One of the most devious and cunning figures in the entire saga of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would have to be “the Spider,” better known as Varys. He is the spymaster of the series, and seems to know most, if not all, the secrets of Westeros. On HBO’s Game of Thrones, Varys is brought to life by the very talented Conleth Hill. Here are sneaky facts you might not have known about Varys, The Spider of Westeros.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
1. My Predecessors
Varys’s official role at King’s Landing is the “Master of Whisperers.” This title is given to the man or woman who serves as a spymaster to the King of Westeros. Before Varys, other people who served in this position include Tyanna of the Tower (who was King Maegor I Targaryen’s most feared wife), Brynden “Lord Bloodraven” Rivers, and Larys Strong.
That last one seems a bit on-the-nose with Varys, no?
2. The Needs of the Realm
One thing that makes Varys so mysterious during the story of A Song of Ice and Fire (and to a lesser extent, Game of Thrones) is his lack of real motivation or goals. His only cryptic answer for his motives is that he is concerned about what “is best for the realm.” As you’ve already noticed, that is a highly subjective motivation that tells the other characters (or readers) nothing about his plans.
We image that’s exactly how Varys liked it.
3. I Know Him by Smell
It’s never really examined or brought up in the television series, but Varys is famous for his scent. In the books, various characters bring up the fact that Varys perfumes himself liberally so that he smells of lilacs, lavenders, or rosewater.
4. Think of the Children!
One of the most redeeming qualities of Varys is his protective nature toward children. In the show and the books, Varys is generous to the children who provide him with information, and he frequently cites the blameless nature of children. Moreover, Varys is also very much concerned with preventing children from suffering.
Even though Varys is a mysterious character, this may have been one of his only specific motivations.
5. Lord of Air
Born a slave, Varys technically isn’t a lord of anything at all. However, he is still referred to as “Lord Varys” due to his place on the Small Council, and also because of his incredible influence within Westerosi society.
6. Nobody Trust the Eunuch
Despite his private determination to serve the realm, Varys has an outward reputation of being a man who will happily encourage enemies to fight, or friends to suspect each other’s real loyalties. As a result, he was highly distrusted by most people within Westeros.
7. Listen, Children, to a Story
Aside from playing Varys in Game of Thrones, actor Conleth Hill also narrates several of the behind-the-scenes features while in character. The series has always provided special videos dealing with the history and lore of the story, set to animation as various characters from the show narrate them. Varys has long been a regular narrator for these lore videos.
Hill started in the third season’s blue-ray release and continued into the seventh. Here’s hoping that the eighth will include a Varys’s narration to keep the tradition going.
8. For Authentic Roleplaying
Conleth Hill also voices Varys in the role-playing game, which spun off from the show in 2012.
9. Third-Person Perspective
One element of Varys’s mysterious nature and motivations is the fact that he is never a character in the books with a point-of-view perspective in the chapters (by contrast, all the Lannister siblings and much of the Stark family have these “POV” chapters). As a result, we only ever see him as other characters, such as Tyrion Lannister or Eddard Stark, view him.
From there, your guess is as good as ours.
10. The People You Meet
From an unhappy adolescence in Myr, Varys travelled to the Free City of Pentos, alone, wretched, and out of his element. However, things would change for the better when he came across a young mercenary named Illyrio Mopatis. The two of them would form a lifelong bond and partnership.
11. Surrogate Father
During King Robert Baratheon’s reign, one of Varys’s actions was secretly caring for a number of Robert’s illegitimate children. He would regularly send gifts in Robert’s name to Edric Storm, a character who appears in the books. Varys also arranged for Gendry’s apprenticeship, but that wasn’t all he did for the young boy.
He also helped Gendry join the Night’s Watch to avoid him being hunted down and killed.
12. We’ve Also Got a Bridge in Brooklyn to Sell You
While living in Pentos, Varys cooked up the perfect scheme with Illyrio Mopatis, his new ally. Varys would steal from thieves who weren’t as good as he was. When the thieves wanted their belongings back, they would hire Illyrio, a promising sellsword, in order to get retrieve their stolen possessions. This scheme inevitably made Varys and Illyrio very wealthy.
Granted, it wasn’t exactly moral, but who’s keeping count?
