Book Spoilers Follow. Be Ye Warned.
Within the A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin has embedded dozens of clues and references to both the overarching themes and the potential outcomes of the series. Chief among these is the riddle Varys poses to Tyrion in A Clash of Kings (Season 2 of Game of Thrones).
I’ll quote the riddle from the book:
“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 names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”
In the show, Tyrion’s immediate response is, “Depends on the sellsword.” Varys immediately counters by asking, “Does it?” Tyrion’s reasoning, obviously, is that the sellsword has a sword, and therefore the power of life and death. The decision is his, and therefore the power.
Varys then poses the true riddle, and one of the main themes of the series: If power lies with the men who carry swords, why do we pretend that kings hold the power? Power, he argues, is ephemeral, a shadow – “power lies where we think it lies.”
This riddle basically sums up the entire power struggle in ASOIAF – and when you look at it from that perspective, I believe that it is a trick question.
The parallels are fairly easy to see. The sellsword symbolizes the people, that fickle mass of people over whom the claimants to the Iron Throne are fighting. They “sell” their loyalty to the highest bidder – that is, whoever offers them the most. They do so figuratively, through their loyal support of the ruler, and literally, serving as bannermen, paying taxes to the crown, and supporting the economy of the realm.
And now, all three powers are bidding the people to kill each other.
One of the most fascinating things about this series is trying to figure out who’s going to win this seemingly endless struggle. And we’ve seen some interesting developments over five novels, while I suspect the shit is about to well and truly hit the fan in the next book. So of the three men at the table, who will the sellsword follow?
It seems like an impossible thing to determine. It does, to an extent, depend on the sellsword – of money, faith, and patriotism, what will hold the most sway over his actions?
But what if the answer is: none of the above? What if the riddle, insofar as it relates to the structure of the novel, is a trick question?
If it is, it may give a key clue as to how the story will resolve. Let’s play process of elimination.
Get two books in to the series, and you’d be justified in asking, “Which king?” And herein lies the King’s weakening position. Robert Baratheon may have faced mutters as “The Usurper,” but he didn’t have to constantly proclaim his kingship once he had it. (Mainly because the Targaryen claimants were conveniently dead or exiled.) But once Robert dies, the Throne is up for grabs, and the kingdom’s loyalties are immediately divided. If the sellsword is bid to follow the king, will he follow Renly or Stannis? Robb Stark? The Greyjoys? Danerys Targaryen? Joffrey? Tommen? How about supporting the Dornish plot to enthrone Myrcella? Really, who do you choose?
Perhaps at first you support the person who can offer you the most, whether that is a sense of strength and solidarity (the King in the North), a feeling of maintaining the line of succession (Stannis), the trust that may lie with supporting an old, rich, powerful family (Joffrey/Tommen), taking part in a rebellion (Greyjoys), or restoring the true leader to power (Danerys). Perhaps you follow the person who seems most likely to win, like a young man who has won every battle. Perhaps you follow the king who has embraced your new god. Maybe you’re just following the money.
But one by one, these kings are losing their grip on the people. Renly is killed, Robb is killed, Joffrey is killed. Euron Greyjoy is widely known to be mad and is probably not the safest choice for a leader. Stannis is getting his troops frozen to death in the North, and Melisandre either commands your loyalty or scares the hell out of you. The King-Beyond-The-Wall is, shall we say, no longer his own man.
So, sellsword, if the king commands you, do you listen? It likely depends on the king, and how much you even believe in the power of kings anymore. Watching kings crumble (or seeing them naked, as it were) removes much of the appearance of power. And if a king doesn’t seem powerful, why kill for him?
So, muses the sellsword, what about the priest?
Religion has a powerful lure. Of course, in Westeros, religions come and go. The Old Gods held power in the North, and to an extent still do, but most of the kingdoms stopped acknowledging them long ago. (They may rise again, true! But we’ll see how that goes.) The Seven have held sway since then, but they are no longer the only gods in town. The cult of R’hllor is growing, and scarily, the Red God does seem to have some sort of power, although what we’ve seen of it is rather two-edged. Any God who can resurrect the dead and create baby smoke assassins? There’s something to it, for sure. But any God who demands that people be burned? I’d call that a definite deterrent. So people are either fervent believers, or are terrified, but both lend themselves to acquiescence.
