As far as starting points go, I think this one is as good as any. Varys serves the realm, something that he has stated on various occasions.
This essay is divided into three parts. The first part will try to make sense of Varys and Illyrio’s plans as seen in AGoT. The second part will take a look at some of the actions posed by Varys and why I don’t believe he has anything to do with a Blackfyre conspiracy. The third part will examine why and how Varys serves the realm.
First things first, though, let’s deal with the elephant in the room.
Varys’s little birds are orphan boys and girls whose tongues have been removed. Mutilating children is indefensible, especially when we know that Varys himself was mutilated when he was a small boy. It is true that he is taking orphans off the streets. They don’t have to beg for good as far as we know, or steal and resort to prostitution like he did. I understand why he does what he does. The end justifies the means. But maiming children is still incredibly reprehensible.
Trying to Make Sense of the Original Plan
The plan we overheard about in Arya III, AGoT 32 seems to have been very much in flux. In light of everything we know up to the last published book, let’s try and break things down. I am not reinventing the wheel here by any means, but let’s break this down anyway.
“. . . found one bastard,” one said. “The rest will come soon. A day, two days, a fortnight . . .”
“And when he learns the truth, what will he do?” a second voice asked in the liquid accents of the Free Cities.
“The gods alone know,” the first voice said. Arya could see a wisp of grey smoke drifting up off the torch, writhing like a snake it rose. “The fools tried to kill his son, and what’s worse, they made a mummer’s farce of it. He’s not a man to put that aside. I warn you, the wolf and the lion will soon be at each other’s throats, whether we will it or no.”
“Too soon, too soon,” the voice with the accent complained. “What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay.”Arya III, AGoT 32
So it would appear that part of the plans that Varys initially had may have been to pit the Starks and the Lannisters against each other. If that were the case, then Littlefinger beat Varys to the punch. But it must be said that it seems like the Lannisters were already preparing for war well before Tyrion’s abduction and this could be traced back to Cersei’s visit to Casterly Rock right before Jon Arryn’s death. Westermen were massing along the passes and Gregor Clegane and his men were raiding in the riverlands before Robert went hunting in the kingswood. We find out that Tywin was expecting that Ned would be the one riding against Gregor Clegane and his men. But Ned’s broken leg prevents him from doing that.
“If one Hand can die, why not a second?” replied the man with the accent and the forked yellow beard. “You have danced the dance before, my friend.” [snip]
“Before is not now, and this Hand is not the other,” the scarred man said as they stepped out into the hall.Arya III, AGoT 32
This quote above is rather important. Although we don’t find out his name until ASoS, Jon Connington already has his place in the universe of ASoIaF. As does Aegon Targaryen who is introduced in the third chapter of AGoT and garners several mentions and references throughout the books. And because hindsight is 20/20, this exchange between Illyrio and Varys takes on a whole new meaning when we find out about Aegon in ADwD.
“If one Hand can die, why not a second?” Illyrio asked Varys. Varys has done this before. Because a large part of Ned’s plot revolves around trying to figure out who murdered Jon Arryn, we, the readers, are led to believe that Illyrio is revealing that Varys was the one who orchestrated Jon Arryn’s death and that the overarching reason for it is to bring Targaryen rule back to Westeros.
But after five books, we have the benefit of hindsight. The Hand that Illyrio is talking about is another Jon. Jon Connington this one. He is the Hand who “died” at Varys’s behest.
So far as most of them were concerned, Connington had drunk himself to death in Lys after being driven from the company in disgrace for stealing from the war chest. The shame of the lie still stuck in his craw, but Varys had insisted it was necessary. “We want no songs about the gallant exile,” the eunuch had tittered, in that mincing voice of his. “Those who die heroic deaths are long remembered, thieves and drunks and cravens soon forgotten.”The Lost Lord, ADwD 24
Ned Stark and Jon Connington are different. Ned has no loyalties to House Targaryen. The reason he tries to protect Daenerys from Robert is the same reason he wants to protect Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen. Because they are children. Meanwhile Jon Connington’s loyalties seem to lie with Rhaegar and by extension his son. Jon Connington has been carrying a lot of guilt over what happened at Stoney Sept and is looking for redemption in the form of Aegon.
The Jon Connington and Aegon seeds were planted very early in the story and bore fruit in ADwD.
“Perhaps so,” the forked beard replied, pausing to catch his breath after the long climb. “Nonetheless, we must have time. The princess is with child. The khal will not bestir himself until his son is born. You know how they are, these savages.”Arya III, AGoT 32
In order to force Khal Drogo’s hand into following the plans to invade Westeros, Varys reveals Dany’s pregnancy the following day in the small council meeting. We know that Robert ordered that assassins be sent after her. We also know that both Illyrio and Varys sent word to Jorah Mormont to keep an eye out for these assassins.
While Ned is in the black cells, he receives Varys’s visit. Varys tells Ned that he protected Robert for fifteen years and I do believe that he did everything in his power to protect Robert. Keeping Robert alive went a long way in stopping the Lannisters from seizing complete power and consolidating it. When Robert died, Joffrey became king, Cersei became regent, Tywin sent Tyrion to King’s Landing to be the acting Hand and when Tywin came to King’s Landing he took up the Handship. At this point, I’m assuming that Varys just allowed Cersei’s plan to get rid of Robert to follow its course since there was no stopping the Lannisters and Starks from coming to blows. He certainly knew about Lancel and the wine which he hinted at to Ned after Robert was brought back from the kingswood.
