In medieval and early Renaissance Europe, allegories or long-form metaphors were used as moral and explanatory story-telling devices. In these allegories, Folly was a character who resembled court jesters in appearance and served as the dramatic device to tempt the protagonist towards foolhardy deeds.
If A Song of Ice and Fire were an allegory, Varys and Illyrio would play the part of Folly in the story. Their soft, powdered hands and tittering laughs guide much of the action in A Song of Ice and Fire. Yet these men aren’t simple mummers performing trickery for laughs. Instead, their tricks and mummery are intended for the highest of dramas.
But their role as Folly is unclear and often misinterpreted. To attempt to expand our knowledge of the Varys-Illyrio plot, I’ve divided their scheming into two parts. In order to understand the plots of Illyrio and Varys, we have to explain the motivations and backgrounds of those pulling the strings. So, in today’s part we’ll be taking a deep dive into the underpinnings of Varys and Illyrio’s conspiracy before the start of events from A Game of Thrones. I plan to do this in three basic ways:
- Their overall objective
- A deep dive into the background of both players to include discussions of their origins, family dynamic and a bit of prophecy..
- Finally, we’ll cover Varys and Illyrio’s opening acts in the folly during the reign of Aerys II.
Through this extended analysis, I hope you’ll come to understand Varys and Illyrio’s role as Folly in the story. But in the end, keep in mind that Varys and Illyrio’s folly will cause the deaths of tens of thousands in Westeros and Essos.
“Tell me, Lord Varys, who do you truly serve?”
Varys smiled thinly. “Why, the realm, my good lord, how ever could you doubt that? I swear it by my lost manhood. I serve the realm, and the realm needs peace.” (AGOT, Eddard XIV)
At its most basic level, the ultimate objective of Varys and Illyrio has been to put Aegon, the purported son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell, onto the throne of Westeros. But this basic objective doesn’t tell the full story. It doesn’t explain why Varys and Illyrio have worked seemingly most of their lives to destabilize whole continents and countries to put a mere teenager onto the throne of Westeros. And the why is desperately important to understand everything that’s set to come in The Winds of Winter.
At a surface level, Varys and Illyrio are in “for the realm.” They want peace for Westeros. But that surface answer that Varys gives Eddard in A Game of Thrones deliberately obfuscates their true motives. They aren’t in it for peace in and of itself. They want peace, but they want peace through their preferred candidate. In short, they’re not so interested in peace, they’re interested in power through a proxy; peace is the windfall.
Before the publication of A Dance with Dragons, the common perception among fans was that Varys and Illyrio were backing Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen’s reclamation of their father’s throne. However, the reveal of Aegon in A Dance with Dragons threw that common perception into considerable doubt. Further muddying the waters was a new theory that came to be known as the Blackfyre Theory.
At its core, the Blackfyre Theory states that Illyrio and Varys are attempting to place a descendant of House Blackfyre, a legitimated bastard branch of House Targaryen with royal ambitions, onto the Iron Throne. A further theory has it that Illyrio and Varys seek to place a descendant of Aerion Brightflame: a disgraced Targaryen who also had royal ambitions, onto the throne.
But instead of going through all of the potential proof for Aegon’s Blackfyre identity, let’s instead examine some evidence for Varys and Illyrio’s connection to the Blackfyres and Brightflames.
Writ in Blood and Marriage
According to Illyrio, he’s backing Daenerys and Aegon for castles and coins:
“What do you hope to gain from Queen Daenerys?”
“Are we back to that again? You are a persistent little man.” Illyrio gave a laugh and slapped his belly. “As you will. The Beggar King swore that I should be his master of coin, and a lordly lord as well. Once he wore his golden crown, I should have my choice of castles … even Casterly Rock, if I desired.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
But Tyrion senses that something else is at stake for Illyrio. When he questions Illyrio a little more sharply, Tyrion knows that Illyrio is lying to him:
“I told you, my little friend, not all that a man does is done for gain. Believe as you wish, but even fat old fools like me have friends, and debts of affection to repay.”
Liar, thought Tyrion. There is something in this venture worth more to you than coin or castles. (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Illyrio’s connection to Westeros is tenuous. While he has mercantile interests in Westeros, he doesn’t have any apparent stake in Westeros’ politics outside of his relationship to Varys. Tyrion is shrewd enough to draw this out of Illyrio’s vague replies and apparent lies. So, what is Illyrio’s stake in Westeros?
For that we turn to Illyrio’s second wife: Serra Mopatis. By the time the story starts, she’s (at least allegedly) dead and has been dead for some years. But Illyrio remains very, very fond of her:
“A maiden? I know the way of that.” Illyrio thrust his right hand up his left sleeve and drew out a silver locket. Inside was a painted likeness of a woman with big blue eyes and pale golden hair streaked by silver. ” Serra. I found her in a Lysene pillow house and brought her home to warm my bed, but in the end I wed her. Me, whose first wife had been a cousin of the Prince of Pentos. The palace gates were closed to me thereafter, but I did not care. The price was small enough, for Serra.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
So, there are some really interesting tidbits worth bulleting from this passage:
- Serra was Illyrio’s second wife, and he loved her deeply — much more fervently than his first wife who isn’t even given a name.
- Illyrio’s marriage to her “closed the palace gates” to him. What this implies is that the marriage to Serra was seen as a slap to the Pentoshi nobility, who then shut Illyrio out of power in Pentos. Illyrio’s first wife had been a cousin to the Prince of Pentos; a subsequent marriage to a whore displayed a careless disregard for this first wife’s memory intolerable among the proud Pentoshi nobility.
- Serra was from Lys and a prostitute.
- Her hair was pale golden streaked by silver.
Now, let’s weave these points through a discussion of the name of “Serra” itself and the recent history of House Blackfyre. The name Serra is likely Valyrian in origin — which would make sense given that Lys traces its history as a Valyrian colony. But as the History of Westeros podcast noted, the name Serra or more accurately close variants come up specifically in Targaryen history. King Jaehaerys I Targaryen had a daughter named Saera who was given to the Faith, yet her journey ends in a way that’s similar to Serra Mopatis’ origin story.
Though given to the Faith as Maegelle was, Saera did not have Maegelle’s temperament. She ran away from the motherhouse where she was a novice and crossed the narrow sea. She was at Lys for a time, then Old Volantis, where she ended her days as the proprietor of a famous pleasure house. (TWOIAF, Jaehaerys I)
So, we have a Targaryen woman with the name of Saera who ends up becoming the madam of a Volantene pleasure house. Additionally, the Serra base comes up yet again in The World of Ice and Fire:
Viserra was betrothed to Lord Manderly of White Harbor only to die by mishap shortly afterward.. (TWOIAF, Jaehaerys I)
The takeaway here is that Serra/Saera was used to name two Targaryen women. But combining that information with the details Illyrio tells us about his first wife (e.g. her appearance, her background and her name) points to decently strong circumstantial evidence. And the naming convention ties into Westerosi and Essosi norms of naming children in a similar-but-not-exact fashion to relatives (Think Rickon to Rickard for instance as Nfriel once pointed out on reddit.)
The Female Line
“Illyrio believes in no cause but Illyrio. Gluttons are greedy men as a rule, and magisters are devious. Illyrio Mopatis is both. (ACOK, Daenerys III)
A somewhat common rebuttal to this is that the male line of House Blackfyre died out with Maelys on the Stepstones:
“When Maelys the Monstrous died upon the Stepstones, it was the end of the male line of House Blackfyre.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
The realm would continue to be troubled by the claims of the Blackfyre Pretenders for four more generations, until the last of the descendants of Daemon Blackfyre through the male line was sent to the grave. (TWOIAF, Daeron II)
What’s conveniently left out of this equation is the female line. Its omission by Illyrio and The World of Ice and Fire speaks volumes, and it indicates that female Blackfyre line lives on. Given that Serra had Targaryen/Valyrian features, a Targaryen/Valyrian name, and that Illyrio shows extreme fondness for her, I surmise that Serra Blackfyre is the cornerstone to unraveling the case.
Solidifying the theory is Illyrio’s seemingly personal care for Aegon. Illyrio has what may be called a fatherly relationship with Aegon. For one, he describes the boy as extraordinarily noble:
“Griff is different. He has a son he dotes on. Young Griff, the boy is called. There never was a nobler lad.” (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Tyrion also notes that Illyrio sounds “oddly sad” when the merchant prince mentions the gifts intended for Aegon (including a special personal present):
“There is a gift for the boy in one of the chests. Some candied ginger. He was always fond of it.” Illyrio sounded oddly sad. (ADWD, Tyrion III)
That he knows Aegon’s food preference is evidence for Illyrio knowing the boy for a long time and seeming eager to please the boy. But more than that, he seems to have a very personal stake in Aegon’s hoped-for marriage to Daenerys and regrets not attending.
“I thought I might continue on to Ghoyan Drohe with you. A farewell feast before you start downriver …” (ADWD, Tyrion III)
“Good fortune,” Illyrio called after them. “Tell the boy I am sorry that I will not be with him for his wedding. I will rejoin you in Westeros. That I swear, by my sweet Serra’s hands.”
