R + L = J Explained and What it Means Going into Game of Thrones’ Final Season
As far as fan theories go Game of Thrones has some of the most in-depth and dedicated ones out there, and for seven seasons and five (main) books fans have tirelessly pulled apart every connection, relationship, twist and turn, coming up with all kinds of theories as to where the series is headed next.
Perhaps the most popular fan theory is known as ‘R + L = J’ which pieced together a number of hints all of which seemed to form a pretty compelling case as to who Jon Snow’s real parents are, and has fuelled fan speculation for years, even long before the actual show started. Of course, the show fully confirmed that R + L = J is true in the final episode of Season Six, and went a step further by adding an extra layer of complexity in the Seventh Season finale, but there is still a lot to unpack when talking about what it all really means, how it adds up, and what it could hint at going forward.
At the very start of the series, audiences are introduced to the Stark family, the protectors of the North, headed by the loyal and honourable family man Ned Stark. The family is rounded out by Ned’s wife Catelyn, their son’s Robb, Bran, Rickon, and their daughters Arya and Sansa. From the outside the Stark’s look to be the pinnacle Northern family, with the house itself being almost universally respected throughout the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The only thing to stop the Stark’s gaining the title of ‘Westeros’ Perfect Family’ is, of course, Ned Stark’s bastard son; Jon Snow.
Ned returned from Robert Baratheon’s Rebellion against the previous King, Aerys Targaryen, with the newborn baby Jon, and despite Ned fathering a bastard seeming highly out of character for him, he insisted on Jon being raised alongside his own children at Winterfell.
The Rebellion is a huge part of Game of Thrones’ lore and is essentially what sparked most of the events that we see in the books and show. As far as most of Westeros believes, the Rebellion began after the kidnapping of Lyanna Stark (Ned’s sister) by the Crown Prince and heir to the Iron Throne, Rhaegar Targaryen. Rhaegar had already shown his interest towards Lyanna a number of times in public despite being married to Elia Martell, and Lyanna’s betrothal to Robert Baratheon.
After Lyanna disappeared her eldest brother Brandon Stark travelled to the capital to ensure her safe return. At this point King Aerys had already begun turning ‘mad’ (later known as ‘The Mad King’) and took Brandon prisoner, demanding that Brandon’s father, Lord Rickard Stark, apologise for his son’s actions in person.
The Mad King then killed both Stark men, after which Ned and Robert lead a rebellion against the crown. The resulting war eventually ended at the Battle of the Trident, where Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen met in a one on one duel (both being the two of the best warriors in Westeros). Robert won the duel, the war, and eventually the crown.
There are however two main issues surrounding the facts that lead to the rebellion, war, and consequent birth of Jon Snow. Firstly Rhaegar Targaryen was by many accounts, not the bloodthirsty, kidnapping rapist that he is now perceived as. A brilliant warrior yes, but someone who (as we later discover) would dress as a minstrel to entertain the citizens and then give the money he earned to orphanages and other performers, and as a man who much preferred singing to battle (despite being very skilled at both). And so by most, if not all accounts, Rhaegar was loved by the people and definitely didn’t sound like someone who would kidnap and rape Lyanna Stark.
The second is the likelihood of Ned conceiving a bastard. Ned was always an honourable man and dedicated husband, even in his youth Ned was hardly the type of man who could be lured away from his wife, especially considering the Rebellion only lasted a year or so, and so Jon would have to have been conceived only a matter of weeks after Ned left home. However Westeros is a land of people succumbing to their darkest nature and deepest desires, so the idea that Rhaegar Targaryen was an evil man who kidnapped and raped Lyanna Stark, and that Ned Stark conceived a bastard whilst away at war was accepted as fact almost immediately.
With that basic information, and the problems that come with certain accounts versus what is commonly accepted in Westeros, along with a few more hints at a deeper meaning to certain plot threads here and there the R + L = J theory was born. In short, the theory states that
Rhaegar Targaryen plusLyanna Stark equalsJon Snow. It goes on to argue that Rhaegar Targaryen did not capture and rape Lyanna Stark and that they instead ran away together, were in love, and conceived a child. For an outsider looking in this may not seem like the biggest of game changers, but in terms of what it means for both past and present for the Song of Ice and Fire series, it is huge.
Firstly it means that Robert’s Rebellion was based on a lie, Lyanna was never kidnapped and so the main sparking point for the war was simply a misunderstanding or better put a very well kept secret. Secondly Jon is the titular ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, with Lyanna Stark representing the ‘Ice’ (as she comes from the snowy North) and Rhaegar being the ‘Fire’ (due to the Targaryen families history with dragons). Jon could also unite the North and the South, as well as presumably have some sort of influence over dragons (as Targaryen’s tend to do). The theory has become more and more popular to most fans of both the books and the show over the years as it provides a beautifully Game of Thrones style twist to what at first we simply took as fact, as well as making a fan favourite character like Jon Snow even more interesting than he already is.
What The Books Have Hinted at So Far:
The books have given us a number of hints at R + L = J over the years, a large part of which is differing opinions on Rhaegar Targaryen. In the Robert Baratheon controlled Westeros, everyone accepts that Rhaegar was a villain, but as the series progresses we slowly start to get a slightly different and perhaps less jaded view of Rhaegar. Ser Jorah Mormont, Ser Barristan, and even Ned Stark himself outline examples of Rhaegar being a good person, a man of the people, and a great prince. We also learn that even Lyanna herself, although betrothed to Robert, may not have loved him, claiming at one point that she knew that he would never be faithful.
Ned later recalls the Tourney at Harrenhal, which is the first real suggestion of something between Rhaegar and Lyanna. Ned notes the entire crowd’s smiles dying at the Tourney after Rhaegar won, and instead of giving the prize, a crown of flowers which proclaimed the owner the ‘Queen of Beauty and Love’, to his wife Elia, he instead rode straight past her and gave it to Lyanna.
But perhaps the biggest hint at R + L = J is Ned’s dream of Lyanna’s death in A Game of Thrones (which is admittedly whilst he is dosed up on the milk of the poppy). A number of important details are made clear and although they are relatively ambiguous could mean a lot. Firstly we learn that members of the Kingsguard are protecting the Tower of Joy (where Lyanna is being held) whilst the capital has been taken, and Prince Rhaegar has fallen in battle at the Trident.
Secondly, we see that Lyanna (inside the tower) died in a ‘bed of blood’, and that with her dying breath asks Ned to make a promise. When Ned first mentions the promise in the books it is to Robert and he implies that she wished to be buried at Winterfell, but his repeated thought of it hints at a deeper meaning.
What The Show Has Hinted at So Far:
With a series as complex as George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the show has had to alter, edit, and cut a number of important characters and arcs along the way, which has resulted in a very refined version of events as we head into the series’ end game. Despite this however, the show itself, like the books, has hinted at the R + L = J throughout its run in a variety of ways. In some cases, it’s been direct references to characters, and events, but other times it is more subtle, such as the framing of a shot or a mention of a Targaryen, followed by the entrance of Jon Snow. This all changed in Season Six, however, when Bran Stark met the Three-Eyed Raven and began his journey into utilising the full extent of his powers.
Bran’s ‘Greensight’, which as we know from Season Seven has now somewhat fried his brain and changed his personality completely, allows him to see all things past, present, and future, and thus he is able to go back in time and learn the truth of almost any event. In a scene that is drawn out and revealed in incremental parts throughout Season Six, we get the full resolution of ‘The Tower of Joy’ scene in the Season Six finale.
The scene shows us a young Ned Stark, along with Howland Reed and a group of other Northern soldiers arrive at the Tower to be met by Lord Commander of the Kingsgard Gerolt Hightower and Ser Arthur Dayne the greatest swordsman in Westeros. Ned points out that both Aerys and Rhaegar Targaryen are now dead, and questions why they would be there protecting a Tower rather than fighting for their king at the Trident. Ser Dayne explains that Rhaegar ordered them to stay there and protect the Tower, Ned makes it clear they are there for Lyanna, and a battle breaks out. Only Ned and Howland Reed are left alive, with Ned going into the Tower to find Lyanna, after hearing screams from within.
