The End of Game of Thrones and the Shadow of Varys’ Riddle


Tyrion Varys

  • Introduction/Thesis

All the teeth-gnashing over who will “win” the Game of Thrones may be somewhat misguided because we already have a form of the answer. The Spider himself, Lord Varys, told us very early on in the story who will sit on the Iron Throne at the end of both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice And Fire: It will be the person whom men believe should sit the Throne. For power is a trick, a shadow on the wall. No more and no less.

The only questions left in either book or show are: which men will make the choice to believe in which ruler?

  • Factual Background

The underlying meaning of Varys’ Riddle is devastating in its simplicity: Whereas men may argue among themselves about a legal, moral, or philosophical justification for who is ultimately sovereign, the only true justification is men’s belief in whomever men deem to be their ruler. This notion was introduced to show watchers in this scene from S2E2 of Game of Thrones.

The Riddle was not a show invention. Rather, the full text of the Riddle stretches across two chapters of A Clash of Kings.

“May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “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?” Bowing deeply, the eunuch hurried from the common room on soft slippered feet.”- ACOK, Tyrion I

The Riddle continues in Tyrion’s very next chapter.

“Power is a curious thing, my lord. Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?”

“It has crossed my mind a time or two,” Tyrion admitted. “The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.”

“Just so … yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?”

“Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.”

“Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey?” Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever so knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or … another?”

Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”

Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less”

“So power is a mummer’s trick?”

“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” -ACOK, Tyrion II

In last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, S8E4 The Last of the Starks we got some updates to the Riddle. First, we got an exploration of the practical implications of the Riddle at the feast in the Great Hall. While Jon Snow was feted by Tormund and others for riding a dragon and leading men into battle against the dead… while Daenerys got none of the same praise for doing the exact same things. This hinted that men believed in Jon more than Dany. 

Varys Riddle 1

Later, Tyrion began to respond to Bronn’s attempted extortion by quoting the Riddle. Bronn, predictably, told him to shut the f up.

gif from Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair

Later, after Tyrion and Varys learn the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage, the talk between the two men turns to which potential sovereign they should bestow with legitimacy. Tyrion wants to continue to support Daenerys’ claim because they’ve come this far with her. By contrast, Varys notes that it would be better for his version of the Realm to have Jon as monarch. In addition to Jon being more politically malleable, Varys cites the fact that men follow Jon, and that Jon has a cock, as reasons to support Jon over Dany. 

  • Philosophical Basis for the Riddle

The central legal text of A Song Of Ice And Fire is Varys’ Riddle. The Riddle itself invokes Plato, Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Madison, and countless others. The real meat of it is in this line:

“Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

This formulation is essentially a complete theory of statecraft. Where men believe that power is rightfully vested in an authority figure, then that belief is rule by right.

 As Thomas Hobbes says in his A Dialogue Of Common Law, “It is not wisdom but Authority which makes law.” In Westeros, power is wielded by those in authority, ofttimes at opposing ends. Who has the “right” to use that power or authority depends wholly on the eye of the beholder. This is true at the beginning of the main series where there is one recognized monarch and power flows almost exclusively through him. But as Robert Baratheon dies, power becomes diluted into warring factions and the recognized authority varies greatly from person to person. The entire rest of the series from a political standpoint is about the process of coming to an agreement among the people about which authority figure to believe in.

While Martin wrote the above passages, the underlying basis for the Riddle is as old as political philosophy itself. The Riddle is rooted firmly in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from Book VII of Republic. In the Allegory, Plato describes a hypothetical scenario where slaves are brought up from birth chained and locked in place such that the only things they can see are shadows on the wall in front of them which are cast by a fire behind them. It’s… a little hard to explain the setup so why don’t I just set down the following diagram:

Much better.

The point of the Allegory is to demonstrate, among other things, the nature of human knowledge. The chained slaves are tricked into believing that the shadows that they see are the only “real” objects in the world. They believe that the shadows are physical objects, because the shadows are the only things they can conceive. The shadows then become real objects by virtue of the slaves’ belief.

Through the Riddle, Martin spins the imagery of the Allegory to question what we know about power.  In the Riddle’s description, the Westerosi (standing in for the reader) are the slaves chained in place, and they have been tricked into believing that the shadow (aka power) is something real. To Varys (standing in for Martin himself), the nature of sovereignty is the belief in power, not power itself.

