This post will be talking about plot elements for HBO’s Game of Thrones, the excellent adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. Specifically, I’ll be talking about Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.
Spoiler Alert: I don’t like him.
I have my reasons.
Regardless of the warning he gave Lord Eddard Stark (saying “hey, don’t trust me”) he still was part of the coup de main which totally ruined a peaceful transition of power and screwed over my man Ned.
He’s the architect of a lot of misfortune in Westeros. Although that’s another reason why I don’t like him, it’s why people tend to respect his Machiavellian machinations. They grudgingly (or openly) admire his puppet-mastery.
I’m not really inclined to give him that much respect. I do like the actor in the role, and the ambitious character of Littlefinger is great for the story, but I just can’t give him too much credit. I don’t think he’s as clever as he thinks he is.
Baelish, We Hardly Know Ye (or Ye Accent)
Talking about Petyr Baelish can be difficult if we’re trying to assess how much actual successful Illuminati-style action he’s responsible for, or planned on happening.
From the books, there are no Littlefinger Point of View chapters, but he does occasionally open up in the later books to Sansa. He doesn’t take explicitly take credit for a lot of things, but he does seem to benefit a lot from the chaos.
Chaos, he’d tell you, isn’t a pit but a ladder. (I’ll talk more about that at length.)
Baelish on the television show is very similar to his book-analogue, but we see him make some mistakes. He nearly goads Cersei into killing him when they debate what constitutes power. He makes the lamest attempt to woo Catelyn Stark while bringing her her dead husband’s bones, and Lord Varys skillfully short-circuits Littlefinger’s plan to spirit away Sansa Stark (right before the Tyrells offered to marry her to Loras, but the Lannisters forced her to marry Tyrion.)
I like these scenes, since they humanize Baelish’s character a bit. Watching him overplay his hand or have to adapt makes him more interesting. It’s a bit hard to swallow that he’s such a super-mastermind that he can carefully plan out every wrinkle of what’s to come.
Not even Melisandre is that good.
Is it a diminishment of the Baelish character for the viewers to see him make mistakes that aren’t seen in the books? Maybe. But we have such a limited window of observation on Baelish. Ned doesn’t like him but feels forced to deal with Littlefinger out of respect for Catelyn’s vouchsafing of him. Catelyn is clearly biased in her little Petyr’s favor, remembering the playmate from her youth and not the ne’er-do-well he’s become. And Sansa likewise sees Littlefinger through a lens passed down from Catelyn.
Outside of these point-of-views, Littlefinger might be the mustache-twirling, smirking villain, who occasionally puts his foot in his mouth, it’s just not explicitly seen.
After all, he did miscalculate in telling Catelyn that he lost his Valyrian steel dagger (the one used on an attempt on Bran’s life) on a wager with Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion had bigger fish to fry when he was acting as Hand of the King, but the reason he was arrested by Cat Stark and thrown in a sky cell, based on an accusation corroborated by a Littlefinger lie, isn’t something he’d likely to forget.
I can appreciate that Baelish has made some long-term plans (long-term is a relative term when talking about epochal-events that the Wall is a part of) and has positioned himself to take advantage of disorder, but in many ways he’s been lucky.
He certainly set the stage for things to start happening by killing Jon Arryn and blaming the Lannisters for it. That did get Catelyn in a suspicious mood, but he needed the random act of Bran encountering Jaime and Cersei less-than-dressed to kick that into overdrive.
It was chance that brought Catelyn and Tyrion together at the Inn, resulting in his arrest and the war.
Renly would have crushed Stannis and then attacked a vulnerable King’s Landing had Melisandre not intervened, giving Baelish the chance to woo the Tyrells onto the Lannister side. Renly, if one recalls, did not favor Littlefinger.
Littlefinger had nothing to do with that other than being at the right place after Renly was killed.
Had Tyrion not successfuly crippled Stannis‘ forces before the allied reinforcements arrived, Stannis would have control of the city with a powerful army. It’s doubtful that Stannis would have granted Baelish the title of Lord of Harrenhal, which he needed to pave the way to marriage with Lysa Arryn for de facto control of the Vale.
Now, I’m not saying that Littlefinger wouldn’t have had contingency plans if things worked otherwise. Once the stage had been set for a Lannister/Stark war, it was probably going to happen regardless. I’m just saying that I’m not sure what Littlefinger would have done to get to his lofty position at the end of Season Four, in control of the Vale and potentially in control of the North, by sheltering Sansa
Counting Coup with Littlefinger (and that Ladder I Mentioned Above.)
Throughout the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, some of the best scenes were between Lord Varys “the Spider” and Lord Baelish “the weasel-faced Snake.” (That was his official Small Council nickname, n’est-ce-pas? No? Hmmm.)
