So here we have it. Jon’s parents were Rhaegar and Lyanna. R+L=J. The Mother of All Theories, the über-theory, the ur-formula and trope namer, without which there would be no x+y=z threads. This is not heresy, it’s orthodoxy.
One of the problems for making the R+L=J case is that it there is simply too much data, and much of it is noise. When people pore over the text, examining every sentence for possible hints to R+L=J, they will inevitably find them everywhere. We are very good at finding patterns and no doubt much of the evidence that has been used to support R+L=J is no more than literary pareidolia, the tendency to see significance wherever we look for it. We see R+L=J all over ASOIAF, just as we see faces in clouds. For this essay I will therefore start by going back to basics. R+L=J stands on its own. It does not need the elaborations that have been heaped on it, and they tend to act as distraction. Such concepts as protect vs. obey, or the marriage of R&L, or King Jon etc., are ancillary to the theory of R+L=J. They may add to the discussion, but they are not necessary to the theory. I will avoid these extras as much as possible, and concentrate on finding the baseline of evidence that makes R+L=J by far the most likely possibility.
This is not CSI: Westeros. In these close studies of the text, it’s easy to think we are looking for historical clues rather than understanding a literary work. Do you remember what it was like to read A Game of Thrones the first time, unsullied? We, experienced students of the text, find it easy to forget that each clue we pick out is not a piece of a jigsaw-puzzle, but is given to us in a specific order. The order has meaning. Martin is telling a story, and the craft of the storyteller is to build a construction of ideas, to channel the assumptions and the feelings of the reader from start to finish.
The piecemeal approach to these theories means we’re leaving some of the most important data on the cutting-room floor. We look at the words, without considering the context. When do we first get a particular piece of information, and what did we know prior to that which illuminates it? On first reading, A Game of Thrones is packed with so many characters it’s hard to keep track. Martin uses standard techniques of storytelling to build up the image we have of those characters, and to weave the story he wishes to tell.
The first 13 chapters of A Game of Thrones function as an Act 1. They introduce us to House Stark, and to the core dynamics that lead to the events of the series. They take us to the start of the voyage, when Ned and co. head south, while Jon heads north. What Martin tells us in this opening act, and the way he tells it, is fundamental to the story he’s telling..
Martin uses a range of well-understood literary techniques to weave his narrative. For example, he paces the introduction of characters carefully. He avoids leaving too long between appearances of any of the important characters, and he often builds up our understanding of characters by introducing them in stages. Thus for example we first meet Ned as a distant father figure in Bran’s chapter 1, before seeing a much more intimate view of him in Cat’s chapter 2. Then we get into his head in his own PoV chapter 4. Had we started with chapter 4, he wouldn’t have the sense of distant authority that chapter one grants him. The way we are introduced to the core mysteries of the book is similar – we get a small reference to prime us to be aware there’s something important going on, then some background, then the detail. When presenting so much material to the reader, this technique of reinforcement ensures the important stuff stays with the reader. Any writer or literary critic will see all of this very clearly in that opening act — it’s textbook stuff.
I will jump straight to the conclusions, because the full analysis is big. If you want to see how I draw the following conclusions, read the appendix. Be warned, it’s big.
Ned and Jon are active participants in 5 chapters, while nobody else is in more than 3. Jon is discussed when not present more than anyone else – only Bran comes close. He’s obviously important, yet when the action starts, he’s effectively exiled from the story. The main storyline of the first couple of books (first book, in Martin’s original trilogy concept) is the game of thrones between Stark and Lannister. We get to see Jon’s frustration in sitting this out, effectively exiled from events. To paraphrase Aemon, the boy must be killed and the man born before Jon’s real role in the story can play out.
The next thing to observe is that we’ve been given two “whodunnits”. There is the death of Jon Arryn, which makes up the main thrust of Ned’s journey in the south. The second one is less obvious, as it doesn’t have a murder mystery to flag “whodunnit” in big red letters. This is the mystery of Jon (Snow’s) birth. The first mystery is for the journey south, the second for the journey north. Martin never presents this second mystery as being a mystery to be solved like Jon Arryn’s death, yet it gets more attention. The question of Jon’s birth is raised directly twice, once by Cat and once by Robert, and indirectly by Arya (questioning her parentage because she looks like Jon), Benjen (“Jon felt anger rise inside him. ‘I’m not your son!’ Benjen Stark stood up. ‘More’s the pity.'”) and twice by Tyrion (“Some woman, no doubt” and “Whoever his mother had been.”
These two separate whodunnits are played out very differently. The first is the subject of Ned’s investigations in King’s Landing, while the second, never presented as being a whodunnit, is left to the reader to solve. As well as the two whodunnits, we’re left with a bit of an enigma: Rhaegar and Lyanna. At first this seems like background detail, but Martin uses the aforementioned pattern of reinforcement to clue us in that it is important. In this opening 13 chapter act, Rhaegar’s name crops up 10 times over 3 chapters, and Lyanna’s 9 over 3 chapters. Jon Arryn is ostensibly the key mystery of the book, yet they get as much attention as he does – and at this point in the story, it’s all very vague. We don’t yet know what happened to Lyanna, so we’re primed to want to learn more. The clues to Lyanna’s fate, just like the clues to the overt mystery of Jon Arryn’s, unfold with the narrative.
We are invited to consider Jon’s appearance. Jon is first described in chapter 1, contrasting him to Robb. Most characters get a single introductory description, yet Jon’s appearance is discussed again in chapter 5, again in 6, again in 7 and again in 13, each time in relation to his parentage. Why would Martin keep telling us that Jon looks like Ned? You don’t have to be particularly genre – savvy to start wondering whether Jon is Ned’s son at all. Telling us once or twice would have been enough. Repeating it invites us to question it. On the other hand, how can Jon not be Ned’s son if he so clearly looks like Jon?
We are given hint as to a possible solution. Jon has Ned’s look, but he isn’t the only one to have Ned’s look. Arya does too. This doesn’t yet get us very far, as Arya is Ned’s daughter. There’s a subtler clue too.
