Updated: Nov 18, 2018
The Machiavellian schemer from the Fingers
One of, if not the most dangerous character in ASOIAF, is lord Petyr Baelish. Despite the lack of chapters written from his own perspective, Littlefinger’s intentions and actions give the attentive reader a clear image of a corrupt, sneaky and conniving character with a true mastermind capacity. A man with no loyalties, much like Richard Neville was during the Wars of the Roses, which strongly inspired George R.R. Martin, lord Baelish is one day a supporter of the Lannisters, the next the Baratheons, then the Tullys or the Starks or the Arryns, depending on his convenience. Not even his own house he supports, as that goes against his agenda. He maintains a poor hovel in the fingers and is ever so sycophantic in order to be dismissed and not taken as a threat. During a conversation with lord Tyrion in ACOK about his clothes, where it is pointed out that he is both vain and elegant, he explains he isn’t loyal to the colors of his self-made banner “a man gets bored wearing the same colors day in and day out, or so I've found."
Richard Neville was not the only inspiration for the character either. Thomas Cromwell was another, he rose from obscurity as his father was a blacksmith or something of the sort and grew to become the most trusted adviser of King Henry VIII, one of the many characters who inspired Robert Baratheon. Historians have described Thomas Cromwell as oily and ambitious and it was thanks to him that Anne Boleyn was decapitated. Anne Boleyn is one of the many characters who inspired Cersei Lannister. The other character who was used as source of inspiration for Littlefinger was Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli is named the “father of modern politics” and was considered to be extremely clever, but most definitely dishonest and deceived people for power and control. As a matter of fact, Machiavelli was so cunning that his name became an adjective – Machiavellian – used to describe unscrupulousness in politics or to gain advantage in one’s career. Machiavelli didn’t see the world of honour as something worthy, for the man who is obsessed with honour is predictable. “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times”.
When Littlefinger was still young, he was fostered at Riverrun because shrewd lord Tully owed Littlefinger’s father a debt for a service done during the War of Ninepenny Kings. Being fostered at a house among his social betters made young Petyr Baelish see a world different from his own and one worth of fighting to achieve. Even though he was well trained and given every opportunity, he never attained knighthood. It wasn’t just his small stature, he also lacked strength and skills at arms. His developed affection for lady Catelyn likely came from that same ambition and he isn’t just intelligent, he has a real acumen for intrigue, which enabled him to climb a social ladder to surprising heights, all throughout, manipulating the love-struck simpleton Lysa Arryn.
He showed really young that he had a gift for mischief and keeping her enamored wasn’t that much trouble for a man like him. It was thanks to those feelings she harboured for him that she convinced her lord husband to appoint him for a minor sinecure in customs, collecting taxes at the port of Gulltown. There, he shone, collecting three times as much as any of the Usurper’s collectors. Thanks to that, he was invited to court and in mere three years he became Master of Coin. His schemes were many, replacing people and increasing the revenues to ten times what they were previously. As Robert was such profligate king, it seemed inevitable that the crown went into debt and lord Baelish couldn’t be blamed for the king’s expenditures, which opened the doors for him to commit fraud, skimming off the top and doing his money laundering schemes using brothels as front to justify his fortunes. Discontent with riches alone, he became ruthless, and as a natural liar, he played the role of the “lord” with a harmless mockingbird for a sigil while openly telling that he came from an impoverished background with no inheritance or sworn swords, in need to utilize any source who would extend him their patronage.
His harmlessness wasn’t quite so, and his need of patronage was one he played to the hilt – quite literally, because although he wasn’t capable with a sword, when he handled the dagger from lady Catelyn’s hand, he manipulates it with the dexterity of an expert. “He grasped the blade between thumb and forefinger, drew it back over his shoulder, and threw it across the room with a practiced flick of his wrist. It struck the door and buried itself deep in the oak, quivering.” He had no issues playing that dagger to the hilt when it came to his revenge against the Tullys and the Starks, persuading lady Lysa to poison her lord husband and to write that dubious letter to lady Catelyn. From there, all he needed was to be around to push his agenda, becoming a confidant of lord Eddard Stark, supporting the boy Joffrey, playing the game of thrones with the Spider and feigning interest in lady Lysa to get control of the Vale. He played to the hilt when he pretended to be simple despite being technically high-born. He played to the hilt when he became wealthy in ways not considered in court to be socially relevant. He played to the hilt when he used chaos to thrive.
The timeline of his life raises countless red flags around the rebellion. George R.R. Martin consistently writes using three key elements:
deep down, people don’t change;
history repeats itself;
the human heart in conflict with itself.
No character reflects those three points better than lord Petyr Baelish.
He was a mischievous child who grew up to be even more so. Never a good loser, his plans always had several layers and within those layers, he accepted the appearance of loss if that would turn into a larger win in the end, but meek is not an adjective for such man. His main capacity was that of doing terrible things leaving the evidence pointing to someone else. When he challenged lord Brandon Stark for the hand of Catelyn Tully, he made his intentions known. Lord Brandon and the other Starks left Riverrun to go to Winterfell so they could organize their affairs and return to Riverrun for the wedding.
The trip between Riverrun and Winterfell covered a distance of 600 miles. At 30 miles per hour by horse, that trip would take approximately 20 hours, but as both horses and people needed to rest, that trip was likely done in three days. The children returned two weeks later by horse, each doing their own thing, playing on the road, stopping here and there. Lyanna was an excellent rider, enjoyed speed and had a plan. Unfortunately, two weeks after the Starks left Riverrun, as they were in fact returning, young Baelish was well enough to leave Riverrun to never return.
Practically speaking, they crossed Harrenhal at the same time. Young Petyr may have seen Lyanna from his carriage or if maybe he was told by her to pass the message to her brothers that she was going to elope. Whichever the case is in fact irrelevant. The relevant part is that the window of opportunity presented itself that way, so before Brandon arrived in Riverrun, he received the message that his beloved sister had been kidnapped, so he went to King’s Landing, erroneously accused the prince and the rest is well known history. When the question comes to mind of who would have anything to gain from Brandon’s death, the answer is only one. Who would have to gain by stopping the wedding between Catelyn and Brandon is also the same person.
The part about the history repeating itself is rather easy. "Mad King" Aerys had already committed atrocities. It wasn’t a big gamble to expect him to do the same again when his son and heir got accused of kidnapping in court.
Finally, the human heart in conflict is all lord Baelish had. Growing up kissing the Tully girls, not knowing Catelyn jested with him for her own amusement, he believed his love for her was returned and when her betrothal to Brandon was announced, young Baelish got himself well and truly drunk. That night, Lysa visited his chambers and gave him her maidenhead, but he was so drunk that in the throes of passion, he called Catelyn’s name and was convinced he had slept with her. When he challenged lord Stark, she asked for his life to be spared, which fed the idea that she loved him. Young, hurt and confused, but also extremely quick on his feet and clever beyond his years, he used the tools he had to rid himself of an adversary. Despite his eventual loss, he learned the value of chaos and the conflict in his heart can barely be questioned.
Lord Baelish is definitely a man of many talents and he has gotten rid of lords, Hands and Kings alike. His schemes aren’t done yet, but his end is guaranteed. Until then, we are sure he is following Machiavelli’s teachings: “It is much safer to be feared than loved.”