Game of Thrones’ Petyr Baelish: A Review
As I doubtlessly join many of you in despair over the news that George Martin will not be releasing his latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire before HBO’s new season of the television adaptation airs, I felt it was a perfect opportunity to turn my attention to critiquing yet another one of the series’ characters. This time I will be focusing on the ever conniving Petyr Baelish, sometimes known as Littlefinger. In a story dominated by armies and great Houses of noble families and their sworn retainers, Lord Baelish stands out as a misnomer. Despite being of no notable lineage, commanding no mighty armies and holding the allegiance of no one, Littlefinger has shown himself to be possibly the most dangerous man in all of Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms. Through intrigue, manipulation, and a brazen willingness to betray anyone without hesitation, the onetime Master of Coin can claim to have destroyed two of the kingdom’s ruling families (Stark & Tully), gutted a third (Lannister) and effectively seized control of a fourth (Arryn), all without ever holding a sword.
Petyr Baelish’s story arch is in many ways that of the rise of the petite bourgeois we saw in our own history. His weapons are not broadswords and lances but commerce. Born into a minor noble family in the Vale, he was fostered at Riverrun where his two main life obsessions would begin: his host’s daughter Catelyn Tully and the acquisition of power on his own terms. After rashly falling for Catelyn, who he shared a childhood romance of sorts with (which strangely included her younger sister Lysa) Littlefinger even more rashly challenged her finance, Brandon Stark, to a duel for her hand which he promptly lost, only escaping with his life due to Catelyn’s last minute intervention, and was banished from Riverrun for his impertinence. This can be seen as a defining moment in Baelish’s life; it led to the realization, as he would later put in his own words, that he would never win playing “their way, their rules” and that “only by admitting who we are can we get what we want”. Utilizing the one asset he does posses, his superior intellect, he does just that.
Talented with money, especially when it comes to acquiring more of it, he rapidly rises through the ranks of the bureaucracy of Kings’ Landing to eventually become the Master of Coin. In this post, which makes him with responsible for finding the money to fund King Robert’s excesses, Baelish acquires great personal wealth and influence of his own. He buys taverns and brothels and is sneered at by his more highly born peers for it, but ultimately he is still the man who holds the purse strings they all rely on. Just as the aristocracy of our world witnessed their own status and power decline with the rise of urbanism and the merchant class, which saw the beginning of the shift away from land and agriculture as the main source of wealth in favour of commerce, so too does Baelish manage to defeat his rivals not by beating them but by buying them.
The left often tries to paint capitalism and conservatism as one and the same, but the reality is both are often inconsistent allies. The corporate world certainly desires low taxes and lax regulation and the opening up of ever greater markets for their goods and services but is just as happy to suckle at the public teat of subsidies and protectionism when it is offered. Capitalism is ultimately a doctrine of self-interest; Littlefinger embodies this and is shown to be utterly devoted only to himself, willing to betray anyone when he sees it as being for his own advantage. His intrigues all but destroy the Starks by starting a war between them and the Lannisters which he helps them win, then without a second’s hesitation he turns on his former allies and arranges the murder of King Joffrey on his own wedding night. He holds no allegiances to anyone or anything. To him, honour, the Gods, and even the realm itself are simply lies people agreed to tell themselves until they finally started to believe them. Lord Baelish rejects all these things and instead embraces chaos, which he views as a ladder to climb to ever greater heights of power.
And what makes Baelish so dangerous is that he is indeed right in a certain sense. Nation-states, traditions, faith, and both societal and familial obligations are all ultimately “lies” in the sense they have no rational basis for existence other than the fact we have agreed to believe in them and follow them out of convenience and the desire for order and continuity. By rejecting these things, Lord Littlefinger is able to take advantage of the chaos he causes to advance himself by making others need him and his skills and by weakening the power of his rivals. Times of chaos, be they wars or the settling of new lands or upsets in the established political order, have always been times of opportunity to those willing to take advantage of them as they uproot the gelled hierarchies and their limited paths for advancement.
Of course the great problem with this is that chaotic times are also highly dangerous. While Petyr Baelish has managed to manipulate events for his own gain in status and wealth it has come at the cost of throwing the Seven Kingdoms into devastating war that has left them in ruins. The treasury is bankrupt, brigands roam the countryside while a religious zealot holds the capitol hostage, and the great houses that once ruled the land are now all either depleted or destroyed leaving the realm in danger of invasion both from the North and across the Narrow Sea. Look to the real world, and the utter horror show that the Middle East has become or the increasingly dangerous geopolitical situation of the world at large and you can see the very real damage that chaos can cause. This should serve as a warning to all who disdain the “lies” of civilization, be they the hyper-rationalist libertarian or the uber-fanatical revolutionary, for those who play with matches can easily find they have burned the entire house down without realizing it.
Varys, Baelish’s sometimes-ally/sometimes-enemy, observes that he would gladly burn down the entire kingdom so long as he could be king of the ashes, which at this point in the series is effectively what Littlefinger has accomplished anyway. In many ways he can be seen as the ultimate antagonist of the Game of Thrones universe, a distinction made all the more impressive by the fact it is doubtful any of the major characters would likely recognize him as such. He is the only man to ever out manipulate Tywin Lannister in intrigue or outmaneuver Stannis Baratheon on the battlefield. What his ultimate endgame is remains very much a mystery, indeed it is possible Littlefinger does not even have one beyond continuing to accumulate more power to himself (in his own words “the climb [of the chaos ladder] is all there is”). He serves as both an example and a warning, indeed a true embodiment, of the dangers of anarchy and the state of nature when it is cut loose from the bounds of order and tradition; the fire that will eventually consume both igniter and all those around him.