Daenerys Targaryen's slave

Varys: Spy Network Makes No Sense

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Without modern technology, a spy network encompassing two continents, one the size of South America (7 Million Square Miles), and Eurasia (21 Square Miles) is highly ridiculous.

 

That's not even taking into account the logistics of having 5 year old spies who are killed off once theu reach puberty and replacing them. That would take hundreds of thousands of kids each decade.

 

Or the fact that 5 year olds make horrible spies due to the complete lack of political and self-awareness.

 

I mean just give him magic or something, at least it will make sense.

 

 

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12 minutes ago, Daenerys Targaryen's slave said:

Without modern technology, a spy network encompassing two continents, one the size of South America (7 Million Square Miles), and Eurasia (21 Square Miles) is highly ridiculous.

 

That's not even taking into account the logistics of having 5 year old spies who are killed off once theu reach puberty and replacing them. That would take hundreds of thousands of kids each decade.

 

Or the fact that 5 year olds make horrible spies due to the complete lack of political and self-awareness.

 

I mean just give him magic or something, at least it will make sense.

 

 

It is only slightly less ridiculous than Littlefinger's seemingly infallible puppeteering skills. 

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My understanding always was there is no all-encompassing spy network. There are little birds in Kings Landing / Red Keep and there is ordinary open source intelligence (listen to sailors) and there is denunciation and ordinary spying (Jorah Mormont) and there is mind games (omg, the spider knows everything, everywhere). And there is a completely different setup then and now, you could e.g. indeed much easier track who arrives and leaves in a medieval city than a modern city (at least until recently).

What always puzzled me is that despite the spying supposedly working with written notes we are never shown an archive / data center or material trace etc.

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In the Red Keep I think its mostly Varys creeping around in the walls listening. Tyrion thinks the same during his escape, he says something like "Little Birds indeed" when he sees the network of tunnels and ladders. It wouldn't be hard to do if you had the birds tell you when somebody is seen going to someone else's room, Varys then makes his way to where he knows two or more people are meeting through the network. Its like a real life version of hacking. The info from Essos is just gossip that he can double check with Illyrio, Jorah and other well placed contacts.

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Posted (edited)

8 hours ago, Daenerys Targaryen's slave said:

I mean just give him magic or something, at least it will make sense.

hmmmmmm, Illyrio called Varys a sorcerer, so.....who knows what exactly that means? It might be just a compliment about Varys' spying skills, or it could be that he is, in fact, a sorcerer.

That story he tells Tyrion about how he was cut always comes to me when I think of Varys spying skills.

Edited by The Hammer of Justice

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3 hours ago, The Hammer of Justice said:

hmmmmmm, Illyrio called Varys a sorcerer, so.....who knows what exactly that means? It might be just a compliment about Varys' spying skills, or it could be that he is, in fact, a sorcerer.

That story he tells Tyrion about how he was cut always comes to me when I think of Varys spying skills.

The story he tells Tyrion always made me think "the spider doth protest too much" - I can't say why, but I think his hatred of magic might be feigned or exaggerated to obscure the fact that his plan works much better if he's a true sorcerer. Even the killing of the older spies can double as a blood sacrifice of some sort.

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The little birds system makes sense. It seems to exist mostly in KL, although it is possible that Varys/Illyrio also use the birds in the other cities.

The other stuff is just the Crown paying for information, the Crown employing agents and spies to gather information abroad/across the Realm.

We have to assume Varys has a staff of some sort, possibly retired birds/mice, actually collecting/preparing information for him and overseeing the various agents in his employ. He can't do that all by himself.

Most importantly, he must have access to his own ravens to send and receive messages as quickly as he apparently does. For instance, in AGoT Varys is the first in KL to learn about Tyrion's abduction in the Riverlands (he knows it before Yoren arrives at the Red Keep at the very end of the Arya chapter where she overhears Varys and Illyrio under the castle). It is very difficult to imagine how a rider carrying the news should have reached Varys before Yoren reached Ned (who told Ned that he is the first rider to reach KL starting at the inn). If the message had spread and a raven had reached Stokeworth or Rosby the entire court and not just only Varys would have known about the whole thing, thus it is likely that one of Varys' agents was at the inn and later informed him via raven or carrier pigeon.

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Varys’s use of little birds and secret passageways in the Red Keep is probably one of the most important keys to his success. If he can track everyone in court’s movements and conversations, then display this knowledge skilfully, it helps create the illusion that he’s all-knowing. People are more likely to believe his reports from other areas if he has displayed an almost supernatural knowledge of events that are closer to home, which have a more immediate and profound impact and are more easily verified.

If I remember correctly, Varys does admit the limits of his system when he’s reporting Renly’s death to the small council. He points out that his informers are not as highly placed as he would like, and that he was therefore getting contradictory and unclear intelligence. That would suggest to me that the further you get from the Red Keep, the more limited are Varys’s sources.

