“Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”


“So power is a mummer’s trick?”


“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

This conversation between Varys and Tyrion occurs immediately after Tyrion has replaced Janos Slynt with Jacelyn Bywater as the commander of the City Watch. Varys poses Tyrion a riddle about which is strongest, political power, religious power, or economic power. The riddle leads them to discuss the nature of power and how it gets exercised. Varys puts forward the view that the perception of being powerful, rather than any absolute measure of power, is what makes someone powerful. Tyrion expresses some skepticism about this notion, but Varys insists that although it makes power sound illusory, illusions can kill.

The quotation makes explict an issue that runs throughout the book, namely characters’ efforts to manipulate their and others' images for gain. Theon, for instance, wants people to fear and respect him, so he acts in ways that he thinks will make him appear intimidating. Stannis wants to be recognized as the rightful king, so he helps spread the rumor that Joffrey is born of incest. (Of course, this point is true, but it is not generally perceived as being true.) While the novel seems sympathetic to Varys’s argument that power depends on perception, it also shows the difficulty of controlling perception, and thus the difficulty of wielding power effectively. Ironically, the character who seems to be most loathed by his subjects, Tyrion, winds up exercising power more skillfully than anyone else in the novel. The novel thus suggests that while there is definitely a relationship between power and perception, it is a thorny, complicated one that few people can manage well.