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Varys the Mastermind/ Littlefinger the Golddigger: A Comparison


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#1 butterbumps!

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 04:41 PM

Given all the discussion about Varys and LF recently, I thought it might be useful to consolidate some crucial differences between the two characters, as the contrasts are fairly subtle, and a lot of information comes to us very disjointedly.

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.

Backstory
LF
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
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
endgames
a comparison of Varys + Bloodraven by Tze

Edited by butterbumps!, 14 February 2013 - 06:18 PM.


#2 coil

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:04 PM

I'm so going to enjoy this thread: the two biggest players of the Game showed from different perspectives.
I'd like to see you post all your consideration and only then comment, but according to some of your previous post I think our views are pretty similar... let's see how it develops.

I hope that this won't turn into a character-hate thread or "X>>>Y" thread, both the characters are great narrative-wise and deserve credit for being arguably two of the most dangerous people in Westeros.

#3 butterbumps!

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:23 PM

I'm so going to enjoy this thread: the two biggest players of the Game showed from different perspectives.
I'd like to see you post all your consideration and only then comment, but according to some of your previous post I think our views are pretty similar... let's see how it develops.

I hope that this won't turn into a character-hate thread or "X>>>Y" thread, both the characters are great narrative-wise and deserve credit for being arguably two of the most dangerous people in Westeros.


oh, lol, you're right on both counts. I'm going to try to post "Endgame" soon-- perhaps tonight if work allows-- to open discussion a bit more.

And yea, LF provides me with no end of fodder. Though it's true I'm not impressed by him, I didn't want to do an "X is way better than Y" so much as just outline their differences.

#4 ihatebrienne

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:26 PM

I'm a Varys fan, great thread!

#5 brashcandy

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:33 PM

Great thread bumps! /smile.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt=':)' />

On the first category, the superior advantage Varys has over Littlefinger is already evident; Varys's origins are much more mysterious and hard to trace. Other people can verify LF's story, but we only have Varys to account for his activities, along with a bit of info from Illyrio, who just happens to working with Varys /smile.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt=':)' /> Their respective back stories also perhaps explains the preoccupation of both men in the game of thrones. LF as gold digger due to his "humble" origins on the Fingers, and his seemingly unending need to prove himself as better than his betters. Varys, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be motivated by such concerns, which makes him infinitely more dangerous.

#6 Dr. Pepper

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:42 PM

Excellent post, bb!.

It's great to have both of their background stories laid out in one spot and in a concise and coherent way. Littlefinger's background is very linear, there isn't a mystery to it. We know where he was and what he did at various points in his life. He went from A ->B->C->D. The only real gap we get during his timeline is after he left Riverrun but before he went to Gulltown. Can we presume that he stayed at the Fingers during this time? Who could he have met in that 4-5 year period? The total lack of mystery with LF's background continues on into his chosen career - all about money, baby. There is no diversity.

With Varys, the story is different and web-y. There are no definite dates on his movements. As a traveling mummer, he's made potential friends all over the place. Do mummer's have a gossip web? Are they 'protected' in the same way that fools are, in that they find themselves overhearing all sorts of things? A thief network similar to the smugglers network? Varys also has great diversity in his resume. He's been a mummer, a whore (is that right?), a thief for gold, an intelligence gatherer, a student, a teacher, a manager, a councilor to kings. Where LF can only seem to understand people in terms of gold and titles, Varys has immense knowledge on what motivates a person beyond the bling-bling.

Even without the rest of the posts in this series, one cannot deny the differences between Varys and Littlefinger are overwhelming. I believe Nate Silver would bet on Varys over LF any day of the week.

ETA: Semi-ninja'd by brash. /smile.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt=':)' />

Edited by Dr. Pepper, 10 November 2012 - 05:43 PM.


