Category: Arts & Letters (Page 2 of 2)

Varys – His Riddle

PART 3 OF THE CHARACTER DISCUSSION OF VARYS

One of the central questions in the book is Varys’ riddle…George R.R. Martin

Varys is a figure of vital importance in A Song of Ice and Fire. He is key to both the political action of the series and its political wisdom.

The core of his political philosophy, if one can use that term, is encapsulated in a riddle. The riddle — which concerns the nature of power itself — first appears in Chapter 3 of A Clash of Kings, where it is posed to Tyrion Lannister. Varys has found Tyrion at a King’s Landing inn, where the latter is ensconced (secretly, he believes) with his mistress, Shae.

Before Varys takes leave of Tyrion and Shae, he poses the riddle: “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”.

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Varys – A Eunuch

PART 2 OF THE CHARACTER DISCUSSION OF VARYS

The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

One fact we learn early on about Lord Varys, and are reminded of frequently, is that he is a eunuch. His castration is one of the central features of his character.

Looking across the series, we see other examples of eunuchs, most notably in the Meereenese warrior, Strong Belwas, and the slave soldiers from Astapor, known as the Unsullied.

All of these characters are extraordinary in some way. Varys is one of the wisest characters in the series, the Unsullied some of the finest warriors. This connection between castration and talent is suggestive. G.R.R. Martin seems to be hinting that sexual desire is an impediment to the development of other kinds of human excellence.

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Varys – A Machiavellian Beast

Part 1 of the Character Discussion of Varys

A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made him promise have been eliminated. And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them. Nor does a prince ever lack legitimate causes to color his failure to observe faith.Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Varys, the Master of Whisperers, is one of the most enigmatic characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. He is also one of the most self-aware. A major player in the action of the story, who usually operates behind the scenes, the author of the books has invested him with an enormous amount of political wisdom.

Varys, nicknamed The Spider, is originally from the Free City of Lys in faraway Essos. Over the course of time, he rose from his inauspicious start as an orphaned slave to achieve a great reputation as a spymaster. This, in turn, led King Aerys II Targaryen, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, to invite Varys to Westeros, into his employ there at King’s Landing, the capital.
Varys remained in place both as spymaster and a member of the small council, an elite group of advisors to the king, when House Baratheon led a rebellion and overthrew House Targaryen. And he remained again when House Lannister effectively took the throne.

His political maneuverings are so many and varied that it is almost impossible to keep them straight – yet they are consistently effective.

Just surviving so many regime changes is itself impressive. But Varys not only survived, he flourished. The deeper Westeros fell into political chaos, the more his political influence grew. With each new regime on a weaker footing than the last, his spy network became more and more indispensable even though his title, or lack thereof, remained the same. As Varys puts it to Tyrion Lannister in Chapter 8 of A Clash of Kings, “The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.”

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The Argument and the Action

We have divided our study of the political theory of G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into a series of discussions, each one focusing on a single character. Why this character by character approach?

First and foremost, A Song of Ice and Fire itself is told from the perspectives of its characters, each chapter is presented from the point-of-view of one of them and named accordingly. G.R.R. Martin clearly puts the characters front and center in his work, and we intend to follow his lead.

Moreover, we think this method follows naturally from the way we read his works. As in any novel, the political insights of Martin’s saga come in three general forms, corresponding to 1) the argument of the text, 2) its action, and 3) the interplay between them.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, the first kind of insight, that in argument, can be found mostly in the speeches of the books, the things uttered (or sometimes thought) by the various characters. So, for example, Tywin Lannister might teach a lesson about kingship to his grandson, Joffrey, as he does in Chapter 53 of A Storm of Swords: “When your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you. And any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king at all.” The reader is here afforded a glimpse of what makes Tywin Lannister such an impressive political actor – he knows how to make men serve him. His lesson is not that cruelty should be tempered by mercy or kindness, but that it should be tempered by considerations of efficacy. If cruelty weakens a ruler, then it should be brought to an end.

The second kind of insight, that in action, is to be found mostly in the events of the story, the choices made by the characters and the consequences of those choices. An example of this is to be found in the later parts of A Storm of Swords, particularly when Daenerys Targaryen is faced with the realities left in the wake of her conquests. The “Mother of Dragons” has gone from city to city in the region of Slaver’s Bay, conquering them and liberating the legions of slaves that are their lifeblood. She has come to regard herself as a great emancipator. But when Danaerys reaches and conquers the city of Meereen, the third of the great slave cities, she learns of the fates that have befallen the previous two cities, Astapor and Yunkai, since she has left them. The council that she had installed to rule Astapor has been killed and replaced by a vicious butcher (literally, a butcher) named Cleon. The city of Yunkai has already begun to reorganize against her. And even Meereen, the city in which she has just liberated the population, is in a condition other than what she expected; Daenerys learns with shock that vast numbers of Meereenese have flocked to the riverside, hoping to be sold back into slavery. The action of the story therefore serves to instruct Daenerys, as well as the reader, that human beings are not so malleable as she thought. They are also not so grateful as she might have liked, nor do they see their liberty as an unmitigated blessing. This is a provocative insight – that many men want to be ruled.

