The Great Rags to Riches Stories of ‘Game of Thrones’

To quote Drake, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”
By  · Published on July 18th, 2017

To quote Drake, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here.”

Or alternatively, in the words of my high school history teacher, “Something something something, rise of the middle class.”

The feudal society of Westeros isn’t exactly conducive to a thriving middle class or American Dream style success stories, but that doesn’t mean that some crafty SOBs haven’t managed to figure their way up the ladder of prosperity anyway. Featured below are six different ways seven characters have managed to make that elusive journey:


“I just wanted to let you know that once crazy dragon lady gets here, I’m out. I gave you my loyalty, not my sense of self preservation.”

A sellsword as blunt as his blades are sharp, Bronn joins Catelyn and Tyrion on the most awkward road-trip in the history of Westeros back in Season 1, where he works his way not merely into Tyrion’s good books, but Tyrion’s List of Top Five Favorite People Ever by agreeing to be his trial by combat champion. Since then, Bronn has lived large on the Lannister’s dime. In addition to being damn good at what he does, much like Baelish, he doesn’t let things like morals get in the way of getting the job done—the fact that he answered the question of if he would kill a baby by asking how much this hypothetical job would pay didn’t dent his 100% lovability factor is a testament to Game of Thrones‘ character crafting capabilities—but unlike Baelish, he’s no schemer, and he’s not going to mess around with biting the hand that feeds him.

The hand that feeds him feeds him well—from a well-paid freelancer in Season 1, to Commander of the City Watch in Season 2, to Ser Bronn of the Blackwater in Season 3, to betrothed in Season 4 to Lollys Stokeworth and presumptive heir to a minor lordship. In Season 5, Jaime informs him that Cersei, being Cersei, has gone back on her word and betrothed Lollys to someone else, but assures him that he will be matched up with someone even better—once they make it back from a brief excursion to Dorne, where we the viewers learned that even Jaime/Bronn bromance (not quite Tyrion/Bronn level stuff, but still the stuff sitcoms are made of) cannot rescue Dorne from being anything but Game of Thrones’ weakest link. Season 6 started with Bronn and Jaime roadtrippin’ once more—this time to Riverrun to tell the Freys to stop being so shitty at everything—and as far as we’re informed, Jaime’s promise has not yet been fulfilled, but the last we see of them in Season 6 they’re back in what’s left of King’s Landing, so unless Jaime is looking to make “A Lannister always pays his debts” a thing of the past, that should probably be coming up soon.

While we know very little about Bronn’s origins besides a few tales to convey that he’s definitely had a hard knock life, he’s not bashful about his origins, or about to start attempting to blend in more any time soon. He’s a rough-mannered guy who enjoys the finer things in life, and happy to be so.

Petyr Baelish

Petyr Baelish: more flavors of smirk than Ben & Jerry’s has ice cream

Littlefinger’s issues may stem from childhood rejection and a lifelong inferiority complex, but his successes are the latest chapter of a multigenerational tale of upward mobility, starting with his great-grandfather, a Braavosi sellsword employed by Lord Corbray (of Heart’s Home, in the Vale). His grandfather was then a hedge knight, and his father technically a lord, even if his domain was a few acres of crappy rocks. Papa Baelish also managed to win the favor of Hoster Tully for his service in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, leading to Petyr’s being fostered at Riverrun, where he got friendzone’d to the Dark Side by Catelyn Tully. From there, Petyr weaseled his way up the ladder of success all the way onto a place on King Robert Baratheon’s small council as Master of Coin, first connecting with Hand of the King Jon Arryn with the help of the still infatuated Lysa Arryn. His intelligence, ambition, and seeming ability to conjure money from thin air made the climb a quick journey. Somewhere along the way, he also got in the brothel business to further pad his own coffers.

Thanks to six seasons of advanced level scheming, Petyr is now basically Lord of the Vale, but unlike most of the other entries on this list, he’s not happy with merely going far above and beyond the fate suggested by the circumstances of his birth. No, unfortunately for the people of Westeros—but very fortunately for viewers like you, because Petyr’s manipulations make for some damn fine television—Littlefinger is a King-of-Everything-or-bust kind of guy.