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As others said,  there must be a traditional network of spies across Westeros. Some payed, some blackmailed some for their own devotion to the cause, etc. It is certain that Varys must have a number of trusted agents. And also access to Illyrio's own spy network, whose information of course he filters properly.

The 'Little Birds' are the main Varys innovation. No one knows what he's actually talking about when he mention them. Nobody imagine poor, mute, little children who know how to read/write, hide and infiltrate.

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31 minutes ago, rotting sea cow said:

The 'Little Birds' are the main Varys innovation. No one knows what he's actually talking about when he mention them. Nobody imagine poor, mute, little children who know how to read/write, hide and infiltrate.

That certainly is true, but one wonders whether Varys merely rediscovered or independently invented a system other Masters Whisperers already used under previous Targaryen kings. What little we know about the secret passages and listening posts Maegor the Cruel built into the Red Keep suggests that children would always have been well-suited to do the actual listening.

One really wonders what kind of people Tyanna of the Tower, Larys Strong, Mysaria, or Bloodraven used to overhear the conversations of the people living in the Red Keep.

I'd not be surprised if some of them already utilized children for that purpose rather than adults.

And the little birds system in itself could also be in effect in other cities as well. Varys originally worked as thief and information broker, suggesting that he also decided to make use of the original little mice system in other cities, both in Westeros and Essos.

The little birds in KL most likely have their tongues removed because they deal with very sensitive information and Varys/Illyrio can't have it that they betray them.

But more mundane spy matters in Lannisport, Oldtown, Gulltown, Myr, Lys, Volantis, etc. could easily enough also be done by children trained in the same manner as the little birds of KL.

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4 hours ago, rotting sea cow said:

As others said,  there must be a traditional network of spies across Westeros. Some payed, some blackmailed some for their own devotion to the cause, etc. It is certain that Varys must have a number of trusted agents. And also access to Illyrio's own spy network, whose information of course he filters properly.

The 'Little Birds' are the main Varys innovation. No one knows what he's actually talking about when he mention them. Nobody imagine poor, mute, little children who know how to read/write, hide and infiltrate.

And I think that it's probably not so much Varys' innovation and more that Varys introduced this tactic to Westeros. The way in which he uses children to gather and compile intelligence seems reminiscent of Arya's early training with the Faceless Men - while she is Cat of the Canals the Kindly Man asks her each day for three pieces of information. There are allegations/theories that Varys has a connection to the Faceless Men.

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Actually, the various parts of Varys' system is explained at various parts of the story. You may find the explanations unbelievable, but it is explained.

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I was leery of a mute children spy network as well, until the end of Dance when some of them showed up to murder Kevan.

But as the OP noted, the logistics are fuzzy. Where do they live? Who feeds them? What sort of hierarchy could they have? Why has no one seen legions of tongueless children anywhere in KL? How can they be trusted to understand what they are hearing?

They would have to be incredibly sharp, unfailingly dedicated to their master and accepting of a pretty miserable existence for themselves -- all while undoubtedly noticing that at a certain age their compatriots suddenly disappear.

We'll probably never get to see this organization up close, but it would be interesting to see how it all comes together.

The only caveat I can come up with is maybe they are given daily doses of the wine of courage that keeps the Unsullied in line:

"It is no true wine at all, but made from deadline nightshade, bloodfly larva, black lotus root and many secret things. They drink it with every meal from the day they are cut and with each passing year feel less and less. It makes them fearless in battle. Nor can they be tortured."

So perhaps the little birds are under some sort of drug-induced hypnosis?

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The tongueless children are only used within the walls of the Red Keep. Varys uses other types of informants in other circumstances. For instance, Jorah explains how he was setup as a spy with her. Jorah was taught a secret code in order to make his reports. Everyone seems to be obsessed with Varys having a separate source for messages coming in by raven, but anything really secret would come in coded anyway. Varys' "little birds" were different types of people at different times and under different circumstances. At various points in the story, different people described different parts of Varys' spy network. For the most part different types of informants weren't even aware there were other types.

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The only thing I don't get is why does he have their tongues removed? The usual answer is so that they can't betray Varys (either willingly, or via coercion), but if they can write, they can still betray him.

Also, where does Illyrio find so many literate children in a medieval society? Particularly ones who won't be missed. The fact he can find any at all is pretty amazing, let alone the amount needed.

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1 hour ago, HoboJed said:

The only thing I don't get is why does he have their tongues removed? The usual answer is so that they can't betray Varys (either willingly, or via coercion), but if they can write, they can still betray him.

Also, where does Illyrio find so many literate children in a medieval society? Particularly ones who won't be missed. The fact he can find any at all is pretty amazing, let alone the amount needed.

My speculation is that he removes their tongues so they won't talk behind the walls. If people heard people talking behind the walls it would be all over pretty quickly.

Another speculation on my part is that the children are taught to write in a shorthand developed by Varys. Just like Jorah learned a code for communicating with Illyrio.

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7 hours ago, John Suburbs said:

I was leery of a mute children spy network as well, until the end of Dance when some of them showed up to murder Kevan.