Varys (and Martin) are not alone in this belief. In the 1532 treatise The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli argued that, for rulers it was more important to  “go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it”. In other words, a sovereign should concern itself more with the appearance of power than the basis for it.

This underlying notion of the Riddle is also reflected in the natural rights philosophy of the Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Hobbes’ 1651 treatise Leviathan, he argues that a sovereign is the collective free will of all of his subjects, as pictured in the cover of his treatise.

ALSO PICTURED: Euron Greyjoy’s wet dream

Conversely, Rousseau argued in his 1762 book The Social Contract that the general will of the people is the only legitimate source of sovereignty.

Put these pieces together and you have everything you need to recreate the Riddle. Power and authority are based in the belief of the people in the legitimacy of the sovereign. Conversely, the legitimacy of the sovereign is dependent on the ruled consenting to, or believing in, that authority.

Just as the Riddle’s sellsword is the one who would ultimately decide who lives and who dies among the King, priest, and rich man, the people of Westeros will ultimately decide who wins the Game of Thrones. While Westeros is by no means a democracy, the people still ultimately choose who sits the Iron Throne by consenting to the legitimacy on the monarch.

  • Textual Examples

In the book universe, we see this dynamic play out repeatedly. One man claims authority and other men deny it, leading to conflict. The text is replete with vindications of this principle. For example:

Grand Maester Gawen protested, noting that, by the laws of inheritance, Prince Aegon, Aenys’s eldest son, should be king. Maegor’s response was to declare the maester a traitor, sentence him to death, and take his head with a single swing of Blackfyre. After that, few others dared to support Aegon’s claim.” WOIAF- The Targaryen Kings: Maegor I

 Men’s laws indicated that Maegor was not the sovereign. Maegor had… other ideas. The people ultimately vindicated Maegor’s assertion of power. That the vindication came through fear is immaterial. People eventually believed Maegor was king, and therefore he was. 

“You’ll have no one,” Yoren said stubbornly. “There’s laws on such things.” The gold cloak drew a shortsword. “Here’s your law.” Yoren looked at the blade. “That’s no law, just a sword. Happens I got one too.” ACOK Arya II

The law is that once a man is in custody of the Night’s Watch he can not be summoned by the King. Gendry is in the custody of the Night’s Watch, so the Queen’s summons should not matter. Yet, the Gold Cloak is expressing the worthlessness of a law without rule of law. Rule of law cannot exist where there is a dispute over authority. Thus, the law itself is meaningless in face of brute force if brute force is willing to be lawless. Because belief in power is power in Westeros, law, religion, and oaths are more often than not paper shields.

Stannis frowned at her. “You presume too much, Lady Stark. I am the rightful king, and your son no less a traitor than my brother here. His day will come as well.”

The naked threat fanned her fury. “You are very free to name others traitor and usurper, my lord, yet how are you any different? You say you alone are the rightful king, yet it seems to me that Robert had two sons. By all the laws of the Seven Kingdoms, Prince Joffrey is his rightful heir, and Tommen after him . . . and we are all traitors, however good our reasons.”

The Riddle Personified

“Do I?” Renly shrugged. “So be it. Stannis was never the most cherished of brothers, I confess. Do you suppose this tale of his is true? If Joffrey is the Kingslayer’s get—”

“—your brother is the lawful heir.”

“While he lives,” Renly admitted. “Though it’s a fool’s law, wouldn’t you agree? Why the oldest son, and not the best-fitted? The crown will suit me, as it never suited Robert and would not suit Stannis. I have it in me to be a great king, strong yet generous, clever, just, diligent, loyal to my friends and terrible to my enemies, yet capable of forgiveness, patient—”- ACOK: Catelyn III

Renly wraps his arms around Varys’ Riddle and gives it a big sloppy kiss. Sure the law says what it says, but so what? Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder, and behold… don’t I look fucking great??? All that matters to Renly is that he thinks he would be a good King, so he claims to be one. But that claim in and of itself would have meant nothing if the assembled lords of the Reach and the Stormland hadn’t bent the knee and believed in Renly’s power. 

