I watch a lot of theory, break-down, and character reviews of all my favorite shows, books, and movies. As any good member of a fandom would do, right? Upon watching a SuperCarlin Bro’s theory video on Dumbledore’s original plans for Harry and Co., I discovered a common trend in many of the stories that inspire me. There is a trait, I would go as far as to call it a sub-character archetype which exists just below the tried and true ones such as Hero, Mentor, or Villain. I’m certain I’m not the only one who picked up on this sub-archetype. Nevertheless, I’m going to call it the Chessmaster and define it as a character the author uses to manipulate the MC and others to achieve the protagonist’s, antagonist’s, or the chessmaster’s goal; they are not a primary character; they operate best in the background, wielding considerable power, making it impossible for them to have a POV chapter; they are the answer to the question: who is actually MOVING the characters like pieces of a chessboard?
If you watched J’s video, you’ll understand where my curiosity hit a peak. Dumbledore and Voldemort manipulate the characters a great deal during the Second Wizarding War. I’ve heard many fans complain about Dumbledore leaving just enough information for Harry and Co. to get by each year. These crumbs are just the way of storytelling. The chessmaster is the closest the author will get to the story without actually being a member of its cast. It wouldn’t be any fun if Dumbledore told Harry everything about the Prophecy or thought about Horcruxes in Philosopher’s Stone. Not only would Harry’s head be spinning, ours would too.
Lord Varys and Petyr Baelish are A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones‘ chessmasters. This article is fortunate to come at a point in the books and show where we fully grasp the potent role of these men in Martin’s epic. The entire War of the Five Kings was orchestrated not by Tywin or Robb or Stannis but by Little Finger and his fathoms-deep crusade to acquire power. Baelish instructed Lysa to murder her husband so Robert would ask Ned to come to King’s Landing; he implicated the Lannisters in the death of Jon Arryn, which incited the eventual secession of the North and a war between the Starks and Lannisters upon Baelish whispering into Joffrey’s ear to kill Ned.
Where Baelish acts solely for his own gain, Varys the Eunuch serves the realm because “someone must” (GOT Season 1). His chessmaster-ness parallels that of Dumbledore’s, to serve as aid and mentor to the MC(s), achieving a shared goal where both parties profit. Varys ‘attempts’ to assassinate Daenerys in her exile. In reality, it was partnering with Illyrio that kept Daeny alive and preserved a Targaryen restoration. Varys protects Tyrion from destruction because of his usefulness to a future Targaryen monarch as the head of house Lannister. These number few in the ways Baelish and Varys act behind the clashings of kings and dancing of dragons to shape the outcome of these games.
As a short aside, I would also like to give an honorable mention to Tywin as a chessmaster. Not only because he’s one of my favorite characters, but how he wields his enemy’s weaknesses to achieve victory. He says that Robb Stark “is his father’s son” and employs the Honeypot on the King in the North to break his word to Walder Frey. Although, this is still a theory (to which I love) that Jeyne Westerling crossed paths with Robb because Tywin orchestrated it. The Red Wedding was just the conclusion of the long game played by the Lion Lord.
The chessmaster permeates many of the stories still widely told and loved to this day. In The Lord of the Rings, The Ring and Gandalf act as chessmasters, both with opposing wills: one to corrupt and the other to see an end to its infamy. Avatar: The Last Airbender sees its chessmaster in Long Feng and the Dai-Li in Book 2: Earth. Their puppetry of the Earth King and censoring any mention of the 100 Years War is a taste to what we see in A Song of Ice and Fire. We can even go as far back as the Greco-Roman and Abrahamic pantheons to the original characters who invented the archetype of chessmaster. Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hades, etc. (their Roman equivalents) and God are all chessmasters in their respective canons. Whether it’s Juno (Hera) making it hard for Aeneas to flee west from Troy, God sacrificing Jesus on the cross, or Apollo whispering prophecy into the ear of his oracle, the deities of antiquity are perhaps the most hands-on of the chessmasters. Curiously, beards appear to be a common trait for many who wish to manipulate fellow cast members.
At the close, you may be feeling like the MC and other characters are simply stuck in the middle of the chessmaster’s schemes. I would say yes and no. Keep in mind there are numerous moving parts of a story. The role of free will for the characters to make their own decisions and meet the consequences of them is ever-present. After all, humans are not entirely predictable, especially when they pick up on the plans of the chessmaster.
I hope I gave more definition to this archetype and opened your mind to be more sensitive to additional characters that might fit the bill. I must stress that the characters mentioned are some among MANY who act on behalf of the author to stir the pot. Who else you can think of in the stories listed here or others you enjoy?
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Featured photo credit: Pythia at Delphi https://womeninantiquity.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/pythia/