One scene on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones might require some explanation for people who haven’t read the books. Let’s talk it through.
SPOILERS FOR LAST NIGHT’S GAME OF THRONES AND POTENTIALLY FUTURE EPISODES FOLLOW:
For many years now, A Song of Ice and Fire fans have subscribed to a theory that fits so perfectly, it’d might as well be canon. Although the books have not yet confirmed the theory, the HBO show—which at this point has outpaced the books—is sending out strong signals that it’s true. Now, thanks to Bran’s psychedelic trips to the past, we’re starting to see all the puzzle pieces fall into place. Lyanna + Rhaegar = Jon Snow.
Let’s zoom out a bit. Way before the current events of Game of Thrones, Robert Baratheon (the fat king from season one) was betrothed to Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister. At the time, the Targaryens were still in charge, and Aerys (aka: The Mad King) ruled the realm. His son Rhaegar was married to the Dornish princess Elia Martell.
One day, after winning a grand tournament in Harrenhall, Rhaegar screwed everything up. Westeros tradition would call for him to ride to his wife and select her as “the queen of love and beauty,” but instead, he gave the honor to Lyanna, placing a crown of blue roses in her lap. SCANDAL.
A year later, as the story goes, Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna, triggering a great war that would later be called Robert’s Rebellion. In short, Robert and Ned teamed up to fight the Targaryens, gradually winning over the rest of the realm as the tides of war started to favor them. It helped, of course, that Aerys Targaryen was a despised, insane ruler with a penchant for indiscriminately burning things. The war culminated with Robert killing Rhaegar on the Trident, a three-forked river in the middle of Westeros.
As Robert was fighting on the Trident, Ned Stark had business elsewhere. He and six others, including his best friend Howland Reed, rode to a place called the Tower of Joy, a nondescript tower in the Dornish mountains. There they found three members of the Kingsguard: Gerold Hightower, Arthur Dayne, and Oswell Whent. (In the show there were only two: sucks for Gerold.)
The books only revealed bits and pieces of this fight, which Bran saw in full last night on HBO. It was a brutal battle—Arthur Dayne was one of the greatest swordsmen in Westeros history—and at the end, only Ned and Howland survived. Ned went into the tower, where he found, well... CLIFFHANGER!
Although Game of Thrones is dragging out the resolution, presumably so it’s first revealed to Jon rather than Bran, many of us already know what Ned discovered in the tower: Lyanna Stark, dying on a bed of blue roses. Theory is, she’d just given birth to a baby boy that she’d conceived with Rhaegar. “Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna had said, asking him to adopt the baby as his own son. Ned would give him a bastard’s name: Jon Snow.
This “R+L=J” theory has been floating around for decades now, and the evidence is overwhelming. For one, there’s the fact that three of the seven Kingsguard were standing in front of this tower rather than battling with Rhaegar on the Trident or protecting Aerys in King’s Landing. It makes no sense that the Kingsguard would be guarding Lyanna Stark, even if Rhaegar had asked them really nicely... unless they were also guarding his son, who would have a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne if the rest of the family died.
Some other dot-connecting:
- The book series’ title, A Song of Ice and Fire, refers to a line uttered by Rhaegar while describing his son, Aegon. “He is the prince that was promised,” Rhaegar declared, “and his is the song of ice and fire.” That first part might sound familiar: Melisandre called Jon the “prince that was promised” in last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Turns out Rhaegar had the wrong son. It’s Jon who was born of ice (Lyanna Stark) and fire (Rhaegar Targaryen).
- There’s a great line in A Clash of Kings, as Dany is seeing visions at the House of the Undying, that hints strongly at this. Dany sees: “A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness.” In the books, Lyanna is strongly associated with blue flowers. Jon Snow, of course, is at the Wall.
- Jon’s age matches up, as does the timing. Belief at Winterfell was that Ned slept with someone named Wylla down south during the war and Jon popped out along the way, but Ned has always been obsessed with his honor. At the time, he was just married to Catelyn—why would he betray her and sleep with someone else? And why would he bring that bastard back to Winterfell, potentially tearing apart his marriage in the process, if there wasn’t a very good reason? Like, say, needing to protect the bastard son of Rhaegar and Lyanna from Robert Baratheon, who would kill Jon immediately if he knew that the boy had Targaryen blood. (Both the show and the books reveal that Robert hates Targaryens more than anything in the world.)
Both the show and books hint strongly that Rhaegar didn’t actually kidnap or rape Lyanna, despite what some of the characters believe. Lyanna never really loved Robert—“Robert will never keep to one bed,” she told Ned in a flashback that’s revealed in the first book—and stories hint that she had instead fallen for the dragon prince, who is portrayed as handsome and gallant.
Outside of Robert, everyone who met Rhaegar has nothing but kind things to say about him—see, for example, the scene in season five of the HBO show where Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys stories of her brother singing in the streets. In the books, Barristan also explains that Rhaegar was obsessed with books, and that the prince read something as a child that changed him—a prophecy, perhaps. In flashbacks and teases, Rhaegar is depicted as smart and kind, yet haunted by tragedy. (A place called Summerhall is frequently mentioned, and it appears that tragic events took place there, but we don’t yet know what they were.)
What’s most interesting about Jon’s parentage is how it sets up his inevitable showdown with Daenerys. Turns out she’s not the only living Targaryen! (There may be a third, if the books are to be believed, but the show has yet to explore that plot point.) Will Jon and Daenerys fall in love, then unite to fight the White Walkers in a grand battle between fire and ice? Will the two Targaryens battle to the death? Or will Game of Thrones subvert our expectations in a more interesting way? Here’s hoping they totally fuck with us and Dany just dies in a storm on the way to Westeros.