“The plan –”
“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.”The Lost Lord, ADwD 24
The plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with Viserys alive. If GRRM had plans for Aegon from the start and I am very much inclined to believe that he did, then I don’t think that Varys’s plan was built around Viserys. In the part of the exchange between Illyrio and Varys that is overheard by Arya, Viserys’s name is never mentioned.
I think that he was expendable from the very start. Knowing what we know of the character, there was no way he was going to step aside and allow someone else to come in and take his crown, be he the son of a beloved brother or otherwise. Viserys was crowned by his mother following the deaths of his father and so-called nephew. It would just have been a matter of time before Viserys was met with an unfortunate end to allow the plan to proceed. It just so happened that Khal Drogo was the one who ended up taking care of that little problem for the scheming duo.
The quote below, from Jon Connington, seems to indicate that Aegon did figure in the Dothraki plans that Illyrio had.
“Illyrio could not have been expected to know that the girl would choose to remain at Slaver’s Bay.”
“No more than he knew that the Beggar King would die young, or that Khal Drogo would follow him into the grave. Very little of what the fat man has anticipated has come to pass.”The Lost Lord, ADwD 24
While Jon Connington does mention Viserys here, I still think that he was the odd man out in all this. He is not the Targaryen that Jon Connington, Illyrio and Varys are seeking to put on the Iron Throne and he’s not the Targaryen they are protecting. In fact and as far as we know, Jon Connington doesn’t seem to have sought after Viserys at all.
Illyrio had Viserys under his roof for six months by the time we get Dany’s first chapter. And we find out very quickly that Illyrio doesn’t think much of Viserys.
“They are your people, and they love you well,” Magister Illyrio said amiably. “In holdfasts all across the realm, men lift secret toasts to your health while women sew dragon banners and hide them against the day of your return from across the water.” He gave a massive shrug. “Or so my agents tell me.”
[snip] Her brother was nodding eagerly, however. “I shall kill the Usurper myself,” he promised, who had never killed anyone, “as he killed my brother Rhaegar. And the Lannisters too, the Kingslayer, for what he did to my father.”
“That would be most fitting,” Magister Illyrio said. Dany saw the smallest hint of a smile playing around his full lips, but her brother did not notice. Nodding, he pushed back a curtain and stared off into the night, and Dany knew he was fighting the Battle of the Trident once again.Daenerys I, AGoT 3
Viserys planning on killing Robert Baratheon and Jaime Lannister is pretty laughable. These words are spoken before we ever meet either characters. I guess Viserys could kill them if someone was holding them down for him, but this is a good show of his delusions. Illyrio finds all of this amusing and had nothing good to say about his guest when he was traveling with Tyrion to Ghoyan Drohe.
Illyrio, we are told, wanted Viserys to remain in Pentos. I think the reason for this was because he was worried that Viserys would upset the plans he had in place with his behavior. We are told that Illyrio wept when Viserys died, though I’m more inclined to believe that his weeping was due to his relief rather than his sadness. Any way we slice this, Viserys was an obstacle to Aegon.
I think Aegon, not Viserys, was the one who was supposed to join the Golden Company with those fifty thousand Dothraki screamers. But that plan was burned to ash when Drogo died and his khalasar disbanded. Tristan Rivers talking about Viserys joining them with the Dothraki makes sense because at that point in the story, no one knows about Aegon. The officers of the Golden Company found out about him only after they reached Volon Therys.
Dany crossed the red waste with her tiny khalasar and ended up in Qarth where Barristan Selmy and Strong Belwas were sent to find her. Then instead of getting on the ships Illyrio sent her and heading back to Pentos like she was expected to, she went to Astapor to get her army of Unsullied. Then she marched for Yunkai and after that for Meereen where she remained until she hopped on Drogon’s back and peaced out of that hellhole.
I don’t think Aegon was ever supposed to connect with Dany in Volantis. If Dany had returned to Pentos, then she would have been the one traveling down the Rhoyne with him to Volantis to meet up with the Golden Company instead of Tyrion. Barristan Selmy would have likely been part of that journey since it was Varys’s idea to have him sacked from the Kingsguard in the first place.
We know a few things about Varys. But given the way the character has been presented to us, it’s difficult to trust the things he says and the things he does.
Going through the text was an interesting exercise because I was always under the impression that Varys was an out and out liar. The one instance that I found where he might have been lying is when he was asked if he found out anything about Tyrek’s disappearance. Lies and secrets both have a level of deceit in them. Lies are false statements or omissions of a required information (which would be the case with the Tyrek information). A secret is omitting information in a situation where that information is not required. Varys is not a habitual liar like Littlefinger is, but we know that he is full of secrets.
Varys is a flatterer, but nobody cares for his flattery because the other characters tend to find him smarmy and slimy. He is someone who uses the information he has however he sees fit. The people around him know the information he wants them to know.
Varys gives up the information on Dany’s pregnancy to Robert and his small council because at that moment, his plan requires it. He obscures the birth of the dragons by chuckling and turning the entire thing into a joke. He hides the information in the midst of other information he knows no one around the table will care about. We see how methodical and orderly he is when he is called in as a witness for Tyrion’s trial. When push comes to shove, he will sacrifice men even if he has a modicum of respect or a soft spot for them.
I have no doubt that he had some respect for Ned and some affection for Tyrion, but he doesn’t lift a finger to help them escape the black cells for the reason he gives Ned.
Ned studied the eunuch’s face, searching for truth beneath the mummer’s scars and false stubble. He tried some more wine. This time it went down easier. “Can you free me from this pit?”