But as the OP noted, the logistics are fuzzy. Where do they live? Who feeds them? What sort of hierarchy could they have? Why has no one seen legions of tongueless children anywhere in KL? How can they be trusted to understand what they are hearing?

As @bent branch has already said, it is pretty clear that the tongueless children are only used to overhear talks in the Red Keep (and possibly other places in the city where the Targaryens established secret listening posts) from the secret passages. They are not likely to be used to do mundane spy work.

Mute children hanging out somewhere in the city would rather quickly draw attention to themselves. But Varys could still use some of them to do similar tricks they once did back in Pentos. Meaning sneaking into houses and manses through small openings, check the documents in there, and report back to their master.

One also expect the little birds to this on a routine basis in the offices of all the government officials working in the Red Keep, by the way. Maegor included secret passages everywhere in the Red Keep but Maegor's Holdfast alone. And in Maegor's only the king and the royal family reside.

The best hint that Ser Shadrich the Mad Mouse is actually a retired little mouse who was once used by Varys and Illyrio in Pentos is the fact that it seems as if somebody might have climbed into Littlefinger's study through the open window in Alayne 1. That kind of thing is something we would expect from a former little mouse/bird.

7 hours ago, John Suburbs said:

They would have to be incredibly sharp, unfailingly dedicated to their master and accepting of a pretty miserable existence for themselves -- all while undoubtedly noticing that at a certain age their compatriots suddenly disappear.

I'm not sure they are all killed. The impression we get in AGoT is that the birds 'die easily', possibly due to their rather dangerous jobs in completely dark places. One assumes that accidents like birds falling down ladders of the type Tyrion had to climb to reach Tywin's solar are quite common, especially for 'fresh birds'. 

As you said, Varys would have some sort of hierarchy and also have a staff seeing through the raw data that comes in each day, preparing it for him, so that he can focus on his other duties. Whenever he has an audience with the king/Hand or a attends a Small Council meeting he has to be prepared.

Capable retired birds certainly would be able to oversee the others and keep the discipline among them. And not all of them have to be mute. One wonders whether the bird who brought the note to draw Ser Kevan out was a mute or not. How would Kevan have received the note if the person the bird tried to give the note couldn't read (the Kingsguard at the drawbridge of Maegor's would have been able to read, presumably, and Varys might have faked Pycelle's handwriting). After all, it is not very likely that some mute child is necessarily being allowed into the presence of the Lord Regent. At least not as long as he/she cannot properly articulate his-/herself.

They all live, most likely, down in that well from which Varys and Illyrio are ascending in AGoT when Arya overhears them. Down there are, most likely, the real headquarters of the Master of Whisperers. This would also be the place where Varys is living after he has gone underground. There have to be routines in place that ensure that the birds get properly fed, etc. Varys would have set up all that a long time, and through channels morons like the present government officials are not going to see through.

7 hours ago, John Suburbs said:

We'll probably never get to see this organization up close, but it would be interesting to see how it all comes together.

The only caveat I can come up with is maybe they are given daily doses of the wine of courage that keeps the Unsullied in line:

"It is no true wine at all, but made from deadline nightshade, bloodfly larva, black lotus root and many secret things. They drink it with every meal from the day they are cut and with each passing year feel less and less. It makes them fearless in battle. Nor can they be tortured."

So perhaps the little birds are under some sort of drug-induced hypnosis?

That is certainly a possibility.

Varys clearly can count on these children, or else they wouldn't have been with him and complicit in the murders of Pycelle and Kevan. Presumably they are also trained to kill people or else Varys would never hand them daggers.

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2 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

I'm not sure they are all killed. The impression we get in AGoT is that the birds 'die easily', possibly due to their rather dangerous jobs in completely dark places.

It just occurred to me that Biter may have been a little bird before being trained as a pit fighter by Rorge. It's possible this doesn't work, but I haven't got the books on me to verify.

Edited by HoboJed

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Just now, HoboJed said:

It just occurred to me that Biter may have been a little bird before being trained as a pit fighter by Rorge. It's possible this doesn't work, but I haven't got the books on me to verify if this is possible.

That would depend on his age. Varys is only in business in KL since the late 270s. Nor sure, though, that Biter was ever intelligent enough to have been a little bird.

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On 1/8/2017 at 1:26 AM, Daenerys Targaryen's slave said:

Without modern technology, a spy network encompassing two continents, one the size of South America (7 Million Square Miles), and Eurasia (21 Square Miles) is highly ridiculous.

That's not even taking into account the logistics of having 5 year old spies who are killed off once theu reach puberty and replacing them. That would take hundreds of thousands of kids each decade.

Or the fact that 5 year olds make horrible spies due to the complete lack of political and self-awareness.

I mean just give him magic or something, at least it will make sense.

His network isn't two continents. It is a little less than half of one continent and part of the western coast of another. And the littlebirds are not killed off. They go to work for Illyrio at his manse in Pentos. 

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