Ned: “Ned turned away from them to gaze out the window, his long face silent and thoughtful.” ch.6
Arya and Jon: “It would have been easier if Arya had been a bastard, like their half brother Jon. She even looked like Jon, with the long face and brown hair of the Starks, and nothing of their lady mother in her face or her coloring.” ch.7
Rickard Stark: “Lord Rickard Stark, Ned’s father, had a long, stern face. ” ch.4
We even have: “A face had been carved in the trunk of the great tree, its features long and melancholy, the deep-cut eyes red with dried sap and strangely watchful.” – ch.2
Does Jon really have Ned’s face, or is it simply the face of Winterfell, the Stark face? In chapter 6 we had “‘Never ask me about Jon,” he said, cold as ice. “He is my blood, and that is all you need to know.'” — Ned calls Jon hisblood, not specifically his son. Benjen’s son then, despite the “More’s the pity” line and the omission of a “long face” description for him? Brandon, who we know little about? Or could Tyrion’s “Whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in her son” comment be an ironic reversal (from Tyrion? Surely not!) because really he got his features from Lyanna? After all, she keeps being mentioned for no clear reason. We know she died mysteriously in Ned’s presence somewhere in the south, just before Ned mysteriously acquired a motherless bastard son somewhere in the south, despite this apparently being out of character for Ned.
These possibilities all raise a question we have no answer for as yet. If it were any of these three, why not say so? Why would Ned be lying to his wife, who’s obviously hurt by Jon’s presence? Why would he pretend to have done something dishonourable? “I dishonored myself and I dishonored Catelyn, in the sight of gods and men,” he tells Robert. Why the qualifier “in the sight of gods and men”?
For all her resentment of Jon, Cat doesn’t seem to be too aware of the dishonour. “Many men fathered bastards. Catelyn had grown up with that knowledge. It came as no surprise to her, in the first year of her marriage, to learn that Ned had fathered a child on some girl chance met on campaign. (…) He was welcome to whatever solace he might find between battles.” That phrase “in the sight of gods and men” comes up in two other contexts. One is marriage, but the other is confession. “…let my truth or falsehood be judged openly, in the sight of gods and men,” Tyrion says in ch.38. Is Ned’s dishonour that he falsely confessed?
As the story progresses, Ned chips away at the mystery of Arryn’s death. The second hidden whodunnit is left to the reader to chip away at, with hints scattered through the text. This section will deal with those hints. It could be much larger, but others have picked the text apart looking for every little clue, and that’s not the point here.
During the journey to Winterfell, we get a slightly obscure connection to the Lyanna story. Sansa thinks about Arya, repeating Arya’s own thoughts from a few chapters previously that she looks like Jon. Just like Arya did, she questions Arya’s parentage due to the similarity. Sansa thinks that Arya “looked like Jon, with the long face and brown hair of the Starks, and nothing of their lady mother in her face or her coloring.” This closely parallels Tyrion’s comment that “Whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in [Jon].
We also discover that Arya is rather wild and tomboyish, but like Lyanna she has a thing for flowers. When Joffrey and Sansa find Arya practising sword-fighting with Mycah, we get a parallel that won’t be apparent for two more books. Arya defends Mycah, an innocent northerner, against a Joffrey, a bullying young southerner, by attacking him with a stick she’s using as a training sword. Lyanna did the same thing at Harrenhal, defending an innocent northerner (Howland) from the three bullying southern squires, by attacking them with a wooden training sword. Another parallel we won’t get for a while is that Lyanna and Arya are both excellent horsewomen.
A few chapters later, Ned speaks to Arya, still dealing with the consequences of this event, and we get some telling material.
AGoT ch.22 said:
“Ah, Arya. You have a wildness in you, child. ‘The wolf blood,’ my father used to call it. Lyanna had a touch of it, and my brother Brandon more than a touch. It brought them both to an early grave.” Arya heard sadness in his voice; he did not often speak of his father, or of the brother and sister who had died before she was born. “Lyanna might have carried a sword, if my lord father had allowed it. You remind me of her sometimes. You even look like her.”
Arya looks like Lyanna. Jon looks like Arya. All three look like Ned. The puzzle of Jon’s looks, which has been brought up again and again, has a solution. Arya has the characteristic Stark look Lyanna had, despite Lyanna not being her mother, because she got it from Ned. Jon has the characteristic Stark look that Ned had, despite Ned not being his father, because he got it from Lyanna. It’s a poetic symmetry – Arya and Jon are alike. Arya is described as looking like Jon’s mother, Jon is described as looking like Arya’s father.
Joffrey too looks like only one of his parents, and we will soon learn that his parentage is not what we thought it was, either. That gives Ned the key to that first mystery. We should not be too surprised that Jon looking like only one of his parents is a clue to his own secret parentage, and that’s the key to the second of those two initial mysteries.
Arya made a face. “Not if Joffrey’s his father,” she said. “He’s a liar and a craven and anyhow he’s a stag, not a lion.”
Sansa felt tears in her eyes. “He is not! He’s not the least bit like that old drunken king,” she screamed at her sister, forgetting herself in her grief.Father looked at her strangely. “Gods,” he swore softly, “out of the mouth of babes . . . ”
Arya & Sansa’s focus on Joffrey’s appearance is what clues Ned into the relevance Joff’s looks have on his true parentage. So too, their focus on Jon’s appearance tells the reader about Jon’s true parentage. Both “reveals” come from understanding the truth behind Arya and Sansa’s naive observations about appearance.
“We all lie,” Ned tells Arya, answering any reader who might think that Ned is too honourable to ever lie. It’s just that the circumstances must be right. For example, you can lie with honour when you are trying to save the life of a wolf pup from vengeful royals.
She whined and looked at me and I felt so ‘shamed, but it was right, wasn’t it? The queen would have killed her.”
“It was right,” her father said. “And even the lie was . . . not without honor.”
A couple of chapters prior, Lyanna enters Ned’s thoughts in a peculiar way. He learns of Bran’s wolf saving his son’s life, and he can’t help worrying that he’d committed some great “folly” in killing Lady. Then we have a very important paragraph:
AGoT ch.20 said:
“If the queen had a role in this or, gods forbid, the king himself . . . no, I will not believe that.” Yet even as he said the words, he remembered that chill morning on the barrowlands, and Robert’s talk of sending hired knives after the Targaryen princess. He remembered Rhaegar’s infant son, the red ruin of his skull, and the way the king had turned away, as he had turned away in Darry’s audience hall not so long ago. He could still hear Sansa pleading, as Lyanna had pleaded once.
