If you are not caught up on Game of Thrones, stop reading. If you don’t care about Game of Thrones or are all caught up, keep reading.
Littlefinger, aka Lord Petyr Baelish, is tied for my favorite character on Game of Thrones. Part of the purpose of this essay is to examine why I like him so much and what aspects of his character arch and character development I can incorporate into my storytelling.
For those not so well-versed, I’ll give a summary of who he is, what his back story is, and his relationship to the Game of Thrones. Most of this can be found on the Wiki of Ice and Fire. The Baelish family were relatively new landed lords, given scrub land in a region known as The Fingers, which were located in the kingdom of The Vale in Westeros. In fact, Petyr’s father is the first member of this minor lordship and his family was impoverished.
At the age of 8, Petyr took all he owned and moved to capital of the neighboring kingdom, Riverrun in The Riverlands. There he befriended the children of the most powerful lordly house, the Tully’s, who were Edmure, Catelyn and Lysa Tully. It was Edmure Tully who gave him the nickname “Littlefinger” due to his frail stature and insignificant nobility.
As they grew up together, a system of one-way affections developed. Lysa loved Petyr, but Petyr loved Catelyn, yet Catelyn did not return his affection, and so on. When Catelyn was to be married to Lord Stark of Winterfell, heir to the Kingdom of the North and one of the most important lords on the entire continent of Westeros, Petyr challenged Lord Stark to a duel. Littlefinger lost, and would have been killed had Catelyn not interceded. It was here that Littlefinger was at his lowest point and his true quest for power begins.
Catelyn married Lord Stark and Lysa married Lord Arryn of The Vale, which is the most powerful house in the kingdom where Baelish fiefdom was located. Littlefinger befriended Lord Arryn and became appointed as the custom’s officer of Gulltown, where he started to accumulate his fortune. His skills at money management lead to a 10-fold increase in revenues. After the success of Robert’s Rebellion, Lord Arryn becomes Prime Minister of the continent of Westeros, a position known as “Hand of the King.” Because of Littlefinger’s managerial success, Lord Arryn appoints Littlefinger as “Master of Coin,” or chief tax collector. As is remarked later in the series, “When Jon Arryn named you Master of Coin, nobody cared. It’s always been a grubby job. Why not let a grubby man do it?”
There is power to be had in the gutter and power to be obtained through money. This is what Littlefinger establishes throughout his career. He opens a chain of brothels in the capital and begins catering to the whims and vices of all the noble lords. As a result, he develops the skills of a spymaster and ingratiates himself to many a nobleman, yet allies himself with few. As he would remark in the series, “Information is power,” only to be reminded by the queen that power is power.
Even though this is a bit of a spoiler, Littlefinger is the one who convinces Lysa to murder her husband which ignites The Game of Thrones series. Through a series of negotiations and betrayals, Littlefinger deftly maneuvers himself to more powerful positions. He successfully dispatches Lord Stark by entrapping him in a feud with the royal family, freeing himself to try to win the hand of Catelyn, who rebuffs him again.
During the War of the Five Kings, Littlefinger successfully negotiates an alliance between the royal family and another powerful house, the Tyrells: Margaery Tyrell is to marry King Joffrey. Littlefinger is granted Castle Harrenhal as a reward for the alliance. At the wedding, Littlefinger oversees the poisoning of the king at the request of the Tyrells. (Fans rejoice; King Joffrey is one of the most despicable characters of the show)
Unfortunately, Catelyn’s daughter’s husband is framed for the murder. Catelyn’s daughter’s name is Sansa. Littlefinger smuggles Sansa out of the capital and they return to his home kingdom of The Vale. Once there, Littlefinger and Lysa marry and Littlefinger ascends to becoming one of the most powerful lords in The Vale. However, the marriage is a sham. Littlefinger falls in love with Sansa. When Lysa finds out, she becomes enraged and tries to murder Sansa by casting her through “The Moon Door,” which is a false door that plummets a person to the cliffs below. Littlefinger intercedes and throws Lysa through the Moon Door. When Littlefinger and Sansa undergo an inquest by the other lords, they cover for eachother and are acquitted of the murder.
Once acquitted of one murder, it is important not to forget that Sansa is still wanted for the murder of the king. Littlefinger negotiates a marriage between Sansa Stark and Ramsey Bolton. Earlier, the Boltons betrayed the Starks to seize control of The North, so Sansa is less than enthusiastic for a marriage to one of her enemies. I will return to this later to examine the reasons behind this marriage.
Unsurprisingly, the marriage to Ramsey Bolton turns out badly for Sansa. Ramsey is a sadistic bastard who derives great pleasure from the torturing of others. Ramsey murders his father to become the supreme lord of the North. Sansa’s bastard brother, Jon Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, supports a rival King, King Stannis, who marches on Winterfell only to lose to the Boltons. During the battle, Sansa escapes and travels north to gain protection from her brother. Ramsey finds another Stark brother and holds him hostage and demands that Jon Snow return his wife and swear fealty to him. Instead, Jon Snow marches his armies south to Winterfell, where The Battle of the Bastards takes place. The deciding moment of the battle occurs when Littlefinger leads his army of mounted knights to aid Jon Snow.