“I could . . . but will I? No. Questions would be asked, and the answers would lead back to me.”Eddard XV, AGoT 58
Varys didn’t help Ned escape and wouldn’t have helped Tyrion if he had not been compelled by Jaime because he didn’t want their would-be escapes to be traced back to him.
I think that Varys’s claims about his childhood are true. He has no reason to lie. The children that he takes on and turns into his little birds are a reflection of him. Orphans. Maimed (though he’s the one behind their maiming). They are collectors of information. They are his apprentices.
He sends Gendry away from King’s Landing to protect him from Cersei even though there’s nothing in it for him.
We don’t know how old Varys is. According to Grand Maester Pycelle, Varys was born a slave in Lys (Eddard V, AGoT 25). This means that at the very least his mother was enslaved. Lys is a city entrenched in the slave trade and reputed for its pillow houses. Illyrio himself purchased at least three girls that we know of from there.
We know from Tyrion X, ACoK 44, that Varys was an orphan at some point and traveling with mummers from one Free City to the other and to Westeros as well (Oldtown and King’s Landing, the last one being really interesting). We know that in Myr, a man purchased him, drugged him, castrated him, burned his parts and left him to die. To survive, Varys resorted to begging, stealing and prostitution.
We know that he figured out that secrets are worth more than coin and started his gig with his mice or little birds in Pentos. He and Illyrio became fabulously rich and soon Varys was sought after by the Mad King and entered his service. As far as we know, this is Varys’s past in a nutshell.
The fandom at large believes that Varys is either a Blackfyre or a Blackfyre agent or some variation of this. I haven’t in a while.
The first reason, and as I’ve written in the first part of the Harrenhal series which can be found here, whatever Rhaegar was up to, Varys never gave up or used those secrets to bury him. Instead, he seems to have baited Aerys into going to Harrenhal which I believe was the intent of the tourney at Harrenhal all along. When we see all the evidence Varys presented against Tyrion at his trial, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have had more to tell Aerys about his son. Whatever he gave him, it was enough to make him curious and get him out of the Red Keep for the world to see. Varys simply chose not to do that when Rhaegar would have been a fairly big obstacle for his “Blackfyre agenda.”
The second reason is that unlike Pycelle, Varys counselled Aerys to not open the gates of King’s Landing to Tywin when he arrived to the city following Rhaegar’s death on the Trident.
By the time Tywin arrived outside the gates of King’s Landing, Rhaella and Viserys were safely away on Dragonstone. But it wasn’t so for Elia and her children who were forced by Aerys to remain in King’s Landing as his hostages.
I personally find it extremely hard to believe that Varys had no idea that Aerys was planning to blow up King’s Landing and the Red Keep to kingdom come. If Qarlton Chelsted figured out what Aerys was up to, then I can’t fathom that Varys did not know. Knowledge is his trade. It would be a massive failure in intelligence if that were the case.
My speculation is that Varys was not looking to rescue Aerys when he counselled him to keep his gates closed to Tywin. Nor do I think it had anything to do with his own self-preservation. Varys is a man who hails from Essos. He is by every Westerosi and Essosi standard lowborn scum. He is a nobody and a spy to boot, someone who enabled Aerys’s madness. But he decided to stick around the Red Keep after it had fallen between enemy hands at the risk of his own life. Between Jaime, Pycelle and Barristan, the person who had the best chance of being shortened by a head was Varys.
A long time ago, I read in the preface of La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas a line that always stuck with me. The book is set against the backdrop of religious wars in sixteenth century France. The line in question, loosely translated and I don’t have the book with me for the exact quote, went something like this. “To conceal a dead leaf, you go to a forest. In order to conceal the body of one person, the antagonist created a mountain of bodies.”
Simply put, I think that Varys wanted Aerys to move forward with his wildfire plans for the Red Keep in order to “hide” bodies in the midst of other bodies. Here I am talking about Elia and her children. We saw just how destructive wildfire is at the Battle of the Blackwater. It burns through almost everything. Bodies that are burned with normal fire can become charred beyond recognition and I don’t imagine there’s much left of a body that’s burned with wildfire.
The third reason and perhaps the biggest one is the way the murders of Grand Maester Pycelle and Kevan Lannister went down. First things first, I’ve seen very frequently that Varys murdered Pycelle because he may have known something about Aegon. Maybe Aegon had some birthmark or <insert here what Pycelle may have known>.
Firstly, Pycelle was not the one who delivered Aegon since he was born on Dragonstone. Aegon would have had to be sick at some point, while in King’s Landing, for Pycelle to be summoned at his side. So if we want a maester who knows more about Aegon, it would have to be the maester at Dragonstone.
Secondly, not once in the Epilogue, ADwD, does Pycelle speak Aegon’s name or talks about him. Pycelle reminisces about Jon Connington standing in the Throne Room promising Aerys Robert Baratheon’s head. Pycelle, who was also the Grand Maester during that time, doesn’t mention examining the baby’s body postmortem or anything like that. Ser Kevan expresses some doubts internally as to whether Aegon is real or feigned. The baby’s head was in such a horrible state that no one, including Kevan, looked very long. The baby was a faceless horror of bone and brain. While Ser Kevan acknowledges that Rhaenys was recognizable, it simply was not the case for Aegon. Both Mace Tyrell and Randyll Tarly call Aegon a feigned boy, but we get absolutely nothing from Pycelle. I think that his silence on the matter speaks volumes.
