The first time we get a full description of Petyr Baelish’s rise to the King’s Council comes in George R.R. Martin’s second book, A Clash of Kings. Here’s what he writes, in a Tyrion POV chapter—the passage is long, but worth reading in its entirety to get a full sense of the cleverest man in the seven kingdoms:
If ever truly a man had armored himself in gold, it was Petyr Baelish, not Jaime Lannister. Jaime’s famous armor was but gilded steel, but Littlefinger, ah…Tyrion had learned a few things about sweet Petyr, to his growing disquiet.
Ten years ago, Jon Arryn had given him minor sinecure in customs, where Lord Petyr had soon distinguished himself by bringing in three times as much as any of the king’s other collectors. King Robert had been a prodigious spender. A man like Petyr Baelish who had a gift for rubbing two golden dragons together and breeding a third, was invaluable to his Hand. Littlefinger’s rise had been arrow-swift. Within three years of his coming to court, he was master of coin and a member of the small council, and today the crown’s revenues were ten times what they had under his predecessor…through the crown’s debt had grown vast as well. A master juggler was Petyr Baelish.
Oh, he was clever. He did not simply collect the gold and lock in a treasure vault, no. He paid the king’s debts in promises, and put the king’s gold to work. He bought wagons, shops, ships, houses. He bought grain when it was plentiful and sold bread when it was scarce. He bought wool from the north and linen from the south and lace from Lys, stored it, moved it, dyed it, sold it. The golden dragons bred and multiplied, and Littlefinger lent them out and brought them home with hatchlings.
And in the process, he moved his own men into place. The Keepers of the Keys were his, all four. The King’s Counter and the King of Scales were men he named. The officers in charge of all three mints. Harbormasters, tax farmers, custom sergeants, wool factors, toll collectors, pursers, wine factors; nine of every ten belonged to Littlefinger. They were men of middling birth, by and large, merchant’s sons, lesser lordlings, sometimes even foreigners, but judging from the results, far more able than their highborn predecessors.
No one had ever thought to question the appointments, and why should they? Littlefinger was no threat to anyone. A clever, smiling, genial man, everyone’s friend, always able to find whatever gold the king or his hand required, and yet of such undistinguished birth, one step from a hedge knight, he was not a man to fear. He had no banners to call, no army of retainers, no great stronghold, no holdings to speak of, no prospects of a great marriage.
This is the terrific backstory of a man who we would consider one of the George R.R. Martin’s greatest characters—someone who is cunning, but knows enough to hide his cunning. He has a sharp tongue at times, especially when dealing with Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones, but he knows when to sheathe that tongue, and his real talent lies in his ability to win influence and power, without ever exposing himself to mortal danger. Every risk he takes is calculated, and though the simple reality of a lowborn lord trying to win the game of thrones comes with inherent danger, he knows how to protect himself within his ambition.
We compared Littlefinger’s rise to that of Alexander Hamilton a couple weeks ago, and for good reason: this is a portrait of a man who has spent years quietly acquiring power, mastering finance and currying favor with the people that matter. And now, as the rest of Westeros tears itself apart, the book version of Petyr Baelish sits in the Seven Kingdoms’ most impregnable castle, the Stark heir by his side and a massive host at his command. If book-Littlefinger were playing Risk, he’d be that person who takes Australia early on, makes nice to all the players clashing over the Americas and Europe, then trades in a big card set and conquers Asia in one fell swoop. Game over.
The same cannot be said of the corresponding character in the TV shows. On HBO, Baelish is by turns peevish, impulsive (to the point of recklessness), and transparent. His entire demeanor, far from being “genial” or “friendly,” is sinister in the most exaggerated way possible. He’s not the kind of character who could win anyone’s trust, and he’s eminently noticeable in the worst ways—he’s the kind of guy who literally stares at the Iron Throne with longing.
There are perhaps a dozen examples of his stupidity in the show that do not correspond to the subtle machinations of “Book Baelish.” Here are a few:
One significant recent development came at the beginning of “The Door”: Sansa confronted Littlefinger over his heartless sale of her to Ramsay Bolton, just about the most evil character in Westeros this side of Joffrey. Petyr Baelish, once Sansa’s protector, had totally lost her trust. He was left hoping that she wouldn’t ask Brienne to chop off his head and then deliver her information about Brynden Tully before leaving in ignominy.
This was a totally avoidable situation, maybe the most damning piece of evidence that the show’s version of Littlefinger is far, far stupider and more horrible than the one George R.R. Martin put on the page. From two people who generally love both the book and television versions of A Song of Ice and Fire, here’s why.
Littlefinger never sent Sansa to marry Ramsay in the books.
It was Sansa’s friend Jeyne Poole, disguised and passed off as Arya Stark, upon whom this horrible arrangement was bestowed. Littlefinger’s pretty evil to her—he had her “trained” in his brothels before sending her to Winterfell—but she’s not Sansa. At the end of A Dance With Dragons, Jeyne Poole, beaten, raped repeatedly, undoubtedly scarred for life in every possible way, is on the run with Theon. Sansa, meanwhile, is safe in the Vale with Lord Protector Baelish, posing as his bastard daughter Alayne Stone and biding her time before she’ll be unveiled as the heir to the North.
There’s no damn way that the Petyr Baelish we know from the books would have released Sansa from his protection—especially not to Ramsay. He rightly knows that even though the Stark family is decimated and scattered across two continents, the name still commands the most respect out of any in the North. A Stark with an army poses an existential threat to Ramsay’s tyrannical rule, both in the books and the show. And once the ruse of Jeyne Poole became common knowledge and Sansa’s identity and status as the rightful heir to Winterfell was revealed, the Northern houses still loyal to the legacy of Ned and Robb would flock to her, presumably joining the Vale’s forces and giving Sansa that army. For the sake of this hypothetical, let’s say the books align with the TV show and this combined army takes down the Boltons. All of a sudden, you’ve got a powerful, united North and Vale—and a realistic shot for Littlefinger, living vicariously through Sansa, to take the Iron Throne.
As we know, things have progressed very differently on HBO. In marrying the actual Sansa to Ramsay, he both gave the Bolton Bastard a legitimate claim to Winterfell and squandered whatever influence he had over Sansa. Now, she hates her one-time savior, to the point that she nearly refused his help in retaking Winterfell—which would have denied him even a meager slice of that pie. His only saving grace, as usual in the show, was luck.
It would take too many words to recount how Littlefinger took the Vale in Martin’s books, but suffice it to say that it was based on a patient, subtle, long-term strategy, of which Lysa’s death was only a small part. At one point, he even bought off a lord of the Vale to threaten him with violence in the most extreme way possible, forcing a counter-reaction from his enemies and buying him time and influence.
But in the show, he’s a leader who has totally alienated almost all of his allies, and whose power in the Vale depends entirely upon the word of a sickly, petulant teenager. Seriously: his master plan for getting the Vale army to march north only worked because Sweetrobin happened to like a falcon Baelish brought him.
As we’ve said before, book-Littlefinger is a cautious, patient puppeteer. Alas, on the show, Littlefinger is anything but careful—he’s the definition of “too smart for his own good.” We first see this in Season 2, when Cersei Lannister teases him about his love for Catelyn Stark. His response? Dude makes a winking reference to her incestual relationship with Jaime.
How stupid can you be? Predictably, Cersei orders her men to kill him, but it’s only a ruse to show him that “power is power.”
Now, this scene is not from the books, which should be obvious. What does Baelish possibly have to gain from saying something so incendiary to Cersei Lannister? Absolutely nothing, except the near-death experience that comes to him. Book-Baelish is calculating and manipulative, and he’s a strategic genius. He’s not the kind of man who will challenge a queen in her own home. He needs Cersei, and while he ultimately betrays her, he doesn’t do so until he has the advantage. What Baelish does in this scene is rash and reactive, and makes him look sneaky and untrustworthy, which is the exact opposite of his nature as depicted by Martin. For book loyalists, this departure from character was perhaps the most intellectually offensive scene in the entire series. Petyr is an expert at playing Cersei, and to see him at her mercy is a total betrayal of character.
When Baelish takes a risk in the books, such as his dangerous voyage to Highgarden to recruit House Tyrell to the Lannister cause, it’s because he knows that success will advance him higher up the ladder—this is how he becomes Lord of Harrenhal.