13. Best of Friends
Varys and Illyrio’s scheme would become even more successful once Varys began dealing with the theft of information rather than just material things. This blackmail and secret dealing would result in the two men’s fortunes increasing tenfold. Illyrio would use this immense wealth to marry into prestige, and continued to build on his fortunes from there.
Even after Varys left for Westeros, the two men remained in very close contact.
14. As Long as He Doesn’t Tweet About It Later…
Varys owes much of his success to his “little birds.” Throughout his time collecting information in various kingdoms, Varys recruited nimble orphan children to spy on people or steal private documents with valuable intel that he could use. He taught his little birds to read so that they wouldn’t have to steal the letters, and could instead memorize the messages.
That way, nobody would know that they’d been spied on or stolen from.
15. Extreme Precautions
By the time of the books, the existence of Varys’s little birds is well known to many of the characters. In the book A Storm of Swords, there is a scene where Olenna Tyrell speaks in confidence to Sansa Stark about a plot to have her married to her family member. While she speaks, she has her fool sing as loudly as he can to prevent any of Varys’s spies from hearing her.
It isn’t until Sansa reveals the information to Dontos Hollard, her only ally in the royal court, that Tywin later finds out.
Such is Varys’s bond with Illyrio that in the books Varys sends Tyrion Lannister to Illyrio after Tyrion escapes imprisonment under the charges of poisoning King Joffrey and murdering his father Tywin.
17. The Eunuch Meets the King
At some point during his hectic reign, King Aerys II Targaryen had grown so paranoid of his subjects, and even his own son, that he paid heed to the dark reputation of Varys across the Narrow Sea. Varys was summoned west to the Small Council in King’s Landing. From then on, he became the Master of Whisperers to the Mad King.
We can only imagine that was a difficult post to take up.
18. Well Done, Brother!
Although actor Conleth Hill has yet to get any notice from the Emmy awards for his performance as Varys, his brother has already won multiple Emmys for his work on Game of Thrones. Ronan Hill works as a sound designer on the show, meaning that he is likely partly responsible for the dragon noises, the White Walkers’ yells, and the agonizing cries of those who fell during the Red Wedding.
Feel free to thank him for all the trauma you felt watching the show!
19. Does That Work in an Evolutionary Way?
While Varys usually refers to his legion of spies as “little birds,” that wasn’t the original name for them. While he was in Essos, Varys called them “little mice,” instead.
20. Who’s That?
Another one of Varys’s signature traits that the show doesn’t really go into is his uncanny ability to disguise himself. Several times in the books, Varys dons disguises so complete that characters frequently confuse him for other people. Among his disguises in the story are a plump, middle-aged woman, a prison turnkey named Rugen, and a filthy holy man who begs in the streets of King’s Landing.
Could Varys have been a Faceless Man in a past life?
21. Stirring That Cauldron
Barristan Selmy, one of the members of the Kingsguard, once claimed to Lord Stannis Baratheon that Varys was the source of King Aerys II’s worst paranoias. Varys reportedly fuelled the metaphorical fires that were Aerys’s burgeoning madness. Of course, it’s uncertain whether Varys was simply responding to the madness that was already there, or whether Varys was more active than he pretended.
Perhaps we’ll never know.
22. Keep Those Tinfoil Hats at Home
In 281 AC, a massive tourney was held at the gigantic castle of Harrenhal. All the greatest lords of Westeros arrived to take part, even Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. By that point, King Aerys II was so far gone in his madness that he preferred to stay home. It was rumored that Prince Rhaegar hoped to use that tourney to discuss overthrowing his father and becoming king ahead of schedule.
If the stories are true, Varys caught onto this plan and encouraged Aerys II to actually attend the tourney as a result, preventing any such conspiracy from taking place. It was the first time Aerys had appeared in public outside the Red Keep in four years.
23. I Need to Think About This…
Despite the size and scale of the show, Conleth Hill was reportedly very hesitant to take on the role of Varys when it was offered to him. Hill was far more accustomed to the world of theater, and he was reluctant to take on such a series with its huge demands and longevity (that is, assuming the character you’re playing lives long enough.)
Of course, Hill has long ago gotten over any reluctance, and has nothing but praise for the series.
24. Hitting the Mark
Understandably, George R.R. Martin has had a long time to envision what his characters look, sound, and act like. As to the show’s interpretation of his books, Martin has admitted that while he certainly likes many of the performances, very few come close to nailing his own idea of what they’re like in his mind.
