Petyr Baelish, or Littlefinger as he is more commonly known, is one of the most skincrawlingly creepy and fascinating characters in ASOIAF. He appears to be an agent of chaos, prodding
chess cyvasse pieces around on the Game of Thrones to profit from the destruction and fall out.
But does he have a bigger plan?
Honestly, if he does, I can’t work out what it is. I know there’s a few theories floating around that try to set up Littlefinger as someone with a big grand plan, but I suspect he is actually at the apex of his plan – and what will come next will show us that he only ever planned to gain the basest of desires: power.
“Knowledge is Power” by Robert del Espacio
Root of Littlefinger’s motivation: spurned by Hoster Tully
The musings and rants of Catelyn Tully Stark, Lysa Tully Arryn and Littlefinger himself (to Sansa in AFFC) are very revealing about Littlefinger’s origins and motivations.
He came from fairly humble origins, as he sees it (I’m sure the smallfolk around him would love to quibble on his definition of ‘humble’ or ‘low born’ origins, but anyway…) The son of a minor landed lord in the Vale of Arryn’s territories, whose lands are pebbly, unsuited to much in the way of agriculture, and as such very poor lands for a man with ambition to be rich and powerful. It doesn’t seem that Littlefinger’s father had any concerns, he was pretty stoked to be a member of the landed gentry. So why is his son so obsessed with power and wealth?
Simple: young Petyr was forcefully reminded that not all nobles are equal when he was a teenager, fostered as a ward at Riverrun with Hoster Tully.
From memory, I think we’re told that this arrangement occurred because
the narrative required it Lord Tully and the minor Lord Baelish served in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, and the Lord Paramount of the Riverlands offered to the minor gentry that he would foster his son and give him a lord’s education. That’s nice.
But while at Riverrun, the young Petyr fell in
love lust with the beautiful Tully girls. Or more specifically, the eldest of the beautiful Tully girls: Catelyn, who had just been betrothed to Brandon Stark, heir to Winterfell.
This is what Cat recalls of this situation:
AGOT Catelyn IV
“He was my father’s ward. We grew up together in Riverrun. I thought of him as a brother, but his feelings for me were … more than brotherly. When it was announced that I was to wed Brandon Stark, Petyr challenged for the right to my hand. It was madness. Brandon was twenty, Petyr scarcely fifteen. I had to beg Brandon to spare Petyr’s life. He let him off with a scar. Afterward my father sent him away. I have not seen him since.” She lifted her face to the spray, as if the brisk wind could blow the memories away. “He wrote to me at Riverrun after Brandon was killed, but I burned the letter unread. By then I knew that Ned would marry me in his brother’s place.”
So Cat never reciprocated in those feelings of TWOO WUV that Littlefinger claims they shared. She confirms this to Ser Rodrick Cassell, and to herself when watching Renly’s tourney to celebrate his proclaimation of being king:
AGOT Catelyn VIIAnd as she watched, the memory of another duel in another time came back to Catelyn Stark, as vivid as if it had been yesterday.They met in the lower bailey of Riverrun. When Brandon saw that Petyr wore only helm and breastplate and mail, he took off most of his armor. Petyr had begged her for a favor he might wear, but she had turned him away. Her lord father promised her to Brandon Stark, and so it was to him that she gave her token, a pale blue handscarf she had embroidered with the leaping trout of Riverrun. As she pressed it into his hand, she pleaded with him. “He is only a foolish boy, but I have loved him like a brother. It would grieve me to see him die.” And her betrothed looked at her with the cool grey eyes of a Stark and promised to spare the boy who loved her.That fight was over almost as soon as it began. Brandon was a man grown, and he drove Littlefinger all the way across the bailey and down the water stair, raining steel on him with every step, until the boy was staggering and bleeding from a dozen wounds. “Yield!” he called, more than once, but Petyr would only shake his head and fight on, grimly. When the river was lapping at their ankles, Brandon finally ended it, with a brutal backhand cut that bit through Petyr’s rings and leather into the soft flesh below the ribs, so deep that Catelyn was certain that the wound was mortal. He looked at her as he fell and murmured “Cat” as the bright blood came flowing out between his mailed fingers. She thought she had forgotten that.
We can see from Cat’s recollections that everyone except Petyr realised he was being a total idiot. Brandon Stark was a 20 year old brickshithouse, experienced with a sword and towering over the little 15 year old Littlefinger. We also know that Cat did not reciprocate his feelings and begged Brandon to laugh off the dual and ignore Littlefinger. It’s curious that Hoster Tully let it go ahead. Maybe something about Southron ideals of knightly chivalry, that once declared, a dual cannot be vacated until fought? Who knows?
