*Game of Thrones Spoilers, up to and including Season 5*
It is said that in the pre-production for Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin interviewed potential show-runners for Game of Thrones and would end the interview with the one question: “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?” Perhaps Martin could have asked “Who sits on the throne at the end?” or “Why do the White Walkers do what they do?” but instead he asked who Jon Snow’s mother is. This is arguably the biggest question mark in the series.
That’s why all this business about Jon supposedly being dead is silly. Everyone involved with the show tries to assure the viewers that he’s dead, but the viewers know better. While this mystery is still unresolved, it would be sloppy storytelling for him to die. The same applies to characters like Arya and Daenerys; while they are away from their homelands, there is no possible reason that they should be killed before the completion of their stories. Arya has to confront a few more people on her list, Dany needs to at least challenge the person on the throne, and Jon needs to find out who his mother is.
Throughout the internet, there is a fan theory that goes about answering this question. The theory, for the unfamiliar and those who are unwilling to watch the attached video, suggests that Jon Snow is not the child of Ned Stark, but instead, the child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. Colloquially, it is called R+L=J.
Check out what the youtube channel Alt Shift X had to say about R+L=J:
There are many scenes on the show that will support this claim. They can be seen in this compilation here:
This theory is all well and good, but let me suggest one amendment: Yes, Lyanna is possibly Jon’s mother, but Jon’s father is not Prince Rhaegar. Instead, Lyanna’s original betrothed, King Robert Baratheon.
First and foremost, there is the scene in season 1, in which Ned is investigating the legitimacy of Joffrey’s birth, which provides compelling evidence for my theory. Ending the sixth episode, the show does this much more dramatically than the book. Ned reads aloud:
“Lord Orys Baratheon, black of hair. Axel Baratheon, black of hair. Lyonel Baratheon, black of hair. Steffon Baratheon, black of hair. Robert Baratheon, black of hair. Joffrey Baratheon, golden-haired.”
This is a clear link between hair color and legitimacy of birth. Ned knows that Gendry is a bastard of Robert’s because he looks like Robert, whereas Joffrey looks nothing like Robert. On the other hand, Jon has black hair.
Admittedly, that doesn’t definitively settle it, so let’s take a look at some other moments.
It is important to look at Melisandre’s interactions with Jon. There is a notable connection between the two of them. Melisandre attempts to seduce him, which, as far as we have seen, she has only attempted to do with Stannis. Since Stannis is Robert’s brother, they share blood, and if Jon is Robert’s bastard, this would enable Melisandre to use Jon’s blood and essence for blood magic, as she did with the shadow-child of Stannis that killed Renly. Plus Stannis seems to admire him, in a father-figure kind of way (as one might admire a nephew, perhaps).
Some say that Melisandre’s attraction to Jon as evidence that Jon is Rhaegar’s son, because she chalks it up to King’s blood. If Melisandre can sense Targaryen King’s blood, wouldn’t she have also sought out Maester Aemon, who we know has Targaryen blood?
Robert and Lyanna, the books inform us, were betrothed to each other. As we learn in various scenes (such as this one and this one) Robert is obsessed by Lyanna and still grieves her death. He loved her enough to start a war. This love clearly came from deep and intimate interactions between the two, which is not necessarily the case in Westerosi marriages, in which the husband and wife might not meet each other before the wedding.
In the book, when Robert’s dying, he asks Ned to make him a promise. To remind us, the chapter covering Robert’s death opens with the image of Ned walking through the crypts of Winterfell, where Lyanna is buried.
“Serve the boar [that killed me] at my funeral feast,” Robert rasped. “Apple in its mouth, skin seared crisp. Eat the bastard. Don’t care if you choke on him. Promise me, Ned.”
“I promise.” Promise me, Ned, Lyanna’s voice echoed.
Immediately, the narrator reminds us of the promise Ned made to Lyanna, showing us an italicized “Promise me, Ned.” By placing these characters so close together, it shows that they bear some kind of relation.
