In Part I of our series analysing Petyr Baelish’s moves as a player on the Westerosi political chessboard, we saw that Littlefinger’s economics strategy has basically been to steal from the crown through fabricated expenses and his magical revenues are simply from cutting the treasury in on a percentage of his own graft.
In trying to puzzle out Littlefinger’s endgame it is very easy to get lost in the weeds. He is the villain most fond of exposition, but his efforts to impress a thirteen-year-old girl with his brilliance only reveal the trail of his destruction and not a clear path forward to his own goals. He’s been granted Harrenhal and Lord Paramount of the Riverlands, yet he completely ignores his seat and his domain beyond the status it gives him to marry Lysa. He eliminates Lysa and solidifies his hold over Sweetrobin, but then claims he wants the child eliminated in favor of the Vale passing to Harry the Heir with Sansa as his bride. He has de jure control over one of the Seven Kingdoms and de facto control of another, and still his eyes look with lust toward some other horizon. What is Littlefinger’s envisioned end state?
Clearly he wants power, but his decisions to pass up power as he does in the Riverlands or use power he’s acquired as merely a stepping stone like he’s doing in the Vale show that he’s particular about the place, the amount, or the circumstances of the power he desires. The most apparent of these are the circumstances and the primary circumstance is through his relationship with Sansa. Throughout all of Littlefinger’s scheming, Sansa plays prominently and she seems to be the key to deciphering his ultimate goals. The current Part II aims to expose how he maneuvers to acquire the political power leading to the achievement ot such goals, or, more specifically, who he uses.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Part II
From the first time Petyr meets Sansa at the Hand’s Tourney, his interest is clear. We already have the backstory of his fixation on Catelyn as Littlefinger’s first words are that Sansa “must be one of her daughters.” Baelish makes Sansa feel “ill at ease” even before speaking. She notes that his eyes do not smile when his mouth does before he goes on to tell her that she has Cat’s hair as he strokes it, and that Cat was once “my queen of beauty.” She introduces herself as Sansa Stark, but Littlefinger goes on to state that she has the Tully look. These initial elements will repeat throughout Sansa’s arc.
Littlefinger will continue to display an interest that makes Sansa uncomfortable long before he imposes unwelcome kisses. When she is brought before the Small Council after Ned’s arres, his stares make Sansa feel as if she has no clothes on. In context, her father has just been arrested and the Stark household slaughtered, yet Cersei manages to fix her with a look that gives Sansa the illusion of kindness behind her green eyes compared to Petyr’s lecherous gaze. Again, Baelish asserts that “She reminds me of the mother, not the father” as he comments on her hair and eyes.
It is not until A Dance with Dragons treats us to one of Cersei’s what-if laments that we receive the information to fully interpret these scenes.
Petyr Baelish had offered to wed the girl himself, she recalled, but of course that was impossible; he was much too lowborn.
Offering to marry the king’s betrothed is a guaranteed way to earn a date with Ilyn Payne, so some context seems in order. During the meeting, when Sansa is asked to write the letter home, the issue of whether or not the daughter of a traitor could still be allowed to marry the king is raised by Cersei. Given Cersei’s later recollection of Petyr’s offer, it seems likely that, in the meeting the Small Council had prior to bringing Sansa in to persuade her to write the letter, the issue of the betrothal and potential alternate matches for Joffrey were raised. Petyr seems to have offered himself as an option should the betrothal be set aside, and would likely have raised the small benefits of keeping Sansa at Court long-term as a hostage as well as his ability to sway Catelyn Stark on the peaceful merits of such a union. So Sansa’s chapter where Petyr is undressing her with his eyes is, for him, the moment where he believes the opportunity for him to marry Sansa is being decided.
Given the way Littlefinger’s path to power plays out, this is a deeply important revelation. Petyr’s birth as a lord, even the lowest of lords with fewer assets than most landed knights, was a permission slip for entry into the power circle of Westeros. It is what allowed for his fostering at Riverrun, and what allowed for him to be eligible for offices such as his Gulltown post and Master of Coin. Still, his birth status as a lord only prevented his denial of these offices by station; it did nothing to ensure him a place at the table. It was only through Lysa’s intervention that he was ever able to rise above the meager height of Lord of Sheepshit to his lofty perch on Aegon’s High Hill. Knowing Lysa’s reaction to the Snow Winterfell kiss, we can safely assume that a marriage to Sansa would have burned the Lysa bridge and left him with a very unstable woman scorned looking to prove certain truths about hell’s fury. That Baelish was willing to risk such a thing at this early stage speaks volumes about the degree of importance Sansa plays in his goals.