The last that Tyrion Lannister saw of Illyrio Mopatis, the magister was standing by his litter in his brocade robes, his massive shoulders slumped. (ADWD, Tyrion III)
Illyrio’s emotional ties to Aegon, Serra’s Targaryen name, her Targaryen features and resemblance to Targaryens of the past and the fact that only the Blackfyre male-line died out point to Illyrio’s investment in Aegon as personal, familial and rooted in Targaryen history. But what about Varys?
The Bright Dragon
“Someone told me that the night is dark and full of terrors. What do you see in those flames?”
“Dragons,” Moqorro said in the Common Tongue of Westeros. He spoke it very well, with hardly a trace of accent. No doubt that was one reason the high priest Benerro had chosen him to bring the faith of R’hllor to Daenerys Targaryen. “Dragons old and young, true and false, bright and dark. And you. A small man with a big shadow, snarling in the midst of all.” (ADWD, Tyrion VIII)
Of all the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire claiming prophetic foresight, the red priest Moqorro seems to have the clearest visions of prophecy. Moqorro’s dragon vision quoted above is one of the most important prophecies of A Song of Ice and Fire. It gives us a pretty clear indication that there are other dragons (Targaryens or Targaryen bastards) out there. But who are these different dragons? Here’s my chart on who everyone might be:
- Old Dragon: Could be Maester Aemon, but it’s more likely to be Bloodraven
- Young Dragon: Could reference Aegon (My first thought), but more likely references Jon Snow
- True Dragon: Daenerys Targaryen
- False Dragon: Probably Aegon
- Dark Dragon: Blackfyre
The bright dragon of Moqorro’s prophecy is strange. We can reasonably identify the other potential dragons. But the bright dragon is a mystery. Is there a hidden Targaryen in the story? The answer is “probably”. Even more, it’s someone we’ve had extensive exposure to from the beginning of the books. To explore this mystery, however, we need to go back into history to another Targaryen: Aerion “Brightflame” Targaryen.
Prince Aerion Targaryen is known to us through his unfortunate encounters with Dunk and Egg in The Hedge Knight. However, his tale didn’t end with his defeat at the Trial of Seven. Instead, he continued living on in Essos, Lys specifically:
“I have sent Aerion to Lys,” [Maekar] announced abruptly. “A few years in the Free Cities may change him for the better.” (D&E, The Hedge Knight)
But Aerion stayed busy in Lys; though he was there for only a few years, he likely fathered several bastards
Aerion Brightfire did not stay in Lys all his life, only a few years. He may have fathered a few bastards there, which would mean Dany has “relatives” of a sort in Lys… but they would be very distant relatives, from the wrong side of the blanket. (So Spake Martin, 10/14/1998)
He also fathered one trueborn son, Maegor who was briefly considered to succeed to the Iron Throne after King Maekar died.
Only a few spoke up for Aerion Brightflame’s son Maegor; an infant king would have meant a long, contentious regency, and there were also fears that the boy might have inherited his father’s cruelty and madness. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Maekar I)
The baby prince Maegor then disappears from the narrative altogether. But we know that the council took place in 233 AC when Maegor was around a year old. Given that we don’t have a record of Maegor’s death, it seems suspicious. Why don’t we learn about Maegor’s fate? Perhaps The World of Ice and Fire and GRRM considered Maegor’s fate to be unimportant to the story, but GRRM’s use of omission in The World of Ice and Fire often has the secondary purpose of concealing spoilers for the future of the series.
For my part, I find the timeline and omission suspicious. Maegor was born in 232 AC. Given Aerion’s extended sojourn in Lys and the Great Council passing Maegor over and no further mention of Maegor in the narrative of The World of Ice and Fire, let’s make a jump that Maegor ended up back in Lys. And now for a further jump! Let’s suppose that Maegor lives into adulthood in Lys. Now, if he’s to marry and have trueborn sons or father bastards, it would likely be between 250 and 260 (when he’s between the age of 20-30). Why is that important? Well, Lys is also important to us, because it’s where Varys hails from:
The Lord Varys was born a slave in Lys, did you know? Put not your trust in spiders, my lord.” (AGOT, Eddard V)
Now, we don’t know Varys’ age, but we can suppose that it’s somewhere between 40 and 50 given that he was brought over by Aerys II in 279 or 280 AC (Between the Defiance of Duskendale and the Year of the False Spring). So, this is an admitted leap, but the timeline aligns for Maegor Brightflame to be the father of Varys.