In the meantime, Cersei takes the award for Stupidest Move Ever and ignores the fast-growing reform movement taking over the worship of the Seven. The church has swiftly gone from being wealthy bedfellows to people in power to a church of flagellants, militants, and angry people calling for a Westeros cleansed of decadence and sin. (Lannisters, this bodes ill for you. Just a heads up, probably shouldn’t give them permission to form their own army.)
Oh, wait, she does that too, and boy, does it backfire.
When the priest demands the sellsword’s allegiance, then, how much power does that demand truly have? The religions of Westeros are just as fractured and competing. Which is the true god (or gods), and how do we know? So far, we don’t. And if you’re picturing this sellsword as being anything like Bronn (as I am), you’re pretty sure he’s going to pass on this with a shrug.
The Rich Man
All right, fine, the Rich Man. Surely the Rich Man will offer the most – money is power. Right?
The rich man in Westeros has always been the Lannisters. The family has built its reputation upon its vast wealth and its ability to always pay its debts, and in Game of Thrones, we realize that the Baratheon monarchy owes millions to the Lannisters. The king, in effect, has been depending on the rich man to maintain his kingdom. After Robert’s death, the kingship may be Baratheon in name, but that fools exactly no one – the Lannisters run this town. The golden family of Westeros includes the king, the queen, the most famous member of the Kingsguard, the Hand of the King, and eventually the master of coin. Is there anything the Lannisters’ wealth cannot buy?
Apparently, yes – loyalty and unity. Thanks to Cersei’s consistently, idiotically blind decisions, Tywin’s death, Tyrion’s flight and Jaime’s slow transition into an official Good Person, the Lannisters are losing their leverage. Cersei loses her grip on Tommen and her position as favorite Beautiful Royal to Margarey Tyrell. She sinks the realm into deep debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos, and then refuses to pay when the debt is called in. In the eyes of the kingdom, now, it appears that the Lannisters do not always pay their debts after all, and people are slowly beginning to rely more on the Tyrell’s money. Cersei, losing ground fast, is finally imprisoned, accused and humiliated before the kingdom. By the end of A Dance of Dragons, the Rich Man has lost a good deal of the influence and power he once wielded over the sellsword, and thus the sellsword’s obedience. After all, you can promise a sellsword gold all day, but if he knows you don’t have it, you won’t have his attention for long.
So let’s go back to that table. The King, the Priest, and the Rich Man all need that sellsword. They need him to kill the others to solidify their own power. But if the sellsword isn’t stupid, he can see the writing on the wall. These people may put on a good show, but they’re crumbling from the inside.
Thus the trick question – what if the sellsword does not follow anyone at that table? What if he leaves the room, and offers his services to a leader who offers what the others do not?
Well, what can the people not expect from any of the Big Three here? I believe it boils down to two things – safety and justice.
And as problematic as her storyline may be, we’ve only seen one person who may be able to provide these to Westeros.
The Right Answer
Daenerys is, as much as anyone has been in this story, the embodiment of justice. She repays in kind. She judges her friends and enemies based on their actions. She is driven by the desire to both assume her rightful place and to free the people of chains imposed on them by others. And while she has lost her way a few times, she always comes back to her true motivations, her true purpose, and her sincere desire to be a great ruler. Not just a powerful one, but a great one.
And yeah, she has dragons. She can probably win a war, but more importantly, she’s probably the only ones with the tools to stop the White Walkers. (Burn them all!) If that is the case, then she truly is the instrument of safety for the kingdom. She is their best hope of justice, which they have not been offered for a very, very long time.
When the sellsword is comfortable, well-fed, paid and supported, these concepts of justice and safety may not mean much. But he isn’t. His patrons are squabbling like children and falling like flies, and he is on his own. In a time of disillusionment with the powers that be, the best choice may be to choose Justice – which means that the sellsword listens to neither the King, the Priest, or the Rich Man.
Is it possible Varys knows this? He throws his support behind Daenerys – and he’s Varys. I have a strong suspicion that he knew the answer to his riddle all along – and that it was always meant to be a trick question.