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R+L=J: the fan theory that holds the key to Game of Thrones

Jon Snow.
Jon Snow.

Jon Snow is not the bastard son of Ned Stark.

Rather, he is the son — quite possibly trueborn — of the late Rhaegar Targaryen, who was Prince of Dragonstone and heir apparent to the Iron Throne before his death during the rebellion that overthrew the Targaryen dynasty. This means Jon is also Daenerys's nephew, and arguably the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne. His Stark-like appearance comes from his mother, Lyanna Stark, Ned's sister and the one true love of the late King Robert Baratheon.

This, at least, is an extremely popular theory among obsessive fans of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books — one that has been extensively discussed and documented in the fan forums online. It's also a theory that obviously has huge implications for the Game of Thrones television series, and could help explain why the most recent episode chewed up a fair amount of precious screen time with reminiscences of two people who've never appeared on the show.

Of course, nobody can be sure whether this theory — known as R+L=J in the fandom — is true. But it does explain several otherwise hard-to-grasp decisions Ned Stark makes in the first season. What's more, if it's true, it provides a plausible path for Jon to ascend to the Iron Throne, which thematically seems to be the direction the series is headed in.

Wait, who are all these people again?

The R+L=J theory involves crucial actions by several characters who haven't been seen since season one, and by other characters who have never been seen on screen.

These are the key players:

  • Jon Snow: One of the main characters of the series, introduced to the viewers and the world as the bastard son of Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and an unknown woman. Currently serving as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.
  • Ned Stark: At the beginning of the show he is Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. He is appointed Hand of the King by Robert Baratheon and, after King Robert's death, deposed from office by Cersei Lannister and executed at the behest of her son, the new king, Joffrey.
  • Robert Baratheon: The King of Westeros at the beginning of the series, he seized power before the show began by leading a rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty, whose last scion was the "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen. Robert is great friends with Ned, but they quarrel repeatedly over Robert's willingness to kill Targaryen children to bolster his claim to the throne.
  • Lyanna Stark: Ned's sister, who never appeared in the series. She was betrothed to Robert before the rebellion against the Targaryens, and years later, at the opening of the show, Robert still speaks of his love for her. According to the theory, Lyanna is Jon's real mother. She died during the rebellion, which was sparked by her kidnapping by Rhaegar Targaryen and the arbitrary and despotic rule of Rhaegar's father, the Mad King.
  • Rhaegar Targaryen: Rhaegar never appeared in the series, having died during the rebellion against his father the Mad King. According to the theory, Rhaegar is Jon Snow's real father. Unlike the Mad King, Rhaegar is generally well-regarded by those who knew him, but his decision to abduct Lyanna Stark was the downfall of the Targaryen dynasty. It united the powerful Stark and Baratheon families against the Targaryens, joined by the Houses Tully and Arryn that were linked to the Starks and Baratheons by marital and foster relationships.

Why do people believe R+L=J?

At a high level, R+L=J is compelling because it explains Ned Stark's enigmatic behavior vis a vis Jon.

The one thing we really know about Ned is that he puts a ton of stock in honor. Yet we are supposed to believe that this extremely honorable man fathered a bastard son, then brought him home to Winterfell, where the child's presence is a constant humiliation to a wife he genuinely loves, and that he then — for no clear reason — refuses to tell Jon who his mother is.

R+L=J transforms this from a dishonorable and weird sequence of events into an honorable one. Ned took possession of his sister's son, and claimed him as his own because had he admitted the truth, King Robert would have had the boy killed, lest his very existence undermine Robert's claim to the throne. Ned can't tell anyone who Jon's real father is, because the truth would be deadly.

In addition, close readers of the books have found a number of pieces of more specific textual evidence.

What's the detailed textual evidence for R+L=J?

A number of fragments in the books are cited as textual evidence for the theory:

  • Jon is said to closely resemble his "half-sister" Arya, who in turn is said to look very much like Lyanna. By contrast, the other Stark siblings are said to look more like their mother, Catelyn Tully.
  • At the very end of Robert's Rebellion, three members of the Kingsguard aren't guarding the king at all — they are guarding Lyanna Stark. That's a puzzling allocation of Targaryen forces, unless by guarding Lyanna they are also guarding an unborn son who is heir to the throne.
  • After Ned and his friend Howland Reed subdue the three Kingsguardsmen, they find Lyanna dying in a pool of blood. She asks Ned to promise her ... something ... which is not revealed in the text but which Ned recalls at a crucial moment before her death. If R+L≠J, then what was the promise, and why does it come up?

