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?”.

The riddle is terrific. It emphasizes the centrality of political questions to the work as a whole, and it essentially asks the question, “what IS power?”. The riddle is also, in a way, Varys’ version of the so-called “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. But it is a far superior version.

For those who are not familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is basically a thought experiment which aims to show why rational people (where the definition of “rational” is quite dubious) do not necessarily cooperate with one another, even when it is in their best interests to do so. If the “three great men” in Vary’s riddle have any actual power over the swordsman, why don’t they cooperate with one another to direct him well? And if they don’t have actual power over him, why would the “little man” bother to listen to any of them?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma was first developed by two mathematicians, Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher, and then it received its most famous expression, as well as that in which it acquired its name, in the work of a third mathematician, Albert W. Tucker, in 1950.

Tucker expressed the dilemma along the following lines. Two individuals have been arrested for committing a crime and have been put into separate isolation cells. They are each presented with a choice – they can confess to the crime or they can remain silent. If either one confesses, while the other remains silent, the one who has confessed will go free and the other will remain imprisoned for a long time. If both individuals confess, then both will remain imprisoned, but for a shorter amount of time than either one would if the other betrays him. And if both remain silent, they will both remain imprisoned, but for a much shorter period of time than they would otherwise.

So the dilemma is that, from their own perspectives under the circumstances, each individual is better off confessing to the crime, but their confessions will bring worse consequences for them. This is all fine and good, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma has gone on to win much attention and influence for itself. It is an important part of game theory, and it is much cited and referred to in any number of academic disciplines, such as sociology, economics, political science, psychology and others.

But what bearing does it have on human reality? What the Prisoner’s Dilemma really demonstrates, at the end of the day, is that if you place enough limits on human beings, in terms of their possible actions, their choices and the possible consequences of them, then those same human beings will behave in a predictable manner. If you lose your legs, after all, we can reasonably predict that you won’t be walking anywhere, anytime soon.

Varys’ riddle can be understood as a corrective to this sort of thinking, because it begins with political realities, which are diverse and practically unlimited in the possible choices and potential consequences that attend to them. The riddle is not some artificial attempt to reduce mankind to a little rat in a maze, with just two paths and a treat at the end of one of them. Indeed, the whole of A Song of Ice and Fire, with its dazzling array of characters, peoples, nations, and empires, stands against such trivialization of political things. The fantasy is far more realistic than the purported science.

The sheer number of considerations that one must make, in attempting a resolution to Varys’ riddle testifies to this recovery of political appearances. One must consider each of the human types in the riddle, the priest, the king, the rich man, and the swordsman, and one must consider what they represent, what power they possess, if any. One must consider if there are not more swordsmen waiting in the wings, to obey one or the other authority if this swordsman does not. One must consider the interests of the involved parties, as well as the justice or injustice which might attend to the swordsman making a choice. The apparent rules of the game are few, but the choices are many.

As Martin put it in the interview quoted at the top of this article, “…why does anybody do what they say? This is the fundamental mystery of power and leadership and war through all history.”

Varys himself provides a possible solution to the riddle, during a later conversation with Tyrion, this time in Chapter 8 of A Clash of Kings. There, Varys asks Tyrion if he has considered the riddle at all, in the time since it was first presented to him. Tyrion says that he has, but that he the riddle seems problematic to him. In Tyrion’s view, it is a riddle without an answer, or rather, a riddle with “too many answers”.

Tyrion’s concern up to this point acknowledges the manifold unknown variables in the riddle, although he regards these as its weakness, not its strength. Everything, Tyrion says, “depends on the man with the sword”. Is the man with the sword a poor man, for instance, and does he have a family to support? Is he perhaps ambitious, or is he greedy? Is he religious? Is he a patriot? These things will surely affect his decision. And yet Varys responds that the man with the sword is “no one”, because he has “neither crown, nor gold, nor favor of the gods”.

According to Varys, the swordsman in the riddle has only “a piece of pointed steel”. Tyrion’s answer to this is that a piece of pointed steel is the power of life and death, and Varys agrees to that. But Varys goes further – he argues that if the weapon is the ultimate thing, then we would all be ruled by swordsmen (or their analogues), and it would be strange that we pretend to be ruled by kings. Tyrion argues that the kings can call more swordsmen, to which Varys points out that, if such were case, then it would not actually be the swordsman in the riddle who has the power, but these “other” swordsmen.

Having so problematized the view that the power might belong to the swordsman himself, Varys problematizes the claims to power made by the three “great men”. He says, “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd.” So where is the power? What is the power?

Varys’ proposed solution is as follows: “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” And when Tyrion protests that this makes of power no more than a “mummer’s trick”, Varys simply agrees and then elaborates: “A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill”.

There is an argument to be had here with Lord Varys, and perhaps even with his one indisputable master, G.R.R. Martin himself. Is power simply a matter of belief? Even Varys acknowledges that “shadows can kill”, but is this acknowledgment ultimately reconcilable with the view that power resides where men believe it to reside, no more and no less?

The power of the blade in the swordsman’s hand is real, as is the power of the swords in the hands of those who might follow him. The rich man’s money is not “real” in the sense that money is a work of imagination, but the goods and services for which money acts as a medium of exchange, these things are real enough.

And what of imagination? The king in the riddle has the power of state, and many of the institutions of state rely upon imagination to give them form, but does that strip them of reality? Are the interests of the people that comprise the state, rulers and ruled, unreal? And the case of the priest is a further wrinkle still. Varys’ answer to his own riddle requires that belief establishes the gods, rather than that the gods evoke belief. Varys reduces religion to politics here, and that might be quite right, but it also might not be.

There is even a sense in which Varys’ solution to the riddle merely changes the language of the problem. For if power is first and foremost a matter of belief, then we are compelled to ask what directs, determines, and strengthens belief. And then we are going to be having an almost identical series of deliberations to what we had in the beginning, though we will be more often referring to believed powers than actual powers.

It would seem to be more satisfying to say, as the books otherwise indicate, that power is diverse in its modes and expressions, varying even according to time, place, and circumstance.

Indeed, when one considers the overall scope of A Song of Ice and Fire a difficulty emerges with Vary’s theoretical position. Varys is something of a skeptic or realist, and his riddle, which treats the claims of the priest as identical to that of the king and rich man reflects that. But this equivalence is hard to reconcile with the magical side Martin’s known world.

Even though politics take the fore in the series, and it generally appears realistically rendered, there is magic at work in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. The gods of the world are active and no trick of the mind, as far as we the readers can tell – the gods kill people and sometimes resurrect them, they provide visions and effective prophecies, they empower assassins, and they facilitate changes of shape between species. It is hard to reconcile a context quite so rife with supernatural events to the outlook of a skeptic, or indeed that of a realist, who thinks that one must only appear to please the gods for purposes of politics.

But even if Varys’ theoretical account of power is deficient in this respect, it is still subtle, and it still supports the practical political wisdom evinced by him. Belief is a powerful thing, although it does have limits, and recognizing the power of belief is itself powerful, for it enables the exploitation of particular beliefs and believers. Just as power comes in manifold forms at different times and places, belief, too, is a changeable and a fluid thing. So a theory of power that identifies it with belief is well-positioned for success in practical application. The action of A Song of Ice and Fire would appear to bear this out – Varys is able to be as effective as he is in politics largely because the view of power he espouses is conducive to it. His solution to his own riddle might not be entirely true, but it does work.


(Image: Spiders Web by Camon90, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence. Via DeviantArt.)