Lys is also the city where Serra Mopatis was found in a pillowhouse by Illyrio. So, I’d also go a step further and speculate that Serra Mopatis is also Maegor’s offspring. Of course, if Serra descended from the Blackfyre female line and a brother to Varys, that would make Varys and Serra potentially joint Blackfyre-Brightflame descendents.
Varys’ Shaved Head, Kingsblood and Literary Foreshadowing
Now, the above might seem like very shaky ground, but there’s some supporting circumstantial evidence for Varys’ dual Brightflame/Blackfyre identity. Varys’ appearance and statements about his history provide more backing for this secret dual Targaryen ancestry. But GRRM has also provided some subtle narrative evidence to back Varys’ Blackfyre-Brightflame identity.
Varys’ eunuch status and his bald head are curiosities that might point to something more. Now, before proceeding into this argument, it’s worth noting that hairless eunuchs are common in Essos. Enslaved, hairless Eunuch healers are common among Dothraki khalasars. However, while we can’t be completely sure, Varys seems (And this is my guess) to shave his head. Varys’ potential head-shaving is not unique in Westeros; Tywin Lannister shaves his head as does Thoros of Myr for seemingly aesthetic reasons. However, there are others in the story who shave their head to conceal their identity: Jaime Lannister, for example, is shorn in A Storm of Swords to be less identifiable.
But a better A Song of Ice and Fire parallel is that Aegon V Targaryen. Egg’s head is shaved by Daeron the Drunken to hide his Targaryen features and heritage from King Maekar.
I was supposed to squire for Daeron. He’s my oldest brother. I learned everything I had to learn to be a good squire, but Daeron isn’t a very good knight. He didn’t want to ride in the tourney, so after we left Summerhall he stole away from our escort, only instead of doubling back he went straight on toward Ashford, thinking they’d never look for us that way. It was him shaved my head. He knew my father would send men hunting us. Daeron has common hair, sort of pale brown, nothing special, but mine is like Aerion’s and my father’s.” (D&E, The Hedge Knight)
Thus, Aegon became egg — both as a reference to the shape of his bald head as well as a sly reference to Aegon.
Varys’ potential shaved head fits the mold of concealing his Targaryen identity. His role as a mummer is renowned and his use of disguise is unparalleled in the story. A shaved head could conceal Varys’ pale-blonde Valyrian hair that would be a giveaway to his Targaryen identity. Of course, Varys’ potential pale-blonde hair could also signify his Lysene identity as well. But why conceal that? Hiding his Targaryen heritage rather than his Lysene background better fits as a reasons for shaving and works thematically as a callback to Aegon V’s early days as “Egg.” In fact, Varys is introduced to us in a peculiar way:
The man [Varys] who stepped through the door was plump, perfumed, powdered, and as hairless as an egg. (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
The other piece of evidence from the story comes from the story Varys tells Tyrion about the sorcerer. According to Varys, he became a eunuch when a sorcerer uses his penis in a blood magic ritual.
“I was an orphan boy apprenticed to a traveling folly. Our master owned a fat little cog and we sailed up and down the narrow sea performing in all the Free Cities and from time to time in Oldtown and King’s Landing.
“One day at Myr, a certain man came to our folly. After the performance, he made an offer for me that my master found too tempting to refuse. I was in terror. I feared the man meant to use me as I had heard men used small boys, but in truth the only part of me he had need of was my manhood. He gave me a potion that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses. With a long hooked blade, he sliced me root and stem, chanting all the while. I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke.” (ACOK, Tyrion X)
Vary’s story brings up an interesting question: if the story is true (and there’s always a chance that it’s not), why did the sorcerer choose Varys among the troupe of mummers that Varys was a part of? Was it simply because Varys was an orphan and didn’t represent a threat to the sorcerer? Or was it because Varys possessed something that the sorcerer needed for his ritual — say, kingsblood.
Whether kingsblood actually has magical properties is beside the point. Practitioners of R’hllor such as Melisandre believe that there is power in kingsblood. Given the pretty high price that the sorcerer paid for Varys, I think it’s possible that Varys may have been selected for this blood magic ritual because he possessed kingsblood — the blood of Aegon the Conqueror and his Targaryen descendants through Aerion Brightflame and the female Blackfyre line.