Littlefinger’s plan always seems to have involved obtaining a title sufficient to justify a marriage to Lysa to usurp control of the Vale through Sweetrobin. This has been Lysa’s impression all along. While Petyr would lie to her and lead her on with no reservations, it does happen to fit with his chess moves and the schemes he plays out. He deliberately used Lysa to keep the Vale out of the fighting, which would generally only be a smart move if his plans included the Vale as one of his eventual pieces. Why leave a future adversary untouched by the ravages of war?
Littlefinger is from the Vale and his initial powerbase was established in Gulltown. He as much as comes out and says this to Sansa:
“The solar.” She should have stopped with that, but the words came tumbling out of her. “If you gave them Robert…”
“…and the Vale?”
“They have the Vale.”
“Oh, much of it, that’s true. Not all, however. I am well loved in Gulltown, and have some lordly friends of mine own as well. Grafton, Lynderly, Lyonel Corbray…”
Houses Grafton and Corbray both sided with Aerys Targaryen in Robert’s Rebellion against the choice of their liege lord Jon Arryn. Both fought against Robert in the Battle of Gulltown, and Marq Grafton, the then Lord of Gulltown, was personally slain by Robert Baratheon in that battle. It may well be that Lord Grafton had ambitions to be raised to Lord Paramount of the Vale. Lord Godric Borrell tells Davos of the temptation to send Ned Stark’s head to Aerys:
“Our maester urged us to send Stark’s head to Aerys, to prove our loyalty. It would have meant a rich reward. The Mad King was open-handed with them as pleased him.”
Whatever Lord Grafton’s motivations, and despite his son switching sides and supporting Robert after the defeat at Gulltown, it must have left them more than a little out of favor with Jon Arryn when the rebellion was over. Sending Petyr Baelish, the lowest of possible lords, to manage a port that is the very heart of House Grafton was likely as much a message to House Grafton as it was a gesture to appease Lysa. Even if Jon Arryn held no grudge, it would be difficult for House Grafton to not interpret the appointment as such.
So the young Petyr Baelish would have arrived in Gulltown appearing the darling of the high lord and Hand of the King to serve as salt in the wound of the new Lord Grafton’s recently dead father. Littlefinger’s modus operandi would make him the type to play up on that insult and use it to drive a wedge in-between Houses Grafton and Arryn in order to exploit the rift. Baelish would also have appealed to vice, in this case likely greed and envy of other Houses in Arryn’s favor, to attempt to make House Grafton one of his pieces. Lysa tells Sansa that Littlefinger increased the revenues in Gulltown by tenfold, which is curiously the same figure he is credited with as Master of Coin. This tells us that Littlefinger was almost certainly engaged in the same wage and market manipulation scams in Gulltown as he was in King’s Landing, and was likely buying House Grafton with a cut of the corruption. They are named House Grafton.
Littlefinger’s ability to effortlessly switch sides from Stark to Lannister to Tyrell gives the impression of a man with no assets to defend and no roots to tie him down. However, this is not entirely the case. He has roots in Gulltown, and relationships in the Vale with both merchants and lords. He has set Lysa up to make her willing and eager to grant him Lord Protector of the Vale for Sweetrobin’s minority. He has essentially set up a lesser version of the Varys/Aegon scheme. Gulltown is his Illyrio financing, with Littlefinger being the puppet master in hiding and Sweetrobin the heir in plain sight in a reversal of Varys and Aegon. Marrying Sansa would put all this in jeopardy, and have the immediate risk of driving Lysa’s Vale back into the camp of the North and Riverlands with Lysa’s knowledge of the twincest. This is before Ned is executed, before Robb marches south, before Riverrun falls to Jaime’s host or the Westerland army even attacks the Riverlands, and before either Stannis, Renly or Highgarden declare their intentions. Baelish makes this offer to marry Sansa while Lysa has Tyrion sitting in a sky cell over his dagger lie. It is hard to conceive of a worse chess move, and difficult to read this information as anything other than a blinding obsession with Sansa.