In the context of the Lannisters trying to have a Stark child (Bran) killed, he thinks of Robert’s willingness to kill Targaryen children. Then he remembers Sansa pleading for Lady’s life, as Lyanna had once pleaded. What’s the connection?
Way back in chapter 4, we had Lyanna’s “Promise me” first mentioned, and here it is again. It comes up a lot more in the rest of Ned’s chapters; this is something that preys on him, 14 years on.
AGoT ch.4 said:
“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” He could hear her still at times. Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes.
The promise being mentioned immediately after the mention of Lyanna requesting her body be sent home makes us assume that is what she asked Ned to promise. Now we have some more context, it’s time to re-evaluate that promise that is so reminiscent of Sansa pleading for the life of her pup. Lyanna’s plea – directly likened to Sansa’s – must in some way match Sansa’s.
Ned’s memory is triggered by the thought of the Lannisters, and potentially Robert, as a threat to Stark and Targaryen children. He is reminded of the Lannisters killing Rhaegar’s son, and how Robert had “turned away”, just as he turned away from the killing of Sansa’s pup. So if Lyanna, like Sansa, was pleading with Ned to save her “pup”, was that a Stark or a Targaryen child? Or indeed both?
Some time later we get:
Ned thought, If it came to that, the life of some child I did not know, against Robb and Sansa and Arya and Bran and Rickon, what would I do? Even more so, what would Catelyn do, if it were Jon’s life, against the children of her body? He did not know. He prayed he never would.
Why limit his list to Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon? He names them and does not name Jon. Take note of the way Martin lists the children – “Robb and Sansa and Arya and Bran and Rickon”. Using “and” rather than a comma is an unusually precise stylistic choice that emphasises the fact that it’s a list in the readers mind. Martin could easily have written “against my children”, but chose instead to have Ned enumerate his children in this unusually precise fashion – and omit Jon from that list. It’s hard to see how Martin could have more clearly told us that Jon is not Ned’s son without spoiling the puzzle by saying so outright.
Ned’s second thought tells us something more. Ned has not simply forgotten Jon, because he’s mentioned next. The construction “Even more so” indicates that this comparison – Jon against the life of Catelyn’s children – must be more relevant. How, we might ask, would Jon be a threat to Catelyn’s children?
AGoT ch.30 said:
Cersei could not have been pleased by her lord husband’s by-blows, yet in the end it mattered little whether the king had one bastard or a hundred. Law and custom gave the baseborn few rights. Gendry, the girl in the Vale, the boy at Storm’s End, none of them could threaten Robert’s trueborn children.
What we see here is that at least according to Ned’s own thinking, a bastard son of Ned would not be a threat to Catelyn’s children. It’s true that Cat herself is not so convinced, as we learn when Robb suggests making Jon her heir. However Ned, perhaps naively, doesn’t think that way. Thus, if Jon is Ned’s son, his thought makes no sense.
Let’s concentrate on that “Even more so” conjunction: what could make this example more similar? In Cersei’s mind, Bran had to die because alive he represented a risk that Robert would find out that he’d been deceived on a question parentage, and her children’s future would be at risk if he found out. What circumstance can we imagine where Jon represented a risk that Robert might find out that he’d been deceived on a question of parentage, and where Cat’s children’s future would be at risk if he did? It’s hard to imagine much that would come between Ned and Robert. In fact, there’s only one thing that we see coming between them, causing real anger every time it’s raised, one genuinely hard-to-reconcile difference, and that’s Robert’s desire to see the Targaryen line extinguished, even if it means killing children.
“I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” Not even Jon Arryn had been able to calm that storm. Eddard Stark had ridden out that very day in a cold rage, to fight the last battles of the war alone in the south. It had taken another death to reconcile them; Lyanna’s death, and the grief they had shared over her passing.
That first mention of a promise, when Ned tells us she wanted to come home, doesn’t fit with what we later learn. It doesn’t make sense that Ned would be so consumed by the memory of such a promise that he keeps thinking about it, or that it would keep him awake at night.
AGoT ch.35 said:
“He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them.”
Here we see that the promises are plural. Maybe one of them was about taking her bones back to Winterfell, but there was more than one promise, and Ned paid a price to keep them. What price has Ned paid? We know that he’s hurt about having dishonoured himself and Cat, but that can only be relevant if he “dishonoured her” by doing something he promised to Lyanna. If we believe that Jon really is Ned’s son, then that “dishonour” he did to Cat has nothing to do with his promises or the price he paid to keep them. We know that Jon Snow’s presence at Winterfell causes friction between himself and Cat. We know that “Troubled sleep was no stranger to him. He had lived his lies for fourteen years, yet they still haunted him at night. ” Unless there is something Ned has suffered that we have been given no indication of, the price he paid for keeping his promises to Lyanna must relate to having to lie, and/or to Jon Snow’s presence at Winterfell.
All of this comes together in Chapter 39, when Ned has his famous dream. “He dreamt an old dream, of three knights in white cloaks, and a tower long fallen, and Lyanna in her bed of blood. ” For some readers, this will be a “Bingo!” moment. Some of us will look at that odd phrase “bed of blood” and immediately think that means childbirth. Some of us have to wait.
AGoT ch.61 said:
“Before,” Dany said to the ugly Lhazareen woman, “I heard you speak of birthing songs . . . “
“I know every secret of the bloody bed, Silver Lady, nor have I ever lost a babe,” Mirri Maz Duur replied.
There’s a near repeat of the phrase, and the context is clear. The secrets of the bloody bed are about birthing. In Dany’s next chapter, we have a near repeat – remember the concept of reinforcement and clarification in storytelling. Martin draws our attention to the explanation of this phrase by repeating it. He wants us to understand it.
“The Lamb Woman knows the secrets of the birthing bed,” Irri said. “She said so, I heard her.”
Just in case we’re still confused, Martin repeats this phrase pair in A Feast for Crows – first a “bed of blood”, then a “birthing bed”. Again, repetition reinforces the idea.