I must admit that none of their scenes, where they’d verbally spar and give some context and texture to what was going on, really made a lot of sense to me. I couldn’t imagine these cloak-and-dagger types literally having these conversations. Although the scenes felt surreal (like these exchanges were just going on in their heads) I didn’t mind because the back and forth was great and sometimes exposition shouldn’t have to happen in a brothel.
The pinnacle of their parlaying occurred in Season Three (before Baelish left the capital to woo Lysa Arryn.)
Varys finds Baelish observing the Iron Throne, something Littlefinger must do on and off. (One can’t be hanging out dealing with whores and their complaints all day long.)
Varys: The thousand blades. Taken from the hands of Aegon’s fallen enemies, forged in the fiery breath of Balerion the Dread.
Baelish: There aren’t a thousand blades. There aren’t even two hundred. I’ve counted.
Varys: Huh! I’m sure you have. Ugly old thing.
Baelish: Yet it has a certain appeal.
Varys: The Lysa Arryn of chairs. It’s a shame you had to settle for your second choice.
[There’s some more witty repartee where they bust each other’s chops. I’ll skip ahead.]
Varys: I did what I did on behalf of the realm.
Baelish: The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies. It’s a story that we agree to tell ourselves, over and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.
Varys: But what do we have left? Once we abandon the lie? Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Baelish: Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.
Littlefinger is obviously talking metaphorically about chaos being a ladder, I know. But he’s weirdly obsessed on the detail that the throne is composed of less than 200 blades, instead of the 1000 blades that are mentioned.
This discrepancy in the amount of sword horsepower represented by the chair seems significant to him. He took the time to count them. And because less than 200 swords were used to build the chair (which is debatable, we’ll get to that in a moment) he implies that the realm is an illusion, a lie.
So, if the chair actually was composed of 1000 blades, the realm would not be a lie?
The realm’s the realm, regardless of the number of swords in the throne. It doesn’t matter if the throne looked like this:
The fact of the matter: Aegon the Conquerer took over Westeros via dragon-power. Balerion the Black Dread melted down *some number* of conquered enemy swords as a symbol of the Targaryen triumph over opposition. That’s not a lie. It’s not an illusion. The actual number doesn’t matter. Particularly because there’s no word of the number of swords slagged by dragonfire before the brave smiths working on the throne project got into the rhythm of working with the hot metal right next to a dangerous dragon.
Blacksmith’s Apprentice: King Aegon just sent 1000 swords in the wagon, he wants them formed into a chair. Oh, there’s his dragon too.
Blacksmith: Bloody Sevens. Okay put them in that pit.
Blacksmith: Aiiieeeee! *catches fire, dies.*
Blacksmith’s Apprentice: Crikey! *Quickly starts working on the 198 swords that weren’t melted all of the way into slag*
But back to Littlefinger and his ladder metaphor. Okay, Littlefinger is obviously working with the classic “the Chinese character for Risk also means Opportunity” ethos. Creating chaos shakes up things and provides the opportunity to improve one’s position. He ends his speech by talking about those who are unwilling or unprepared to try and seize opportunity during chaos.
Littlefinger: Some are given a chance to climb. They refuse. They cling to the realm, or gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
I’d like to say that this is an insightful metaphor, but it just seems so off. Littlefinger’s ladder is no less an illusion than the realm. We’ve heard wiser discussions on illusions and how they are real things to contend with, when Varys gave Tyrion the riddle of power, featuring a swordsman choosing between a king (the realm), a septon (the gods) or money (love… okay that’s not a perfect match, but you know what I mean. After all, Bronn loves to be paid.)
A Ladder to Nowhere
I give Littlefinger respects for being prepared to take advantage of the chaos he’s being sowing. Murdering Jon Arryn and having Lysa Arryn direct Catelyn Stark’s suspicious and paranoid eye on the Lannisters set up the conflict that eliminated the shadow of his rival Brandon Stark, broke the realm into war, granted him Harrenhal as reward for fixing what he broke, and allowed him to marry (and eliminate) Lysa, putting him in charge of one of the Seven Kingdoms.
In his estimate, he would have climbed far up the ladder, further and further away from Varys’ gaping pit of chaos that’s waiting to swallow people up. But at the top of his ladder was another pit.
Falling from such a height would give Baelish time to reflect on his plan’s flaws.
Baelish: Hmmm, where did I go wrong? It all seemed so sensible at the time. Oh. There it is. *Smash*
To wrap up, I don’t list Littlefinger off as one of my favorite characters, although I respect the role he is playing, and he certainly has combined cunning, planning, and luck to get ahead. Some people really like him, and that’s fine with me.
Because if there’s a critical mass of people who make Littlefinger their favorite character, it’ll increase the chances of George RR Martin bumping him off.
So, make your feelings known:
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously.
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there. Well, other than the actual dialog I was quoting…
If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved