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R+L=J: a comprehensive oral history of Game of Thrones’ ultimate fan theory

Fans look back at the mystery that shaped 20 years of fandom, from the early internet through today.

Javier Zarracina | Vox
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

As Game of Thrones enters its final season, the show’s fans will finally get to see the onscreen resolution of a plot point they’ve been waiting on for over two decades. And we’re not talking about who will ultimately sit on the Iron Throne, though that outcome may have a lot to do with the plot point in question.

Rather, we’re talking about what was for nearly 20 years the central mystery of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, on which the HBO show is based: the question of Jon Snow’s true parentage. It’s a riddle that was finally answered at the end of season six (and then more fully at the end of season seven), as the show confirmed the fandom’s most prominent and popular theory on the subject: “R+L=J”.

Some fan theories become legend because they’re solidly constructed yet wildly unlikely, like the theory that Ron is Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. Others become legend because, right or wrong, they fundamentally alter the way fans view the series, like the theory that Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord, which may have been originally intended as part of the plot of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Then there are some theories that take off because they’re so outlandish they just might work.

But while Star Wars fans may never know conclusively if Jar Jar was meant to have been a Sith Lord, R+L=J worked its way into the parlance of Game of Thrones fandom from a very early date, and became, over time, a core part of how fans of the books understood the series’ direction, an arc that later applied to the TV series as well. The rise to prominence of the (correct) belief that Jon Snow was the true Targaryen heir isn’t just a nifty case of savvy fans picking up tiny clues to a giant puzzle. It’s also the story of a fandom evolving over two decades along with the internet itself.

A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — a planned seven-book fantasy epic that to date is still in progress — attracted admiration from die-hard fantasy fans and writers when it was published in August of 1996. But it didn’t, at first, have huge numbers of readers. Over the next 20 years, the online fandom for A Song of Ice and Fire (universally shorthanded as ASOIAF) steadily grew: fans found one another, formed mailing lists and communities and forums, and discussed theories. Ultimately, this fandom would shift into the gigantic fan base for Game of Thrones, and amid significant changes, the prominence and belief in R+L=J would remain the one constant — the crucial takeaway from two decades of fans collectively solving a mystery.

As Game of Thrones winds to a close, we celebrate with a look back at the fan theory that started out like a whispered rumor and grew into a juggernaut.

The internet’s first known instance of the R+L=J theory dates back to 1997

On September 18, 1997, a user going by the handle Rodrick Su posted a short list of unanswered plot questions from the book A Game of Thrones to the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written. After discussing other issues like lines of succession and mystery characters, he wrote [sic]:

4. Jon Snow's parent. It is wholely consistent that Jon Snow is the offspring of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Ned probably keep this a secret because Rober Baratheon is obsess with killing off all Targaryen, especially any offspring of Rhaegar.

5. If Jon Snow is a Targaryen, then by tradition, he is the most likely mate to Daenery, being that she is his aunt...

This is the internet’s oldest known instance of someone putting forth the basics of “R+L=J” — the fan theory that Jon Snow, commonly referred to as “Ned Stark’s bastard,” was actually the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, and Rhaegar Targaryen, the slain eldest son of the fallen Targaryen dynasty that once ruled Westeros.

In the series, the common story told of the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna is that Rhaegar fell in love with, kidnapped, and raped Lyanna, thus incurring the wrath of her fiancée, Robert Baratheon. In what is now known as Robert’s Rebellion, Robert went to war with the entire Targaryen clan over his belief that Rhaegar had kidnapped Lyanna, resulting in the downfall of the Targaryen dynasty and the ascension of Robert to the crown. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that Lyanna and Rhaegar eloped, and that she gave birth to his son, dying in childbirth. Ned Stark, the last person to see Lyanna alive in a “bloody bed,” made a vague promise to her — the subject of which has yet to be revealed, in the books at least.

R+L=J is only one of numerous fan theories about Jon Snow’s parentage, but almost from the moment the first book in the series was released, many, many fans believed it to be the correct one — the only theory that would not only answer the basic question of Jon’s parentage, but would also unlock a host of side-mysteries about the ASOIAF universe. It was also the only theory that would seem to unite the storyline’s titular “ice” (the Starks of the chilly north) and “fire” (the dragon-riding Targaryens) in one genetic destiny.

