to fulfill, and letting them doing the acting for them. While he cannot control every aspect of a person’s actions, he can predict them with uncanny proficiency, and be there to intercept, redirect, or let be, such as it warrants his directive. His combination of hands-on and hands-off suit him very well in this regard.
“Very little of what the fat man has anticipated has come to pass.” –A Dance With Dragons, The Lost Lord
Of course, Varys’s plan hardly succeeded as well as he would have preferred. Despite his skill, he still had to contend with Littlefinger’s desire to cause chaos and avenge himself against the insults borne against his person throwing off his timing, and random acts like Daenerys staying in Slaver’s Bay instead of journeying to Pentos as well as the birth of the dragons lending Daenerys far greater political symbols than Varys could have ever dreamed. Aegon as well, is hardly the perfect king that Varys would wish, the risk that Varys ran from being unable to take a direct hand in his education and his Pentoshi partner’s penchant for overindulgence. Still, through exceptional use of symbols, Varys’s plans are still going very strong as we head into The Winds of Winter.