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From the answer to another question I learned the following bit from A Song of Ice and Fire:

It was from the first book of A Song Of Ice And Fire and it was Varys asking Tyrion a riddle:

A King, a priest, a rich man and a sellsword are in a room. Those three man tell the sellsword to kill the other two.
Who lives and who dies?

I'm glad that user found the quote they were looking for now, but — not having read the series yet — I'd like to know the answer to the riddle. And what is the moral of the story?

123

The exact quote from the book: (Tyrion talking to Varys):

"The king, the priest, the rich man — who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It's a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.

"And yet he is no one," Varys said. "He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel."

"That piece of steel is the power of life and death."

"Just so … yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?"

"Because these child kings and drunken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords."
"Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey?" Varys smiled. "Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor's Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever so knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or ... another?"

Tyrion cocked his head sideways. "Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?"

Varys smiled. "Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less"
- A Clash of Kings - Tyrion II

As people said in the comments, it is the swordsman who really decides who has the power depending on what his beliefs are and there is no answer depending only on the three "powerful" people of the riddle.

If the swordsman is religious, he will listen to the priest, and respectively for the king and the rich man. To find out who really has power, we need to find out who the people believe has the power.

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    Good answer but I still don't get it. ELI5 please – KharoBangdo Jun 21 '17 at 7:25
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    Essentially there is no right or wrong answer, it depends on what the mercenary believes, and how they act. If they respect the king, he will follow the kings orders, if he is a religious man, he will follow the priest, if he believes that money will make his life better, he would do as the rich asks. If he believed himself was in power, he would make his own decision, or do none. – Ryan The Leach Jun 21 '17 at 7:30
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    @KharoBangdo The answer is right there on the last line. Power is fictitious... it is a product of our minds. When making the final determination where power actually lies, you cannot look at physical things or the physical situation as it stands and reach a conclusion. You must look inside the minds of the people... and where people believe power lies.... that is where the power actually lies. Power is a product of the mind. Hence what the mind believe is real, that is what is actually real when it comes to power. – MichaelK Jun 21 '17 at 9:41
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    @MichaelKarnerfors wouldn't call it ficticious, it's very real, it's just more tenuous than it seems. Which might explain the paranoid seeming machinations of those who have it and realized the truth. – Jared Smith Jun 21 '17 at 11:56
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    @NickT, that's just one of the three having their own (bigger) sword, it's safer to rule by virtue of the people believing that you have power than by their fear of what you'll do if they don't follow. Even if you have a dragon. You need to be able to trust the food, you need to be able to sleep in a bed at night. – Separatrix Jun 23 '17 at 7:22
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+100

The answer is, and always will be "That depends on the sellsword."

It's also a great way to learn something about the person you're talking to when they answer.

Tyrion gives the correct answer. Most men would answer according to what they value.

The moral of the story is this: The real power is actually in the hands of the sellsword or rather where the sellsword believes it lies. Kings, priests, and rich men can only offer something to the man with the sword. It's down to him what he values and who he listens to. That anyone else besides the sellsword has power is an illusion.

This is also used to illustrate that while the nobles do rule, they don't actually have power unless they have someone who will kill for them or agree to do things for them-and that their ruling is simply a social contract.

It means that those who are ruled are ruled because they believe they should be, and the moment they do not, or the moment they transfer their belief in something else those who did rule will not for long.

This particular lesson runs throughout the series. You can see it with the Sparrow movement, you can see it with the way Littlefinger manipulates others. Littlefinger, Varys, Tyrion, and Tywin are the characters who deeply understand that. Tywin both uses it to his advantage and guards against the turn of loyalty. That's why these four characters are among the smartest in the series. Joffrey unfortunately, believes it's his due, his family's place to rule, that it's his by right. And while the riot starts to convince him that he might be in danger, he never fully understands that his power is only permitted by his subjects.

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    Very good break-down. A good example is the Golden Company, who have never broken a contract (money is king), until the events of A Dance With Dragons. – Möoz Jun 21 '17 at 4:09
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    I personally think this is a much better answer than the chosen one. If it also included the quote shown by @elrond, this would be perfect. – CGCampbell Jun 21 '17 at 15:14
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    @CGCampbell They asked for the answer and the moral, so I gave it, with a little context. I could copy paste the exact quote from the book, but since others have, there's little point to it. It seems that's all the poster wanted, judging from the accepted answer. Elrond's is most complete as far as that goes. I did not include every example and tried to be vague because the poster said they have not read the whole series and I did not want to be...spoilerific! – Erin Thursby Jun 21 '17 at 15:25
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    @ErinThursby I still don't know where I first saw this, but I have found an interview where he mentions the riddle : rollingstone.com/tv/news/… – Arnaud D. Jun 22 '17 at 19:57
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    @Mooz Thank you for the bounty!! – Erin Thursby Jun 28 '17 at 14:45
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It's less a real answerable riddle, and more a thought experiment on the nature of power.