Besides the Egg/Varys connection, there’s more literary evidence for Varys’ Targaryen identity. For this section, I’m indebted to Lady Gwyn, Yolkboy, Veltigar and others from Westeros for their thoughts on the Brightfyre theory. The first thing that jumps out is something that Catelyn thinks on in the very first book as her ship approaches King’s Landing. She sees the Red Keep high above the city, and she thinks:
And above it all, frowning down from Aegon’s high hill, was the Red Keep; seven huge drum-towers crowned with iron ramparts, an immense grim barbican, vaulted halls and covered bridges, barracks and dungeons and granaries, massive curtain walls studded with archers’ nests, all fashioned of pale red stone. Aegon the Conqueror had commanded it built. His son Maegor the Cruel had seen it completed. Afterward he had taken the heads of every stonemason, woodworker, and builder who had labored on it. Only the blood of the dragon would ever know the secrets of the fortress the Dragonlords had built, he vowed. (AGOT, Catelyn IV)
George RR Martin loves to do this sort of subtlety in A Song of Ice and Fire. Statements like Maegor’s often contain a secondary, hidden meaning in them. Besides Maegor and his masons, the only person to know the secrets of the Red Keep is Varys. We see Varys’ skill in navigating the tunnels and secret passageways of the Red Keep throughout the story. He leads Tyrion through the passageways to escape, infiltrates his little birds into the passageways to spy on his targets and is seen leading Illyrio expertly through secret passageways and doors through the Red Keep by Arya in A Game of Thrones. There is no one who knows the Red Keep better than Varys.
The First Conspiracy
It all goes back and back, Tyrion thought, to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance on in our steads. (ASOS, Tyrion X)
Though Varys and Illyrio had (and have) ample reason and motivation to sit a descendent of Houses Blackfyre and Brightflame onto the Iron Throne, an obstacle stood in their path. Standing athwart Varys and Illyrio’s scheme stood the Red Dragon — House Targaryen, descended from Daeron II and Aegon V. There’s a thematic resonance to two dispossessed Targaryen branches meeting in the persons of Varys, Serra, Illyrio and eventually Aegon: the throne was supposed to be theirs. The Targaryens of Daeron II and Aegon V’s line had denied their ancestors and thus them their rightful crown.
The First Blackfyre Rebellion had perished on the Redgrass Field in blood and glory. The Second Blackfyre Rebellion ended with a whimper. “They cannot cow us,” Young Daemon proclaimed from the castle battlements after he had seen the ring of iron that encircled them, “for our cause is just.” (D&E, The Mystery Knight)
Fortunately for Varys and Illyrio, while the Targaryens still held the allegiance of much of Westeros and projected an appearance of strength, the power of House Targaryen was waning. They had successfully weathered wars, internal strife, weak rulers and disease, but it was these very events which hollowed them out. Disasters from the Dance of the Dragons to the Blackfyre Rebellions to the Tragedy of Summerhall depleted House Targaryen of actual Targaryens as well as made noble houses and smallfolk alike look askance at the them and their rule.
But if Westeros felt uneasy about the Targaryens, it did not mean that the Westerosi would necessarily turn to the Brightflames or Blackfyres to save the day. Outside of the First Blackfyre Rebellion, outright support for the descendants of Daemon, Aegor or Aerion by the lords or smallfolk of Westeros had not been forthcoming. Given the history, Varys and Illyrio must have realized early on that unseating the Red Dragon couldn’t be accomplished by traditional military of conciliar means.
As such, the early plan wasn’t to invade Westeros militarily — at least initially. Instead, the plan was to invest time and covert action into intelligence preparation of the battlefield for the eventual seizure of the Iron Throne by a Blackfyre-Brightflame descendant. But destroying House Targaryen would be for naught if the Red Dragon was replaced by an equally strong dynasty before Varys and Illyrio could set their own candidate onto the throne. As far as I can tell, Robert’s Rebellion was not supposed to happen. Instead, I think they wanted to weaken House Targaryen to the point where Westeros would grow increasingly disgusted by the actions of the Targaryens. At that point, a heroic savior would arrive — sweeping the hated mad Targaryens from power.
But Varys and Illyrio knew better than to cloak this savior in Brightflame or Blackfyre colors. Instead, this savior would need to be seen as legitimate by lords and smallfolk alike. He would be need to be seen as a Targaryen. Of course, he wouldn’t actually be a Targaryen. Instead, he would be the son of Illyrio and Serra, the union of Daemon Blackfyre and Aerion Brightflame.
Aerys, Tywin and Varys
Varys’ entry into Westeros was set in motion by the doomed relationship between King Aerys II Targaryen and his longtime Hand, Tywin Lannister. Yet Illyrio and Varys also seemed to have an ear to the ground of events going on in Westeros. They seemed to know that Aerys II was sliding increasingly into insanity. Accordingly , they spread word of Varys’ prowess as a spymaster.
