How does a minor, low-born, son of a lord in the
Fingers, dreaming of being King and putting a
Ring on Catelyn Tully but getting bullied ‘cause
He lacks a noble standard
Grow up to be the Vale’s great commander?
Here’s a bold idea: let’s bring together two of today’s most ubiquitous pop culture forces in one analysis. Interest in Hamilton and its protagonist reached a fever pitch some time last year and shows no signs of letting up, and Game of Thrones is, well, Game of Thrones—I’m not certain why any other television shows attempt to compete in the same time slot.
But maybe some aspects of an Hamilton-GoT comparison aren’t so crazy, specifically when we consider one enigmatic character in particular: Petyr Baelish, also known as Littlefinger, the Lord Protector of the Vale and one of the very few major characters who doesn’t hail from an ancient, landed, noble family. The fact that he’s even a long shot to emerge from the chaos in Westeros seated on the Iron Throne is a testament to his intelligence, perseverance, and, yes, an undeniable ruthlessness. And despite the many evil things he’s done—murdering Lysa Arryn, conspiring to murder both Jon Arryn and Joffrey (though Joffrey had it coming)—he’s maybe the single most inspirational figure in the world of Ice and Fire, living proof that humble origins needn’t doom someone to a lower station in life.
Hmm…does that combination of low beginnings, ambition and intelligence ring any bells?
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…
Let’s roll with it and see what we discover.
As anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack or somehow gotten tickets to the show knows, Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in the Caribbean, specifically on the tiny island of Nevis (land area: 36 square miles). His mother, Rachel Faucette, had left her first husband and conceived Alexander with a Scotsman named James, who in turn abandoned Rachel and their two sons. Because he was a bastard, Alexander couldn’t attend the local church-sponsored school; he attended a different private school and also learned from his small family library, which he almost lost when his mother died in 1768 and her legal husband claimed all her possessions. While Hamilton’s parents weren’t quite paupers—Rachel had inherited property from her father, and James was the fourth son of a minor landowner in Scotland—they were far from wealthy; unlike most of his fellow Founding Fathers, Hamilton wasn’t born with an estate, monetary resources, or a family trade. You could almost call him “one step up from a hedge knight.”
Here, the parallels between Hamilton and Littlefinger are particularly striking. The Fingers are just about the smallest, least relevant corner of the Seven Kingdoms you could imagine, and House Baelish rules the smallest of them from an unnamed tower: according to the books, about a dozen families live under their lordship. In a society where legacy and family reputation are everything, a second-generation landowner, the grandson of a hedge knight, commands approximately zero respect from anyone of significance.
With such low beginnings, how did each rise? For one, neither was completely neglected; Hamilton was taken in by a merchant for whom he clerked, while Littlefinger was sent to be raised by the powerful Tully family at Riverrun. Then, it was a simple matter of getting an opportunity for their talents to shine. For Hamilton, it was an essay about a hurricane that devastated the Virgin Islands town of Christiansted in 1772:
Word got around, they said this kid is insane, man
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
For Littlefinger, it was the chance to run the customs house at Gulltown in the Vale, a position secured for him by Lysa Tully (who loved him) after her marriage to Jon Arryn. As Tyrion learns in the books, “Lord Petyr had soon distinguished himself by bringing in three times as much as any of the king’s other collectors.”
Word got around, Arryn said, “Petyr’s insane, man”
Got him some promotions just to send him to the King’s Land(ing)
And from there, each man’s legacy grew exponentially.
Their contributions to the country
Alexander Hamilton’s significance to early America, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterwork so beautifully depicts, is paramount. He served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolution and remained the great general’s most trusted advisor for the next two decades; he was perhaps the most important supporter of ratifying the Constitution, contributing 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers; and he laid the groundwork for a strong central government as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, leading the fight for a national bank and using the assumption of states’ debt to bind the nascent nation together. He was also an incredibly factious politician, becoming the leader of the Federalist Party and spearheading opposition to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Democratic-Republicans. There’s a good reason Hamilton is one of two non-Presidents on our currency (and, for the record, it’s awesome that he’s staying there).
Littlefinger, too, made his greatest impact in the realm of finance. As Master of Coin under King Robert Baratheon, “the crown’s revenues were ten times what they had under his predecessor… through the crown’s debt had grown vast as well.” The government as a major player in the economy: sure sounds like the economic system Hamilton championed in the early days of the United States, doesn’t it? And what Littlefinger lacks in actual military experience—unlike Hamilton, he’s never been given command of a battle force—he makes up for in his adroit diplomacy abilities. It was Baelish who brought House Tyrell into an alliance with the Lannisters, enabling the two to crush Stannis’ army at the Battle of the Blackwater. Though the leadership in King’s Landing has been no George Washington, either in stability or in competence, Littlefinger has nominally remained a trusted figure in the eyes of both the Tyrells and the Lannisters, and as a reward, he’s now the Lord over the Riverlands and the Vale. Quite the meteoric rise in power for a kid from a far-flung corner of the world…wait, who are we talking about again?