However, this latest chapter of the Baelish book of success looks like it might also very well be the last, as even bookies are placing the odds on Petyr being the next character up on the Game of Thrones chopping block. I imagine it might go a little something like this:


SANSA looks out a window, contemplating whether heavy black eyeliner would be too excessive, while PETYR creeps from a dark corner.

Suddenly, JON SNOW barges in with the grace of a three-legged rhinoceros.

JON: My name is Jon Snow. You betrayed my father. And my sister. Prepare to die.

PETYR: Actually, he wasn’t—

LONGCLAW: Stab, stab, stab!

Baelish dies.

JON (confused): Wait, Sans, what was he saying?

SANSA (putting two and two together): …Nothing, beloved big bro. Go do King in the North stuff.

Jon departs in a cloud of angst and hairspray.


PETYR’S GHOST (sniffling): They grow up so fast.

It might be one of the least mourned deaths in Westeros, but there might be a few tears in my living room. What can I say? I have a soft spot for the smarmy bastard. Still, whether he dies this season or somehow makes it to the end of the line, he’s had a good run.

Davos Seaworth

When we first got to know Davos back in season 2, talking with Stannis about honor and finger bones, it seemed like he might be the one man in Westeros duller than the Old Lobster himself. Since then, he has quietly and unassumingly worked his way into being one of the most important men in Westeros and one of the most beloved characters in our hearts, going from weird finger-pouch guy to beloved Ser Sad Onion Badger in less time than it took Stannis’s campaign to go to pot.

While even good guys are usually susceptible to inflatable ego syndrome, Davos is immune, seemingly by having no ego to start with. His humility and genuine desire to Do The Right Thing have led him to take the high road even when it might not be in his own best interest—see: smuggling fellow Flea Bottom native and would-be sacrificial lamb Gendry out of Dragonstone and sending him off on a rowboat (to become the Where’s Waldo? of Westeros) in direct violation of Stannis’ orders.

Yet, at the same time, this humility has also directly contributed to his success in one of the few cases of fate rewarding goodness in all of Game of Thrones. After all, how would your standard fragile male ego respond to a little girl’s offer of free reading lessons, as useful as they may be? Furthermore, now that he’s familiar with the structure and dynamics of the powers that be in Westeros—a knowledge that may not have mandated his literacy but certainly has benefited from it—his humility and plain, cut-the-bullshit attitude have made him invaluable as a mediator and voice of reason in various diplomatic situations. Davos never asked for power and doesn’t even seem to really want it, but thankfully for the people of Westeros he seems to realize that wannabe kings are all hella clueless and desperately need him. While it’s not yet clear where Davos will fit in with Jon now King in the North, if it’s not as Hand of the King or some equivalent position, Jon should wear a dunce cap instead of a crown. In spite of not seeking power, Davos is the only member of Team Stannis who managed to make a clean getaway from that sinking ship (sure, Melisandre might still be around, but her life isn’t quite the party it used to be). If he does indeed get named Hand of the King for a second time, as he damned well should, it will leave him the only non-Lannister on the show to have held such a position multiple times.

Sometimes, even in Westeros, humility gets you places. Humility, and well-timed onions.


“You know what this show needs? A Cinderella moment.” —Someone in the ‘Game of Thrones’ writers’ room, apparently

Gilly started off as one of Craster’s daughter-wives, which is pretty much as low as one gets on the Westerosi food chain—you’ve got the terrible weather and hard lifestyle of beyond the Wall, but none of the freedoms typically associated with being a wildling. To be totally honest, Gilly would almost certainly still be wilting away at Craster’s (or not… does anyone actually know what happened to all of Craster’s other wives once Jon and company killed the mutineers in Season 4? I mean, I get why they wanted it burned down, but at the same time, they were kind of living there…) if it wasn’t for Samwell Tarly deciding that he loved her with the fire of a thousand suns, but she did have to decide that he was a life-risking chance worth taking even though the dude came on creepy strong.