Conleth Hill’s performance as Varys, however, is reportedly one of those very few performances that come close.
25. There’s a Lion at the Door
We won’t go into the full account of Robert’s Rebellion, but we will say that by the end of the Battle of the Trident, Prince Rhaegar was dead, the royal forces were scattered, and the victorious rebels were marching south to King’s Landing. But the previously neutral Tywin Lannister managed to make it there first, and offered to enter King’s Landing and defend it for the king.
Varys was one of the only men who urged the Mad King to keep Tywin out, as he knew Tywin was going to support the rebels by giving them the city. However, King Aerys II ignored Varys’s advice and listened to Grand Maester Pycelle instead, welcoming Tywin inside. It was, as we all know now, the worst mistake of his life.
The rest is a brutal history: Tywin’s forces sacked the city, and Jaime Lannister infamously killed the Mad King.
26. Ancient Family Feud
It has long been speculated about who Varys is, and what his real background is. Given that Varys is so closely tied with Illyrio Mopatis, and given his loyalty to the young character Aegon Targaryen in the books, it’s been suspected that Varys is either an illegitimate Targaryen descendant, or a descendant of House Blackfyre.
House Blackfyre was a cadet branch of House Targaryen that tried to overthrow the Targaryens and take the Iron Throne for themselves. While the Blackfyre male line died out a long time ago, it’s been widely suspected among fans that the female line survives through Varys, Illyrio, Aegon, or all three. It’s a family affair.
The fact that Varys makes use of the Golden Company, a unit that was famously founded to push the Blackfyre cause, makes the theory more plausible.
27. That Was Me!
Much of what Varys does in the first two seasons of Game of Thrones is essentially accurate to the books, albeit a bit condensed. In the books, it’s Varys who gives Tyrion Lannister the chance to secretly continue seeing Shae, his bawdy lover, without letting Cersei or anyone loyal to Tywin Lannister find out about her.
Varys is also the man who tells Tyrion about Cersei starting an affair with her cousin, Lancel Lannister.
28. That’s Absurd!
Before he was cast as Varys, Conleth Hill initially auditioned to play Robert Baratheon. To be honest, we can’t think of any single character on that show who is less like Varys than Robert.
29. LGBTQ Representation?
Varys might very well be asexual. We are shown in the series that eunuchs can still feel physical desires or love, as with Grey Worm and Missandei. Varys, however, continually claims to have no sexual attraction to anyone. This could be an argument for Varys’s asexuality without it ever being outright stated.
30. Say What?!
Fans of the show or the books might remember that Tywin Lannister is well-known for his ruthless treatment of House Tarbeck and House Reyne, two bannermen of House Lannister that rebelled against his rule. Supposedly, both members of these families were wiped out completely, though one person could be unaccounted for.
The youngest member of House Tarbeck, the grandson of Ellyn Tarbeck (nee Reyne), may have escaped and gone into Essos. The legend claims that this poor orphan of House Tarbeck went on to become a bard, but fans have argued that this orphan was actually Varys.
31. But Was He on the Grassy Knoll?
There’s quite a bit of evidence to support the idea that Varys could be the last living descendent of House Tarbeck and House Reyne through his grandparents. For one thing, Varys seems incredibly invested in Westeros, despite being born and raised in Essos. But there are some even more compelling clues to this theory.
When serving King Aerys, Varys fed into the king’s paranoia about Tywin conspiring against him, as if Varys wanted Tywin to be antagonized by the Mad King. Varys also seems very loyal to Tyrion, who is himself a black sheep within House Lannister, and who eventually kills his own father with a crossbow in revenge for a lifetime of humiliation and cruel neglect.
Even the show seems to collect evidence of this theory, as there is a moment where Varys denies having any surname. Fans have pointed out that while it could mean that Varys is common-born, it could also refer to the fact that the names “Tarbeck” and “Reyne” were wiped out by Tywin.
32. Introduce a Little Chaos
Fans of the show will know that Varys flees with Tyrion after he kills his father, but the books tell a different story. After he frees Tyrion from prison, Varys disappears from the capital, but one of the last things he does is sow seeds of discord between Cersei Lannister, queen regent of the Seven Kingdoms, and House Tyrell, her main allies.
A gold Tyrell coin is left for Cersei to find, making her suspect that the Tyrells plotted to kill Tywin and free Tyrion.