Also, on his deathbed, Robert seems to think that the reason that he is dying is because he commissioned the death of Daenerys. In a sort of karmatic way, Robert thinks that by commanding people to kill Dany, he’s earned his own death. He makes one last request, that Daenerys’ life can be spared.
“Gods have mercy,” he muttered, swallowing his agony. “The girl. Daenerys. Only a child, you were right… that’s why, the girl… the gods sent the boar… sent to punish me…” The king coughed, bringing up blood. “Wrong it was, I… only a girl… Varys, Littlefinger, even my brother… worthless… no one to tell me no but you, Ned… only you…”
“The girl,” the king said. “Daenerys. Let her live. If you can, if it… not too late… talk to them… Varys, Littlefinger… don’t let them kill her.”
At one point in A Game of Thrones, Ned remembers the conquering of King’s Landing in Robert’s Rebellion. He condemns the murder of Rhaegar and Elia Martell’s children, where as Robert approves, saying “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” This caused a huge tension between the two dear friends.
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. … 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.
My theory is this: although they became friends again after Lyanna’s death, honorable Ned withheld Robert’s child by the woman he loved, as punishment for approving of child murder.
(Perhaps you’d say that Ned wouldn’t do something like that; but think about the Stark family taking Theon Greyjoy as a ward after his father rebelled against the crown.)
This also would have closed Robert’s character arc. Robert overcomes his desire for violence by sparing Daenerys, and then finds out about his son by Lyanna?
Perhaps you’re not compelled by this evidence. Admittedly, this idea depends more on how the characters relate to one another, and the story that could have unfolded between them, rather than hard evidence. We have to think about Ned and Robert growing up together in Jon Arryn’s care, and Robert absolutely adoring Lyanna. This theory hinges upon Ned shielding Robert from the tragedy of Lyanna’s death and the knowledge that Robert could have had an entire life with Lyanna, whom he loved; or, perhaps, punishing Robert’s desire for violence by withholding something from him. Ned recognizes this as a lapse in honor, since he actively hides the truth to protect his friend, as well as to protect Jon from Robert’s grief, destructive drunken behaviors, and bad parenting.
One slight issue with my theory (other than all the evidence that favors Rhaegar) is how it would fit in with Jon’s character arc. Sure, it would be a fitting step forward for Jon, who lived the first part of his life as a hated Winterfell bastard, before rising to prominence in the Night’s Watch. To go from his humble origins to become the son of a king would wrap up his arc nicely, but we’ve seen it before, with Gendry. (Being Rhaegar’s son could also run into the same problem; as the son of Robert or Rhaegar wouldn’t mean much unless they could prove he was the legitimate heir.)
Yeah, fine, I’m spit-balling. As for most of my fan theories, I do have to acknowledge, yes, things probably won’t pan out this way, but so many people have accepted R+L=J that I think we should be a little skeptical. How often does a fan theory made during the run of the series turn out to be true?
And isn’t it fun to think about? What I love most about this idea is that it sets up a nice chance for history to repeat itself, or to move forward. Imagine being Daenerys and finally making your way into Westeros after a life of exile. Over the past few years, you’ve heard all about the War of the Five Kings and questionable legitimacy, and that’s what you’re headed into. You’ve watched Joffrey fall, and Tommen’s reign is coming to an end. Then, once you get there, there’s the somewhat legitimate son of the family that ousted you. It could be the Second Targaryen-Baratheon war. For Daenerys, it could be the ultimate revenge, and for Jon Baratheon, it could be chance to prove himself. Or, it might be the two working alongside each other. Everyone says that a Targaryen-born Jon would be the Song of Ice and Fire, but I believe that Daenerys to be too pivotal a character to be left out. More than likely, Jon would be the Song of Ice and Daenerys would be the Song of Fire. If the series has any sense of payoff, these two characters at opposite ends of the world will likely meet as the series comes to a close.