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.”

Varys makes himself useful to the current regime, whatever its shape. But he is never exactly of the regime. He always maintains a certain distance from the ruling dynasty, operating his spy network independently and in secret, cloaking his true motives, activities, and loyalties.

He a master of disguises, both literally and metaphorically. In the course of A Song of Ice and Fire, we see him as a stout, short gaoler, a beggar, a woman, and a turnkey named Rugen (and these are just the confirmed disguises!). He frequently moves undetected throughout the places in the story and regularly confounds characters who are familiar with him, like Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister, with his disguises.

Varys also never commits completely to any regime. He plays all sides in the game of thrones. When Robert Baratheon comes to power, Varys served the new king. Yet even as he did so, it seems, he ensured that an heir to the deposed Targaryens, Aegon, would be spirited away to survive. Varys also lets the blame for the infant Aegon’s purported death fall to Tywin Lannister, who he will serve in turn when the Lannisters effectively replace the Baratheons on the throne. And when the Lannisters appear to Varys to stand in the way of his own ends, he will begin removing them to make way for a Targaryen return.

What is more, even as he serves the Lannisters and seeks to curry favor with them, he works to save their enemy, Ned Stark, from death, though it is the Lannisters who have imprisoned Stark. And even as he opposes the Lannisters, he helps Tyrion Lannister to escape execution. And Varys himself had testified against Tyrion in the trial that ultimately lead to the latter’s death sentence.

In Chapter 18 of The Prince, “In What Mode Faith Should Be Kept by Princes”, Machiavelli presents a teaching that Varys seems to embody. There, Machiavelli indicates that, when they were young, ancient princes were often given to be raised by a centaur, half-beast and half-man. Machiavelli says that the meaning of this, the reason for it, is that princes, “need to know how to use both natures; and the one without the other is not lasting.”

The part of the centaur that has a human nature, in Machiavelli’s usage, represents the use of law to attain political ends. The part that is beastly in nature represents the use of force for the same. An effective political actor must act in different ways at different times and in different situations. Varys, as we have seen, in the ways that he plays the various noble houses against each other, while making himself valuable to each, and the ways that he plays sides even within the individual houses, is an expert in this sort of game. He uses his wits constantly, but employs other modes of coercion when they are necessary.

Machiavelli, for his part, continues on the subject: “…since a prince is compelled of necessity to know well how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion, because the lion does not defend itself from snares and the fox does not defend itself from wolves. So one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten the wolves. Those who stay simply with the lion do not understand this.”

The lion is the animal kingdom’s time-honored symbol of courage and nobility. The fox, on the other hand, is a symbol of guile, stealth, and shrewdness. Machiavelli advises that the best princes will be both, lion and fox. This means, amongst other things, that an effective ruler should not, as Machiavelli puts it, “observe faith” when it is not in his interest to do so. He must lie and deceive when necessary, he must break promises when it is expedient, and he must do his utmost to appear noble as he does so. Even his faith in God should be subject to considerations of political gain.

Such flexibility is one of Varys’ most pronounced character traits and one of his greatest assets.

Consider the remarkable conversation, one which illustrates these matters extremely well, that occurs in Chapter 58 of A Game of Thrones, between Varys and the doomed Eddard (Ned) Stark, as the latter awaits his fate (at that point still unclear) in the dungeons of the Red Keep. Stark is nothing but a man of honor, in fact he is probably the most obvious exemplar of an honorable man in A Song of Ice and Fire thus far. But he has been falsely accused of treason and he is soon to die for the honor that he holds so dear.

Stark is precisely the lion of whom Machiavelli warns that he does not understand the dangers in observing faith, and does not see that virtue without compromise becomes vice.

Ned Stark, quite naturally, does not like or trust Varys. And he wonders why Varys has come to him in his imprisonment. He also points out that Varys stood by when they slaughtered Ned’s guard and then had him taken away. In Ned’s view, Varys has been complicit in allowing this injustice to befall him.

Varys does not protest, he plainly responds that if it happened again, he would act the same way. Then he gives an explanation of the matter that comes right out of the Machiavellian playbook: “…each man has a role to play,’ he tells Ned, “in life as well as in mummery (theatrical performance). So it is at court. The King’s Justice must be fearsome, the master of coin must be frugal, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard must be valiant… And the master of whisperers so must be sly and obsequious and without scruple. A courageous informer would be as useless as a cowardly knight.”

If Machiavelli’s fox and lion spoke to one another, it might almost sound like this exchange between Varys and Ned – a man of many guises speaking to one has taken a single position and will hold fast to it unto death. But there is still more to Varys. As Machiavelli has counselled that a prince must be both the lion and the fox, Varys too stands for more than just dancing to whatever political tune the band is playing.

The fact that Varys is risking himself to visit poor Ned, and scheme for his release, suggests that something more than mere opportunism guides the eunuch’s actions. It is telling that at one point in the conversation, Varys even rebukes Ned, saying that despite the latter’s great honorableness, or perhaps even because of it, Ned has failed to serve “the realm”. When Ned asks later who Varys truly serves, the reply is, “Why, the realm, my good lord, how could you ever doubt that? I swear it by my lost manhood. I serve the realm, and the realm needs peace.”

Varys, at least by his own account, is committed to the good of the “realm”, something broader than whichever particular regime is in place, or which noble house happens to be predominant at a given time. This commitment is the guiding principle behind all of his political schemes and maneuvers. It sometimes even brings him to act as a lion.

In the epilogue to A Dance with Dragons (the most recent installment of the series as of this writing), Varys turns on the Lannisters, killing both Kevan Lannister and Grand Maester Pycelle with his own hands. This was done, it seems, either out of an abiding commitment to the Targaryens, or a continued belief that bringing them back to the throne would be best for the realm. The consequences of it remain to be seen, but if Targaryen rule does indeed return to Westeros, Varys stands to appear as the most loyal subject that House has ever had. He would be a true lion, albeit one with a fox beneath the guise.

Just what Varys means by the “realm” and in what manner he can understand himself to be agent of “peace” will require further examination. But, suffice it to say, there is a guiding principle in him that is not simply fluid. Varys has a goal in mind, to which he is committed, and the pursuit of that goal determines just what shapes he takes and how he moves.

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

(Image: Spiders Web by Camon90, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence. Via DeviantArt.)
Update: Fixed the spelling of one of Varys’ alter egos, thanks to the sharp-eyed readers of