AFfC ch.1 said:
That was the way of this cold world, where men fished the sea and dug in the ground and died, whilst women brought forth short-lived children from beds of blood and pain. […]]No woman could defeat him, not even Asha; women were made to fight their battles in the birthing bed.
The conclusion is clear: while Ned was with her, or shortly before, Lyanna gave birth.
I am going to save the trouble of doing any long analysis of time-lines here, because it’s been done perfectly well many times before. To cut to the chase, Dany was born almost nine months after the fall of King’s Landing, and Jon was born 8-9 months before that. We have Martin’s own word on this. We know that Lyanna was abducted about a year before the sack of King’s Landing, and that Ned reached the Tower of Joy shortly after the sack of King’s Landing. What this tells us is that Jon was born about the time Ned reached the Tower of Joy, when Lyanna was in her birthing bed.
Given the timeline and all the above clues, it would be mighty coincidental if Jon, with all those reasons to believe he’s not Ned’s son but is the son of a Stark, isn’t the child that Lyanna bore at the time when Jon was being born. In fact I would say we’ve got so much reason to believe that Jon is Lyanna’s son that anything else would leave an enormously smelly red herring. To gratuitously abuse a popular phrase, for Martin to write anyone other than Lyanna as Jon’s mother would be a serious case of “jumping the Stark”.
Having established Lyanna as Jon’s mother, we immediately have a candidate for Jon’s father. For a start, Lyanna became pregnant after her abduction. This doesn’t conclusively limit the possible fathers to the men we know were involved with that abduction, but anything else would take some explaining. Rhaegar was the one who decided to abduct her, and most people seem to be under the impression he wanted to get into her knickers. Robert believes Rhaegar raped her; Viserys told Dany that Rhaegar died “for the woman he loved”. We heard that in chapter 2, far too early for it to mean anything to us at the time, but if we go back and look things over, it’s hard to see how the woman he died for could have been anyone but Lyanna. He certainly didn’t die for Elia. Before a debate starts – we don’t actually have to believe that Rhaegar & Lyanna fell in love. As it happens I suspect that they did, but the evidence is not certain, and more importantly irrelevant to the discussions. We are given two contrary stories – the woman he loved or the woman he raped – and both can result in pregnancy. As could something in between.
From a pure story-telling perspective, we’ve seen Lyanna associated with Rhaegar from the beginning, and we’ve already seen a number of hints that point to Rhaegar. There’s the “Even more so” example of Jon vs. Cat during the Ned/Cersei exchange discussed above. There’s Sansa’s pleading, which reminds Ned of Lyanna’s pleas when he thinks of the death of Rhaegar’s children, and that one’s worth repeating:
He remembered Rhaegar’s infant son, the red ruin of his skull, and the way the king had turned away, as he had turned away in Darry’s audience hall not so long ago. He could still hear Sansa pleading, as Lyanna had pleaded once.
It’s good, but it’s not enough. Let’s look for more. Ned’s visit to the brothel, to see one of Robert’s bastards, is a particularly interesting scene.
“Tell him that when you see him, milord, as it . . . as it please you. Tell him how beautiful she is.”
“I will,” Ned had promised her. That was his curse. Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them.[…] Good to you, Ned thought hollowly. “I will tell him, child, and I promise you, Barra shall not go wanting.”She had smiled then, a smile so tremulous and sweet that it cut the heart out of him. Riding through the rainy night, Ned saw Jon Snow’s face in front of him, so like a younger version of his own. If the gods frowned so on bastards, he thought dully, why did they fill men with such lusts? “Lord Baelish, what do you know of Robert’s bastards?”[…]”Why would Jon Arryn take a sudden interest in the king’s baseborn children?”The short man gave a sodden shrug. “He was the King’s Hand. Doubtless Robert asked him to see that they were provided for.”Ned was soaked through to the bone, and his soul had grown cold. “It had to be more than that, or why kill him?”Littlefinger shook the rain from his hair and laughed. “Now I see. Lord Arryn learned that His Grace had filled the bellies of some whores and fishwives, and for that he had to be silenced. Small wonder. Allow a man like that to live, and next he’s like to blurt out that the sun rises in the east.”There was no answer Ned Stark could give to that but a frown. For the first time in years, he found himself remembering Rhaegar Targaryen. He wondered if Rhaegar had frequented brothels; somehow he thought not.
“Barra shall not go wanting”, Ned promises, and the promise he makes here remind him of his promises to Lyanna. The next thing Ned thinks of is Jon Snow. Jon, of course, is (at least so we are told) a bastard, so surely it’s not too surprising that he’d think of Jon in the context of visiting Robert’s bastard. Is it just a coincidence that Martin puts it right after Ned making a promise to protect someone else’s bastard though? Ned thinks of Jon while “riding through the rainy night”. We might expect that previous line about the mother’s smile to be in the previous paragraph, allowing the paragraph break to take us through this jump forwards in the narrative, yet it does not. The mother’s smile, which “cut the heart out of him” remains in his thoughts after he’s left the brothel, and leads him to think about Jon Snow. Why would that smile have such an effect on Ned?
Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black.
Ned and Littlefinger have a discussion about Robert’s bastards, and then we have a sudden segue in his thoughts to Rhaegar. Some use this line to object to R+L=J. Why, if he’s raising Rhaegar’s son, would Rhaegar not enter his thoughts in years? Wrong question.
Suddenly, uncomfortably, he found himself recalling Rhaegar Targaryen.
For the first time in years, he found himself remembering Rhaegar Targaryen.
As it turns out, Ned last remembered Rhaegar in his previous chapter. How on earth can we make sense of this? I don’t think that we are supposed to believe that Ned’s so traumatised by Rhaegar that he suffers some kind of fugue-state amnesiac episodes. Possibly we’re seeing something that Martin would have preferred to reword in his draft revisions, but missed it. The similarity to the phrase in the previous chapter makes me think that Martin had thought up a nice way to express a particular idea, and decided to move it from one place to another where it would serve a better purpose, but accidentally left it in both. Regardless, there are three things that we clearly can take away from this.