Now about the murders of the Grand Maester and the Lord Regent. There is no other way to qualify the chosen method for their murders as anything other than vengeance for what happened to Rhaenys and the would-be Aegon. Yes, Varys tells Kevan that he had to kill him because he was a threat to his plans, but the crossbow was enough to achieve that. But in the end, Kevan’s murder mirrors Rhaenys’s, just like Pycelle’s murder mirrors Aegon/Pisswater Bend’s baby (credit: Crona at westeros.org)
Then he saw. Grand Maester Pycelle was seated at his table, his head pillowed on the great leather-bound tome before him. Sleeping, Kevan thought . . . until he blinked and saw the deep red gash in the old man’s spotted skull and the blood pooled beneath his head, staining the pages of his book. All around his candle were bits of bone and brain, islands in a lake of melted wax.Epilogue, ADwD 72
Pycelle’s head was bashed in with possibly a candlestick holder or some other heavy object, mirroring the would-be Aegon getting his brains bashed in (against a wall) by Gregor Clegane.
“I am sorry.” Varys wrung his hands. “You are suffering, I know, yet here I stand going on like some silly old woman. Time to make an end to it.” The eunuch pursed his lips and gave a little whistle.
Ser Kevan was cold as ice, and every labored breath sent a fresh stab of pain through him. He glimpsed movement, heard the soft scuffling sound of slippered feet on stone. A child emerged from a pool of darkness, a pale boy in a ragged robe, no more than nine or ten. Another rose up behind the Grand Maester’s chair. The girl who had opened the door for him was there as well. They were all around him, half a dozen of them, white-faced children with dark eyes, boys and girls together.
And in their hands, the daggers.Epilogue, ADwD 72
This here is a direct parallel to Rhaenys who was stabbed by Amory Lorch half-a-hundred times according to Tywin. Kevan is as guilty as his brother was for the Sack of King’s Landing and the murders of Rhaegar’s children. There is nothing that Tywin did not do that did not receive Kevan’s seal of approval.
And so while Kevan is first shot in the chest by the crossbow and would certainly have died from that alone, it’s the children who finish him off with their daggers.
This is the biggest reason I have a difficult time believing that Varys has anything to do with a Blackfyre conspiracy. That’s not even mentioning that he seems to have had a soft spot for Rhaenys and tells Ned that he often wondered what happened to her kitten. If he wonders often about her kitten, then it means that he does think of her as well.
There is a lot of cynicism when it comes to a character like Varys, understandably so, but that seemed like a sincere moment on his part. Varys was the only character who ever mentioned Rhaenys and her kitten (and we’re not talking about the mentions of the black tomcat here who we assume is Balerion) until Cersei V, AFfC 24, when Cersei thinks that black cats are a bad omen and thinks of Rhaenys having a black kitten, and later Ser Barristan, in The Queensguard, ADwD 55, thinks of Rhaenys and her kitten.
Finally, I don’t think we can dismiss the notion that Varys was the one who warned Willem Darry that Stannis was going to set sail for Dragonstone in order to capture the Targaryen children.
Why Varys Serves the Realm
Is Varys self-serving? Yes. He most certainly is. Is Varys opportunistic? Manipulative? Yes and yes. But Varys does something that is really underrated and that very much flies under the radar fairly early in ASoS. This is the first small council meeting that we get to see following the Battle of the Blackwater.
“Tywin,” Ser Kevan said, before Lord Tywin could vent his obvious displeasure, “some of the gold cloaks who deserted during the battle have drifted back to barracks, thinking to take up duty once again. Ser Addam wishes to know what to do with them.”
“They might have endangered Joff with their cowardice,” Cersei said at once. “I want them put to death.”
Varys sighed. “They have surely earned death, Your Grace, none can deny it. And yet, perhaps we might be wiser to send them to the Night’s Watch. We have had disturbing messages from the Wall of late. Of wildlings astir . . .”Tyrion III, ASoS 19
We know that the situation at the Wall is dire. We find out in the chapter right before this one what happened to the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men after the horn was sounded and why the ravens are returning to Castle Black without any messages. Following this, Maester Aemon began sending pleas to the five kings for their help.
The subject of the gold cloaks who deserted during the Battle of the Blackwater is brought up and Cersei wants them put to death at once, but Varys intercedes and suggests that they be sent to the Wall instead because of the messages they have been receiving in King’s Landing. Varys finds the messages disturbing.
For the longest time, I thought it was Tyrion who suggested that these deserters be sent to the Wall. It did not matter how many times I read ASoS or this passage. My mind would automatically associate the dialogue above and frame it as Tyrion being the one taking a stand for the Watch because he has been to the Wall and heard the lord commander’s plea for help. When we attribute quotes to the wrong characters, it changes the narrative.
Tyrion does speak up in favor of sending the deserters to the Wall, but only after Varys brings up the correspondence received from the Wall and makes the suggestion that they should send the men Cersei wants executed north.
Lord Tywin ignored that. “The deserters serve us best as a lesson. Break their knees with hammers. They will not run again. Nor will any man who sees them begging in the streets.” He glanced down the table to see if any of the other lords disagreed.
Tyrion remembered his own visit to the Wall, and the crabs he’d shared with old Lord Mormont and his officers. He remembered the Old Bear’s fears as well. “Perhaps we might break the knees of a few to make our point. Those who killed Ser Jacelyn, say. The rest we can send to Marsh. The Watch is grievously under strength. If the Wall should fail . . .”Tyrion III, ASoS 19
Varys’s intervention on behalf of the Night’s Watch is something that’s worthy of note and worth analyzing. This is not a moment that’s driven by Varys’s personal agenda of wanting to seat Aegon on the Iron Throne. In fact, getting the Lannisters to send men to the Wall does absolutely nothing for Aegon’s cause. Plus the north seceded from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms and for all intents and purposes, the Wall and the wildlings are Robb’s (and Balon Greyjoy’s) problem, which is exactly how Tywin frames it.