But in the show, he hasn’t really made any friends—sure, he’s the Lannister-anointed Lord of the Trident and Lord Protector of the Vale, but he hasn’t accomplished these things quietly. Then, to add stupidity to stupidity, he actually returns to King’s Landing after murdering Joffrey and running off with Sansa. And he makes another incest joke! Finally, he asks her to name him Warden of the North if he succeeds in re-taking the city, which effectively puts his hands in the fate of a woman who is clearly not going to rule King’s Landing for long due to her own flaws. None of this, needless to say, happens in the books.
Because he’s stuck his neck out too far and too quickly, plenty of people want him gone, and that may now include Sansa. Which brings us to the worst perversion of Littlefinger brought on by the show:
This seems like a good time to remind everyone that Littlefinger isn’t necessarily motivated by power alone. He loved Catelyn Tully with all his heart. He continued to love her after her betrothal to Ned Stark’s brother Brandon and, following his death, her marriage to Ned. He almost died in a duel for her hand. And now, Littlefinger loves Sansa as the daughter he wishes he could’ve had with Catelyn—or, in the case of the show, as Catelyn herself. (It’s important to note that book-Sansa is betrothed to Ser Harrold Hardyng, who’s next in line to rule the Vale should Sweetrobin “happen to die.”)
In the books, we get a sense that Littlefinger is actually a good surrogate father to Sansa who cares deeply about her well-being. Is there an ulterior motive for his love? Probably: after all, she’s Sansa Stark, the key to the North. But even when he’s training his “daughter” in the art of manipulation and involving her in his schemes, he still seems genuinely affectionate toward her. Check out this excerpt from The Winds of Winter, for example. In it, Sansa has just met Ser Harrold. He turns out to be a total dick to her, so Sansa…err, “Alayne”...goes to her “father” for comfort and advice on how to win him over. Everything you need to know about Petyr’s relationship with Sansa is contained in these lines:
“...he thinks I’m a bastard.”
“A beautiful bastard, and the Lord Protector’s daughter.” Petyr drew her close and kissed her on both cheeks. “The night belongs to you, sweetling, Remember that, always.”
When Littlefinger says this, we believe him. And for what it’s worth, Sansa’s a goddamn fox at the ball that night, implementing his suggestions perfectly.
But any father-daughter bond Petyr and Sansa might have shared disappeared in the show once he married her to Ramsay. “Did you know about Ramsay?” Sansa asks him in their encounter in “The Door.” “If you didn’t know, you’re an idiot. If you did know, you’re my enemy.” That pretty much sums up the essence of this list: the show version of Littlefinger is either more stupid, more evil, or both than the one in the books. And no matter what he might say to try to earn her trust back and prove that he still loves and cares about her, it rings hollow. Hell, given the passing remark he makes about Jon being her “half-brother” as he leaves, and adding in the events of last night’s season finale, it now looks like Petyr’s plan (really, his only recourse) is to set the two Stark children against each other—stripping away any semblance of “love” he might have for Sansa and rendering him a cold-hearted villain.
Not only did letting Sansa go with Ramsay replace a careful plan with a crap shoot, given the myriad ways in which Sansa might have died…it also violated the one value Littlefinger might hold more dearly than power. And look where that’s gotten him in the show: sold-out, isolated from any potential friends, hated by the one person he professes to love, outside of the protection of the Vale with an army of questionable loyalty to him. There’s no reason to think he’ll win, but more importantly, there’s no longer any reason to want him to win.
Admittedly, we are past the plot of the book, but we’ll go out on a limb and guess that in the books, Martin doesn’t have him reveal his plans in a pitiful monologue to Sansa that leads to rejection; if he seriously expected Sansa to marry him after he sold her to Ramsay, add “delusional” to the list of show-Littlefinger’s flaws. Nor, we think, will he sulk in a corner while the North (with Sansa’s tacit blessing) rallies to Jon Snow, practically wearing a bright red sign that says “I am going to try to kill you!” Even in the midst of last night’s terrific episode, Littlefinger falls short. He is nowhere near the complexity of the man in Martin’s books.
At this point, as much as we’re excited to read about book-Baelish, there’s no redeeming the TV version. Here’s hoping HBO rids us of this scourge before he can successfully pit Sansa against Jon.