1. Ned doesn’t have Rhaegar on the brain.
2. Ned suddenly thinks of Rhaegar in the context of his brothel visit.
3. Ned does not associate Rhaegar with brothels.
What would trigger Ned to think of Rhaegar if he doesn’t think of him often and he wouldn’t associate him with brothels? Something else must bring Rhaegar to mind, and the other things that Ned has been thinking about are royal bastards, Lyanna, and Jon Snow. Let’s put it the other way around. Ned is thinking about Robert’s bastard, and the mother, who he has just visited. The promise he made to the mother reminds him of the promise he made to Lyanna. He thinks about Jon (Lyanna’s child and the subject of Lyanna’s promise). He thinks about Robert, the bastard’s father. What’s missing? The father of Jon Snow. Who else is mentioned, and directly compared to Robert, as if playing the Robert role in that alternative narrative? Rhaegar.
So what we have here with this replay of the promise is an echo of Ned’s visit to the Tower of Joy, where he made the promise to Lyanna, right? Right. More right than just the echo of a promise. As it turns out, this entire chapter is a peculiarly distorted echo of the events at the ToJ.
Just after thinking about Rhaegar, Jaime shows up, and we have a similar part-echo of the other half of the ToJ scene. “Ned’s men had drawn their swords, but they were three against twenty” – a familiar turn of phrase. In Ned’s very next chapter we have the ToJ dream, with “Ned’s wraiths moved up beside him, with shadow swords in hand. They were seven against three.” The numbers are inverted, but that’s not the only inversion. Jaime’s men are “phantoms in red cloaks” as Ned’s at the tower were wraiths. The inversion is obvious when we consider the reason for Jaime to accost Ned. Jaime has come to demand the return of his sibling, who was abducted on the road near Harrenhal. Ned went to the ToJ to demand the return of his sibling, who was abducted on the road close to Harrenhal.
The similarities I’ve listed here aren’t the only similarities between the two scenes, and nor is this the only echo of the ToJ scene. This is a point I originally intended to expand on considerably, but it grew in the telling, until it needed an essay of its own.
When you start observing the pattern of Tower of Joy dream echoes, you find it shows up very clearly in a number of places, for example in Cersei’s dream, at White Walls and at Ashford in the Dunc & Egg stories, and Mirri Maaz Duur’s ritual in the tent. There are elements that come again and again: three kingsguards, cloaks, a red stallion, a shooting star, wraith imagery, and more. The pattern isn’t exact; each echo has it’s own distortions, and its own connections. It’s hard to unsee when you see it, and it explains a lot of odd points where there’s a focus on some detail which makes little sense in the immediate context, but much more when you realise it’s an echo of events elsewhere.
MMD’s tent ritual ends with the miscarried birth of Dany’s mutant half-dragon child. Ashford and White Walls both deal with the revealing of a hidden Targaryen, Egg – who’s mother has the curiously familiar sounding name Dyanna. Cersei’s dream deals with her asking about the children she will have with Rhaegar. The events of the Tower of Joy fit into a pattern. What exactly that pattern is, what it represents, whether it’s a literary device or some magical ritual, there’s a link to Targaryen children. The sense of some kind of quest or mystery achievement runs through many of the echoes, and that achievement seems to be about the hatching of a dragon – the birth, symbolically or otherwise, of a Targaryen.
At MMD’s tent, Dany saw shadows dancing. She “glimpsed the shadow of a great wolf, and another like a man wreathed in flames.” In Dany’s next chapter, she has a dream where all the Targaryens are on fire. Thus the man wreathed in flames is likely a Targaryen, while the great wolf is surely a Stark. Dany’s stillborn child was literally half-dragon. I think it’s not much of a jump to suggest that at the Tower of Joy, a great wolf (Lyanna) and a man of fire (Rhaegar) danced, and a half-dragon was born.
You can find the full write-up of this in my essay The Puppets of Ice and Fire over in Another Place.
Are we convinced yet? Not quite? Let’s talk about blue roses. A lot of the symbolism associated with blue roses (unattainable love, grasping thorns, chinks in a wall of ice) skates too close to the interpretive stuff I’m trying to keep out of this essay, though let’s be honest, when Rhaegar puts the crown in Lyanna’s lapfrom the tip of his lance, that’s some pretty obvious symbolism right there. Let’s stick to the facts though. Rhaegar gave Lyanna a crown of blue winter roses. Lyanna died clutching roses. When Cersei tells Ned that Robert never loved her, only Lyanna, Ned thinks of blue winter roses. Lyanna’s statue wears blue winter roses. Lyanna loved roses, Rhaegar gave blue winter roses to her. The main place that we see blue winter roses apart from the story of Rhaegar & Lyanna is the story of Bael the Bard.
Bael, with his oddly Targaryen-sounding “ae” name, was a harpist. He was offered the fairest rose in Winterfell as a reward for singing, but he interpreted that differently to Lord Stark. He returned the blue winter rose he’d been given, and instead took Lord Stark’s daughter. The image this story gives us is one of exchange – a blue winter rose for the maidenhead of Lord Stark’s daughter. Bael hid away in a crypt with the Stark maiden, and almost a year later the maiden was found by Lord Stark with a new baby.
Rhaegar is the only other person we see giving blue roses to Starks. He was also a harpist. He also abducted a Stark maiden, hid away with her, and almost a year later she was found by Lord Stark with a new baby. Given the similarities here, surely that same exchange – blue rose for Stark Maiden’s maidenhead, and a bastard fathered on her – is a more than reasonable assumption to make in Rhaegar’s case, too.
To cap it all, let’s remember that Ygritte tells this story to Jon Snow immediately after asking Jon Snow who his mother, and tells him this story specifically as an illustration of Jon’s true parentage.
“Were they your kin?” he asked her quietly. “The two we killed?”
“No more than you are.”
“Me?” He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You said you were the Bastard o’ Winterfell.”
“Who was your mother?”
“Some woman. Most of them are.” Someone had said that to him once. He did not remember who.
She smiled again, a flash of white teeth. “And she never sung you the song o’ the winter rose?”
“I never knew my mother. Or any such song.”