The third kind of insight, that which is presented through the interplay of argument and action in the book, can be found throughout the books. Often the context in which a speech is given modifies the meaning of that speech. And, sometimes, events in the books prove the veracity or lack thereof in a given speech. Take, for example, Joffrey’s fate in A Storm of Swords – he is poisoned and dies during his own wedding feast. The manner of Joffrey’s death, the pitiful length of his reign as king (less than two years), the immense number of individuals with obvious motives to have been the one whodunnit, and the fact that, other than his mother, Cersei, practically everyone in the book thinks that Joffrey deserved his horrid end, many of them even celebrating it – all of these aspects of the event serve to confirm the wisdom of what his grandfather, Tywin, had tried to teach him earlier in the same book. A king who is simply cruel will not be effectively loved or feared by his subjects and competitors, he will be reviled by them, and he will probably not last long for it. This insight about cruelty is not a moral one, it is one about good rule, where good rule consists in the security and aggrandizement of the ruler.

All of these kinds of insights center on the characters. The characters make the speeches in the books, as well as the choices. They are the principal agents of both the arguments and the action, the political actors in this tale of grand politics. By structuring our inquiry into the series’ political insights around the characters, we keep that dramatic context firmly in our minds.


Return to the main hub for discussion of the politics of A Song of Ice and Fire here.


(Image: Symbols of the Seven Noble Houses by twipzdeeauxilia, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence. Via Flickr.)

A Politics of Ice and Fire

By: Lewis Slawsky

There are many reasons that G.R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, has been such a tremendous popular and critical success. Here is just one reason, but a major one – A Song of Ice and Fire is an eminently political piece of literature.

Discussion is Coming!

Over the next few months, we are going to examine the political insights of A Song of Ice and Fire through a series of character studies. Join us!

Why character by character?

Find details, and all the articles in the series here.

The beating heart of the story is the seemingly endless number of political moves made by various parties as they seek power. This is the action that gives its name to the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones.

Now, A Song of Ice and Fire is not political in the sense of partisanship or ideology, although these things can indeed be found among the panoply of groups and individuals within the context of the books. This fact alone makes it a valuable work of literature, in these days of big party politics and entrenched partisan commitments. But A Song of Ice and Fire is political in the broader sense of politics – the series is concerned with how human beings choose to live together or how they are compelled to do so. It is concerned with questions of power: who rules, in what manner, on what basis, and what the effects of power are on both the rulers and the ruled.

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Discussion is Coming!

Over the next few months, we are going to examine the political insights of A Song of Ice and Fire through a series of character studies. Join us!

Read More

Medieval Heart, Postmodern Mind – Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Howl of the Day: Feb 23, 2016

It was a week of dying for remarkable people.

The U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, passed away on February 13th, to be followed just six days later by both the novelist, Harper Lee, and the Italian thinker and writer, Umberto Eco.

Each of these individuals is surely due their tributes, but this one is for Eco, a man whose fertile imagination and wide-ranging labors were with few peers in today’s world. Born in the Piedmont region of Italy, Eco would, over the course of his life, make many and numerous contributions to literature, as novelist, essayist, and critic, to the university, as teacher, scholar, and even founder of a department for media studies, and to thought on such subjects as semiotics, philosophy, art, popular culture, and communication. His was both a deep and an industrious soul – a rarity.

It seems that there was also a riddle at the center of Eco’s existence, one that in the mentioning of it might serve as a fitting way to commemorate him.

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Realism in Fantasy, Concerning George R. R. Martin

By: Ned Fichy

George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, has drawn as much interest as any literary project of recent memory. For good reason. Mr. Martin is a powerful writer and he tells compelling tales. He is good enough at what he does – and what he does is itself a rare enough thing – that it seems appropriate to call him an artist, and to consider his works as art rather than just entertainment.

For artists, the stakes are higher, and in Martin’s masterpiece they are high indeed. His project is to recast the world of fantasy in a realistic manner. And, indeed, the realism of his saga is one of its most compelling features.

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