There’s a lot to say on this topic, so I’m breaking down the summaries in four categories that I’ll be posting as separate entries: Backstory, Persona, Modus Operandi, and Endgame. As the title suggests, I think that Varys is playing a much more intricate and sophisticated game than LF, and that despite the unquestionably dubious morality of both, I consider Varys an exponentially more able player.
Before diving in, I just want to make clear one of my operating premises: I do not take either man at their word. This is probably more simple to see with LF, who lies for the same reasons a "bear shits in the woods," according to Tyrion. The same with Varys, though in Varys' case, I think we see more instances of "not the whole truth," perhaps, rather than outright lies. Either way, I am of the firm opinion that certain things Varys has said that are often taken at face value (i.e. "I hate magic" and "for the realm") are also lies/ half truths, so part of my reasons for this thread are to explain why I believe this is the case.
Despite the image that LF himself tries to cultivate in terms of being “self made,” good Petyr Baelish was born to a noble family in the Fingers. His great-grandfather was born in Braavos, and came to the Vale to serve as a sellsword in Lyn Corbray’s company. LF’s grandfather was knighted, and the Baelishes enjoyed the status of landed aristocracy since then, albeit at a lower rung on the hierarchy than most of the other characters we meet.
Nevertheless, LF was raised at Riverrun as Lord Hoster’s ward, and enjoyed the same upbringing and benefits as every other member of the high nobility. He even shared the same relationship with the Blackfish the other kids did as a confidant, a father figure, and a shoulder to cry on. The boy was loved, and each of the Tully kids treated him as a brother and friend.
At the age of 15, LF challenged Brandon Stark for Cat’s hand. The scene is detailed in Cat VII of aGoT, but in brief, LF was the aggressor, and Brandon did all he could to avoid the fight. LF was not remotely “bullied” or “abused” as I’ve seen it suggested, but rather, he challenged Brandon to a duel and lost spectacularly. Brandon purposely went easy on him, removed his own armor to make it a fairer fight, and kept asking LF to yield, so it’s LF’s own breath-taking idiocy that resulted in his injury. While recovering at Riverrun, Lysa slept with him under the pretense of being Cat. Two weeks later, Hoster sent him back to the Fingers, away from his daughters. Lysa became pregnant with LF’s child, and was forced to drink an abortificant by her father.
When LF was 19/ 20, Jon Arryn put him in charge of customs at the Vale at Lysa’s behest. He raised revenue three fold, and Lysa again nominated his appointment at KL. Three years after coming to KL, he was made Master of Coin, and raised the Crown’s revenues “ten-fold….” while creating a record-breaking deficit. His financial acumen will be discussed in the “MO” entry, but for now, it’s worth pointing out that his ties to Lysa have been just as, if not more, important as his own “talents” in his social movement.
He’s 29 at the start of aGoT.
Varys was born in Lys, according to Pycelle. According to Varys, he was an orphan in travelling with a mummer troupe, performing around the Free Cities, Kings Landing and Oldtown. When still quite young in Myr, a “certain man” asked the mummer master to use Varys. This man threw Varys’ “manly parts” to the flame, causing the flames to turn blue and apparently answering in a language Varys claims not to have understood. He tells Tyrion that he hates magic because of this, but like everything Varys says, this alleged hatred should be questioned.
After the ritual, the mummers had already left, so Varys remained in Myr. He sold his body and became a thief to survive. After some years pass, Varys flees Myr to Pentos due to pressure from a rival thief, where he meets Illyrio, a poor sellsword at the time. At this point, Varys hires Illyrio for protection, and the two men team up to become highly competent con-men. They run a business in which Varys steals things from other thieves, and Illyrio charges the owners a “finder’s fee” for selling these stolen goods back.
They begin to employ “mice” (later referred to as “birds”), as children are more dependable and attract even less suspicion. After a while, Varys realizes that secrets and spying is far more lucrative than material goods, so they re-brand their “company” to one based around blackmail and intrigue. Varys teaches the mice how to read, and they start dealing in letters, secrets and information (these guys really understand how to maximize profits). Through this system, Illyrio grows so “respectable” that a cousin of the Prince of Pentos marries him to his daughter, so ostensibly both men have made a killing.
Apparently, Varys’ renown as a master of whispers reached Westeros, where King Aerys requested his presence at court by name. I have always wondered precisely why and how the gossip about Varys’ talents at spying reached Aerys, and I think this is a point to question in the future. At any rate, he ended up in Aerys employ, charged with figuring out treasons at Aerys’ behest.
The Defiance of Duskendale is usually taken as Aerys’ turning point of sanity, and used as “proof” that Varys is pro-Targ since he was supposedly not responsible for the most significant blow to Aerys’ sanity. It might be worth noting that in aFFC’s Brienne chapter, we learn that the people blame Lady Serala, Lord Denys’ Myrish wife, for the defiance: “The Lace Serpent filled her husband’s ear with Myrish poison, they say, until Lord Denys rose against his king and took him captive.” It may mean nothing that Serala (which sounds suspiciously close to Serra, Illyrio’s wife) is from Myr, where Varys had lived much of his life, and that she is held responsible for the defiance, but I thought this connection deserved mention.
He is credited for raising Aerys’ already increased paranoia by suggesting to Aerys that Rhaegar would try to overtake the throne during the Tourney at Harrenhal, which prompted Aerys to attend- his first public appearance since Duskendale. He also counseled Aerys to not open the gates for Tywin, while Pycelle urged Aerys to let Tywin in.
Since then we learn that Varys has allegedly spirited away Aegon in a “great baby-swap escapade,” and secured Jon Connington’s support for the past 12 years (at the start of DwD) in raising Aegon to reclaim the throne. I plan to get into this more in the “MO” and “Endgame” segments, but suffice it to say that I do not believe for one second that Aegon is who Varys says he is, nor that putting him on the throne is what he’s actually after.
Links to pieces
a comparison of Varys + Bloodraven by Tze
Edited by butterbumps!, 14 February 2013 - 06:18 PM.