Riddle from Game of Thrones

By: Jay Ketchum (author, Zablocki Bros. LLC) on July 14th, 2013 07:59 AM.


Game of Thrones is a fascinating series and show with many plots and characters. A really good riddle, then, is a completely appropriate way to depict the struggle and perception of power. Like most people familiar with Game of Thrones, I am a fan of the show and this is where I came across theis riddle. However, to be fair to "true" Game of Thrones fans, I will present the riddle as it appeared in the book as well. This riddle is given by the Varys to Tyrion Lanister in a very Plato-esque conversation they have about power. In the TV show series version, presented in the episode A Clash of Kings of season 2, the conversation goes:

Varys - "Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?"
Tyrion - "Why? Am I about to hear one?" Varys - "Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and the rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?"
Tyrion - "Depends on the sellsword"
Varys - "Does it? He's not the crown, no gold, no favor with the gods"
Tyrion - "He's got the sword, the power of live and death"
Varys - "But if the swordsman's who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible: Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?"
Tyrion - "I have decided I don't like riddles"

The riddle in the book, A Song of Ice and Fire, goes as follows:

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?

What's interesting about this riddle is whether or not there is even an answer to it. What I mean is this: the riddle is kind of a trick question because it means to point out the fact that power is a perception of men and it resides where men believe it does. So, how do you answer this riddle? It really is more of a philosophical lesson on power than a puzzle to be concretely solved.

Later in the series (TV), Varys and Tyrion come back to this conversation and discuss the "answer" to this riddle:

Varys - "Perchance you have considered the riddle I posed you that day in the inn?"
Tyrion - "It has crossed my mind a time or two. 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."
Varys - "And yet he is no one. He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel."
Tyrion - "That piece of steel is the power of life and death."
Varys - "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?"
Tyrion - "Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords."
Varys - "Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey? 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 - "Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?"
Varys - "Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less."
Tyrion - "So power is a mummer's trick?"
Varys - "A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And oft times a very small man can cast a very large shadow."
Tyrion - "Lord Varys, I am growing strangely fond of you. I may kill you yet, but I think I'd feel sad about it."

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