I grew so respectable that a cousin of the Prince of Pentos let me wed his maiden daughter, whilst whispers of a certain eunuch’s talents crossed the narrow sea and reached the ears of a certain king. A very anxious king, who did not wholly trust his son, nor his wife, nor his Hand, a friend of his youth who had grown arrogant and overproud. (ADWD, Tyrion II)
Varys’ role was to be a mole in Aerys II’s court while Illyrio accumulated power and the financial backing for their scheme in Pentos. But Varys wasn’t in King’s Landing to simply be the eyes and ears of the conspiracy; he was there to take a direct role in furthering it. In the above quote, we can see that Varys and Illyrio saw Aerys’ failing relationships to those around him as areas to exploit. Specifically, Varys targeted two of Aerys’ relationships: his relationship to his Hand and to his Heir.
Tywin Lannister served as a stabilizing influence on Westeros during his tenure as Hand of the King.
The realm prospered under Tywin Lannister’s stewardship—so much so that King Aerys’s endless caprices did not seem so portentous. Many Targaryens before him had exhibited similar behavior without great cause for concern. From Oldtown to the Wall, men began to say that Aerys might wear the crown, but it was Tywin Lannister who ruled the realm. (TWOIAF, Aerys II)
As such, Tywin’s competent Handship threatened Varys’ long-term plans. But Varys had a fortuitous ally in Aerys II’s paranoia. Well before Varys even arrived, Aerys II believed that Tywin was plotting against him.
Though Tywin Lannister continued as Hand, Aerys no longer met with him save in the presence of all seven Kingsguard. Convinced that the smallfolk and lords were plotting against his life and fearing that even Queen Rhaella and Prince Rhaegar might be part of these plots, he reached across the narrow sea to Pentos and imported a eunuch named Varys to serve as his spymaster, reasoning that only a man without friends, family, or ties in Westeros could be relied upon for the truth. The Spider, as he soon became known to the smallfolk of his realm, used the crown’s gold to create a vast web of informers. For the rest of Aerys’s reign, he would crouch at the king’s side, whispering in his ear. (TWOIAF, Aerys II)
When Varys arrived in King’s Landing, he fixed on Aerys’ fear and began to feed it with the “whispers of his birds.” Varys’ generation of a spy network and aura of omniscience was vital to weakening Aerys II’s thin grip of sanity.
His Grace’s growing madness had become unmistakable by that time. From Dorne to the Wall, men had begun to refer to Aerys II as the Mad King. In King’s Landing, he was called King Scab, for the many times he had cut himself upon the Iron Throne. Yet with Varys the Spider and his whisperers listening, it had become very dangerous to voice any of these sentiments aloud. (TWOIAF, Aerys II)
He saw traitors everywhere, and Varys was always there to point out any he might have missed. (ASOS, Jaime V)
Varys’ action here was to break the relationship between Tywin and Aerys irrevocably, but he didn’t seem to want to the break to lead to outright war. In the end, Varys’ actions were rewarded when Tywin resigned his Handship after Aerys II named Jaime Lannister as a knight of the Kingsguard, depriving Tywin of an heir. More importantly for Varys, it deprived Aerys of a strongman to allow the Targaryens to persevere.
Aerys, Rhaegar and Varys
Artwork by quickreaver
But even if Tywin was gone, Varys recognized a second threat: a powerful heir in the person of Rhaegar Targaryen. The “Weaken the Targaryens” plan simply wouldn’t work with a popular Targaryen standing in its way. Whether Rhaegar was as good and wonderful as many believed, the fact that many believed that he was good and wonderful and worse. Not exhibiting overt signs of Aerys-style madness also ensured that he would be a roadblock to Varys and Illyro’s efforts. Worst of all, as heir to the Iron Throne, Rhaegar couldn’t be set aside as easily as the Hand of the King could. He had to be eliminated.
Fortunately (again) for Varys, Aerys’ paranoia extended to his heir even before Varys arrived in King’s Landing, as Aerys II believed that Rhaegar planned to unseat him. Once more, Varys’ job was simply to feed Aerys’ paranoia. To accomplish this, Varys had his little birds follow and record all of the things that Rhaegar did. Varys then used intelligence against Rhaegar (and possibly lies as well) as a weapon against the crown prince.