Three seasons later, Gilly’s life looks a helluva lot different. She’s wined and dined at Horn Hill. She now owns a fancy dress (so yeah, maybe it’s second hand, but the point still stands). She can read, and, going off of promo pics, this season she’s going to read something super-duper important. Her love life is also much improved, as she and Sam are basically the most married couple in all of Westeros. When I originally wrote this line I thought I was being hyperbolic, but then I actually started thinking about it and realized I don’t think there are any actual married couples left on the show. Everyone’s widowed or functionally divorced. Seriously. Just take a minute or two to think it through. I’ll wait.

[Jeopardy theme music] 

…I know, right?!

Anyway, she might have been forced to wait outside while Sam drooled over the Citadel library, but overall, people have been surprisingly chill—or at least, weirdly not more pissed—about the constant presence of Gilly and Little Sam, considering that not-little Sam is really supposed to be a monk twice over by this point.

Gilly might not be the first character who comes to mind when trying to think of the success stories of Westeros, but in terms of where she started to her current situation, she definitely qualifies as rags to riches.


Founder and President of the Quietly Trying To Save Westeros from Its Own Stupidity Brigade

While the classic “knowledge is power”/“power is power” face-off back in the heyday of Season 2 was between Petyr and Cersei, the fact that Cersei seemed to win that showdown might be because Varys, not Petyr, is the true champion of the whole “knowledge is power” thing.

Born a slave in Lys, he travelled with acting troupes until he was bought by a sorcerer who chopped off his bits for use in a magical ritual and left him for dead. Determined to say “screw you” to his mutilator in the only way he could, Varys made up his mind to live, by any means necessary. And he did. He’s never gone into much detail, but it’s pretty safe to assume he’s experienced torture and humiliation on par with Theon, and even a season post-Ramsay the latter’s sanity seems held together by a singular piece of scotch tape. But while Varys did what he had to do to survive, he quickly discovered thievery was where his talents lay—and that he could make much better use of ill-gotten knowledge than ill-gotten physical objects.

He built up his network of “little birds” and became so renowned as an information trafficker that he got on King Aerys’ small council as Master of Whispers without a title of any kind—or being, you know, from Westeros. Daenerys marks the fifth monarch Varys has served in such a capacity, meaning that he has managed to hold on to the title with only the briefest of vacations through rebellions and turning traitor, because he is just that good at what he does. In his own words, “The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.” Now, in terms of knowledge, power, skill, or any other measure, I don’t know what you’d call Varys if not a big fish—except maybe a kraken or something equally formidable. But somehow he’s managed to convince all the other fish he isn’t a threat even though he probably has knowledge that, in the wrong hands, could mean death for each and every one of them. To which I say: just keep swimming, good sir. Our television screens are all the brighter for your presence.

Ros and Shae

Is it just me, or were there a lot more sex workers with speaking roles back in season 3?

These two get to share an entry because they shared the same career trajectory. As far as rags-to-riches stories in Westeros—and the Known World as a whole—go, being a woman who’s good at sex stuff and clever enough to play her cards well is perhaps the closest thing to a bona fide shortcut up the ladder of success to be found in Game of Thrones. If you manage to gain employment at the right establishment and are particularly good at what you do, you can make a respectable living for yourself doing unrespectable things as a whore in Westeros. If you are good at being a whore and also good at spying, you can do even better. Whether raised poor in the shadow of Winterfell or in Lorath, the right clients and allies can put you in the fast lane to the high life. That said, as the fates of both of these characters suggest, this success might be short-lived. 

Bonus: Xaro Xhoan Daxos

“What do I sell? Bull—uh, I mean… fabric. I sell fabric.”

He’s in Essos, not Westeros, but I couldn’t talk about rags to riches tales and not discuss Xaro Xhoan Daxos. In one of the earliest significant divergences from book canon, the actually loaded and probably gay merchant prince is converted into a heterosexual hack fraud. TV Xaro’s got a great rags to riches motivational speech, but like many a motivational speech before it, it’s 98% BS. In the Game of Thrones moment most likely to be a direct transcription of one of Aesop’s fables, Daenerys discovers that Xaro’s “empire” is built on air and lies when she coerces him to open his vault and discovers it to be larger than a Manhattan apartment and emptier than my wallet right now.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.