For much of the run of HBO's Game of Thrones, viewers were led to believe time and again that, at the end of the day, decisions are made by whoever has the most money, the strongest armies, or the most supporters. But more often than not, it turned out that the people with the sharpest of minds, not the sharpest of swords, were the people you truly needed to be on the lookout for - especially when these intellectually gifted characters tended to lurk in shadowy places.
Lord Varys and Lord Petyr Baelish, also known as Littlefinger, were two of the most enigmatic characters in the entire series. Played to perfection by Conleth Hill and Aidan Gillen, it was almost always impossible to know where these two Machiavellian men's loyalties lay. It was precisely that, of course, that made them so truly riveting to watch. Although they would meet their tragic fates in the end after their confidence in their intellect got the better of them, both of these men were proven to be right in pretty significant ways on multiple occasions.
10 Littlefinger: "There’s no justice in the world, not unless we make it."
Perhaps the dumbest move Littlefinger ever made was in arranging a marriage between young Sansa Stark and Roose Bolton's bastard, Ramsay. Somehow, the man who knew everything about everyone in Westeros didn't know the true psychopathic nature of Bolton's bastard son. But regardless of his clear failure and potentially out of character behavior, Petyr still managed to get in a key observation about the nature of the world - and of the series of Game of Thrones as a whole.
In Westeros, and in the entirety of the series, there truly was never any sense of justice or fairness being handed down in any sentence by whoever was ruling at the time. Those who had been wronged - whether the sympathetic Stark clan, or the loathsome Lannisters - were always forced to take justice into their own hands and dole out the punishments they saw fit for crimes that had been done to them.
9 Varys: "When I see what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it."
Lord Varys's status as a eunuch is one of the aspects of his character that is most discussed, within the series and within the fandom as well. The history behind his bodily trauma is truly graphic and frightening, but that doesn't stop the series from poking fun at his disfigurement whenever it has the chance. However, it also doesn't stop Varys himself from using his unique eunuch status to his advantage, in whatever way he can.
Varys is presented as an almost asexual being throughout the series, both more suspicious and more trustworthy all at once since he cannot be controlled by his desires. But Varys is right when he notes how glad he is to be free from the chaos that desire causes. Many of the greatest wars and tragedies within Westerosi history, including Robert's Rebellion and the Red Wedding and the assassination of Daenerys Targaryen, arose from conflicts of the heart.
8 Littlefinger: "People die at their dinner tables, they die in their beds, they die squatting over their chamber pots."
Game of Thrones is no stranger to killing off its many characters as shockingly as it possibly can. But what does come as a true surprise is Littlefinger's moment of clear precognition in the fourth season's eighth episode. When speaking with young Robin Arryn, he exhorts him to take charge of his life, informing him that "People die at their dinner tables, they die in their beds, they die squatting over their chamber pots." Therefore, there is no reason for little Sweetrobin to fear what the future holds.
Of course, those particular examples that Littlefinger chose are incredibly loaded ones. The villainous King Joffrey and Walder Frey both died horrifically at their own dinner tables. Tyrion was forced to kill his lover Shae in her own bed, and after doing that, he killed his own father, Tywin, while the older man sat squatting on his chamber pot.
7 Varys: “Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power. But earning it for yourself, that takes work.”
There aren't many leaders in Game of Thrones who can't be categorized as fools in one way or another. Anyone who hailed from the Baratheon or Lannister bloodline was routinely humiliated or depicted as a failure on multiple occasions, including Robert, Stannis, Renly, Joffrey, Tommen, and even Queen Cersei herself. Viserys Targaryen was a total embarrassment to the Targaryen family, and even Daenerys was made to look a fool in her downward spiral.
Other families, however, while clearly born into privilege, had to work their way up to positions of power. No family fits this more perfectly than House Stark. The hardships endured by members of the Stark family - such as Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, and Bran Stark - are unparalleled with any other character in the series. But each of these characters would ascend to positions of power all their own - King in the North, Queen in the North, and King Bran the Broken, respectively.