Even Varys, though, could not have asked for better fuel for Aerys’ paranoia than the Tourney of Harrenhal. Rhaegar seemingly decided that Aerys needed to be deposed from power. One of the explanations for the Tourney provided in The World of Ice and Fire gives a clue as to Rhaegar’s rationale:
There were those, however, who believed this no more than a ruse, and Lord Whent no more than a catspaw. His lordship lacked the funds to pay such munificent prizes, they argued; someone else must surely have stood behind him, someone who did not lack for gold but preferred to remain in the shadows whilst allowing the Lord of Harrenhal to claim the glory for hosting this magnificent event. We have no shred of evidence that such a “shadow host” ever existed, but the notion was widely believed at the time and remains so today.
But if indeed there was a shadow, who was he, and why did he choose to keep his role a secret? A dozen names have been put forward over the years, but only one seems truly compelling: Rhaegar Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone.
If this tale be believed, ’twas Prince Rhaegar who urged Lord Walter to hold the tourney, using his lordship’s brother Ser Oswell as a go between. Rhaegar provided Whent with gold sufficient for splendid prizes in order to bring as many lords and knights to Harrenhal as possible. The prince, it is said, had no interest in the tourney as a tourney; his intent was to gather the great lords of the realm together in what amounted to an informal Great Council, in order to discuss ways and means of dealing with the madness of his father, King Aerys II, possibly by means of a regency or a forced abdication. (TWOIAF, The Fall of the Dragons, The Year of the False Spring)
Aerys caught wind of it the plot through (you guessed it) Varys, So paranoid was Aerys that he actually came out of seclusion to attend the tourney, specifically to prevent any deposition from occurring.
The memory was still bitter. Old Lord Whent had announced the tourney shortly after a visit from his brother, Ser Oswell Whent of the Kingsguard. With Varys whispering in his ear, King Aerys became convinced that his son was conspiring to depose him, that Whent’s tourney was but a ploy to give Rhaegar a pretext for meeting with as many great lords as could be brought together. Aerys had not set foot outside the Red Keep since Duskendale, yet suddenly he announced that he would accompany Prince Rhaegar to Harrenhal, and everything had gone awry from there. (ADWD, The Kingbreaker)
Varys needed Rhaegar to be seen as a traitor by his father, and his continued feeding of Aerys’ paranoia over Rhaegar should be seen in that light. In fact, I’d go so far as to surmise that had Lyanna not caught the eye of Rhaegar at the Tourney of Harrenhal, Aerys would have had him executed at the behest of Varys’ whispers.
But there’s a significant flaw in this idea that the elimination of Rhaegar would weaken the Tagaryens. Rhaegar had a son who would succeed him if he was executed for treason. If Aegon, the son of Rhaegar and Elia, proved to possess his father’s sanity and popularity, it was a foolhardy gamble on Varys’ part.
However, The World of Ice and Fire and a conversation between Barristan Selmy and Daenerys Targaryen provides a window into a hitherto unseen part of Varys’ plan. First, the rift between Aerys and Rhaegar grew the point that some of Aerys’ advisers counseled the Mad King to name another as his heir:
Had any whiff of proof come into their hands to show that Prince Rhaegar was conspiring against his father, King Aerys’s loyalists would most certainly have used it to bring about the prince’s downfall. Indeed, certain of the king’s men had even gone so far as to suggest that Aerys should disinherit his “disloyal” son, and name his younger brother heir to the Iron Throne in his stead. Prince Viserys was but seven years of age, and his eventual ascension would certainly mean a regency, wherein they themselves would rule as regents. (TWOIAF, The Fall of the Dragons: The False Spring)
I wonder, who were these king’s men suggesting Rhaegar’s disinheritance? Varys perhaps? Maybe Varys acting through an agent such as Orton Merryweather? Regardless, it fits with Varys’ whisper campaign against Rhaegar to have Varys join in the chorus of advisers calling for Viserys’ ascension as Heir to the Throne.
But what would Varys hope to get out of Viserys as an heir? Simple: the same madness of Aerys II. Viserys was only seven years old during the Year of the False Spring, but his sanity was already on the fritz. In a conversation between Daenerys and Barristan, Viserys’ similarity to Aerys II is made explicit.
“Some truths are hard to hear. Robert was a… a good knight… chivalrous, brave… he spared my life, and the lives of many others… Prince Viserys was only a boy, it would have been years before he was fit to rule, and… forgive me, my queen, but you asked for truth… even as a child, your brother Viserys oft seemed to be his father’s son, in ways that Rhaegar never did.” (ASOS, Daenerys VI)
Thus, a mad Viserys willing to continue his father’s follies and continuing to alienate the realm further prepared Westeros for the secret return of the Blackfyres and Brightflames through Aegon – or, specifically, Aegon Mopatis. For baby Prince Aegon, the real and actual son of Rhaegar and Elia, had to disappear secretly. Whether he would be spirited away by Varys or ordered executed by Aerys (so long as the evil deed was done secretly — something Varys would likely advise Aerys to do), Aegon would “disappear” and the the black and bright dragon of Illyrio and Serra would emerge red with rust.