Rodrick Su, the original R+L=J poster, appears to have disappeared into the ether, but other discussions, posts, and expansions on the theory followed. Long before season one of Game of Thrones actually aired, R+L=J was treated as gospel in the ASOIAF fandom. And in the season six finale of Game of Thrones, fans learned that this long-held belief in Jon’s parentage was correct, via a flashback that all but confirmed Lyanna died giving birth to Rhaegar’s son in the Tower of Joy in Dorne.

Game of Thrones
Rhaegar and Lyanna are wed in secret in the season seven finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.”
HBO

As a bonus, the season seven episode “Eastwatch” revealed the twist that Lyanna and Rhaegar were secretly married, making Jon a legitimate heir to the Targaryen throne. And in the season seven finale, the other prediction Rodrick Su made so long ago — that their connection would lead to romance between Jon and Daenerys — finally came true as well.

Because of its ubiquity — and, apparently, accuracy — it’s tempting to think that R+L=J was obvious from the start. But that’s not exactly the case. The proliferation of R+L=J throughout the ASOIAF/Game of Thrones fandom offers a fascinating distillation of the growth and spread of the fan community over a 20-year period, as well as the theory itself. In order to get a sense of that evolution, Vox asked a number of longtime fans to tell us about their experience with the theory, and the fandom, in their own words.

Our guests

  • Elio M. Garcia and Linda Antonsson, owners of Westeros.org and co-authors, with George R.R. Martin, of The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones
  • Susan Miller, editor-in-chief of Watchers on the Wall, an ASOIAF/Game of Thrones news site
  • Greg Hou and Jeff Hartline, longtime fans and moderators of Reddit’s Song of Ice and Fire subreddit, r/ASOIAF
  • Laura Brondos, longtime reader and member of ASOIAF fandom

What was your impression of the fandom community back when you first joined?

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

I discovered the books in 1997 when I was in my second year of college. I started reading A Game of Thrones and couldn’t put it down. I only discussed the books with one friend in real life, and he told me about the first website dedicated to the books. It was called Dragonstone and was one of the first websites I ever visited. I discovered Westeros.org shortly after its inception and didn’t participate in the forums much, but loved reading other people’s theories. [The community] was definitely small.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

There was a website in Australia called Dragonstone. The website itself seems to have popped up in 1998.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

October of 1998, that is the earliest time the [Dragonstone] fan forum existed.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

Back in the murky dark days of the early internet.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

We’re talking pre-Google. Yahoo was the search engine everyone used. Peter Gibbs, bless him, started his site [Dragonstone] on a server in Australia, but the internet connection to the rest of the world that Australia had was basically like a piece of strings and two cans.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I stumbled onto [the series] in 2004 after reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. I knew nothing about ASOIAF besides the fact that A Game of Thrones has a quote from Robert Jordan endorsing the series. In 2004/2005, the Game of Thrones community was growing rapidly (A Feast for Crows was a New York Times No. 1 bestseller in 2005), but compared to today, it was still quite small. Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit didn’t exist, or were just primitive versions of what they are today. So it wasn’t easy to find a community or repository of fan theories.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

There’s a number of people I’ve known longer than anyone outside of family thanks to our being part of the fandom — people who were there, we’re talking 20 years now, almost. A lot of people miss the days before the TV show.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

It was much more intimate before, and some people prefer it when you know everyone posting in a forum. You don’t, these days.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Just before the show launched I think we had 10,000 to 12,000 members on the forum, and now we have over 100,000 thanks to the show. After the first episode, we gained like 9,000 new members — we almost doubled in size, basically, in a single day.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I finished [the books] by 2005 and George had also announced that the next book, A Dance with Dragons (ADWD), would be coming out the following year in 2006. Perfect timing! Well … by 2011, with no new book, I had all but forgotten about the books and was not that excited when ADWD was announced. What did get my interest was the show. After following the show for four seasons, I decided to dive back into the books and reread them all, including ADWD for the first time. In 2015 the online community had completely changed from a decade ago.

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I joined the community in 2012 after finishing A Dance with Dragons for the first time. By then, the show had finished its second season, and The Winds of Winter wasn’t that far off in the horizon, right? My first fan community was the A Song of Ice and Fire subreddit. I was not a redditor before I read the books, so I joined Reddit to become a part of that community.

Back then, the subreddit had maybe 30,000 to 40,000 members. There was some great discussion, but Game of Thrones was only coming into its own as cultural zeitgeist — meaning that the theories and analysis which has come into its own in the years since were in their infancy. But beyond that, there were a lot of great fans already in the community — many of whom I learned from, admired, and still chat with.

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

In the earlier, preshow days of the fandom, things felt much smaller and harder to break into. I remember trying to join into message board discussion and finding it not very welcoming — most everyone seemed to know each other, and were slow to warm up to newcomers. For all the negative aspects of the Game of Thrones fandom [compared with the earlier fan base for the books], I appreciate how welcoming it is, with a wider array of communities for people to find a place to belong.

When and how did you first become aware of R+L=J?

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Linda and I have distinct memories of Linda having found discussions on Dragonstone.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

I particularly remember a post laying out the evidence of this theory. It’s not the first time the theory was brought up, but in terms of our contact with it, there was a post, and it mentioned among other [clues], Dany’s vision in the second book in the House of the Undying when she sees a blue rose growing out of a wall of ice. [Rhaegar had given Lyanna blue roses at the Tourney at Harrenhall] And that, I think, was the thing I really fastened on as very decisive.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

That would mean we became aware of it sometime after [1998’s] Clash of Kings, which is amazing, because we first read [the first book, A Game of Thrones] in 1997, so we’re talking a year later, we had vague suspicions that something was up, but we ourselves didn’t pick it up from the novel.

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I did not know about R+L=J before I read the books. In fact, I didn’t even suspect R+L=J until after I finished A Dance with Dragons. There, my brother introduced me to the theory with a, “So, you think that Ned Stark is Jon's father…” line.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I had no idea. I began reading the books thinking this was just another high fantasy series. When I joined the ASOIAF community on Reddit, I was blown away by all the thoroughly researched new theories and conspiracies that I had once again missed on my reread. Apparently this theory had been floating around since the first book.

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

I came to the books “cold,” so the first I heard of R+L=J was in a Google or Yahoo group email. The online community was virtually nonexistent at that time, but I did discover Yahoo and Google groups and we discussed the books in a giant email chain. I remember that someone named Dave suggested, “Wanna bet that Jon is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna?”

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

I read the books on my own, back before [2005’s] A Feast for Crows had come out (long before the TV show), and I barreled through the series over a couple months. So I didn't cruise message boards before reading the books, and I hadn’t chatted with any of my friends about the books enough to hear any major theories. Coming to the books “cold” is a good way to put it. Cold as ice, dropped into the series like a shock. It's the best way to do it. R+L=J became a slow suspicion I developed over the first few books.

Marion Bordeyne / Tumblr

What was your initial reaction to the theory?

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

My reaction was one of amazement. It. All. Made. Sense. Jon’s story was the song of ice and fire, the union between Stark (ice) and Targaryen (fire). It was happy, mind-blowing, and most importantly, narratively fulfilling.

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

My first impression was: Why the hell would Ned allow this division between he and Cat (and Jon) to fester all these years? Why didn't he just tell her the truth? I definitely didn’t believe it.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

What I want to say is that I didn’t have a formulated theory at this point that Jon was the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna — I don’t think I had that in my head. I did have the idea that there was more to the Rhaegar and Lyanna story than just an abduction and Robert’s claim that she was raped. Some of it may have been your typical fantasy reader’s wish fulfillment — it sounded far too romantic, this abduction by this handsome prince!

And then you have Ned’s recollections of [the Tourney at Harrenhal] and Rhaegar crowning Lyanna “the queen of love and beauty.” So I was convinced that they were a legit couple. But I hadn’t made the connection to Jon. The blue rose growing out of the wall [in Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying] was what made me go, “Oh, yeah! This is a really solid theory!”

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

The first time I read the books, I completely missed all of the subtle foreshadowing that George wove into the story. Reading the fan theories, with all the evidence clearly laid out, was like discovering that the artist of your favorite painting actually hid a second painting within the same painting, only visible if you look at it from a different perspective. That’s what makes ASOIAF so good.

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

I was suspicious about Lyanna’s kidnapping and death and Ned’s hazy memories of the Tower of Joy, and of course Jon’s parentage (which people studiously avoid discussing in detail) after reading the first few books. I had the sneaking suspicion that Jon was the product of that meet-up, whether it was kidnapping or an elopement. By the time I jumped into fandom, and came across this equation of “R+L=J” it was like, “Ahhhh so it’s not just me thinking that! Good!”

Of course now after rereading several times, it seems stupidly obvious, too obvious to a lot of people. But it doesn’t after your first read-through.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Once you see the pieces, you go, “Oh, yeah, of course!” But our experience from [the Westeros.org forum] over the years is that there’s a lot of people who’ve shown up in 2005, 2006, who say, “I’ve never thought of this, I started reading these books years ago and never thought of this until I read it on your forum.”

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

And that was always our argument to people who said, “Oh, George would never do something this obvious.” Well, it wasn’t obvious until the internet hivemind got into it.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Some people think that George has perhaps revealed too much, but he didn’t realize that fans — again, the hivemind — he didn’t realize people would be able to share all this stuff and piece together all these clues.

Could this theory’s dominance have happened before the internet?

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

No, absolutely not. The internet was the piece that George had not reckoned on. If he’d have written the series in 2010 instead of starting in 1991, he could have taken into account the hivemind, that there would be a hivemind working away at this.

But at the same time, [the series has] become a lot about the journey. I think I know a lot of the big questions, but I don’t know how you get there.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

I would also add that I don’t think it would have happened without The Wheel of Time. I think it would have taken people longer to figure it out, because the Wheel of Time trained a generation of fantasy fans to look for mysteries and look for clues. Those books were packed with it. And there was a lot of crossover between the early fandom [and WoT fandom]. So I think that trained people to discuss and dissect fantasy in that way. Now, people know how to dissect these things — people got used to looking for clues.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

The Robert Jordan group on Usenet really served as a model for a lot of what came after it. I recall even early on we were trying to develop our own ASOIAF FAQ, and one of the models for it was the Wheel of Time FAQ at the Usenet newsgroup recs.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan.net. They had a really good one, they crowdsourced it, and they would have people writing pros and cons and laying out theories and things like that. Those books presented lots of long-running mysteries, and people responded with these massive discussions trying to piece things together.

Did the theory make things in the books click into place for you immediately, or did it take a while before you were convinced?

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I did wonder why an honorable man like Ned would violate his marriage vows and act all weird when questioned about it. R+L=J was a great explanation for that and immediately made sense.

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

It made sense of why Ned was so dour. He fought a war which cost the lives of his father, brother, his sister, and some of his friends. And the war itself was based in part on the lie that Rhaegar abducted and raped Lyanna. And he’s had to live with this lie ever since to protect Jon. Having that knowledge added a vibrancy to the melancholy of Ned’s chapters on reread.

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

After the release of A Clash of Kings I went back and reread A Game of Thrones and that’s when it clicked into place for me. This quote from Ned just struck me: “Some secrets are safer kept hidden. Some secrets are too dangerous to share with those you love and trust.”

It was definitely a “holy shit” moment for me. My brain started racing: If Jon was a legitimate Targaryen, if Rhaegar and Lyanna were married, Robert accepting bodies of dead Targaryen children as tokens of fealty, Ned making promises and holding in his arms the true heir to the Throne — the discovery of this theory was a completely thrilling moment for me.

"The blue flower growing in a chink of a wall of ice" is just the ultimate evidence for me. Dany's visions in the House of the Undying really seemed to point to R+L=J.

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Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

The pieces sort of slowly fell into place over the first few books. Jon was clearly the main character, the true main character along with Daenerys, after Ned is killed. The first book becomes a prologue setting up these characters for the longer game.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

I think it’s possible that I’d seen posts on the subject before, but they hadn’t laid out the evidence. The missing piece of the puzzle to me that just solved it all was the blue rose. Even if I was buying Rhaegar and Lyanna before, the connection to Jon with the blue roses Lyanna was given at Harrenhal, and then the blue rose in the wall — I think that’s still one of the best pieces of evidence, and just the imagery of it.

We’ve been saying for at least the past 10 years that it’s not really a “theory” for us anymore. We’ve fully bought into it.

Were there R+L=J non-believers who tried to popularize alternate theories? How were those received?

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I’ve chatted with folks who don’t believe in R+L=J. This is America. Everyone’s entitled to their wrong opinion.