When Tyrion offers him Harrenhal, it seems clear that Baelish already has the plans made to marry Lysa and is simply waiting for an enabling title and opportunity. Before Tyrion has a chance to lay out his offer, Petyr preemptively tries to sabotage a Jaime for Sansa trade:
“That would depend on the words. If you mean to offer Sansa in return for your brother, waste someone else’s time. Joffrey will never surrender his plaything, and Lady Catelyn is not so great a fool as to barter the Kingslayer for a slip of a girl.”
Of course, Cat is completely willing and even desirous of making this very trade. She not only tries to persuade Robb to make this deal, she frees Jaime on her own to try and force Robb’s hand. The question left for the reader is only whether or not Littlefinger knows this about Cat or if he has an agenda in swaying Tyrion from this course. Given his successful manipulation of Cat from Lysa’s letter, to the dagger, and using her to get Ned to trust him, the agenda seems far more likely. On the simplest level, such a trade might lead to a peace which a man who thrives on the chaos of war would not want. Looking at Littlefinger’s reaction to Tyrion’s offer provides a more specific reason—Sansa. “Come to the godswood tonight, if you want to go home” is the first line of the very next chapter following Tyrion’s offer. The first thing Baelish does after being offered Lord of Harrenhal, Paramount of the Riverlands, the opportunity to control the Vale through a marriage to Lysa, and custody of a royal heir for his scheming is to put in effect a plan to steal Sansa from King’s Landing.
After negotiating the Tyrell alliance, Littlefinger asks Tywin for the very same reward Tyrion promises in his fake offer. It is possible that Baelish came upon his scheme through Tyrion’s offer, but it is also possible he had this in mind all along. Lord of Harrenhal is the same prize that he arranged for Janos Slynt in exchange for betraying Ned Stark. Tywin may fall on the more extreme side of valuing class and birth status, but his bewilderment and outrage at offering a seat of kings to a butcher is hardly abnormal amongst Westeros nobility. The likelihood of Janos Slynt ever claiming Harrenhal or keeping it for long if he managed to enter its gates was always extraordinarily low. It is quite possible Baelish was arranging to keep it off the table so that it could become available for himself at some future date. Such a reward following Ned’s treason accusation is as good as advertising one’s complicity, and it is possible Petyr Baelish did not want to be so publicly pronounced a Lannister lackey at this stage of the game. It is also possible that the Harrenhal reward was his to dispense. Slynt was Littlefinger’s man, and it was Petyr and not Cersei who arrived at terms with Slynt. If Cersei had called off the betrothal and offered Sansa to Baelish, perhaps he would have taken Harrenhal as his own prize. Cersei’s thoughts only reveal that she believed Petyr was too lowborn for Sansa, which in her value system would still apply even if he were granted a sufficient title such as Harrenhal to warrant the match. There isn’t sufficient information in the text to know for sure, but Petyr was involved in three Harrenhal offers and all three involved an attempt to claim or snatch Sansa for his own, which is rather telling in itself.
One of the elements that is consistently intertwined with Littlefinger’s Sansa fixation is his repeated denial of her identity as a Stark. The text intentionally mirrors this with Sansa physically resembling Cat and Arya resembling Ned, as well as Sansa’s initial fascination and association with Southron life and the Seven at the beginning of the series. As the story unfolds, it is Arya who begins to more resemble Cat’s personality, and Arya whose story and direwolf tie her to her mother’s place in the Riverlands. Sansa’s personality is revealed to be far more like Ned’s and she finds herself drawn to the godswood, and literally and figuratively following in his footsteps as her story unfolds. This denial of Sansa as a Stark is possibly the single most important clue as to Littlefinger’s fate.
The scene where Littlefinger betrays Ned plays out as a mockery of First Men justice. Baelish looks Ned in the eyes, passes sentence, but has no interest in hearing his last words. His true “crime” in Littlefinger’s eyes is stealing Cat, so it is really about vengeance and not justice from his perspective. Instead of swinging the sword himself, Baelish waits for the next chapter to carry out the sentence with a dagger to the back while again not looking Ned in the eyes while the “sentence” is carried out.
He leaned back and looked Ned full in the face, his grey-green eyes bright with mockery. “You wear your honor like a suit of armor, Stark. You think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move. Look at you now. You know why you summoned me here. You know what you want to ask me to do. You know it has to be done… but it’s not honorable, so the words stick in your throat.”