Varys and Illyrio’s plan would bear fruit, but it was not the fruit they wanted. It was a decent plan, but Vays overplayed his hand. Varys’ play of getting Rhaegar killed worked, but it was not Aerys who killed Rhaegar to name Viserys as heir. It was Robert Baratheon, leading a 4-realm-strong rebellion against the tyranny of Aerys II, who caved Rhaegar’s chest in with a warhammer.
Moreover, Varys’ successful campaign to drive Tywin and Aerys apart had the final effect of destroying House Targaryen. Varys must have known that his carefully crafted conspiracy to weaken-but-not-destroy the Red Dragon was crumbling around him when Tywin Lannister’s army arrived outside of the walls of King’s Landing. At the very end, Varys tried to save his conspiracy by giving Aerys II actual good advice.
Pycelle convinced the king that his Warden of the West had come to defend him, so he opened the gates. The one time he should have heeded Varys, and he ignored him. (ASOS, Jaime V)
When Aerys ignored the Spider and opened the gates, Tywin sacked the city;Tywin’s son, Jaime Lannister, murdered Aerys II. House Targaryen fell in spectacular fashion, leaving only the seven year old Viserys and the unborn Daenerys as the sole (known) survivors of Aerys II’s line.
This was a disaster for Varys and Illyrio, and it wouldn’t be their last disaster. There was no single point of failure in the implementation of the plan, but there were significant drawbacks at a conceptual level. For one, Varys’ plan to push Westeros to a place where the lords would be willing to side with a rival claimant to the throne worked too well. Aerys’ madness and actions as the Mad King ensured that the realm would rally against the Targaryens eventually. Varys’ actions as Master of Whisperers sped the action up much, much faster than the two conspirators wanted. Varys and Illyrio weren’t ready to move their preferred candidate (who was perhaps a baby at this point) across the Narrow Sea to stake their claim.
But the failure goes deeper than all that. Seemingly, Varys assumed that that he could control events on the ground without the human element interfering – namely, how his whisperings against Tywin and Rhaegar would impact their psyches as well as Aerys’ paranoia. Varys should have known that Tywin would seek a very personal vengeance against the man who had slighted him so badly. He had only to look at Tywin’s conduct against Tytos’ mistress and, more importantly, his brutal suppression of the Reyne-Tarbeck Rebellion in the Westerlands to know that Tywin would eventually satiate his need for vengeance as well as wash out the stain against the Lannister name.
Varys also failed to account for the very real possibility that Rhaegar might seek redress against Aerys’ madness and threats to remove his heir from the succession. In fact, Varys’ whisperings against Rhaegar’s involvement at the Tourney of Harrenhal was a failure. Varys should have known about the Tourney well ahead of time, given the possibility that Rhaegar used Oswell Whent, a knight of the Kingsguard, as his go-between. If Varys knew about it ahead of time, he likely should have informed Aerys of it long before the lords assembled (given that Varys and Illyrio were fifteen years out from the possibility of Aegon landing). If his late timing was intentional and intended to push the realm that much more towards chaos, again, Varys failed to see the human element of Westeros’ rapidly-growing disgust with Aerys’ kingship and their desire for more immediate action to safeguard their rights and lives from Aerys’ madness.
Varys and Illyrio’s first move in Westeros was a disaster, but this failure had bright spots as well. Viserys’ and Daenerys’ survivor status provided the potential that they could be used as pawns for the future. Horrendous as it is, the utter butchery of Aegon and Rhaenys by Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch, particularly the smashed head of the would-be Aegon VI, ensured that the body was unidentifiable. The hope of using Aegon’s “miraculous survival and spiriting away by Varys” idea remained plausible.
Better still, it’s likely that around this time or a year or so before, a son of Illyrio and Serra Mopatis was born in Pentos. This child, bearing the conqueror’s name of Aegon, would carry the legacy of the Blackfyres and Brightflames forward into the future. But tragically for Westeros and Essos, this child would also continue Illyrio and Varys’ folly into the next generation.
Thanks for reading. I invite you to follow me on twitter as well as the Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire’s official twitter, facebook and tumblr. Next up: Varys and Illyrio scheme with the Golden Company to place Aegon onto the throne during the main timeline of A Song of Ice and Fire.