This post will be talking about Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, one of the masterminds of mischief in HBO’s Game of Thrones (and in the source material, A Song of Ice and Fire.) As usual, discussion of characters from Game of Thrones is going to involve talking about plot points, so if you’re not up to date on the story this post will spoil things for you. (Unless you don’t care about spoilers, that’s cool.)
You can trust me on that. Just don’t trust Littlefinger.
Some people are fans of Littlefinger, and by fans I mean that they’re rooting for him to end up on the Iron Throne. I don’t quite get that, but to each their own. I guess some people like to watch the world burn.
Although in the case of Westeros, they might be watching the world freeze since Baelish and his self-centered and short sighted chaos theory is playing into the cold hands of the Others. But that’s really not my focus here.
He certainly is the architect of the framework of forces that gave the show’s storylines their momentum. His murder of Jon Arryn got the ball rolling and he’s managed to keep it rolling in a manner that’s benefited him, regardless of the cost to the people of the realm.
A great deal of misery and awfulness can be laid at his feet. He’s smart though, I’ll never deny that, and I can respect his ability to roll with the punches and make it look like he’d planned it all out. He’s certainly prepared for many situations. But he’s not infallible.
Petyr Baelish – the last person you want as a matchmaker.
His early successful machinations resulted in his obtaining near-direct control of the Vale of Arryn by marrying Jon Arryn’s widow Lysa and knowing the levers for manipulating her son Lord Robin Arryn.
He’d planned to add the kingdom of the North under his shadowy control by marrying his protege and political asset Sansa Stark into the northern authoritarian Bolton family.
The North was in a chaotic situation, with the other households grumbling and Stannis Baratheon at the Wall challenging Bolton rule. Inserting Sansa into the mix would give Littlefinger a means of access, and by reporting the marriage to Cersei Lannister he received the regent’s permission to bring the knights of the Vale into the North. Without raising the otherwise paranoid Cersei’s suspicions.
This seemed like a typically well-thought Baelish plan, one where thousands would die so he can satisfy his ambitions. Except that Sansa’s new husband Ramsay Bolton was a horrible monster, which resulted in undermining the relationship Littlefinger was cultivating with Sansa.
Sansa, his key to the North and Catelyn-substitute. (Gross.)
I’ve heard some talk wondering if Baelish knew how bad Ramsay was, and if he knew how abusively Sansa would be treated by her odious monster of a husband.
The aggrieved Sansa wondered the same thing and asked Baelish that very question in Season Six.
Sansa: Did you know about Ramsay? If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot. If you did know, you’re my enemy.
When pressed, Baelish said he didn’t know, that he’d made a mistake and underestimated a stranger. Sansa was skeptical. As were members of the audience.
Sansa: I thought you knew everyone’s secrets.
Now this is rare for me to take Baelish’s side, like super-rare, but even though he’s guilty of a lot of things, I’m pretty sure he didn’t fully know about Ramsay’s reprehensibleness.
In Defense of … this is killing me … Littlefinger
It’s true that Littlefinger knows things. He knows a lot of things. Like Lord Varys (whose access to information seems unbelievable at times) Baelish has a top-notch information gathering network. But there has to be limits.
A few years ago, I wrote a post about magic in Game of Thrones, addressing criticisms that the magic displayed (mostly by Melisandre, but also the Warlocks) was show-breaking. The complaints boiled down to this: since we don’t know the rules of magic, we can’t know the stakes and therefore the show had no dramatic meaning. I wasn’t a fan of that assumption. We can apply common sense to these situations and in general the show has been consistent about its established magic. We might have to infer them, but the limits seem to be there.
Similar reasoning can be made about knowledge. We don’t know if Baelish knew about Ramsay or not, but it’s certainly a possible scenario. It’s also possible that he had no idea what a monster Ramsay would be.
Let’s look at the evidence and see what makes sense.
Baelish brought Sansa to Winterfell on the promise of her getting revenge against the Boltons. In particular, against Roose Bolton who was part of the Red Wedding. His advice to Sansa is to pull the wool over Ramsay’s eyes, to lull him into a false sense of security.
Baelish: You will take this Bolton boy, Ramsay, and make him yours.
Sansa: I don’t know how to do that.
Baelish: Of course you do. He’s already fallen for you.
Sansa: His father frightens me.
Baelish: He should. He’s a dangerous man. But even the most dangerous man can be out-maneuvered. And you’ve learned to maneuver from the very best.