Littlefinger laughed. “I ought to make you say it, but that would be cruel… so have no fear, my good lord. For the sake of the love I bear for Catelyn, I will go to Janos Slynt this very hour and make certain that the City Watch is yours. Six thousand gold pieces should do it. A third for the Commander, a third for the officers, a third for the men. We might be able to buy them for half that much, but I prefer not to take chances.” Smiling, he plucked up the dagger and offered it to Ned, hilt first.
As his men died around him, Littlefinger slid Ned’s dagger from its sheath and shoved it up under his chin. His smile was apologetic. “I did warn you not to trust me, you know.”
The circumstance Ned found himself in was Lord Protector without an army and under an illusion born of Cat that he could trust someone. Several books later, Petyr Baelish finds himself in that same awkward position of Lord Protector with no army and under a not dissimilar illusion born of Cat that he can trust Sansa. Given Littlefinger’s repeated willful blindness regarding Sansa’s heritage as Ned’s daughter, he may well have quipped his own epitaph to Ned:
Littlefinger sighed. “I fear I did forget, my lord. Pray forgive me. For a moment I did not remember that I was talking to a Stark.”
From his earliest introduction in A Game of Thrones, the foundation has been laid for Littlefinger’s downfall at Sansa’s hands within the metaphorical context of First Men justice. That leaves a great deal of room in terms of plot-specific speculation, but we do get some strong prophetic hints straight from the Old Gods. The first is Bran’s vision of the giant, which at first bears little resemblance to Littlefinger.
He looked south, and saw the great blue-green rush of the Trident. He saw his father pleading with the king, his face etched with grief. He saw Sansa crying herself to sleep at night, and he saw Arya watching in silence and holding her secrets hard in her heart. There were shadows all around them. One shadow was dark as ash, with the terrible face of a hound. Another was armored like the sun, golden and beautiful. Over them both loomed a giant in armor made of stone, but when he opened his visor, there was nothing inside but darkness and thick black blood.
On a first read, the giant seems closer to Gregor Clegane, and speculation of an undead headless Gregor only reinforces that impression. Giants and shadows are some of Martin’s frequent in-story metaphors, and even Tyrion is referred to as a giant on multiple occasions, so the vision need not be literal. Speculation that Littlefinger might be the giant of Bran’s vision comes with the information that his original sigil was the stone Titan of Braavos. It is further fueled by the Ghost of Highheart and her vision of a maid slaying a giant in a castle made of snow.
“I dreamt a wolf howling in the rain, but no one heard his grief,” the dwarf woman was saying. “I dreamt such a clangor I thought my head might burst, drums and horns and pipes and screams, but the saddest sound was the little bells. I dreamt of a maid at a feast with purple serpents in her hair, venom dripping from their fangs. And later I dreamt that maid again, slaying a savage giant in a castle built of snow.”
The first part is the Red Wedding and the second part seems to be the Purple Wedding and the poisoned hairnet, which makes Sansa the maid to slay the savage giant in the castle made of snow. Littlefinger as the savage giant is hinted at again as Arya first sees the Titan of Braavos:
Arya could see the arrow slits in the great bronze breastplate, and stains and speckles on the Titan’s arms and shoulders where the seabirds nested. Her neck craned upward. Baelor the Blessed would not reach his knee. He could step right over the walls of Winterfell.
Stepping over the walls of Winterfell is exactly what the man born with the Titan of Braavos as his sigil did when Sansa was rebuilding Winterfell in snow.
When he had enough, he stepped over both walls with a single long stride and squatted on his heels in the middle of the yard.
During that Snow Winterfell scene, Sansa figuratively slays a giant in the form of Sweetrobin’s doll by beheading it and mounting the head on the walls of Snow Winterfell. It is doubtful the Ghost of Highheart prophesized the death of a spoiled child’s toy amidst scenes of the death of kings, so the Snow Winterfell scene is likely more symbolism for the eventual slaying of the savage giant. The castle made of snow could be Winterfell given that Sansa remade it in snow and it is already buried in snow by the end of A Dance with Dragons and likely to stay that way until Spring. It could also be the Eyrie, which Sansa describes as “a castle made of snow” on her descent at the end of A Feast for Crows. From a plot perspective, Littlefinger’s death at the Eyrie would be far more imminent, while a death at Winterfell would make for a comparatively longer and more drawn out plotline.