“You are kind, Salla, but my duty’s to my king, not your purse. The war will go on. Stannis is still the rightful heir by all the laws of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“All the laws are not helping when all the ships burn up, I am thinking….” – ASOS: Davos II

Salladhor Saan understands the Riddle. On paper, Stannis is King. But that paper is worthless without power behind it in a nation where rule of law does not exist. And since no one likes Stannis… that is that.

“This war . . .” Lord Emmon cleared his throat, the apple in his throat moving up and down. “You will have seen the siege machines. Rams, trebuchets, towers. It will not serve, Jaime. Daven means to break my walls, smash in my gates. He talks of burning pitch, of setting the castle afire. My castle.” He reached up one sleeve, brought out a parchment, and thrust it at Jaime’s face. “I have the decree. Signed by the king, by Tommen, see, the royal seal, the stag and lion. I am the lawful lord of Riverrun, and I will not have it reduced to a smoking ruin.”

“Oh, put that fool thing away,” his wife snapped. “So long as the Blackfish sits inside Riverrun you can wipe your arse with that paper for all the good it does us.” Though she had been a Frey for fifty years, Lady Genna remained very much a Lannister. Quite a lot of Lannister. “Jaime will deliver you the castle.”

His aunt departed last, her husband at her heels. “Lord nephew,” Emmon protested, “this assault on my seat . . . you must not do this.” When he swallowed, the apple in his throat moved up and down. “You must not. I . . . I forbid it.” He had been chewing sourleaf again; pinkish froth glistened on his lips. “The castle is mine, I have the parchment. Signed by the king, by little Tommen. I am the lawful lord of Riverrun, and . . .”

“Not so long as Edmure Tully lives,” said Lady Genna. – AFFC: Jaime VI

 Tommen has issued edicts and laws granting Riverrun to Emmon Frey and Genna Frey and stripped the rebellious Tullys of all lands and titles. Emmon believes that the edict itself is enough to grant him the property. Lady Genna understands much better that the law in and of itself means nothing while opposition remains in the field. Tommen’s laws have no power in and of themselves unless and until the Tullys are removed from Riverrun.

This is simply a representative sample of how the notions behind the Riddle affect the story we’ve been told on the page. Where it goes from here depends largely on where the relevant men believe power should reside once all of the pieces are in place. Regardless, rest assured that this concept will continue to crop up whenever people discuss sovereignty in the book universe of A Song of Ice and Fire.

But what of the show universe of Game of Thrones, which is much closer to the endgame?

  • Who are the Relevant Men for the Show’s Version of the Riddle?

Sansa Tyrion

Here’s what we know: We know there is no prohibition for women to sit the Iron Throne in the show universe. We also know that Westeros is a deeply sexist culture which practices male preference primogeniture.

In S8E4, The Last of the Starks we heard Varys, the author of the Riddle and one of Daenerys Targaryen’s formerly staunchest supporters, argue that perhaps it would be better to seat Jon Snow on the Iron Throne because, for among other reasons, Jon was well-liked by the people and was a man.

Both of these considerations are vindications of the Riddle. If power truly resides where men believe it resides, being well-liked is key to the legitimacy of a potential sovereign. Jon, as a bastard Northerner and war hero, has a good story that the people of Westeros can theoretically get behind.

Most importantly, remember that the text of the Riddle says that power resides where MEN believe it resides. Given the general trajectory of the show, it’s hard to conclude that the precise gendered wording of the Riddle (i.e. “men” instead of “people”) is not meaningful. Recall that Tormund celebrated Jon for riding a dragon into battle, as if Daenerys had not already done that repeatedly. Recall that both Tyrion and Varys – male members of Daenerys’ Small Council – agreed that Jon’s gender was a point in his favor.

Recall also the final clause of the Riddle: “…ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” Ostensibly this refers to the Halfman, Tyrion Lannister. But… in the show universe could this not also refer to the relatively diminutive Jon Snow?


We shall see. The only thing we can be sure of at this point is that whomever ultimately sits the Iron Throne, be it Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, Jon Snow, or anyone else, must have a way to convince men to believe in their rule.

  • Conclusion

While we cannot be sure for a week or so, there is no doubt that George R. R. Martin’s conception of the legitimacy of power is framed by the Riddle. The show has followed suit, and the most recent episode clearly indicates that the end game will as well. Regardless of how the show ends, the ultimate winner of the Game of Thrones MUST be based at least in part upon the belief, or consent, of the governed.

No more, and no less.