So the story of Bael the Bard, with its very obvious parallels to the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna, is told in the context of Jon’s parentage, and the question of who he is unknowingly related to. Jon’s not listening though, he’s got a new family now, and he’s stopped thinking about his mother. He doesn’t even recall that that he heard the “Some woman” line from Tyrion any more. He doesn’t believe any of it.
“It never happened,’ Jon said.
You know nothing, Jon Snow.
Here’s the optional appendix that explains in detail what I discussed about the “first act” of AGoT. The essay is more than long enough as it is, so I separated this out for people to ignore if they want to.
The first chapter introduces us to Ned and his sons (and ward), and the direwolf pups. Although it’s from Bran’s viewpoint it’s really about Jon, and the main thing we learn is that he’s different, just as his wolf is different. This is more than just the bastardy.
“Bran saw his father’s face change, saw the other men exchange glances. He loved Jon with all his heart at that moment. Even at seven, Bran understood what his brother had done. The count had come right only because Jon had omitted himself. ”
This reflects something that we hear again and again. Jon Snow may be a bastard, but Ned treats him equally. Jon isn’t doing what’s expected of him here – Bran, Ned, and the other men all see that Jon is making a sacrifice by representing himself as being simply a bastard. He emphasises that difference more than most other people do, yet the albino pup sets him apart. Bran thinks it “…curious that this pup alone would have opened his eyes while the others were still blind.” This is a very traditional piece of imagery relating to secret knowledge.
In chapter 2, Catelyn gives us a little background on the North, usefully from a southern perspective; like us, she’s an outsider. We’ll see this technique of introduction followed by reinforcement from a different perspective in GRRM’s writing technique again and again. She mentions the three children we haven’t yet been introduced to, and then talks about Jon Arryn and Robert. After Ned as the distant authority-figure in chapter 1, we get a much more intimate view of him here. Following a break for Dany in chapter 3, we then get Ned’s own PoV for an even closer look at him. We meet Robert, and hear more about Jon, and about Lyanna and Rhaegar. Then we get a Jon chapter, with more of Jon as outsider (though revelling in it), as he sits aside from the family at the feast, and gets the opportunity to describe them to us one after the other. Then another Cat chapter, with plenty of talk of the children, and some more background on the mystery of Jon Arryns’ death and Jon Snow’s birth. Then an Arya chapter, where we get to meet the two daughters properly for the first time, and a bit more about the other children, particularly Jon.
Think back to the first time you read this, with this large cast of characters being thrown at you. Remember what it’s like trying to make sense of who is who, and think about what Martin is trying to do here. We see characters at a distance, then up close. We see people mentioned and then introduced. We are given ideas, and then have those ideas reinforced. This is how GRRM constructs a story and introduces key characters. It’s absolutely classic storytelling, almost a by-the-book example of the writer’s craft. There is one notable exception in chapter 2, and that’s Jon Arryn. Right after introducing one character called Jon, Martin introduces another. Either this is a very uncharacteristic piece of clumsiness, or Martin is priming the reader, using that initial unfamiliarity a first-time reader has to create a subtle association between Jon Arryn and Jon Snow.
One thing we learn about John Arryn here is that he was Eddard’s “second father”. Martin uses this phrase twice in as many paragraphs, which tells us that he’s trying to prime the reader with this piece of information too. Thus, as early as chapter 2, Martin is subtly planting a connection in the reader’s head between Jon Snow and “second fathers”. The two Jons are also a the heart of the two mysteries that Martin is introducing us to. We are told outright that there is a mystery, a “whodunnit” about Jon Arryn. There’s also a “whodunnit” question about Jon Snow – the question of his parentage.
Chapter 3 shifts focus to a new character and new place. Danaerys, a young deposed princess who, so far, we have no reason to see as anything other than an innocent victim. We learn of “Her brother Rhaegar battling the Usurper in the bloody waters of the Trident and dying for the woman he loved” and how this usurper was aided by the lords Lannister and Stark. Hang on, Stark? Aren’t they the good guys? And didn’t we just learn in the previous chapter that Lord Stark does not like Lannisters? We’ll learn more about Rhaegar over the next few chapters, but it will be some time before we are given reason to see him in the same light that Dany sees him, as a romantic figure.
In chapter 4, Robert arrives and immediately asks to go down to the Winterfell crypts. Here we hear the back-story of Jon Arryn, which sets up the main action of the book. We also hear of Rhaegar and Lyanna. If you’re following the pattern, you’ll notice that same thing about an introduction followed by detail from another perspective. Rhaegar must be an important character for the author to be using this same priming technique. This is still very early in the book. This is where we expect to be introduced to important information, and everything about this chapter tells us the Rhaegar and Lyanna story is important. This is the very first thing that Robert does. His queen objects, but Jaime leads Cersei away, telling us this is something important enough that everyone knows the queen will lose this argument.
It is Lyanna, not Jon Arryn, who is first discussed after the initial small talk is done. It might at first be considered part of that small talk, yet what we are presented with is a mystery.
“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” He could hear her still at times. Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black. After that he remembered nothing. They had found him still holding her body, silent with grief. The little crannogman, Howland Reed, had taken her hand from his. Ned could recall none of it. “I bring her flowers when I can,” he said. “Lyanna was . . . fond of flowers.”
It’s easy, as a first time reader, to gloss over much of this because we don’t really understand it. We are given a promise that is never voiced, a room of blood and roses with no explanations, and a peculiar amnesia. We have no idea what’s going on, and Martin’s language highlights the fact. Again, we are being primed – we want to know what’s being referred to, why these things happened. We are being given a mystery to solve.
Chapter 5 returns us to Jon, and spends more time emphasising the idea that Jon is different from the other Stark children. His conversation with Tyrion returns us to the question of his parentage. It also contains an interesting detail that again the informed reader might ignore, but is striking to the first-time reader. Up to this point, the Targaryens appear to have been the bad guys, from the Stark perspective. Suddenly we learn that a Targaryen is one of Jon’s heroes. We also get an important exchange:
“Lord Eddard Stark is my father,” Jon admitted stiffly.
Lannister studied his face. “Yes,” he said. “I can see it. You have more of the north in you than your brothers.”
“Half brothers,” Jon corrected. He was pleased by the dwarf’s comment, but he tried not to let it show.