33. The Big Merman
One of the most bizarre theories yet about Varys is that he is not a human at all. Fans have long speculated that Varys, at least in the books, is actually a merman, and they gather evidence from moments in the series that they claim support this theory. For one thing, a character describes entities known as “squishers,” which are man-eating people of the sea who can walk on two feet.
Varys is noted as having a particularly slimy smile, and when Tyrion once threatens to have Varys thrown overboard a ship, he remarks that Tyrion would be surprised by the results. Littlefinger claims to have Varys under his control, and one of his ships is called The Merling King, so perhaps he is in on the secret, too.
There’s other alleged “evidence,” so feel free to look it up and decide how plausible it sounds.
34. Willing or Not?
While Varys willingly helps Tyrion escape his imprisonment in the show Game of Thrones, the help he offers is far less willing in the book A Storm of Swords. In fact, Varys is forced at swordpoint by Jaime Lannister to assist in the escape.
35. Perfumed Betrayal
In A Dance with Dragons, Daenerys is given a cryptic warning by the character Quaithe, who tells her “Beware the perfumed seneschal.” In the show, this seems to have been referring to Varys, who sought to betray and poison Daenerys when he started having (correct) doubts about her abilities as a ruler in season 8.
However, we know how that plot worked out for him…
36. Murder Most Foul
Fans of the show might remember that Pycelle is lured to his grisly death in Game of Thrones. However, his death in the books is quite different and even more gruesome. At the end of A Dance with Dragons, Kevan Lannister is summoned to Pycelle’s chambers, but when he arrives, Pycelle is already dead by Varys’s hands.
Varys then shoots a crossbow bolt into Kevan’s chest, hoping that Kevan’s death will sow further seeds of discord between the various factions in King’s Landing. He reveals to the dying Kevan that he is paving the way for young Aegon Targaryen to take the throne and avenge the downfall of House Targaryen. Varys always did have a sharp side to his smoke and mirrors.
As of May 2019, that is the last we know of the story by George R.R. Martin.
37. How Varys Became the Eunuch
According to Varys and those who knew him, he was born in Lys and spent his childhood travelling through the lands with a troop of mummers. Once, as the group went through Myr, a man took a liking to Varys and offered to purchase him. It was too good an offer for Varys’s master to refuse, and he turned the boy over to the stranger. This was the beginning of a nightmare.
The man, a sorcerer, fed Varys a potion that rendered him unable to move or speak, though he could still feel pain. He was castrated, and the conjurer used Varys’s manhood for a magic blood ritual in order to speak (the television series says) to a kind of demon or evil entity.
38. Staying Alive
After this, the sorcerer threw out Varys and left him for dead in the streets. However, Varys determined that he would survive out of spite, using any means necessary. Varys initially remained in Myr, using prostitution, begging, or thievery to keep himself alive.
39. You’re Making Us Look Bad!
Living alone on the streets of Myr, Varys was able to improve his thieving skills, though his incredible talents would garner a lot of negative attention. Not only was he known to be a legendary thief, but many other thieves were envious of Varys, and eventually a rival drove him out of Myr.
40. No Witchcraft Allowed
Because of this traumatizing experience during his youth, The Spider had a lifelong hatred of magic and its practitioners.
41. Made up for the Small Screen
The sorcerer who castrated him actually makes an appearance in the third season of the television show. In a moment of triumph and vengeance in season three, Varys has him brought to his chambers in a crate. This scene, however, is entirely original to the show, as the books never feature Varys taking this long-awaited revenge.
42. Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?
The pronunciation of Varys’s name has long divided fans, as well as the cast and crew of Game of Thrones. According to the official production guide of the series, his name is pronounced “VAIR-iss,” though this hasn’t stopped people on the show from using other pronunciations.
43. Regrets, I’ve Had a Few
After Varys’s death in the penultimate episode of season eight, actor Conleth Hill admitted that he was “frustrated” with his character’s arc, and that he had been disappointed for multiple seasons. In particular, Hill wished that we could have seen Varys react to Littlefinger’s death, but he also lamented Varys’s dark fate at the hands of Daenerys.
As he said, “I took it as a person, not as an actor or an artist. You can’t help feeling that you failed in some way…that you haven’t lived up to some expectation that you didn’t know about.”