Brandon gave Littlefinger every opportunity to back out with honour, giving him the chance to yield without injury. But Littlefinger would not take it. This speaks to a man with more ambition than sense, even at an early age.
We also learn from Sansa’s POV chapters Lysa’s side of this event. Petyr might have loved Cat, but Lysa loved Petyr. Desperately.
ASOS Sansa VII
“You enticed him, just as your mother did that night in Riverrun, with her smiles and her dancing. You think I could forget? That was the night I stole up to his bed to give him comfort. I bled, but it was the sweetest hurt. He told me he loved me then, but he called me Cat, just before he fell back to sleep. Even so, I stayed with him until the sky began to lighten. Your mother did not deserve him. She would not even give him her favor to wear when he fought BrandonStark. I would have given him my favor. I gave him everything. He is mine now. Not Catelyn’s and not yours.”
Lysa is certainly a few shillings short of a pound, and dramatically immature even as a woman in her late 20s-early 30s as she is at this point. She still believes that Cat wrong Petyr, that Hoster should have given her leave to marry the boy who knocked her up, and most importantly overlooks the fact Petyr called her Cat mid coitus.
The fact that Lysa remembers this detail and is so vicious to Sansa, who so resembles Cat at the age that all this occurred, suggested that she doesn’t overlook it. She knows what it meant: Petyr might have fucked her, then and now, but he didn’t love her. Lysa was nothing more than a consolation prize to the boy who wanted the elder Tully daughter.
We also find out from Lysa what Petyr Baelish’s punishment from Lord Tully was for both daring to publicly declare his love for the elder, betrothed Tully daughter, and soiling the younger:
“If you were anyone else, I would banish you. Send you down to Lord Nestor at the Gates of the Moon, or back to the Fingers. How would you like to spend your life on that bleak shore, surrounded by slatterns and sheep pellets? That was what my father meant for Petyr. Everyone thought it was because of that stupid duel with Brandon Stark, but that wasn’t so. Father said I ought to thank the gods that so great a lord as Jon Arryn was willing to take me soiled, but I knew it was only for the swords. I had to marry Jon, or my father would have turned me out as he did his brother, but it was Petyr I was meant for.”
Lysa’s not stupid: she realises much earlier than Cat that she was sold off to Jon Arryn to ensure Tully forces joined Robert’s Rebellion. Probably because Hoster told her this directly, while hissing at her that a great lord was “willing to take me soiled.” But she is also very stupid, blinded by her love for Littlefinger, and unable to see that he has taken her for a ride.
The readers, and Sansa, have more information at our disposal, and aren’t blinkered by this childish love that clouds Lysa’s judgement.
ASOS Sansa VI
“So silent, my lady?” said Petyr. “I was certain you would wish to give me your blessing. It is a rare thing for a boy born heir to stones and sheep pellets to wed the daughter of Hoster Tully and the widow of Jon Arryn.”
Adult Littlefinger is loving the situation he has got himself: he has revenged himself upon the wrongs he perceives done to him by Hoster Tully. He was once told he was too low born to dare set his eyes (or other parts) on a daughter of House Tully, now he gets to legitimately marry one, as the Lord of Harrenhal and Master of the Coin.
This is where Littlefinger draws his spiteful motivation: the rejection from Hoster Tully when he was 15, not only told that he couldn’t have a beautiful maiden for a wife like the highborn Brandon Stark who beat him so completely, but also that he was not fit for even a second daughter because he was too low born.
So he sets out to overcome the disadvantage of being only a minor landed gentry, to become one of the most powerful players in the game of thrones.
What Littlefinger does next
We have to guess to fill the gaps, but it seems that after her wedding to Jon Arryn, Lysa stays in touch with Petyr Baelish somehow, now back on the Fingers in his family’s lands after being booted out of Riverrun.
We know from Cat’s musings on the events of Robert’s Rebellion that the two sisters stayed at their father’s castle during the Rebellion, and only left for their husbands’ homes after the Rebellion had settled. It’s unclear if Lysa and Jon went to the Vale before King’s Landing. We know that Cat didn’t travel to Winterfell as soon as the Rebellion was over as she needed to recover from birthing Robb. We also know that Lysa was still in Riverrun when Robb was born because we have Cat’s recollection that Lysa burst into tears when handed the infant to cuddle, which Cat finally figures out 16 years later was because she had been forced to abort her child with Littlefinger.
So maybe Littlefinger and Lysa rendezvous in the Vale, or maybe they just correspond as friends via ravens. Either way, Lysa remains on extremely friendly terms with her childhood crush, commending him to Jon Arryn for work, first within the Vale’s ports, and then later as a worker for the Royal Treasury. Eventually Littlefinger rises, with Jon Arryn’s patronage, to be Master of the Coin as at the start of the series.
