Here’s everything about the answer to Varys’s riddle about a king, a priest, a rich man, and a sellsword:
The riddle does not have a concise answer.
Instead, it is intended to prompt a philosophical discussion about the essence of power, what it means, and who does or doesn’t possess it.
The riddle allows for argument as to what decision the sellsword will make and why, ultimately exploring the very nature of influence.
So if you want to learn all about how Varys’s riddle is solved, then this article is for you.
Let’s get started!
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Who Is Varys?
What are we even talking about?
If you’re not a Game of Thrones superfan, then you might not recognize the names or the riddle.
That’s perfectly fine. I’ll get you up to speed.
Before I do, it’s important to talk about spoilers.
I’m going to be discussing the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, that served as the source material for the immensely popular TV show, Game of Thrones.
As a result, I’m going to discuss some significant plot points from both the books and the series.
There be spoilers ahead, so continue at your own discretion.
With that covered, let’s talk about Varys.
He is the Master of Whisperers.
That makes him a key advisor to very powerful people.
He also happens to be a eunuch, and he is nicknamed the spider.
Glossing over many important plot points, he’s one of the smartest characters in the series, and he’s often the mastermind behind many events.
What Is Varys’s Riddle?
Before we answer the riddle, maybe we should go through it in detail.
In the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion and Varys are talking.
During their conversation, Varys proposes this riddle to him:
“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 name of the gods.”
“Do it,” says the rich man, “and all this gold shall be yours.”
So tell me—who lives and who dies?
The two discuss the riddle at length, and they come to differing conclusions.
I’ll explain both of their answers in full detail.
Who Is Tyrion?
Before that, I need to back up and clarify something.
I already covered Varys, but I haven’t really talked about Tyrion yet.
Tyrion is one of the primary characters throughout the series, and he’s one of the most loved by fans.
Tyrion is the dwarf son of Tywin Lannister.
That makes him a part of the head family of the House of Lannister, one of the most powerful houses on the continent.
He is nobility, wicked smart, and a pariah in his family.
Being a dwarf makes him undesirable in his father’s eyes, and their broken relationship is a major driving factor in Tyrion’s behavior throughout the series.
Ultimately, Tyrion’s ability to assess situations and think strategically is a driving point for many major plot moments, both because he is often right and because he is sometimes wrong.
He’s an interesting character, and he’s arguably the best choice in the series to be asked a question like this.
What Is the Answer to Varys’s Riddle? (3 Possibilities)
This is a particularly tricky riddle because it doesn’t have a clear, concise answer.
Arguably, there is no right answer to the riddle.
From another point of view, you could say that there are many viable answers.
If you really think about it, the sellsword could reasonably side with any of the three men.
He could also side with none of them.
All possibilities are on the table, and based on the information in the riddle, there isn’t enough to determine which decision will happen.
Instead, this riddle is a primer to discuss philosophical ideas like the meaning of power (which we are definitely going to dive into).
It can also serve as a reflection of the person being asked.
If someone is asked this question and rapidly answers with a specific one of the great men, then that says more about the person answering than anything else.
It suggests that they value religion, law, or money above the other two.
#1 Varys’s Answer
According to Varys, the answer is that power lies where we believe it lies.
You can’t predict who the man will kill unless you understand where he believes power is already invested.
It’s an interesting idea.
In the riddle, it appears that the man with the sword holds the power of life and death.
While that is true, it’s not inherently obvious that a sword amounts to power.
As Varys puts it, if the man with the sword had the power, then everyone would be ruled by swordsmen.
Instead, rulers are found among kings, religious leaders, and the rich.
So, does power lie with money, faith, or a crown?
Varys suggests that such power is solely based on perception.
Whoever is perceived to have the power really does have it.
That’s what determines the outcome.
Whoever the sellsword sees as the most powerful man in the room is the one he will follow.
The perception of power dictates what will happen.
#2 Tyrion’s Answer
Meanwhile, Tyrion suggests that in this situation, the man with the sword holds all of the power, and his decision will depend on what he wants.
If he desires money, he’ll side with the rich man.
If he wants political power or influence (or if he is ambitious, as Tyrion puts it), he will side with the king.
If the sellsword is a man of faith, then he will likely desire religious favor over anything else, and that will influence his action.
While each of the great men in the room might have the power to offer something to the sellsword, the power of decision is his.
In this situation, that power of decision is the greatest power in the room and the only one that truly matters.
After all, the sellsword could decide to kill all three of them.
Or none of them.
He isn’t actually bound by the influence of the other three.
#3 Reconciling the Two
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the discussion in the book is that the conflicting ideas actually reconcile quite nicely.
They really are two sides of the same coin.
The man with the sword does hold the decision-making power in the moment, but he will very likely side with one of the three.
This decision will be based entirely on his perception of who has the power to grant him what he wants.
So, even though the decision is his and he does have the most power in the room, his own power doesn’t make the decision.
His perception of power does.
In this way, both Tyrion and Varys are right.
The man does hold the power of decision entirely, but the influence exerted by the other three and the perception of power they hold is significant, and it really does highlight what Varys is trying to say, even if Tyrion is also right.
Why Does Varys Propose the Riddle? (2 Reasons)
If the riddle has no answer, then why does Varys even bring it up?
I already mentioned some of this.
The riddle is a primer.
It’s meant to start a conversation rather than immediately test a person’s cleverness.
It’s not a logic puzzle but rather a philosophical prompt.
Varys poses the question because he is interested in Tyrion’s answer.
At the same time, Varys isn’t actually the one proposing the question, George R. R. Martin is.
He wrote the scene for a reason, so we’ll discuss that too.
#1 To Test Tyrion
One reason that Varys asks the question of Tyrion is to test him and see what he says.
As I already suggested, the way a person answers the riddle can tell a lot about them.
Varys wants to peer into Tyrion’s mind to see how it works, and the riddle accomplishes that.
By discussing it, Varys is able to discern that Tyrion doesn’t automatically subscribe to one of the three forms of power over the others.
More importantly, Varys is able to see how Tyrion carefully considers situations.
It’s an insight as to how crafty Tyrion is.
As if none of that were enough, it also allows Varys to have a nice conversation.
He’s one of the smarter characters in the series, but so is Tyrion.
This riddle prompts an intriguing exchange where intelligent characters get to mentally spar a little bit, and they both seem to enjoy it.
#2 To Explain Things to the Readers
Still, the character motivations are insignificant compared to the author motivations.
After all, this conversation happens in a novel, and that novel is written by a single person.
George R. R. Martin includes the riddle and the responses as a way to reach out to the readers.
Through this exchange, he can explain more of the nature of the world within the book.
He can show how characters feel about things, how they judge situations, and what readers can expect from the world as a result.
You might think that since this is the third book in the series, readers already know what to expect.
But, for anyone who has read book three, you already know.
The story takes a serious turn, and the conversation around this riddle is helping the readers prepare for that turn.
To really drive that home, this scene also contains foreshadowing.
After all, there’s a third person present for the conversation: Tyrion’s lover, Shae.
Upon hearing the riddle, she answers that the rich man will live.
That foreshadows some of the decisions that she makes later in the story, ultimately choosing power over personal attachments.
It’s admittedly more complicated than that, but her simple answer is telling.