This is where Hamilton and Littlefinger start to diverge (apart from their predilection for inflammatory rhetoric). As far as we know, though Hamilton was certainly ambitious, he never killed anyone or arranged for anyone to be killed. His worst transgressions came in the form of an extramarital affair that ruined his public reputation and a number of vicious feuds with other Founding Fathers—Jefferson, Madison, John Adams and (obviously) Aaron Burr. And though his feud with Burr was particularly vitriolic and, contrary to its depiction in the musical, Hamilton’s supposed intention to fire his shot into the air is not at all clear, their duel is a far cry from some of the actions Petyr Baelish has taken along his path to power.
Littlefinger’s only way up in Westerosi society has been through turbulence, much of which he has caused. Had he not convinced Lysa to murder Jon Arryn, he would have remained a competent Master of Coin for Robert Baratheon, but the War of the Five Kings gave him the opportunity to prove his worth to the Lannisters and gain his new titles in the Riverlands and the Vale. And had he not conspired to murder Joffrey, he wouldn’t have been able to extract Sansa from King’s Landing—and even though his plans for her vastly differ from the books to the show, in each he sees her as crucial to his eventual ascension to the Iron Throne. Throw in his casual shoving of Lysa out the Moon Door, and he’s now the undisputed power in the Vale. There’s no way little, sickly Sweetrobin will do anything to usurp him.
“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die,” Cersei tells Ned Stark in the show’s first season. In such a hierarchical, rigid society as exists in Westeros, those words are indisputable fact. Only a select few families, the high lords of the Seven Kingdoms, have the necessary clout to make a play at the Iron Throne; only they can command the armies necessary for an invasion, and only they can access the seats of power closely enough to mount more clandestine, nefarious attempts at seizing them. Everyone else—including Petyr Baelish, lord of the smallest of the Fingers, ruler of a dozen families, whose great-grandfather was a sellsword—has a firm ceiling on their ambitions. The only way to change that system is to overthrow it entirely, and that’s been the ostensible purpose of Littlefinger’s every move.
Had Alexander Hamilton been born into the Seven Kingdoms instead of British North America, perhaps he could have risen from his low-born, bastard heritage on the strength of his writing and intelligence, but he would have needed help from a high noble family, the way the Tullys and Arryns abetted Littlefinger. Hamilton might have proven his worth and become the Master of Coin, but he would have needed a significant power shakeup to become the leader of one of Westeros’ most powerful political factions (there, kingdoms; in America, parties). And at every step of the way, Hamilton probably would have required chaos to get his shot—and without chaos in the system, he would’ve had to introduce it. Just being young, scrappy and hungry doesn’t work if your country isn’t also young, scrappy and hungry, and Westeros at the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire is anything but.
Our major takeaway from looking at Hamilton and Littlefinger should be this: America’s a damn special place that has always provided and still provides an astounding amount of socioeconomic mobility thanks to its initial lack of nobility, which would have installed a rigid class structure from the beginning. The extent of that socioeconomic mobility, of course, has been a contentious issue for centuries—brief glimpses of the Black Lives Matter movement, the gender disparities in Hollywood and other industries, and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign are proof enough that “equal opportunity” qua equality still doesn’t exist in America—but unlike Westeros, the United States has a rich history of adaptability and progressive change. There’s hope for the future for America’s downtrodden and for the immigrants who still flock here, as they always have, seeking a better life. Alexander Hamilton immigrated from Nevis, full of ambition and talent, and was able to become a titanic figure in our country’s history because in New York, you can be a new man without resorting to murder schemes.
By contrast, look at where Littlefinger’s ambition and talent have gotten him: far, but not far enough (not to mention the fact that he’s been far stupider in the show than in the books, a topic on which Shane Ryan and I will have more to say later). Every significant jump in power—not just a position at a customs house or on a Small Council, but an actual grant of land—has required some egregious act of violence on his part. And with that set as the status quo, it will surprise no one when Petyr Baelish meets a much more painful end than Alexander Hamilton, on the business end of some stronger force’s sword.
Zach Blumenfeld also thinks that Littlefinger’s unrequited love for Catelyn Tully is pretty pathetic. Follow him on Twitter.