So this is what Littlefinger is publicly doing. Not as publicly, he’s the owner of most of the brothels in King’s Landing, which supplies him with an easy source of bribes other than gold – he can send Pycelle his wenches, Lord Corbray his boys, Roose Bolton an “Arya” and so on. We know that Littlefinger is not scrupulous and has taken advantage of his position on the Small Council to establish himself quite the mercantile empire. Both Ned and Tyrion work this out in their respective tenures as Hand of the King. And neither King (Robert or Joffrey) cares – so long as Littlefinger keeps the royal wallet full enough, they overlook everything else he does. All around King’s Landing, people dismiss Littlefinger as a threat because of his “low” station as Lord of the Fingers:
AFFC Jaime VII
… he should find the lad a new small council too. If Cersei can be put aside, Ser Kevan may agree to serve as Tommen’s Hand. And if not, well, the Seven Kingdoms did not lack for able men. Forley Prester would make a good choice, or Roland Crakehall. If someone other than a westerman was needed to appease the Tyrells, there was always Mathis Rowan . . . or even Petyr Baelish. Littlefinger was as amiable as he was clever, but too lowborn to threaten any of the great lords, with no swords of his own. The perfect Hand.
Jaime overlooks the fact that earlier, Cersei had awarded Littlefinger the lordship of Harrenhal, and Tywin had elevated him to Lord Paramount of the Riverlands after the destruction of House Tully at the Red Wedding. While Littlefinger is yet to step foot inside his own castle, preferring to rule from his station as Lysa’s widower and regent for Robert Arryn, Lord Paramount of the Vale, he does technically and legally have access to a great number of swords now. Jaime might rue this idea in the future if he makes it back to King’s Landing to take up his fatherly duties with King Tommen.
What has Littlefinger actually done?
In Lysa’s Moon Door rant, we find out that Littlefinger has been behind a LOT of the chaos in Westeros. What has he done, or possibly done?
- he convinces his lover, Lysa Tully Arryn, to murder her husband, the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn
- he tells her to write to her sister, Catelyn Tully Stark, to tell her Jon’s murder was caused by the Lannisters
- when Cat comes to King’s Landing, he tells Cat and Ned that the dagger used in the attack on Bran belonged to Tyrion Lannister
We know that it did not, and that Littlefinger had no role in the attempted assassination of Bran Stark – this is just Littlefinger taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him to both further prod the Starks to antagonise the Lannisters, and ingratiate himself with Cat, who he hasn’t seen or communicated with since that fateful duel when he was 15.
- He feigns support for Ned’s plans to remove Cersei and her children from power, then double crosses Ned and helps Cersei have Ned arrested
- He possibly encourages Joffrey to abandon the plan to let Ned take the black, and have him executed.
This has been suggested by many fans, and I think comes from the depiction of Ned’s execution in the TV show. Show Littlefinger is slightly inclined towards Joffrey while Ned is doing his faux confession, prompting speculation that GRRM intended this to be a hint as to why Joff went off the Cersei/Varys/Small Council planned script of granting Ned the choice of execution or the Night’s Watch. GRRM was involved heavily with GOT for the first two seasons, and there are other confirmed examples of him suggesting subtle actions or dialogue that was meant to confirm something he intended in the books but had been overlooked – like Renly and Loras’ affair.
- He convinces Cersei and the Small Council to award him the lordship of Harrenhal, and the status of Lord Paramount of the Riverlands
- He convinces Cersei and the Small Council to let him to go the Eyrie to get Lysa Tully Arryn on side, and conveniently put himself forward as a suitor
- He conspires with Olenna Tyrell to have Dontos bring Sansa a hairnet to wear to Joffrey’s wedding that contains the Strangler, used to poison Joff by… someone (maybe Olenna, maybe Garlan, maybe Margaery herself)
- He also arranges to have Sansa snuck out of King’s Landing, and takes her to the Eyrie with him
- He personally kills Lysa, after she blabs about their dealings with Jon Arryn and inciting the conflict between Houses Stark and Lannister to Sansa at the top of her lungs in the middle of the Eyrie’s great hall
- He acts in a sexually predatory manner towards Sansa
- He manipulates the Vale lords so that he assumes regency and control over the child Lord of the Vale, Robert Arryn (Sweetrobin)
- He is encouraging the Vale’s maester to administer a continuous flow of powerful sedatives to Sweetrobin, ostensibly to treat the latter’s epilepsy, but most likely to keep the boy compliant and potentially kill him
- He is hoping to win control over the next heir to the Vale, Harry Hardyng, by encouraging/pimping Sansa/Alayne towards him
- He provides Roose Bolton with Jeyne Poole/”Arya Stark” to allow the Boltons to marry into the proper line of Winterfell, or be seen to do so, to cement their claim to the North
So as far as we know, Littlefinger has links to or has profited from
- the Stark/Lannister conflict which triggered the War of the Five Kings,
- the Boltons usurping the North,
- the Red Wedding and the destruction of the Tullys as Lords Paramount,
- Lysa’s actions in the Vale,
- the downfall of Ned Stark,
- the Purple Wedding,
- and he has businesses across King’s Landing, Westeros and beyond the Narrow Sea.