“. . . the wildlings will flood the north,” his father finished, “and the Starks and Greyjoys will have another enemy to contend with. They no longer wish to be subject to the Iron Throne, it would seem, so by what right do they look to the Iron Throne for aid? King Robb and King Balon both claim the north. Let them defend it, if they can. [snip]”Tyrion III, ASoS 19
I think that Varys’s intervention is a very important and underrated moment in his arc. Sending the members of the gold cloaks who deserted to the Wall rather than having them kneecapped is, I think, driven by Varys’s desire to protect and serve the realm. His suggestion does not exist in a vacuum.
The readers know what happened at the Fist of the First Men because this is where ASoS’s opening pages take place. We are there to hear the three blasts of the horn just as Chett and Sam and every man present hears them. And then we get to see through Sam’s eyes the absolute mayhem and carnage and horror as the wights swarm the Fist and a Other stalks him, Grenn and Small Paul. Chronologically, Samwell I, ASoS 18, takes place right before Tyrion III, ASoS 19. We know what happened and we know what the truth is and I think that Varys has a very good understanding of what’s going on as well.
Varys was present in the Throne Room on the day Ser Alliser Thorne came with his news of the wights at Castle Black. The quote below had to be truncated for the sake of “brevity.”
“Sweet Ser Alliser,” murmured Varys, “you must not think too harshly of us. So many seek our Joffrey’s grace, in these troubled and tumultuous times.”
“More troubled than you know, eunuch.” [snip]
“As you will,” Ser Alliser said, displeasure in every word. “I am sent to tell you that we found two rangers, long missing. They were dead, yet when we brought the corpses back to the Wall they rose again in the night. One slew Ser Jaremy Rykker, while the second tried to murder the Lord Commander.” [snip]
“And your brothers killed these , ah, dead men?”
“You’re certain that they are dead this time?” Tyrion asked mildly. When Bronn choked on a snort of laughter, he knew how he must proceed. “Truly truly dead?”
“They were dead the first time,” Ser Alliser snapped. “Pale and cold, with black hands and feet. I brought Jafer’s hand, torn from his corpse by the bastard’s wolf.”
Littlefinger stirred. “And where is this charming token?”
Ser Alliser frowned uncomfortably. “It . . . rotted to pieces while I waited, unheard. There’s naught left to show but bones.” [snip]
Ser Alliser Thorne was not so easily dismissed. He was waiting at the foot of the Iron Throne when Tyrion descended. “Do you think I sailed all the way from Eastwatch-by-the-Sea to be mocked by the likes of you?” he fumed, blocking the way. “This is no jape, I saw it with my own eyes. I tell you, the dead walk.” [snip]
“The cold winds are rising. The Wall must be held.”
“And to hold it you need men, which I’ve given you . . . as you might have noted, if your ears heard anything but insults. Take them, thank me, and begone before I’m forced to take a crab fork to you. Give my warm regards to Lord Mormont . . . and to Jon Snow as well.” Brown seized Ser Alliser by the elbow and marched him forcefully from the hall.
Grand Maester Pycelle had already scuttled off, but Varys and Littlefinger had watched it all, start to finish. “I grow ever more admiring of you, my lord,” confessed the eunuch. “You appease the Stark boy with his father’s bones and strip your sister of her protectors in one swift stroke. You give that black brother the men he seeks, rid the city of some hungry mouths, yet make it all seem mockery so none may say that the dwarf fears snarks and grumkins. Oh, deftly done.”Tyrion VI, ACoK 25
First, Alliser Thorne isn’t just some black brother. He is not an unknown quantity in King’s Landing. We know he still has friends there as per what Jeor Mormont told Jon Snow. This is something that Varys should be well aware of. Ser Alliser and Ser Jaremy Rykker, who was killed by one of the wights and is mentioned in the quote above, both fought on the walls of King’s Landing when Tywin’s host entered the city and began sacking it. Neither was given much of a choice when it came to taking the black. It was either that or their heads. Tyrion hates Ser Alliser which is why he made him wait for so long after he arrived in King’s Landing, but as far as we know, Varys has no feelings toward the man one way or another. And it wouldn’t be surprising if Varys already knew the reason Ser Alliser came to King’s Landing well before he was allowed to make his case to the Iron Throne because knowing is his business.
Varys may laugh about snarks and grumkins while he continues to ingratiate himself with Tyrion, but something that we never talk about is that Varys is a believer in the old powers. We talk about him hating magic, but we don’t talk about him believing that it’s a thing that actually exists in the world. The following conversation begins when Varys comes to Tyrion with news of the death of Ser Cortnay Penrose, the castellan of Storm’s End.
“It is said that he threw himself from a tower.”
“Threw himself? No, I will not believe that!”
“His guards saw no man enter his chambers, nor did they find any within afterward.”
“Then the killer entered earlier and hid under the bed, Tyrion suggested, “or he climbed down from the roof on a rope. Perhaps the guards are lying. Who’s to say they did not do the thing themselves?”
“Doubtless you are right, my lord.”
His smug tone said otherwise. “But you do not think so? How was it done, then?”
For a long moment Varys said nothing. The only sound was the steady clack of horseshoes on cobbles. Finally the eunuch cleared his throat. “My lord, do you believe in old powers?”
“Magic, you mean?” Tyrion said impatiently. “Bloodspells, curses, shapeshifting, those sorts of things?” He snorted. “Do you mean to suggest that Ser Cortnay was magicked to his death?”