Again we see Jon emphasise his lack of Starkness more than other people. We’re also given reason to think about Jon’s mother. Cat’s chapter emphasised her foreignness, that she is from the south. When we read Tyrion’s words, the obvious calculus is that Jon’s mother, unlike the other Stark children’s, must have been from the North.
Chapter 6 is where we learn that Jon Arryn’s death is more than it seems, and Lysa’s letter blames the Lannisters (who we previously have negative thoughts about from Ned, more of Martin’s front-load-then-reveal technique). This is interesting because it gives us a reinforcement straight after a contradiction. When we met Tyrion in the previous chapter, he seemed more sympathetic than we were anticipating from a Lannister. This is not the only contradiction of that Tyrion encounter.
It came as no surprise to her, in the first year of her marriage, to learn that Ned had fathered a child on some girl chance met on campaign. He had a man’s needs, after all, and they had spent that year apart, Ned off at war in the south while she remained safe in her father’s castle at Riverrun.
The calculus of Jon’s birth, that his mother must have been a northerner, seems to be very quickly contradicted. Jon’s mother, this seems to imply, was a southerner after all. Unless, of course, his mother was a northerner who was for some reason in the south.
The Starks were not like other men. Ned brought his bastard home with him, and called him “son” for all the north to see. When the wars were over at last, and Catelyn rode to Winterfell, Jon and his wet nurse had already taken up residence.
Here we have another reinforcement about the contrast between Jon’s difference and his acceptance. Jon’s position in the Stark household is not normal.
That was the only time in all their years that Ned had ever frightened her. “Never ask me about Jon,” he said, cold as ice. “He is my blood, and that is all you need to know. And now I will learn where you heard that name, my lady.” She had pledged to obey; she told him; and from that day on, the whispering had stopped, and Ashara Dayne’s name was never heard in Winterfell again.
This seems to answer the puzzle. Why would Ned react in that way if Ashara Dayne was not Jon’s mother, if he did not feel shame about her? Obviously this must mean a lot to Ned, as it’s the only time he’d ever frightened Cat. Yet this leaves us with nagging questions. If Jon, like the other kids, has a southern mother, why has he got more of the North in him? If we’ve really been given the answer already, why is it still perpetuated as a mystery well after this answer is given?
There’s another important observation to be made about this passage. We all know who Arthur Dayne is. When we first read this, we did not. At this point, there is no inkling that Arthur Dayne was so involved in Lyanna’s story. In chapter 4 we got our first details of Lyanna’s story. We don’t know it yet, but we’ve just been given more details of Lyanna’s story, and in the context of Jon’s parentage. GRRM is giving us clues that we won’t recognise as clues until we have more of the story; a jigsaw-puzzle piece we’ll have to come back to before we can fit it. GRRM is a sneaky writer though, so he does give us one call back.
Whoever Jon’s mother had been, Ned must have loved her fiercely, for nothing Catelyn said would persuade him to send the boy away. It was the one thing she could never forgive him.
Eddard does not seem to love easily. He loves Robert as a brother, and he’s obviously grown to love Cat, even though we’re told in this chapter that he married her for duty, not love. He undoubtedly loves his children, but he’s far more pragmatic about them than Cat is. What kind of a woman would inspire a fierce, protective love in Ned? Actually we’ve already been told back in chapter 4, in the same place that this mention of Arthur Dayne is a hidden call-back to.
Lyanna had only been sixteen, a child-woman of surpassing loveliness. Ned had loved her with all his heart.
Chapter 7 gives us our first proper look at Arya and Sansa, and we are instantly presented with differences. Arya’s stitches are crooked, Sansa’s exquisite, a neat metaphor that instantly tells us about the characters. Sansa is discussing Joffrey, who she’s very taken by. Arya’s immediate response:
“Jon says he looks like a girl,” Arya said.
Sansa sighed as she stitched. “Poor Jon,” she said. “He gets jealous because he’s a bastard.”
“He’s our brother,” Arya said, much too loudly. Her voice cut through the afternoon quiet of the tower room.
Arya is very protective of Jon here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a bit of a left-over from GRRM’s initial plan to have Arya and Jon eventually fall in love. On the other hand, we will find out as the books go on that Arya bears a lot of similarities to Lyanna – and indeed acts as a kind of stand-in for Lyanna in several places. Wouldn’t Lyanna be very protective of her son? What remains is a matter of comparisons.
It wasn’t fair. Sansa had everything. Sansa was two years older; maybe by the time Arya had been born, there had been nothing left. Often it felt that way. Sansa could sew and dance and sing. She wrote poetry. She knew how to dress. She played the high harp and the bells. Worse, she was beautiful. Sansa had gotten their mother’s fine high cheekbones and the thick auburn hair of the Tullys. Arya took after their lord father. Her hair was a lusterless brown, and her face was long and solemn. Jeyne used to call her Arya Horseface, and neigh whenever she came near. It hurt that the one thing Arya could do better than her sister was ride a horse. Well, that and manage a household. Sansa had never had much of a head for figures. If she did marry Prince Joff, Arya hoped for his sake that he had a good steward.
Then a little later,
“A shade more fun than needlework,” Arya gave back at him. Jon grinned, reached over, and messed up her hair. Arya flushed. They had always been close. Jon had their father’s face, as she did. They were the only ones. Robb and Sansa and Bran and even little Rickon all took after the Tullys, with easy smiles and fire in their hair. When Arya had been little, she had been afraid that meant that she was a bastard too. It been Jon she had gone to in her fear, and Jon who had reassured her.
“Why aren’t you down in the yard?” Arya asked him.
He gave her a half smile. “Bastards are not allowed to damage young princes,” he said. “Any bruises they take in the practice yard must come from trueborn swords.”
“Oh.” Arya felt abashed. She should have realized. For the second time today, Arya reflected that life was not fair.
Arya is connecting Sansa to Joffrey, and herself to Jon. Life is not fair to Jon or herself. Arya even used to wonder if she was a bastard like Jon. We have some more similarities. They both look like their father, a fact that’s mentioned twice in the chapter, a sure sign of significance. More subtly, we learn that Arya is good at riding. In Jon’s last chapter, he told us “Hullen says I sit a horse as well as anyone in the castle.”
