Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Game of Thrones,” including speculation of future events.
Two of the most important figures in the “Game of Thrones” universe — Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark — are also the most mysterious and unexplored characters on the series. While show-only fans have heard the name Rhaegar intermittently, they might not understand the deep importance he has in the show’s fictional universe.
Who was Prince Rhaegar and why is it so significant to know Jon is likely his legitimate heir? For more backstory, we can turn to George R.R. Martin’s writings in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels and his extended “A World of Ice and Fire”encyclopedic text.
- Prince Rhaegar’s early years and the Mad King
Rhaegar was the first-born child of King Aerys II (who was married to his sister, Rhaella). In the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys Rhaegar was “bookish” as a child and not interested in fighting:
“As a young boy, the Prince of Dragonstone was bookish to a fault. He was reading so early that men said Queen Rhaella must have swallowed some books and a candle whilst he was in her womb. Rhaegar took no interest in the play of other children.
The maesters were awed by his wits, but his father’s knights would jest sourly that Baelor the Blessed had been born again. Until one day Prince Rhaegar found something in his scrolls that changed him. No one knows what it might have been, only that the boy suddenly appeared early one morning in the yard as the knights were donning their steel. He walked up to Ser Willem Darry, the master-at-arms, and said, ‘I will require sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.'”
Some fans believe Rhaegar read about a prophecy in those scrolls — a prophecy which motivated most of his life choices from then on. But more on that later.
By the time he was 17, Prince Rhaegar was already knighted and winning tournaments, beating legendary warriors like Barristan Selmy. He often played the harp and sang beautifully at feasts and gatherings, and noblewomen around Westeros swooned over his silver hair and dark indigo eyes.
In the books, Cersei remembers her excitement when she believed her and Rhaegar would marry one day. “Next to Rhaegar, even her beautiful Jaime had seemed no more than a callow boy,” Martin wrote.
Here’s a portrait of Prince Rhaegar created by artist Karla Ortiz and featured in “A World of Ice and Fire”:
Meanwhile, his father King Aerys grew more paranoid and resentful by the day.
During a small rebellion in which a rebelling lord held King Aerys hostage, Tywin Lannister (who was Hand of the King) seemed unconcerned about his potential death, saying, “We have a better king right here,” as he gestured towards Rhaegar.
Once the rebellion was ended, King Aerys was more paranoid than ever. He believed Rhaegar and Tywin had plotted together to have him slain, “opening the way for Rhaegar to mount the Iron Throne and marry Lord Tywin’s daughter.”
King Aerys refused Tywin’s offer of marrying Rhaegar to Cersei Lannister. Instead, Rhaegar was married to Princess Elia Martell of Dorne, the younger sister to Oberyn and Doran Martell. They had two children together, Rhaenys and Aegon.
Rhaegar and Elia chose to live on Dragonstone instead of in King’s Landing, which only fueled Aerys’ suspicions that Rhaegar was plotting against him and wanted the Iron Throne for himself.
- The fateful Tourney of Harrenhal
In “A World of Ice and Fire,” the story of the tournament in Harrenhal begins ominously:
“Many tales have grown up around Lord Whent’s tournament: tales of plots and conspiracies, betrayals and rebellions, infidelities and assignations, secrets and mysteries, almost all of it conjecture. The truth is known to only a few, some of whom have long passed beyond this mortal vale and must forever hold their tongues.”
One such rumor is that the tournament was secretly funded and organized by Prince Rhaegar himself, who was using Lord Whent as a decoy. People believed the tournament was a way to cover up the mass gathering of every important lord “in order to discuss ways and means of dealing with the madness of his father, possibly by means of a regency or a forced abdication.”
At the tournament, Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark — Jon’s mother — met for the first time. Here we must turn to a story about the tournament and a mysterious knight told by Meera and Jojen read in “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
As part of the season six Blu-ray extras, HBO released an animated video of this tale narrated by Ellie Kendrick, the actress who plays Meera Reed. You can watch the full video below, released exclusively in 2016 by Watchers on the Wall:
The story is about Howland Reed, Meera and Jojen’s father, and how he was attacked by three squires at the Tourney of Harrenhal. Lyanna Stark intervened and brought Howland back to her tent to three Stark boys —Benjen, Ned, and Brandon.
The Starks convinced Howland to stay and enjoy the festivities. In the tale, we hear how Howland watched as Rhaegar Targaryen sang a song during one of the tournament feasts. The ballad was so beautiful it made Lyanna cry and her brothers teased her.
The next day, a mysterious person entered the tournament wearing ill-fitted armor and bearing a shield with a laughing weirwood tree painted on it. The Knight of the Laughing Tree challenged the three squires who had attacked Howland and won.
A popular theory among fans is that this knight was actually Lyanna. She was known for her prodigious horse-riding skills (a must for anyone jousting) and would have needed to disguise her appearance since she’s a woman.
But the Mad King Aerys was furious when he saw the Knight of the Laughing Tree’s victory, because he believed it was one of his enemies making a mockery of him. When the mystery knight seemed to vanish overnight, King Aerys sent Rhaegar to look for him.
Allegedly Rhaegar only found the knight’s shield — but what if he really found Lyanna and chose to protect her from his father? Was this the beginning of their fated relationship?
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