“Ser Cortnay had challenged Lord Stannis to single combat on the morning he died. I ask you, is this the act of a man lost to despair? Then there is the matter of Lord Renly’s mysterious and most fortuitous murder, even as his battle lines were forming up to sweep his brother from the field.” The eunuch paused a moment. “My lord, you once asked me how it was that I was cut.” [snip]
“Yet I still dream of that night, my lord. Not of the sorcerer, nor his blade, nor even the way my manhood shriveled as it burned. I dream of the voice. The voice in the flames. Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer’s trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead.”
When he was done, they rode in silence for a time. Finally Tyrion said, “A harrowing tale. I’m sorry.”
The eunuch sighed. “You are sorry, but you do not believe me. No, my lord, no need to apologize. I was drugged and in pain and it was a very long time ago and far across the sea. No doubt I dreamed that voice. I’ve told myself as much a thousand times.”
“I believe in steel swords, gold coins, and men’s wits,” said Tyrion. “And I believe there once were dragons. I’ve seen their skulls, after all.”
“Let us hope that is the worst thing you ever see, my lord.”
“On that we agree.” Tyrion smiled. “And for Ser Cortnay’s death, well, we know Stannis hired sellsails from the Free Cities. Perhaps he bought himself a skilled assassin as well.”
“A very skilled assassin.”Tyrion X, ACoK 44
This conversation is loaded. I removed the part where Varys explains to Tyrion what happened to him when he was a boy because we all remember the story. And the story of his cutting is what takes over the rest of the conversation in our minds because it’s about Varys who is a mysterious character. We debate whether Varys should be believed or not. We wonder what the voice in the flames is and what it said even though Varys himself has doubts at times whether he heard it or not. Varys’s story spawned the speculations about Varys having Targaryen blood, about him being a Blackfyre and so on. This is why we tend to forget the rest of the exchange.
The news of Ser Cortnay’s death drives two plot points. The first and obvious plot point has to do with Stannis and what he gains with Ser Cortnay’s death. Storm’s End, an army, and his nephew, Edric Storm.
The second and perhaps less obvious plot point has to do with Varys himself. “Do you believe in old powers?” is met with derision from Tyrion. He shows impatience, then snorts at the question while Varys is being very serious about it. In order to explain why he brought up the question at all, he tells Tyrion about the day he was castrated.
Varys may hate magic, but what happened to him, the possible voice in the flames turned him into a believer. This is the narrative that Varys’s traumatized childhood is pushing. What happened to him when he was a child made him a believer in the old powers.
Incidentally, “old powers” is brought up twice more in the entire A Song of Ice and Fire. Once more in ACoK and once in AFfC;
“If any man of the Night’s Watch can make it through the Frostfangs alone and afoot, it is you, brother. You can go over mountains that a horse must go around. Make for the Fist. Tell Mormont what Jon saw, and how. Tell him that the old powers are waking, that he faces giants and wargs and worse. Tell him that the trees have eyes again.”Jon VIII, ACoK 68
“They do,” mused Alleras, the Sphinx, “and if there are dragons in the world again . . .”
“Dragons and darker things,” said Leo. “The grey sheep have closed their eyes, but the mastiff sees the truth. Old powers waken. Shadows stir. An age of wonder and terror will soon be upon us, and age for gods and heroes.”Prologue, AFfC
And isn’t “dragons and darker things” reminiscent of Varys telling Tyrion that he hopes that the skulls of the dragons is the worst thing he’ll ever have to see?
When we boil it down to its bare essentials, this belief in the old powers is what compelled Varys, in Tyrion III, ASoS 19, to suggest that the deserters from the Battle of the Blackwater be sent to the Wall. Varys may be laughing off what Ser Alliser said in front of Tyrion and Littlefinger, but he believed Ser Alliser’s words.
This is la raison d’être of Varys’s tortured childhood, I think. It shaped his life but most importantly it helped shape the things that he believes exist. There is no doubt or skepticism on his part when he talks about magic being involved in the deaths of both Renly and Cortnay Penrose.
The conversation is even more loaded when Varys tells Tyrion that he hopes that the dragon skulls are the worst thing Tyrion will ever see. I don’t think he knows about Dany hatching her three dragons by this time in the story. The news of Viserys’s death hit King’s Landing in Sansa I, ACoK 2. Timeline-wise, it seems like the news of the dragons may have reached Varys with Illyrio’s ship the Bountiful Harvest, which was captured by Salladhor Saan as it was sailing past Dragonstone. I believe that this ship sailed the fifty little birds and the gold that Varys said he needed in AGoT.
So if Varys is unaware that Dany hatched three living dragons then what could be worse than their skulls?
Varys has seen the comet because he talks about it with Tyrion in Tyrion I, ACoK 3, where we get our first foreshadowing for Aegon. And if we take into consideration the arrival of the white raven on Dragonstone in the Prologue, ACoK, then the one dispatched to King’s Landing should have preceded that one by a few days. And he knows about the dead men walking because he was present when Ser Alliser Thorne brought that news to Tyrion.
Varys spent up to five years around the Targaryens. His trade is information and I think that he knows a thing or two about that pesky prophecy about the prince that was promised. And if he knows anything about that prophecy then he knows exactly what’s coming. Dead men are walking, the cold winds are rising. The white raven announcing the end of summer have been dispatched by the Citadel. This arrival marked the end of the longest summer in living memory.