Chapter 9 gives us lots of little hints about the Jon Arryn mystery, and one little reminder of the importance of Lyanna: “Having Stark beside him will only make him worse. He’s still in love with the sister, the insipid little dead sixteen-year-old. How long till he decides to put me aside for some new Lyanna?”
Chapter 12 sees Ned on the road south, talking with Robert, and it’s a bit of an info-dump. We very quickly move onto the question of Jon’s mother.
“You were never the boy you were,” Robert grumbled. “More’s the pity. And yet there was that one time … what was her name, that common girl of yours? Becca? No, she was one of mine, gods love her, black hair and these sweet big eyes, you could drown in them. Yours was … Aleena? No. You told me once. Was it Merryl? You know the one I mean, your bastard’s mother?”
“Her name was Wylla,” Ned replied with cool courtesy, “and I would sooner not speak of her.”
“Wylla. Yes.” The king grinned. “She must have been a rare wench if she could make Lord Eddard Stark forget his honor, even for an hour. You never told me what she looked like . . . ”
Ned’s mouth tightened in anger. “Nor will I. Leave it be, Robert, for the love you say you bear me. I dishonored myself and I dishonored Catelyn, in the sight of gods and men.”
We know that Ned doesn’t like lying, and if we look through Ned’s chapters, we can see that he is very careful with his wording. He deceives by omission, rather than lie. When Robert asks Ned to look after his children for him, Ned remembers Robert’s bastards, and words his reply so that what he says is no lie; he will look after Robter’s children, but means something different by that than Robert did. Ned is doing the same thing here. We may at first think that he’s telling Robert the name of Jon’s mother, but he is not. Robert asks “what was her name, that common girl of yours”. He only then adds, as a qualifier, “You know the one I mean, your bastard’s mother?” If Wylla is not Jon’s mother, then Ned isn’t lying to Robert here at all. He does know the one Robert means, but he’s omitting to correct Robert’s qualification
There’s an interesting contrast between this and the last time we heard of Ned being asked about Jon’s mother. Previously we have been told that Ned would say “not so much as a word” about Jon’s mother, and when pressed his reaction frightened Cat. Here, he responds with a few words, and with cool courtesy. It’s hard to refuse a king, of course – but Ned is the one person who would refuse Robert. The fact that he’s talking with the king doesn’t stop him becoming angry when the question moves away from Jon’s mother to the specific of Ned’s honour.
The conversation moves on to Danaerys, and the potential threat she represents. Ned immediately thinks of Rhaegar’s children, and we learn that this is the one really serious dispute between them.
Ned did not feign surprise; Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was a madness in him. He remembered the angry words they had exchanged when Tywin Lannister had presented Robert with the corpses of Rhaegar’s wife and children as a token of fealty. Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. When he had protested that the young prince and princess were no more than babes, his new-made king had replied, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” Not even Jon Arryn had been able to calm that storm. Eddard Stark had ridden out that very day in a cold rage, to fight the last battles of the war alone in the south. It had taken another death to reconcile them; Lyanna’s death, and the grief they had shared over her passing.
There’s some language here reminiscent of the passage when Cat asked Ned about Jon’s mother. The “Cold rage” reminds us of Ned replying “cold as ice” (we might think this is an obvious way to describe Ned’s anger, but these are the only two times we’ve had that usage so far), and “to fight the last battles of the war alone in the south”, while Cat had thought about “…Ned off at war in the south” when Jon was conceived. Like the hint we had with Jon having a Targaryen hero, this passage tells us that the Starks just aren’t as anti-Targaryen as Robert is.
This time, Ned resolved to keep his temper. “Your Grace, the girl is scarcely more than a child. You are no Tywin Lannister, to slaughter innocents.” It was said that Rhaegar’s little girl had cried as they dragged her from beneath her bed to face the swords. The boy had been no more than a babe in arms, yet Lord Tywin’s soldiers had torn him from his mother’s breast and dashed his head against a wall.
“And how long will this one remain an innocent?” Robert’s mouth grew hard. “This child will soon enough spread her legs and start breeding more dragonspawn to plague me.”
“Nonetheless,” Ned said, “the murder of children . . . it would be vile . . . unspeakable . . . ”
“Unspeakable?” the king roared. “What Aerys did to your brother Brandon was unspeakable. The way your lord father died, that was unspeakable. And Rhaegar . . . how many times do you think he raped your sister? How many hundreds of times?” His voice had grown so loud that his horse whinnied nervously beneath him. The king jerked the reins hard, quieting the animal, and pointed an angry finger at Ned. “I will kill every Targaryen I can get my hands on, until they are as dead as their dragons, and then I will piss on their graves.”
Ned clearly has good reason to hate the Targaryens, who killed his brother and father. At last we get to learn what Rhaegar’s crime was, too. This is the sister who Ned “loved fiercely”, dead and apparently raped hundreds of times by Rhaegar. Yet Ned is fiercely protective of Targaryen children, so angered by Robert’s belief that their death was a necessity that it almost destroyed their friendship.
Chapter 13 turns from Ned’s journey south to Jon & Tyrion’s journey north. The main thrust of this chapter is Jon learning that joining the Night’s Watch is essentially an exile. Ned and co. are heading towards exciting adventure in the south, and he’s off North to defend the world from snarks and grumkins amongst a brotherhood of scum. Poor Jon. We also get another comment about Jon’s looks.
He had the Stark face if not the name: long, solemn, guarded, a face that gave nothing away. Whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in her son.”
This expands on Tyrion’s comment in chapter 5. Again we see Martin’s reinforcement technique at work. It ostensibly gives an explanation to that question raised in the reader’s mind of a northern mother – he has more of the North than his brothers, because he’s undiluted Ned. So why has GRRM set this whole puzzle for us, hinted, reinforced and primed us to pay attention to Jon’s appearance, if that aspect of the puzzle is going to be dismissed so fast? We’re not meant to have the solution to this yet, but we’ll come to realise something about Tyrion. He’s extremely observant, but often misses the correct interpretation of his observation. It’s worth noting that just before this latest observation, Tyrion guesses Jon’s age wrong.