Game of Thrones’ Varys: A Review
After my character review of Petyr Baelish I received a request to do one for Westeros’ master manipulator (and the only one ever to one up Lord Littlefinger) Varys. Given that this was the first time I had ever actually received a request to write something (*hint*hint*) I felt I had no option but to do so. So without further ado, here are my musings on everyone’s favorite spymaster eunuch.
Varys is probably the most elusive character in the world of Game of Thrones. Over the course of the series he has been an ally to as varied a cast of characters as Ned Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen (without her even knowing it) all the while honestly stating that the one side he is truly behind is “the realm”. That is the key to understanding Varys, ultimately. In this is he part of a rich tradition of both fictional and historical figures that fill the role of court intriguer; a fantasy world version of Talleyrand who will work with whoever he feels is able to best serve the interests and needs of the realm. Just as Talleyrand flitted from the Bourbons to Bonaparte and back to the Bourbons again as the ground shifted from one to the other, so too has Varys filled the role of spymaster for first Aerys, the Mad King, then Robert, the noble rebel, then then the Lannisters’ incest-born progeny. He will shift allegiances between individuals without hesitation, because the ultimate holder of his fealty is not any one person but the whole of the Seven Kingdoms’ themselves.
The contrast between Varys and Littlefinger is a stark one, and the duality the two represent is one the show quite shrewdly picked up on and brought to the forefront in a way that was very directly done in the books. They are both practitioners of intrigue and manipulation, but their motives and ends are as different as night and day. If Petyr Baelish is the embodiment of chaos, Varys’ ultimate goal is order. Baelish’s cares solely for his own advancement and progression, whereas Varys is singularly devoted only to the greater good. Littlefinger works ceaselessly to tear the realm asunder so he may further his own rise, while Varys strives just as tirelessly to hold it all together with no thought for himself. Every scene between the two positively sizzles from this contradiction (of them being “alike yet not alike” as the character of Gimli once described Gandalf and Saruman), and their wary recognition of the other’s skill and formidability along with the realization that while they may at times require the assistance of one another they are very much on difference sides of a gaping chasm that can never truly be breached.
Varys sole devotion is the preservation of the Seven Kingdoms. Like Littlefinger, he recognizes that the entire concept of the nation-state is an illusion, merely a lie people told themselves over and over again till they began to believe it, but he recognizes that such a “noble lie” is necessary to unify people together for otherwise there would be chaos. And to Varys chaos is not a ladder but instead a darken pit of horror from which there is no escape. Order and stability must therefore be preserved at all cost. To that end he will ally with anyone individual that serves his purpose, for the simple truth is that to Varys it is not the individual who sits on the throne that matters but the institution itself. When Robert overthrew the Mad King, Varys was perfectly content to support him, and when Robert proved to be inept as a ruler in any meaningful sense of the word, he was equally willing to instead turn his influence towards paving the way for a Targaryen restoration (I can only assume Varys is unaware of what a total fiasco Daenerys has proven to be as a ruler).
Much like the character of the High Sparrow, Varys serves as an example of just how dangerous an incorruptible figure can be for while he is a master at the game of intrigue, he plays it with no consideration for his own enrichment. As a eunuch, all of the traditional appeals that drive men (whether they are for love, or money, or some other earthly pleasure) do not tempt him; in Varys’ own words when you put aside the distractions of carnal desires and thus devote yourself wholly to the pursuit of your greater goals anything becomes possible. Indeed, so single mindedly is Varys devoted to his intrigues and manipulations we see very little of him as an actual person. His hatred of all magic, brought on by the fact he was cut as a boy by a sorcerer for some magical ritual, is the closest we come to a personal motivation on his part, otherwise his unflinching devotion to the good of the realm is all there is.
In many ways, the story of Game of Thrones truly is the story of Varys and Lord Baelish, with the latter as its ultimate villain and the former as its protagonist. All the events that have occurred in story can be traced back to them in some form or other, with the great families of Stark, Lannister, Baratheon and even Targaryen merely being pieces in the chess game between the two. Littlefinger moves, Varys counters and so it goes on and on in an endless tug of war between the two with chaos on one end and continuity on the other. Not that Varys is unwilling to create a little chaos of his own when it suits is purpose; take his murder of Kevan Lannister to further the division between the remaining Lannisters and their allies House Tyrell to better pave the way for the Targaryen invasion of southern Westeros. He uses chaos merely as an unpleasant tool, however, for the furtherance of his own plans and not as an end in and of itself.
As we approach the endgame of A Song of Ice and Fire, Varys own personal one is very clear. He seeks a Targaryen restoration as a return to true Kingship for the betterment of the realm and its people. While I can disagree, quite viscerally, about the wisdom of that particular objective or at least the individual he seeks to use to achieve it, I cannot help but admire Varys as a character. He has proven to be one of the most powerful and dangerous characters in the story, while being largely unnoticed by those around him and largely treated with bland contempt and indifference when he is. Despite this, Varys has wholly devoted himself to the salvation of those who scorn him and managed to outmaneuver those who command armies with nothing more than the power of his own mind. He should serve as a warning to never underestimate what someone is capable of. He sadly joins Tyrion Lannister as a character I greatly like who I nevertheless hope ultimately “loses”.