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

Some people still don’t believe in R+L=J! They’re convinced that Benioff and Weiss have gone off the rails. They’re pulling for Ned + Ashara Dayne (a minor tragic character who never made it onto the show), or they have some other minor crackpot theory of their own. N+A had a decent-sized following, but R+L=J was always the fandom juggernaut of theories, with the most evidence behind it.

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

One of the most-discussed [alternate] theories was Ned+Lyanna=Jon and I think that just came from the Jaime/Cersei incest. Most people seemed to dismiss that one. The only theory that was more popular than R+L=J was Ned+Ashara.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

When you put on a conspiracy theory hat, suddenly every line in the books seems like it could be foreshadowing something. Alternate theories like Ned (or Brandon) + Ashara = Jon are just as intriguing, but not as popular. As a moderator, I’ve seen many heated debates between people who strongly disagree on the theories.

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

In terms of reception, fans of the [HBO] series aren’t receptive to non-RLJ theories — and for good reason! When you measure the different parentage theories and their evidence and couple it with the knowledge that George R.R. Martin asked David Benioff and Dan Weiss who Jon's parents were, and they answered it correctly, and then see Jon in season six as the only son of Lyanna, I think the other theories pale in light of R+L=J.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

It’s been hotly contested. I don’t know if the TV show’s had an effect on it, but we [Westeros.org] have — I don’t know what iteration our Rhaegar and Lyanna thread is on now, but I think we’re probably over a hundred plus, and these are threads that ran hundreds of posts. People have basically been arguing about it for a couple of decades now.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

It’s been the most hotly contested and most-discussed thing in the history of the board, without a doubt. I think that the “It’s too obvious” element is one that has grown over time. The stronger a theory gets over time, the more evidence for it — they don’t think about the fact that this was delivered in small doses over time. There’s also a difference between whether you binge all five [books] in one go or whether you read them all one at a time.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

There’s one person in particular I remember, Rania: George used AOL Messenger, and she would message him, and he would answer, and there were a couple of occasions when she tried to basically outright get him to admit to the theory, and he was like, you know I can’t talk about that!

What was the mood like in the fandom when the theory was finally confirmed on the TV show?

The final element of the R+L=J theory — the romantic union of Jon and Dany — came to fruition in season seven’s “The Dragon and The Wolf.”

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I don’t know if you followed the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 back in 2014, but it’s just like that. After the plane disappeared, there were many conspiracy theories. However, most of the experts agreed that it must have crashed into the Indian Ocean. When the first plane debris began washing up onto the shores of Africa, that basically confirmed that the plane had crashed into the ocean. Nobody was shocked or surprised because, well, the that's what the experts had been saying from the beginning. But it did provide a sense of closure — one big mystery finally put to rest, but questions remain.

That Lyanna-Jon reveal scene in season six was neither shocking nor surprising, but provided the same sense of closure (and I got goosebumps): The famous R+L=J theory was right after all. However, the show has changed many plot points from the books, so some nonbelievers still cling to the hope that Jon's parentage will be different in the books. But it seems unlikely that the show would change something as big as this.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Even now there are people who deny it, and don’t care about the show. Most of them claim they have a better idea of who Jon’s parents are — they won’t actually explain what that idea is!

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

The mood of the overall community was one of joy, happiness, and emotional fulfillment. In some quarters in the ASOIAF community, this joy was tinged bittersweet with the knowledge that this was revealed by the show instead of the books, given that Martin has been building to this for more than 20 years in the novels. But I felt emotion over it, real emotion. I cried.

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

Most people were just SO happy to see something they had theorized about for so long finally get confirmed. Personally, I cried like a baby at that scene on the show. I think they did a beautiful job with that moment.

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

People were ecstatic to be proven right after waiting years —decades, for some —to learn about Jon’s parents. There was a lot of smugness, and celebrating. And there are some people who still don’t want to accept it. But you can’t convince people who just don’t want to accept something.

And I think there’s another group of people who are a little disappointed that they’re right, that the answer was so “obvious.” But of course the answer was only obvious because ASOIAF became a pop culture phenomenon through Game of Thrones, and there were thousands of people compiling their theories and interpretations. Almost any mystery gets cracked when everyone works together so well! R+J may not be the most shocking solution, but it is satisfying.

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