I already answered this question on Puzzling, but unfortunately the question there was deleted. Here, though, is the answer:

“The king, the priest, the rich man - who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It's a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.'

'And yet he is no one,' Varys said. 'He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.'

'That piece of steel is the power of life and death.'

'Just so ... yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why we pretend our kings hold the power? Why should a strong man with a sword ever obey a child king like Joffrey, or a wine-sodden oaf like his father?'

'Because these child kings and druken oafs can call other strong men, with other swords.'

'Then these other swordsmen have the true power. Or do they? Whence came their swords? Why do they obey?' Varys smiled.

[...]

Tyrion cocked his head sideways. 'Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?'

Varys smiled. 'Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more no less.'

-- A Clash of Kings, emphasis mine

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    Curious why this question was deleted in Puzzling.SE. It is an answerable riddle, and the answer is that it depends. – Zanon Jun 24 '17 at 12:59
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    @Zanon Dunno. You'd have to ask Emrakul or post on Puzzling Meta. – Rand al'Thor Jun 24 '17 at 13:05
8

"What do you want?"

"Oh, I've been at this game too long to know not to answer that question."

(paraphrased - I can't find the original quote)

Once you know what a man wants, you know how to control him. Also paraphrased (Cersei I think), but very true. This is why all the intelligent players in GoT dodge that question if they know what's good for them.

So. What does this particular sellsword want? Money? Paradise? Power?

The rich man, the king, and the priest had all better know the answer to that question before they find themselves in this situation. If they find themselves in this situation (like, oh, I don't know, the war of the seven kingdoms), and they don't know the answer to what the sellsword wants, they're dead.

That is the answer to this riddle and the reason for it. It's a metaphor for power and the struggle to get it, especially in a civil war like this one. The sellsword is a metaphor for an army, and each of these men have one in this political system. This war coincidentally, demonstrates all the deep flaws of the feudal system.

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    'Paraphrased'... from where? Can you at least tell us the context? I'm sure we can help dig up a quote or two for you. – Möoz Jun 21 '17 at 3:35
  • Ernie, to find the original quote, just look at the two other answers that were posted several hours before yours. – Stig Hemmer Jun 21 '17 at 7:18
  • Paraphrased from GoT of course. And no, it's not in the quote from the book mentioned above. Several times in the show (I can't remember the book well enough), Tyrion asks Varys "What exactly do you want?" and Varys dodges the question. I recall that Littlefinger also asks Varys this, and the quote could come from him. The point however, is that "Once you know what a man wants, you know how to control him". – Ernie Jun 21 '17 at 16:04
  • Power doesn't quite reside "where men believe it resides." Power resides in who can meet the needs of the most strong men with swords. youtube.com/… – Ernie Jun 21 '17 at 16:12
  • In Babylon 5, "What do you want?" is a recurrent question, originally asked by the character of Mr. Morden, and which in a sense has been the catalyst for the main events. I think one of the characters answered similarly to the paraphrasing here, but I can't seem to find that quote now. – yoniLavi Jun 22 '17 at 16:15
7

The comments on the top voted answer called for more elaboration, so here I go:

"Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less"

The king holds the power if you and the sellsword believe that you and your family will be hunted to death after you killed the king.

The priest holds the power if you and the sellsword believe going against his word will result in eternal damnation.

The merchant holds the power if you and the sellsword believe he will offer riches and save you from repercussions.

The sellsword holds the power if you and the sellsword believe the three men are depraved lunatics that deserve to be killed and looted.

Nobody holds the power if the sellsword believes life is meaningless.

The keyword is "believe" - these things need not be true, but they need to be something the sellsword believes to be true. There are a hundred other beliefs the sellsword could have, all (or at least most) of which would lead to either one of the above results.

Or in other words: The moral of the story is, if you are the king/priest/merchant and the people around you don't believe you hold power, you're dead.


Another possible answer, although not the official one, is Fate (aka GRR Martin). From the context in the book however, this wasn't the intended interpretion by Varys.

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    King's believers don't necessarily do it out of fear. There are many who obey the King due to honor or loyalty because of their pre-formed perception that King is the real authority e.g. Kingsguards. Similarly there are those who believe Gods are the real authority and therefore Gods' representatives on earth are the real authority by extension e.g. Warrior's sons. Then there are those who serve themselves and side with the highest bidder i.e. Sellswords in general. Sellsword doesn't get into this as he is merely the subject whose actions is the riddle. What he believes is the answer. – Aegon Jun 23 '17 at 8:58

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