When Ned finds his sister he sees she is laid in a bed, surrounded by blood and roses, and up until that point is a pretty accurate depiction of what we know from Ned’s dream in the books. Then we get the full scene and confirmation of R + L = J, as Ned arrives Lyanna has just given birth to a baby boy. As she dies, due to complications with childbirth rather than at the hands of Rhaegar,, she asks Ned to promise to protect her newborn son, knowing what Robert would do to the baby if he knew his true parentage.
If what had happened wasn’t enough of a confirmation of the baby being Jon, the scene transitions from a shot of the newborn Targaryen/Stark baby into a perfectly paralleled shot of Jon Snow, showing off the exact same eyes and emphasising that he is indeed the child of Lyanna Stark, and thus not Ned’s bastard at all.
The Season 7 Finale – “The Dragon and the Wolf”:
With Bran’s visions and training with the Three-Eyed Raven in Season Six all but confirming R + L = J in the Tower of Joy scene, most of the mystery was left unexplored for much of Season Seven, until the Season Finale of the Seventh Season added a new twist to the theory. Through another of Bran’s vision, we see that Rhaegar and Lyanna were indeed in love, had run away in secret and been married (after Rhaegar has his marriage to Ellia Martell annulled). Thus making Jon Snow, actually Aegon Targaryen, the true born heir of Rhaegar and Lyanna, and given that Rhaegar was the Crown Prince, that makes Jon/Aegon the true heir to the Iron Throne.
This somewhat contradicts with what we’ve learned so far in the books with a separate character altogether actually claiming to be Aegon Targaryen (but the Aegon that Rhaegar had with his first wife Elia Martell, and not with Lyanna).
What it Could Mean for Season 8:
If the reveal of Jon’s legitimate claim to the throne combined with the White Walker attack on the wall wasn’t enough to cause a huge shift going into Season Eight, we now have the full (frontal) development of Jon and Daenerys’ relationship (which we saw spliced together with the reveal of Jon’s parentage).
Going into Season Eight the relationship between Daenerys and Jon will perhaps be the most crucial. We already know they are very much into each other, but now we also have a definite confirmation that they are aunt and nephew, and after all of the recent references to how Daenerys can’t conceive, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was pregnant with Jon’s baby thanks to some sort of dragon baby genes in both of them (making Jon’s kids his own cousins…).
It’s a very messy situation, and typically it would be easy enough to assume Jon wouldn’t be interested in leading the Seven Kingdoms as the rightful King at all, like Ned Stark before him he has always been happy with his lot. Jon has instead has had greatness and leadership thrust upon him rather than him actively seeking it (unlike so many around him). But the time may come during Season Eight where Jon is forced to utilise his birthright and take control of the Seven Kingdoms, and that reason is of course pretty much the one thing Jon is bothered about (other than seducing his aunt); The White Walkers.
With Cersei reneging on her claim to help fight the White Walkers it looks like Jon won’t be getting the help from the South that he needs. In one sense that might not be too bad, it seems like Jamie was pretty certain that between the dragons, the Dothraki, and the Unsullied, Kings Landing would stand no chance, and so their help in the fight against the undead may be minimal, but for Jon essential.
And so with the Southern army nowhere to be seen in terms of helping the North, it might be Westeros’ only hope if Jon claims his birthright as the true King and unites the land, and their armies, against the White Walkers.
This could obviously pit Daenerys against Jon, as Daenerys has spent the last few years of her life believing the Iron Throne to be hers by right and isn’t likely to accept becoming queen by marriage rather than the outright ruler. The fact that the two are now in love will only add a little bit more tragedy to the upcoming events and revelation of their genetic relationship, considering of course that they are even bothered, as Targaryen’s have in the past been very pro-incest, and in reality, it really isn’t their fault.
With the White Walker’s heading into Westeros, Cersei going back on her word (and potentially scheming with Tyrion), Jon and Daenerys getting it on, and everything else the finale threw at us there is a lot of set up from some huge twists going into the final season. But the biggest, and perhaps most impactful is the finale fully confirming that R + L = J is true, with the added detail of Jon actually being Aegon Targaryen the legitimate son of Rhaegar and Lyanna, and true heir to the Iron Throne.