Varys risks his life to help Tyrion across the Narrow Sea. And now, as we begin season five, he claims to want Tyrion’s help in putting Daenerys on the Iron Throne. But isn’t Dany the same person he helped try to kill in season one? How do we reconcile Varys’s claim that he is a Targaryen loyalist when his actions on the Small Council for the last three kings (Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen) have actively opposed a Targaryen restoration? What web is The Spider spinning here? And why?
It might help to examine what we know of Varys, which, admittedly, is little. Like Littlefinger, he is a master manipulator who believes that information is power, especially misinformation. He is a master of disguise, as well as a former Master of Whisperers. But he has hinted at his motivations, either by sharing information or withholding it.
Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.
Varys claims to want the best for the Seven Kingdoms, but he is not from Westeros. As Oberyn detects when he hears his accent (the one he’s worked so hard to lose), Varys is from Lys. “As a boy, I traveled with a troupe of actors through the Free Cities,” he told Tyrion. He says he was a slave, and was sold to a sorcerer in Myr, who castrated him and burned some of his body parts as part of a blood magic ritual, not unlike ones Melisandre has performed. “Ever since that day, I have hated magic, and all those who practice it,” Varys says. This is why he claims to oppose Stannis — because “the dark arts have provided his armies.” Magic, however, also helped birth Dany’s dragons, so either Varys doesn’t understand dragons (unlikely), or there’s more to this story. Remember, it was his BFF Illyrio Mopatis who gave Dany a wedding gift of dragon eggs. Could Varys and Illyrio have known or hoped that the eggs were still viable?
(One small note regarding Varys’ castration: We have to take his word on this. Unlike Theon’s castration, we’ve had no visual proof, and the only person who could confirm this (the sorcerer) was unable to speak. As we’re starting to see on Game of Thrones, even eunuchs visit brothels because they long for a human connection. Varys claims to have no such desires, perhaps to seem as nonthreatening as possible — like how Pycelle pretends to be more feeble than he is.)
Varys learned to survive by stealing secrets, and eventually got to be so good at it, he earned a job in King’s Landing — as Master of Whisperers for King Aerys Targaryen (a.k.a. Dany’s dad, the Mad King). Some say Varys helped fuel Aerys’s paranoia, telling him of various plots and schemes that taught him not to trust anyone, and to believe in conspiracy theories. He allegedly told Aerys that his son Rhaegar wanted the throne, which would have pit one Targaryen against another. Did Varys want Aerys to have a nervous breakdown? Or was it unavoidable, perhaps inevitable?
Varys, like Pycelle, switches sides, gains a pardon, and joins up with the Baratheons/Lannisters when they win the war. At least officially. Under the guise of being helpful, he stirs up tensions between the Starks and the Lannisters, implying to Ned Stark that Jon Arryn was killed because he discovered the Lannister twincest (when he was actually poisoned by his own wife, under Littlefinger’s direction). Why was this in Varys’s best interest? Because at the time, he was looking to create instability — if not outright war — despite professing to want only peace.
And if Varys truly wants a Targaryen restoration, that means invasion. During his weekend getaway to Westeros, Illyrio urges Varys to slow down his push for war, because Khal Drogo won’t invade Westeros until his son is born, anyway (Arya overhears them plotting). Varys, meanwhile, wants Illyrio to speed up. At this point, things become a bit murky. Illyrio, who hosts Viserys and Daenerys at his home, arranges Dany’s marriage, and fills Visery’s head with fairy tales about people in Westeros “crying out for their true king,” then departs. Varys, meanwhile, under King Robert’s command, runs to share the news that Dany is pregnant with the Small Council. Why?
If Varys were a Targaryen supporter, he could have kept quiet about that tidbit, at least for a while. (It wouldn’t be the only time he withheld news from the King and his Hand, or misinformed them.) When the Small Council discusses what to do about Dany, Varys agrees with King Robert that she should die. “Should the gods grant Daenerys a son, the realm will bleed,” he says. Did Varys believe that, or was he just being politically astute? Ned is the only one opposed to the idea, and King Robert — who wants all Targaryens dead — will not hear otherwise. To oppose King Robert publicly might not have done Varys any good. So either he goes through the motions, or he speeds up the timetable to create tension in Westeros. Perhaps he gambled on an assassination attempt, or an actual assassination, to spur Khal Drogo to want to invade. But consider the mode of attempt. He hires a random wine merchant to sell her poisoned wares, should he come across the khaleesi. That seems like a pretty flimsy approach, leaving a lot up to chance. What if she never bought wine from that merchant? Still, Varys assumes his missive was effective. When King Robert tries to rescind the order via Ned Stark, Varys says it’s too late. “I’m afraid those birds have flown. The girl is likely dead already.” Did Varys want the court to assume she was dead, even if she wasn’t?
Thanks to Jorah Mormont’s conscience, Dany lives. Varys seems genuinely interested in this news when he later shares it with Tyrion. (“She has three dragons. But even if what they say is true, it will be years before they’re fully grown.”) This is not news he appears to share with the Small Council, at least not right away. But after keeping quiet about Dany for a long stretch, Varys finally gives a full update — about her residence in Meereen, her army of Unsullied, her company of sellswords, and how she had two knights advising her, Jorah Mormont and Barristan Selmy, plus those three dragons. (Selmy, you might recall, was someone Varys helped usher into forced retirement. Could he have predicted that Selmy, also a Targaryen loyalist, would pack his bags for Essos? Did he perhaps suggest that route to him?)
Varys sounds like he respects Dany when he speaks of all she’s accomplished, but he also appears to have no problem undermining her once again when Tywin suggests outing Jorah as a former spy. Perhaps he knew it might be unwise to cross Tywin. Perhaps, like the assassination attempt gamble, Varys thought she could spare one knight, and Jorah, no longer under his control, wouldn’t be a great loss. But it is curious that neither Jorah nor Barristan were aware that Varys was on Team Dany, and that Illyrio never told the Targaryens who else in Westeros was on their side.
Varys posed Tyrion a riddle once, more of a trick question, really: Who has the power? Three great men — a king, a priest, and a rich man — each bid a sellsword to slay the other two. Who lives? Who dies? While Tyrion thinks the answer depends on the sellsword, Varys reveals the question was more about the concept of power, which he says is a shadow on the wall. His strategy all along has been about creating illusions of power, of moving pieces around with his hand in it, largely unseen. Call for peace, plot for war. Help defend the city against one battle, plant the seeds for another — one led by an army of eunuchs, ex-slaves, and dragons. Nothing would unite the Seven Kingdoms more, save for an invasion of White Walkers. Wouldn’t a ruler with dragons come in handy right about then?