For a long time, I thought that Varys would have hated everything Targaryen because of their connection to magic and due to his personal feelings about it. But if Varys hates magic for what it has done to him, then imagine how much more he will hate the Others when they come down from the north to kill, raise the dead, turn them into thralls that will do their bidding and go forth murdering.
When Varys says that he serves the realm, I don’t think that he is talking about putting Aegon on the throne because it’s his perceived birthright. Aegon, be he a Targaryen or a Blackfyre, could be the best boy who ever lived, the best king who ever was, there are simply no guarantees that his sons, his grandsons and his great grandsons will be the best boys ever or the best kings ever. The future is full of uncertainty, and Aegon being a good man and a good king doesn’t guarantee that his descendants will be what he was and Varys as far as we know doesn’t have the gift of foresight.
What Varys is doing has nothing to do with blind ambition. Instead, it is born out of long term necessity.
And here’s the thing. Rhaegar thought that Aegon was the prince that was promised. He says so in the vision at the House of the Undying that Dany saw in ACoK.
This is important and it is brought up in Sam’s two last chapters in AFfC, right before Aegon is introduced on page in ADwD. “Prince that was promised” was mentioned eight times. Half of that was in connection with Aegon and the other half was in connection with Stannis.
And with that we get an interesting parallel in the story between Varys and Davos, two characters who could not be more different, but who share a similar philosophy when it comes to kingship.
This is what Varys has to say about Aegon to Kevan Lannister;
“No.” The eunuch’s voice seemed deeper. “He is here. Aegon has been shaped for rule since before he could walk. He has been trained in arms, as befits a knight to be, but that was not the end of his education. He reads and writes, he speaks several tongues, he has studied history and law and poetry. A septa has instructed him in the mysteries of the Faith since he was old enough to understand them. He has lived with fisherfolk, worked with his hands, swum in rivers and mended nets and learned to wash his own clothes at need. He can fish and cook and bind up a wound, he knows what it is like to be hungry, to be hunted, to be afraid. Tommen has been taught that kingship is his right. Aegon knows that kingship is his duty, that a king must put his people first, and live and rule for them.Epilogue, ADwD 72
Varys goes on about everything that Aegon knows how to do. He cooks, he cleans, he is martial, he does all these things. Did Aegon suffer from hunger? Probably not. Was he hunted? Unless we’re missing some information, like Tywin realizing that the Aegon who was killed during the Sack of King’s Landing was a fake, then probably not. Does he know what it’s like to be afraid? Probably. He does back away from Tyrion when he finds out he’s a Lannister.
But Aegon seems to have been raised to be independent and self-sufficient from what Varys says. He can fish and cook which means that he can feed himself and others. He can bind up a wound, which means he doesn’t have to wait around for a maester to do it. And he was raised without the prejudices that permeate the story. He doesn’t seem to have the same outlook on bastards (see the way he interacts with Franklyn Flowers) or prejudices toward Duck who is nothing more than the son of a blacksmith. So these things about him are at the very least true and good things for a future ruler to have, and something that he has in common with Dany and Jon Snow. They both accept people from all walks of life in their entourage and have a system that’s closer to a meritocracy.
In Aegon’s case, as well as theirs, what it really comes down to is understanding what kingship is. Aegon, per Varys, was raised to understand that kingship is his duty, not his right.
And this is what Stannis had to say to Jon Snow about Davos;
Surprisingly, Stannis smiled at that. “You’re bold enough to be a Stark. Yes, I should have come sooner. If not for my Hand, I might not have come at all. Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.” Stannis pointed north. “There is where I’ll find the foe that I was born to fight.”Jon XI, ASoS 76
Varys and Davos share the same philosophy when it comes to ruling and Davos is the reason Stannis ends up at the Wall.
But if Varys is striving to put the prince that was promised on the throne because he believes that he will save the realm from the darkness, then he mirrors another character in Stannis’s entourage, and that’s Melisandre.
If we accept that Stannis is the blue-eyed king with the red sword and who cast no shadow, and that cloth dragon swaying on poles is supposed to be Aegon, then these two have been mentioned in the same triad at the House of the Undying.
Stannis believes that he is the mythical hero who is meant to fight the Others because this is what Melisandre has told him, and it’s absolutely possible that the vision that Melisandre has seen of Stannis in her flames is the same one that Dany saw in the House of the Undying.
While the jury is still out on whether Aegon knows about the prophecy or not, I always thought that the “slayer of lies” triad has to do with the Azor Ahai/the prince that was promised prophecy. I think that there’s an indication of that in the final interactions between Sam and Maester Aemon.
Maester Aemon in Samwell IV, AFfC 35, tells Sam that both he and Rhaegar thought he was the prince that was promised, then Rhaegar changed his mind and believed that it was his son, Aegon, because of the comet that was seen above King’s Landing. And we see the proof of his belief in the House of the Undying. Then Rhaegar dies and Aegon allegedly dies.
“No,” the old man said. “It must be you. Tell them. The prophecy . . . my brother’s dream . . . Lady Melisandre has misread the signs. Stannis . . . Stannis has some of the dragon blood in him, yes. His brothers did as well. Rhaelle, Egg’s little girl, she was how they came by it . . . their father’s mother . . . she used to call me Uncle Maester when she was a little girl. I remembered that, so I allowed myself to hope . . . perhaps I wanted to . . . we all deceive ourselves, when we want to believe. Melisandre most of all, I think. The sword is wrong, she has to know that . . . light without heat . . . an empty glamor . . . the sword is wrong, and the false light can only lead us deeper into darkness, Sam. Daenerys is our hope.”Samwell IV, AFfC 35
Maester Aemon suspected that Stannis’s sword was a fake from the start and made sure that Jon knew as well by providing him with the Jade Compendium and the story of the forging of Lightbringer.