#7 Lady Sansa Stark

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:44 PM

Oh, this will be an interesting thread. Varys is of course superior to Littlefinger because he doesn't show his weaknesses. We know absolutely nothing of Varys which we could verify by other characters. His backstory for example. And then there is the fact of what Varys want.. Because what does he want? What could Varys possibly want that he couldn't already have acquired by now? Gold; neh. Kingship; oh no. Might; already has that. Varys is to me one of the most intriguing charachter of the whole series, simply because we don't know anything about him, his goals, what he wants and what he exactly does.

#8 Bright Blue Eyes

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 05:52 PM

Great thread, I'm really interested in the results. I'll wait for you to finish before discussing it.


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 them a “finder’s fee” for selling these stolen goods back.

As far as i remember, Illyrio charges the victims of the thieves to get their possessions back, not the thieves themselves.

#9 butterbumps!

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:03 PM

As far as i remember, Illyrio charges the victims of the thieves to get their possessions back, not the thieves themselves.


Thanks for point that out. I had typed that confusingly, so I clarified it.

#10 ab aeterno

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:08 PM

Great thread bumps! /smile.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt=':)' />

On the first category, the superior advantage Varys has over Littlefinger is already evident; Varys's origins are much more mysterious and hard to trace. Other people can verify LF's story, but we only have Varys to account for his activities, along with a bit of info from Illyrio, who just happens to working with Varys /smile.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt=':)' /> Their respective back stories also perhaps explains the preoccupation of both men in the game of thrones. LF as gold digger due to his "humble" origins on the Fingers, and his seemingly unending need to prove himself as better than his betters. Varys, on the other hand, doesn't appear to be motivated by such concerns, which makes him infinitely more dangerous.


I agree. Taking your post and bumps' OP, one of the biggest differences between LF and Varys IMO is the extent to which it is "personal," with them, IMO. I don't mean in terms of personal gain but personal emotional involvement. LF's foolishness regarding Sansa and Cat is a good example of this, but we see it with Sansa later on as well where LF puts himeself in dangerous positions because he is too emotional involve in situations. While Varys may feel similarly strongly about whatever it is he is aiming to do, nothing we have seen suggests that his emotions are compromising his judgement.

Magic may be a case in point. Varys clearly doesn't want Stannis in KL (it seems from his words to Ned and his later actions that he fears Stannis will disrupt his plans by removing him or by stabilizing the throne,) so while Tyrion is hand Varys seems to do everything within his power to support Tyrion. This implicitly includes the use of wildfire. We are told by the Pyromancers that the recipe for wildfire has become much more potent recently, something that they attribute to the return of dragons to the world. Given the series' continual linkage of dragons and magic this seems to imply very strongly that wildfire is at the very least partially magical. Tyrion's plan centrally involves the wildfire and Varys seems to support Tyrion in developing this.

While the wildfire would probably have been produced anyway, Varys doesn't have to proactively support Tyrion's expanded use of it. Even if we assume (fairly, I think,) that Varys is lying about his hatred of magic we can see an example of where Varys uses his "emotions" to justify to Tyrion his opposition to Stannis, which I think can be read as an attempt to allay Tyrion's suspicions about Varys' loyalty: If Tyrion thinks he knows what is motivating Varys in this case it stands to reason that Tyrion would be less suspicous of him.

At least to my mind, Varys seems far more emotionally distant from his schemes than LF is, and I really think that is LF's greatest weakness.

Edited by ab aeterno, 10 November 2012 - 06:09 PM.


#11 Dr. Pepper

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:11 PM

I think also Varys history of picking up and moving tells us a lot about how flexible he is when it comes to his endgame. It's the GRRM road trip analogy. Varys knows he must get to point Z from point A, but he is able to adjust accordingly when a dragon park or a rose monument requires a pit stop or ten. He can hide out or evade when a police cruiser starts tailing him.

#12 ab aeterno

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:15 PM

I think also Varys history of picking up and moving tells us a lot about how flexible he is when it comes to his endgame. It's the GRRM road trip analogy. Varys knows he must get to point Z from point A, but he is able to adjust accordingly when a dragon park or a rose monument requires a pit stop or ten. He can hide out or evade when a police cruiser starts tailing him.


