Beyond The Wall

'Game of Thrones' Revealed Jon Snow's True Parents, But There's More Mystery Ahead

jon snow father Rhaegar Targaryen
HBO

After 20 years of book speculation, and seven seasons of adapted television, Game of Thrones finally confirmed the identity of Jon Snow’s father: Rhaegar Targaryen. The revelation is less a surprise and more a relief, since fans long ago parsed out the facts. R+L=J is a formula even casual viewers have heard at some point, and now, at long last, we know it’s true. The tragic love affair between Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark, sister of Ned, resulted in a bloody, unnecessary war and the birth of a son, Aegon Targaryen, renamed "Jon Snow" to protect his identity once the Targaryen-hating King Robert Baratheon took the throne.

But what, exactly, brought these two together? The show is scant on details, relying instead on imagery and music. Even in the books, the timeline and motivation behind Rhaegar and Lyanna’s union is fuzzy. We glean information from the POVs of characters who were there -- like Ned Stark and Barristan Selmy and Stannis Baratheon -- but those memories aren’t wholly reliable. Their story is full of conjecture and mystery, as well as a fable and mythology. Was it purely a romance, or did Rhaegar have ulterior motives?

Here’s what we do know about Rhaegar and Lyanna’s relationship, the meaning behind Jon’s real name, and why there are still questions to be answered in Season 8.

rhaegar targaryen and lyanna stark season 7 game of thrones
HBO

The Knight of the Laughing Tree and the first signs of love

Rhaegar Targaryen was the son of Aerys II Targaryen, known through the kingdom as the Mad King. Per George R.R. Martin's source material, just before Robert’s Rebellion, a tournament was held at the castle of Harrenhal with Aerys, Rhaegar, Rhaegar’s wife Elia Martell, the Starks (Brandon, Ned, Lyanna and Benjen), the Lannisters, the Baratheons, the Daynes, and many other noble houses across Westeros all in attendance. Rumor has it that Aerys only attended out of suspicion that Rhaegar organized the assembly of high lords to conspire against the throne and remove the Mad King from power.

The tourney lasted ten days, and the realm’s finest warriors participated in jousts, axe-throwing and archery contests, horse races, and more. One jousting match occurred between a mysterious knight in mismatched armor, who won against three other knights in a tremendous victory. This mystery knight was dubbed "The Knight of the Laughing Tree," named for the laughing weirwood tree emblazoned on their armor.

The identity of the Knight of the Laughing Tree was hotly contested -- yes, even Westeros has Game of Thrones theorists. King Aerys was convinced it was an enemy put forth to mock him, and he ordered his son to find the knight and unmask him. Rhaegar was only able to find the knight’s shield, which was abandoned by a tree.

Rhaegar eventually won the final joust and was named champion of the tourney. In a surprising turn of events, he rode straight past his wife Elia and placed a crown of blue winter roses on the lap of a young Lyanna Stark -- who was betrothed to Robert Baratheon at the time -- which made her the "queen of love and beauty," a traditional title given to the loved one of a tourney winner to whom he dedicates his victory. This shocked the crowd, angering Aerys, the Starks, and Robert.

What does this have to do with the Knight of the Laughing Tree? Context clues point to Lyanna being the mystery knight. Some suspect that Rhaegar didn’t just find her shield, but discovered her true identity and was moved by and attracted to her bravery, which is why he made her the queen of love and beauty. Either way, the Great Tourney of Harrenhal is where Rhaegar and Lyanna first met, and for many, marks the beginning of Robert’s Rebellion.

mad king game of thrones
HBO

What happened during Robert’s Rebellion

Rhaegar and Lyanna didn’t meet again for another year, after the birth of Rhaegar’s son with Elia, Prince Aegon. Elia grew sickly after Aegon and was told she’d have no more children. Shortly thereafter, Rhaegar fled his home and kidnapped Lyanna in the Riverlands, then took her to Dorne. Word of the abduction spread to Winterfell -- Brandon Stark rode to King’s Landing to demand his sister’s return, but was instead imprisoned by the Mad King. When Rickard Stark -- Brandon and Lyanna’s father -- rode to retrieve his son, Aerys killed them all, provoking the war that would later be known as Robert’s Rebellion.