He was not a man to be refused. Sam hesitated a moment, then told his tale again as Marywn, Alleras, and the other novice listened. “Maester Aemon believed that Daenerys Targaryen was the fulfillment of a prophecy . . . her, not Stannis, nor Prince Rhaegar, nor the princeling whose head was dashed against the wall.”Samwell V, AFfC 45
Sam, who is also nicknamed “Slayer” brings word to Archmaester Marwyn about what Maester Aemon has told him.
The idea that Daenerys is going to kill these people has always sounded outrageous to me. Dany hatched dragons from stone beneath a bleeding star, which as of ADwD makes her the only one in contention for Azor Ahai. As far Benerro and the red priests tied to the temple in Volantis go, Dany is the fulfillment of prophecy.
These are Tyrion’s thoughts when he hears Benerro preaching and later speaks with Moqorro about the prophecy.
The hairs on the back of Tyrion’s neck began to prickle. Prince Aegon will find no friend here. The red priest spoke of ancient prophecy, a prophecy that foretold the coming of a hero to deliver the world from darkness. One hero. Not two. Daenerys has dragons, Aegon does not. The dwarf did not need to be a prophet himself to foresee how Benerro and his followers might react to a second Targaryen. Griff will see that too, surely, he thought, surprised to find how much he cared.Tyrion VII, ADwD 27
Griff, with his young prince. Could all that talk of the Golden Company sailing west have been a feint? Tyrion considered saying something, then thought better. It seemed to him that the prophecy that drove the red priests had room for just one hero. A second Targaryen would only serve to confuse them.Tyrion VIII, ADwD 33
A second Targaryen might confuse the red priests, but there’s nothing confusing about it because the dragon has three heads.
Dany doesn’t have to lift a finger to “slay the lie” because what she did at the end of AGoT speaks for itself. And that news has now reached Westeros via ships and via Sam.
While a second Targaryen might confuse the red priests, we have been told that the dragon must have three heads. While I very firmly believe that Aegon is going to be one of those heads, his insertion in the “slayer of lies” triad has to do with him not being the prince that was promised. Ditto Stannis. And whatever the stone beast breathing shadow fire turns out to be.
Back to Varys, I think that his drive to place Aegon on the Iron Throne has a lot to do with what he believes is coming for everyone.
The eunuch set the crossbow down. “Ser Kevan. Forgive me if you can. I bear you no ill will. This was not done from malice. It was for the realm. For the children.”Epilogue, ADwD 72
Varys tells Kevan that he is getting rid of him for the realm and the children. If Varys is trying to put on the throne the person he believes will save the realm from the gathering darkness, then we have something that’s different. Varys’s belief in the old powers changes things and reshapes his narrative and why he has been working so hard to achieve his goals. This is a great motivator for someone who was a victim of something magical. And Illyrio calls Aegon a savior in Tyrion I, ADwD 1.
Before concluding this essay, I think that we have take a look at some of the exchange between Ned Stark and Varys while Ned was a prisoner in the black cells.
“You want me to serve the woman who murdered my king, butchered my men, and crippled my son?” Ned’s voice was thick with disbelief.
“I want you to serve the realm,” Varys said. “Tell the queen that you will confess your vile treason, command your son to lady down his sword, and proclaim Joffrey as the true heir. Offer to denounce Stannis and Renly and faithless usurpers. Our green-eyed lioness knows you are a man of honor. If you 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.”Eddard XV, AGoT 58
I have seen speculation around this, that Varys was looking to “collect” Ned for his plans. And that’s something that seems to make sense on the surface because Varys is working with Jon Connington and had Barristan Selmy sacked from the Kingsguard for the purpose of having him on his side. But it does not make a whole lot of sense when we start looking at Ned’s character.
When we consider the Hand of the King that was mentioned in Arya III, AGoT 32, is Jon Connington, then yes, what Varys is saying about Ned is absolutely true. He and Jon Connington are two different beasts. The similarities between them begin and end with both men forgoing their honor and lying in order to raise and protect the boys who were put in their charge.
But kidnapping Ned and dragging him to Essos doesn’t make much sense. Ned has a family. He has a wife and children. His eldest son is marching south at the head of a northern host, his middle son is crippled. One of his daughters is missing and the other one is a Lannister hostage. Kidnapping Ned would have served no one, least of all Varys and his plans. Can anyone actually imagine Ned sailing down the Rhoyne, or sitting around in Pentos while his son wages war on the Lannisters?
Ned on the Wall, though, that might appeal to Varys a lot more. And we know from Cersei II, ADwD 65, that Joffrey was supposed to spare Ned’s life and send him there.
Ned going to the Wall would likely have made Robb turn around and go back to Winterfell. The war of the Five Kings may have been confined to the Lannisters and the Baratheon brothers instead. The north may have fallen into Aegon’s arms whenever he landed or the north might have stayed out of the whole thing entirely.
Varys may have thought that Ned at the Wall was the best possible option because the Wall must be held. With his son as the Lord of Winterfell and the Warden of the North, Ned would still have had the sway to make an actual difference there. The Wall would have been a very different place had Ned landed there. And he would be serving the realm just as Varys wanted him to.
So these are my thoughts on Varys and why and how he serves the realm. I know people will disagree with this because of the nature of the character and the terrible things he’s done, like maiming children and because of the Blackfyre speculation which has somehow reached canon status. But I don’t think his jockeying to put Aegon on the throne is meant to be a selfish act.
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