This is my favorite analogy this week! /biggrin.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt=':D' />

#13 theguyfromtheVale

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:39 PM

The interesting thing here is also the difference between LF's and Varys' lies: Baelish is a simple bullshitter, throwing crap around and looking what sticks; Varys hides his lies in the fact that what he says is the truth - incomplete, but still most of the time correct, from a certain point of view.

This also means that it's much easier to see LF's lies for what they are than Varys'; with Baelish, we can compare to other people's memories (mainly Catelyn's, but also Tyrion's), and, in case of inconsistencies, we can rest assured it's a lie by Petyr. Varys, though... I feel every single one of Varys' sentences must be dissected meticulously to really make sure what he's talking about - and then, he's hiding his truths in metaphors and his lies in facts. On rereads, I have been astonished how rarely I could pin Varys down on a lie, even in the cases when he was clearly misleading people (Jon Arryn's murderer and Kevan's last minutes come to mind).

I wonder how much this applies to their pasts, too. We know LF is simply lying (or severely deluded) about bedding Cat. We don't know about Varys' background except what he tells us (and Pycelle's confirmation that he was born in Lys), but I'm inclined to consider it the truth - but at the same time, I expect him not to tell us the most important parts of his past, hiding them in plain sight. Baelish's background has to be checked once to get where he's lying and where he's telling the truth; Varys' has to be checked again and again with every new piece of information, and dissected in search of hidden meanings, or we will fail to ever understand him... until the very end of the books, at least.

#14 Dark Heart

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:43 PM

Very interesting.
I'm looking forward reading more.

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.

IIRC, Lysa (under the pretense of being Cat) having sex with LF happened before the duel.
It was some celebration, Cat danced X number of dances with LF he got all hot and bothered, and then got drunk. After the party Lysa went in his room.

She (as herself) had sex (for the second time) with him after the duel.

#15 redviper9

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 06:45 PM

Great post butterbumps! I'm looking forward to reading the thread and hearing everyone's thoughts.

For starters, I'll just agree with what has already been stated in that Varys is a more able player of the game because of the air of mystery surrounding his origins, motives, and endgame. Littlefinger is much easier to read, not only because he can be extremely overconfident, but also because his lies (the dagger, claiming Cat's virginity, his schemes in the Vale) have been confirmed by the POV characters around him.

The mystery of Varys I think is best summed up by questions posed to him by Ned and Tyrion:

"Your own ends. What ends are those, Lord Varys?" (AGoT, Eddard XV)

"What are you, Varys?...who cut you, Varys? When and why? Who are you, truly?" (ACoK, Tyrion II)

And I think his reaction to Tryion's questioning is also quite illuminating:

"The eunuch's smile never flickered, but his eyes glittered with something that was not laughter. 'You are kind to ask, my lord, but my tale is long and sad...'"

Looking forward to the rest of the thread!

#16 Little Wing

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 07:24 PM

Varys has had a disturbing childhood/coming of age period whereas LF has not, (if we're to believe Varys' story that is) - but the masterful way in which he keeps the air of mystery around him could suggest his history/childhood being disturbing. He would have had to grow up fast and learn to take care of himself, and all the lying and mummery that he's mastered so well may be the result of him having to lie to himself about what really happened to him. But, repressing can cloud judgement on the other hand...
Anyway, being orphaned and abused alone would make anyone street wise enough - add Varys' intelligence to the mix, and you have a winner. I wonder if he really does care about the children... and the realm.

#17 coil

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 08:01 PM

I wonder if he really does care about the children... and the realm.

He asks Illyrio to bring him more toungueless little children and then he sends them in the darkness of the Red Keep.
Of course he cares about them, they are one of his most powerful tools!
He also cares about the realm, after all he is bringing some armies to Westeros for the progress and the democracy /happy.png' class='bbc_emoticon' alt='^_^' />
As a general rule of thumb, I never trust anything he says: behind all those smiles and soft speeches there's a ruthless being.