Following the battle, Jon Snow is named King of The North. Littlefinger supports Sansa as leader over her brother and reveals to her his aims to become king and his vision of her to become queen by his side. Foreign affairs force King Snow to leave Winterfell, where he leaves Sansa in charge. More Stark children appear out of hiding and settle in Winterfell: Brandon Stark, who has enhanced powers to see past and present, and Arya Stark, who is a practiced assassin.
Littlefinger sees all these variables as competing factions for leadership of the north, and he sets about using his spycraft and behind-the-scenes machinations to try and sever the relationships between the Starks while, at the same time, trying to befriend them individually. His tricks ultimately prove unsuccessful for, in the season finale, he is confronted in open court for his murders and his treason by Sansa, with Brandon Stark presenting evidence. There is no escape and Littlefinger is executed by Arya in front of everyone in the Great Hall of Winterfell.
So why is a sleazy, power-hungry, little man my favorite character on Game of Thrones? There are several reasons. First of all, unlike all of the other characters in the show, he was not born into power. He earned it through cunning and intellect. He represents a bourgeoisie element in a show mostly dedicated to battlefield prowess and noble birth. Since George R.R. Martin drew inspiration for Game of Thrones from history, the Middle Ages, and specifically, The War of the Roses, I think the character of Littlefinger is best represented by the historical figure Cosimo de Medici, the founder of the Medici power in Florence. Both Littlefinger and Medici share a common backstory and used similar methods to gain power.
Second, his background of powerlessness feeds his quest for power. He knows he can not compete on the battlefield, as was made manifest by the duel against Lord Stark. This leads to the development of other, novel skills which he uses to find a way to dispatch his enemies by using other players on the board. He develops an ability to out think his adversaries, making them unable to see the trap until it is too late.
Nevertheless, he is a flawed, malevolent character. His unrequited love for Catelyn leads him to become cynical, and his ability to manipulate Lysa makes him develop sociopathic tendencies. His financial acumen reduces everything to numbers and his ownership of brothels and human trafficking reduces people to objects and pieces on a gameboard. Even as he develops his powers of thinking, planning, secrecy, scheming, he loses almost all compassion. His sense of the people he cares for becomes twisted.
While many fans are repulsed by Littlefinger’s love for Sansa, the reaction surprises me when compared to other deviant sexual behavior that occurs throughout the show, including incest, homosexuality and sadism. Given the supposed time period, the middle ages, it was common for older men to marry younger women. Still, that doesn’t excuse the fact that transference of affection from mother to sister to niece/daughter is pretty disturbing.
So what led to Littlefinger’s downfall? From my reckoning, Littlefinger’s downfall was a lack of due diligence and a failure to solidify his powerbase. The peak of Littlefinger’s power occurred with his marriage to Lysa, but his marriage was so short that his lordship over The Vale was tenuous. He has to convince Lysa’s son to support him through bribery and he forces the other noble lords to support him through blackmail.
Simultaneously, his chain of brothels were destroyed by religious fanatics (The Sparrows) and there was no retribution or effort to rebuild on Littlefinger’s part. This likely led to a reduced information flow. Littlefinger himself admitted that he knew nothing of Ramsey Bolton, to whom Sansa was supposed to marry.
With regards to Sansa’s arranged marriage to Ramsey, I give the following reasons. First, Littlefinger was eager to restore Sansa to The North, no matter the cost, thinking that her nobility would protect her and give her power over that kingdom. Once in power, Littlefinger hoped to parley his relationship with Sansa toward higher goals, ultimately leading to the throne. Second, Littlefinger also believed that King Stannis would be successful in capturing Winterfell from the Boltons. Should the marriage of Sansa and Ramsey not work out, Stannis and Littlefinger would come to the rescue. These turned out to be poorly placed bets, forcing Littlefinger to take command of the army to rescue Sansa.
Even though Littlefinger is a crafty schemer and thinker, he had a limited imagination. He remained tethered to his landholdings in the Vale and was obsessed with becoming warden of the North, which he intended to use to eventually seize the crown. Had he engaged with lords from other kingdoms, or used his money to hire more mercenaries (like Medici would’ve done), he might have avoided the trap of being cornered in Winterfell.
Finally, what I think I liked most about Littlefinger is how the heroic flaws of detachment and secrecy, which allowed him to succeed in the capital of King’s Landing, were the very things that led to his demise in Winterfell. It was ironic to watch the man who trusted no one, trust his protégé and aspiring lover, only to be executed for treason in open court. Love proved to be his ultimate undoing. That is the lesson I take away from Littlefinger – The things we are good at are not always good for us.