What's the evidence outside of the text?

Jon Snow's storyline is not exactly the most exciting part of the Game of Thrones narrative. Nevertheless, he's given many chapters in the books and a lot of screen time in the show. The audience is primed, in other words, to expect big things out of him. And the mysteries of Jon's parentage and Ned's promise to Lyanna are both classic Chekhov's gun material — why introduce any of this unless it's going to pay off somehow?

The promise to Lyanna could relate to any member of the Stark family, but whoever Jon's mother is, she's got to be someone significantly related to the endgame for Jon. R+L=J sets up the possibility that Jon will contend for the Iron Throne and/or possess useful and dramatically interesting Targaryen dragon powers.

A related extratextual issue is that the TV show necessarily cuts a lot of material from the books. That's often a good guide to which segments of the books are truly necessary to move the story forward, versus ones that simply serve a general world-building or theme-emphasizing purpose. King Robert visiting Lyanna's grave in Winterfell and talking about her survived the adaptation process.

Is this scene just a waste of time? Or did it make it into the television show because the character of Lyanna Stark is going to prove important by the end, thus making it necessary to introduce her to the TV audience, even if they are certain to forget her right away? Well, last night Baelish and Sansa revisited the crypt and talked about Lyanna again as a reminder. But for what?

Then in a separate scene we get an extended reflection on Rhaegar. These two clearly have some role to play in the rest of the narrative.

What are the broader implications of R+L=J?

Contemplating the R+L=J scenario is also a reminder that the vast majority of what we know — or "know" — about the recent history of Westeros amounts to history as written by the victors. The Starks, the Lannisters, and Renly and Stannis Baratheon all ultimately fought against the Targaryen dynasty. Daenarys was too young to have any recollection of the relevant events. House Tyrell fought on the Targaryen side of the war, but we haven't really heard their perspective on its outbreak.

In the victors' telling, the realm was beset not just by a Mad King but by a sudden and entirely irrational action on the part of his previously not-mad son, who for no reason at all kidnapped the daughter of one of the most prominent nobles in the land while she was betrothed to one of the other most prominent nobles.

But what if this is wrong?

What if Lyanna ran off with Rhaegar out of true love, despite her betrothal to Robert? That would change the narrative somewhat. What's more, though arranged marriages are certainly par for the course among the Westerosi nobility, there's no good reason for the Starks to have preferred a match with Robert Baratheon to one with the heir apparent to the Iron Throne.

Unless, that is, the intertwined network of houses Baratheon, Arryn, Stark, and Tully that ultimately brought down the Targaryens was conspiring to overthrow the ruling house since before the alleged abduction. This is the "Southron Ambitions" theory, which is much broader and less specifically grounded in the text than the core R+L=J theory.

According to Southron Ambitions, Mad King Aerys was much less paranoid (though no less brutal) than his "official" portrayal, and was combating a very genuine threat to his rule that existed long before the specific Lyanna crisis. At a minimum, Southron Ambitions posits a "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you" view of Aerys's downfall.

So is R+L=J true?

Well, for starters, the whole idea that assertions about a fictional universe can be true or false raises some puzzling metaphysical issues. David Lewis's 1978 American Philosophical Quarterly article on the subject may be a good place to start if you're interested in that.

On a more banal level, the question is whether the fandom is accurately forecasting where Martin (or HBO, but this seems to be a question that's too fundamental to allow show/book divergence) is going with the story.

One possible issue is that Martin is of course aware of the R+L=J theory and has it within his power to change direction even if this was his original plan for the series. After all, it's clear from events like Ned Stark's execution and the Red Wedding that Martin likes to keep the audience off-balance.

On the other hand, both Martin and HBO's showrunners have repeatedly told the story that when David Benioff and Dan Weiss were pitching the adaptation, Martin tested their knowledge of the books by asking them to guess who Jon's mother was — and they got it right. That's a strong indication that whatever Martin's original plan was, it's still valid, and too central to his long-term plan to be changed.

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