In my opinion there are six very important chapters to define Varys.
Between them, only one shows us his true colours: Arya III from AGoT.
Here, we finally get to see Varys without the other chapters' POV impressions/preconceptions of him... and most importantly, here Varys is not acting in front of someone else.
Look at what he talks about with Illyrio: war, schemes, more birds.
The fact that he asks his colleague to "treat them kindly" while being at the same time the one who wants more of them is pretty significant.
He may feel pity, but that doesn't stop him even for an instant.
Other three interesting things:
-Young Griff is never mentioned. All their attention is to Daenerys (called the princess) and her Khal.
-Illyrio says something like "As a Hand died, another could die" and "you already danced that dance", hinting the fact that Varys already contributed to the death of at least a previous hand. Mh.
-Illyrio wants to delay the war, Varys instead wants to accelerate the events due to some unexpected turns.
Pretty telling about how he cares about the realm!

He talks about magic only while dealing with Tyrion.
In Arya III he somehow even jokes about magic and I don't see any sign of hate towards it.
He talks about the good of the realm only when dealing with Eddard (and I'm 100% sure he is just acting that way to conquer Lord Stark's trust) and with Kevan.
I find it pretty cool that up until now it's only Ned Stark who learnt not to trust Varys!
He never writes the letter to Jon Snow while in the meantime characters who are supposed to be way clever than Eddard keep dancing in Varys' palm.

#18 redviper9

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 08:22 PM

-Illyrio wants to delay the war, Varys instead wants to accelerate the events due to some unexpected turns.
Pretty telling about how he cares about the realm!


I don't think Varys wants to accelerate the war between the Starks and the Lannisters; he just feels that things have reached a point where he can't do anything to effectively delay it.

"I warn you, the wolf and the lion will soon be at each other's throats, whether we will it or no." (Italics and underline are my emphasis)

"Too soon, too soon,' the voice with the accent complained. "What good is war now? We are not ready. Delay."

"As well bid me to stop time. Do you take me for a wizard?"

Remember, delay would serve Varys and Illyrio at this point because, as you rightly point out, they seem to be counting on Drogo's khalasar; but Drogo's khalasar was marching the wrong way. I'm sure if they were already heading back west from Vaes Dothrak, Illyrion and Varys wouldn't have been so keen on postponing the Stark-Lannister conflict.

Now, a chance to delay did present itself to Varys when Ned was imprisoned. Varys convinced Ned to "confess" to his treason; in return, Cersei would let Ned take the black. That likely would have cooled things down a bit between Winterfell and Casterly Rock, giving Drogo -- and (F)Aegon and JonCon -- more time to prepare. But we all know how Ned's confession ended.

#19 the Scorpion Knight

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 08:56 PM

two things:

-Young Griff is never mentioned. All their attention is to Daenerys (called the princess) and her Khal.
-Illyrio says something like "As a Hand died, another could die" and "you already danced that dance", hinting the fact that Varys already contributed to the death of at least a previous hand. Mh.

Aegon and jonC aren't causing trouble so in V&I eyes there's nothing to disguse there
the second could also mean the ploy they played with JonC who also was also hand of the king

#20 brashcandy

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Posted 10 November 2012 - 09:53 PM

Varys has had a disturbing childhood/coming of age period whereas LF has not, (if we're to believe Varys' story that is) - but the masterful way in which he keeps the air of mystery around him could suggest his history/childhood being disturbing. He would have had to grow up fast and learn to take care of himself, and all the lying and mummery that he's mastered so well may be the result of him having to lie to himself about what really happened to him. But, repressing can cloud judgement on the other hand...
Anyway, being orphaned and abused alone would make anyone street wise enough - add Varys' intelligence to the mix, and you have a winner. I wonder if he really does care about the children... and the realm.


I think LF would consider his coming of age to have been pretty disturbing too - losing Cat, being humiliated by Brandon, etc. Of course, it's indicative of his delusions, but there you go. The difference between him and Varys (as far as we know) is that he's never grown from that period. Sure, he learnt his lesson, and realised his strengths did not exist in man to man combat, but ultimately he's still aiming for his do-over and thinking with his "little" finger.