6 Littlefinger: "Chaos is a ladder."
“Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
No quote in the entirety of Game of Thrones summarizes the futility and frustration of the entire titular game as well as this reflection from Lord Baelish himself. Over the course of the series, it becomes clear that most attempts to ascend within society, or acquire the ultimate power, are truly fruitless and pointless. In the end, even the position of King is appointed, not acquired through birthright or conquering.
5 Varys: "The history books will not write about you."
It's a moment that's clearly played for humor at the end of Game of Thrones' otherwise tense series finale. When new Maester Samwell Tarly arrives at the first meeting of the new Small Council, he does so with a book. Archmaester Ebrose has written a history entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, a title that Sam himself came up with. New Hand of the King Tyrion Lannister is quick to grab the book and begin to leaf through it, but Sam informs him of something truly disappointing: Tyrion isn't mentioned anywhere at all within the tome.
It's a sad moment played off as a funny one, more disappointing than anything given how significant a role Tyrion has played in the history of Westeros. But back in the second season's ninth episode, Lord Varys warned Tyrion of this very thing, telling him that no history book would ever remember him for all the good he did in the name of the Realm.
4 Littlefinger: "Knowledge is power."
When Petyr Baelish first remarks flippantly to Cersei Lannister that knowledge is the true form of power, he's quickly shut down when Cersei uses her guards to remind him that power truly lies in the hands of those with power to wield. The moment is certainly effective - it's one of many times Baelish nearly gets his throat slit, after all. But the series seems to take the total opposite view on this as the years progress.
Over time, it quickly becomes clear that knowledge, and possession of knowledge, are the most dangerous and precious forms of power. In the final season alone, the knowledge of Jon's true identity as Aegon Targaryen is a secret that slowly spreads like wildfire among the series' most integral players, and eventually leads to the downfall of both Daenerys and Jon in turn.
3 Varys: "Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn't want to rule?"
For the entire series of Game of Thrones, viewers have watched as different candidates for the Iron Throne have done everything it takes and more to get their hands on the power they desired. Whether they were doing it out of some perceived birthright, a selfish desire for control, or for any other reason, it doesn't matter - because in the end, they were all unfit to lead.
This is essentially the thesis Lord Varys offers. Any leader who is desirous of power and of the throne itself would never have the true best interest of the people in his or her mind. By extension, therefore, the best leader would be someone with no aspirations for power at all, someone humble and good of heart. At first, this seems like it might mean Jon Snow. But as the finale reveals, King Bran the Broken fits this descriptor to a tee.
2 Littlefinger: "Even sickly little boys can become powerful men."
During the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons of Game of Thrones, Littlefinger is seen as the primary guardian and mentor of young Robin Arryn, the frail son of Lysa and Jon Arryn. In one of his many attempts at justifying Robin's status as a future leader, he remarks that "Even sickly little boys can become powerful men." He is clearly speaking from experience, given his own background as a very small, lowborn, fragile boy, and his current status of power.
But what he could never have imagined was that he would be predicting the future of the leader of the entire Six Kingdoms. Bran Stark begins Game of Thrones as a sickly little boy, following his being pushed from a window by Jaime Lannister, but he ends the series as the most powerful man of them all - King Bran the Broken, Lord of the Six Kingdoms.
1 Varys: "Every time a Targaryen is born, the Gods flip a coin, and the world holds its breath."
There's no denying that Daenerys Targaryen's descent into madness was rushed and handled sloppily, no matter the foreshadowing that may have been dropped along the way. But given the way the series handled it, it's also clear that Varys was the only one who took Daenerys' existence as a potential threat and a possible tyrant seriously, even if that same belief would lead to his own sudden demise.
Varys shared his fears about Daenerys' mental state with both Tyrion and Jon, and may even have been conspiring to poison the Queen with the help of his little bird, Martha. He was doing all it took to rectify his possible mistaken allegiance that he could, especially since no one else would believe with him. But he was executed by the Mad Queen herself before her madness became common knowledge, making his prescient commentary all the more unsettling after the fact.