This is a man with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies.
Is there a plan at all?
As at the end of AFFC/ADWD Littlefinger is Lord Paramount of the Riverlands by virtue of his status as Lord of Harrenhal (despite not having stepped in that doomed castle yet), and effectively Lord Paramount of the Vale by way of his control of Sweetrobin’s regency. That’s two whole regions under his direct control.
He holds Sansa Stark Lannister captive, possibly using her for his own sexual satisfaction after he was denied Catelyn when he was 15 (as Sansa does refer to Petyr demanding kisses from her in AFFC that are more than a daughter would give.) He is definitely grooming her to use her sexuality for political purposes, as we can see in the TWOW sample chapters about the Harry the Heir plots. With or without realising it, Littlefinger is reinforcing the lessons of Cersei Lannister that Sansa received during the Battle of the Blackwater (see my earlier post on Cersei the Mad Queen.)
He holds in check favours from some powerful players in the game of thrones:
- the Tyrells owe him for his part in getting the Strangler into the Purple Wedding in Sansa’s hairnet.
- Also by holding Sansa, he could at any time turn her over to Cersei Lannister as a traitor (as Sansa and Tyrion are the official suspects for Joffrey’s murder in Westeros.)
- And if he can deliver Sansa to what remains of House Stark or its supporters in the North, then the North could well be under his sway too.
- As it is, the current Lord Paramount of the North, Ramsay
SnowBolton and his father, Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, already owe Littlefinger for his provision of the traumatised Jeyne Poole to be the fake Arya. Poor Jeyne, who went AWOL in AGOT when all House Stark staff and personnel were arrested after Ned’s capture by Cersei and Littlefinger, turns up in ADWD after having been “educated” by Littlefinger’s brothel madams.
So this is the kind of man Littlefinger is: he forces young noble girls into coerced sex work, he grooms a carbon copy of his childhood love for future sexual behaviour, he embezzles the Crown’s money, he murders and encourages others to murder for him, he orchestrates two major Houses to go to war, he profits from chaos and he ensures that he helps people in power so that they will owe him in return.
But is there a plan behind all of this?
Preston Jacobs, Youtube Tinfoiler, suggests that Littlefinger is running a grand Debt Scheme, through which he aims to break up the Seven Kingdoms and establish himself the grand mercantile ruler of a new commercialised empire, where men are judged by their merits and not their birth. (Apologies Preston if this isn’t the conclusion you drew – I got the TLDR from someone else.)
Some fans believe that Show Littlefinger’s “Chaos is a ladder” speech indicates a more nihilistic or existential approach to Littlefinger’s planning: get rich or die trying, that’s all there is in this world, so keep on climbing that ladder.
I think his plan started as “prove Hoster Tully wrong” and evolved into “get more power and profit”. But I have no idea what he’s planning now with Sansa in the Vale or what his plans are to call in those favours he’s owed, or take up his seat in Harrenhal. As far as I can tell, he has achieved the goals fuelled by his original motivation. So what next?
I think it will be very poetic if Littlefinger’s lust for Cat v2.0 (Sansa) trips him up, and whatever plans he has brewing in the Vale come to nothing when he is unable to restrain himself from sexually assaulting his “bastard daughter” and she turns on him. He is training Sansa to be a player, ignorant that Sansa has already been learning from everyone around her. Yes, she might be actively suppressing those learnings in her efforts to stay under the radar throughout AFFC, but whose to say that she will stay compliant and meek as the final Act of ASOIAF reaches it’s crescendo?
Personally, I’m cheering for a Sansa who channels Queen Boudica and takes over the Vale from Littlefinger, publicly disgracing him and putting him on trial for his crimes against her family and the realm, then meeting up with Jon and Rickon to unite the North and Vale against the Others.
Maybe that won’t happen. But as long as Sansa is involved in the downfall of Lord Petyr Baelish, I’ll be pretty damn happy.