The war raged on for the better part of a year, with battles across all of Westeros. Robert Baratheon and Lyanna’s brother Ned led many of the charges, with Rhaegar eventually joining in. The Battle of the Trident was the definitive battle of the war; There, Robert defeated Rhaegar in single combat, bashing him in the chest with his warhammer and killing him dead. Robert went on to sack King’s Landing -- with the aid of the Lannisters -- while Ned was left to kill off the remaining Targaryen armies and find Lyanna. Rhaegar’s wife and children were murdered by the Mountain during the King’s Landing attack, the Mad King was killed by Jaime Lannister, and the remaining Targaryens -- Aerys’s wife, Rhaella, and children, Viserys and Daenerys -- fled to Dragonstone.

tower of joy
HBO

The Tower of Joy

Ned eventually found Lyanna in Dorne, in the Tower of Joy, a building in the Red Mountains nicknamed by Rhaegar. Though the books are not specific about what happened to Lyanna there, the show makes it explicit: Lyanna gave birth to Rhaegar’s son, a legitimized heir to the throne they named Aegon.

"Promise me, Ned," she intoned in her dying moments, words that haunted Ned until his own death some years later. The promise to protect Jon from Robert at all costs is the basis of the series, a tenant of prophecy ("Promise me, Ned" / The Prince That Was Promised), the culmination of the war, and a moment we still -- even after the revelation of Rhaegar and Lyanna’s marriage -- are left to ponder.

But did Rhaegar love Lyanna?

That’s the big question we’re left with. In the books, Barristan Selmy, a close friend of Rhaegar, says the prince "loved his lady Lyanna," and the events at Harrenhal point to a heartfelt attraction. Rhaegar was said to be unhappy with the meek Elia, with Cersei wondering if, had he married her as was originally intended, the war would have happened at all. Was it Rhaegar’s quest for happiness that led to Lyanna’s abduction, or something more?

There’s a semi-answer in Jon’s trueborn name, Aegon Targaryen. If you recall, Rhaegar already had a son named Aegon with Elia. Why would he use the name again? Rhaegar was said to be obsessed with prophecy, and believed for a long time that he was Azor Ahai reborn, the protector of realms and the man who would save the world from the next Long Night. Eventually, he changed speeds, instead believing that Azor Ahai would be born to him as a son named Aegon. He tells Daenerys this in a vision in the House of the Undying. "He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire."

So, was it Rhaegar’s love for Lyanna that spurned a war, or opportunity? Elia was, after all, too sickly to bear him another child. But Lyanna was sprightly, beautiful; a brave knight of her own, and of the blood of the First Men, like all Starks. Perhaps Rhaegar saw in her a perfect vessel to create this destined hero, the Prince That Was Promised. In that light, their story is less a romantic ideal and more a tragic inevitability.

What does this all mean for Jon? It’s hard to say. With the show in brevity mode, it’s possible that Rhaegar’s motivations will remain unclear. And if Barristan -- Rhaegar’s dear friend -- is to be believed, the prince really did love Lyanna, even with a prophetic undercurrent guiding his desires. But it’s interesting to wonder if a similar thing is going on with Jon and Daenerys. Is it love, or prophecy guiding their hearts? Are they destined for the same tragic pratfalls that befell Rhaegar and Lyanna? Considering the many allusions to Dany’s womb this season, and her and Jon’s now-consummated relationship, it’s easy to draw parallels. It wouldn’t be Thrones if the happiness and relief of their coupling wasn’t tinged with a sour aftertaste. With only one season left to go, anything could happen.

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.