It’s possible that Baelish is lying and falsely reassuring Sansa, but it seems he’s far more concerned about Roose Bolton than “the Bolton boy.”
On the walls of Winterfell, Baelish and Ramsay share a brief scene as they observe Sansa in the courtyard. Ramsay swears that he’d never harm her.
Baelish: I’ve heard very little about you, which makes you quite a rare thing as lords go.
Ramsay: I haven’t been a lord very long.
Petyr Baelish is a dangerous man. A very dangerous man. (Especially to his allies.) But even the most dangerous man can be out-maneuvered. Ramsay has stayed under Baelish’s radar, and has also managed to conceal the full extent of his nature.
Although maybe Baelish is again lying. Maybe he knows all about Ramsay and his tendency to torture and to hunt down people with dogs. But I doubt that he’d drop Sansa into this situation without some kind of leverage for her protection. Sansa is an asset of his. Even if he had no (creepy) feelings for her, she’s a rung in his ladder that is worth more useful whole and supporting him, than broken.
Ramsay also seems more likely to be outside of Baelish’s typical zone of focus.
Baelish knows things, and he certainly would have had his eyes on the Starks up in the North. He had a thing for Catelyn, and he was nearly killed by a Stark. That’s a family whose fortunes he’d be interested in, if only because there was a personal connection.
But we have to accept that his attention would be largely consumed with King’s Landing and the lords and ladies who had influence in the capital. Where all the power, secrets, and influence peddling was happening.
Before being legitimized, Ramsay was just the bastard of one of the northern lords. If Ramsay’s activities had been well known enough before the War of the Five Kings, Ned Stark would have killed him as a criminal.
Once the war started, Baelish had way too many plots and schemes hatching, and too many opportunities to manage in and around the capital for him to be checking up on rumors from the hinterlands. The North was immediately cut off from the realm anyway, thanks to the Ironmen capturing Moat Cailin, so details of skullduggery (which was mostly happening to Theon) wouldn’t be part of Littlefinger’s usual morning intelligence briefings.
Once the Red Wedding happened (which Baelish probably did not know about) he was already in deep competing for influence with Varys, he was trying to sneak Sansa out of the city, he was publicly leaving to woo Lysa Arryn but was in reality staying nearby secretly as part of the plot to poison Joffrey. With Joffrey dying, Baelish was escaping with Sansa, first marrying Lysa then killing his bride. And trying to avoid the wrath of the lords of the Vale over Lysa’s death.
Our boy Pete had a lot of things that he had to pay close attention to.
It’s quite probable that Baelish got word that Ramsay Snow had defeated the Ironmen at Moat Cailin and had flayed them and lined their corpses up along the kingsroad. As shocking as that might sound to people of our modern sensibilities, Baelish probably shrugged about that detail and was instead thinking on the power exchange that was happening in the North and how he might capitalize on it.
I mean, Ramsay isn’t the only person to use humans as roadside markers on the show. In theory, Dany might have even nailed up some people that could have been potential allies for her.
The Ironmen were invaders and Ramsay was associated with House Bolton – the Flayed Man. I think Baelish would have been more uneasy if Ramsay hadn’t treated them horribly.
Baelish: Uh, I didn’t quite hear what happened to the prisoners from Moat Cailin. I assume it was terrible.
Ramsay: Oh. I let them all go home.
Baelish: THE WEDDINGS OFF!
All the evidence from the show plays out as if Baelish honestly made a mistake in leaving Sansa with the Boltons and had not realized he was leaving her with an abusive, torturous rapist. I think it makes the character of Littlefinger more realistic. He’s fallible.
Despite what Sansa suggests, it is possible for him to have not known about Ramsay and also not necessarily be an idiot. Sometimes very intelligent people can make dumb mistakes, because if they have any doubts they can better rationalize them away and dismiss them. Especially if the doubts are counter to what they want to have happen.
Baelish imagined Sansa as Wardeness of the North, with whom he had influence. Handing her over to a rapist would not help him in the future.
Let me again say that I’m not usually this guy, but let’s give Baelish the benefit of the doubt on this.
But, I’m certainly understanding of those who think otherwise. Let me hear what you think.
Okay, we’re almost done with the month of March. Usually about this time, we’d be expecting the imminent return of Game of Thrones, but Season Seven has been delayed, sadly, until mid-July. I’ll continue to crank out as many weekly posts as I can before the show starts up. Or until I totally run out of topics.
(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 claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there. (Just not the actual text from the show, of course.)
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.
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