Game of Thrones’ sixth season may have finally revealed Jon Snow's true parentage, one of the story's longest-standing questions, but that’s only scratching the surface when it comes to the characters involved.
We've known his mother, Lyanna Stark's sad story since the beginning. She died years before the events of Game of Thrones and even makes an appearance in season 6 in Bran's visions. But less is known about the other half of the equation (the fan theory R+L=J), and Jon's father, Rhaegar Targaryen. He was Daenerys’ eldest brother, the heir to the Iron Throne. He married, fathered two children (officially), earned his own father’s mistrust, and became part of the catalyst for a war that resulted in his death, all by the age of 24.
He's brought up often as well, but he's not remembered as fondly as Lyanna. Robert speaks of him in a tone dripping with hatred while Ser Barristan Selmy, a former Kingsguard who fought alongside Rhaegar at the battle where he fell, still revers him. It’s from Selmy—a character who's still alive in the books—that Daenerys learns a more nuanced tale of her brother than children probably get in Westeros.
With a life filled with prophecies, wars, and perhaps Game of Thrones’ most tragic love stories, Rhaegar is someone every Game of Thrones fan should know.
A great day marked by tragedy
The birth of a prince is almost always a reason to celebrate, but that wasn’t the only thing to happen that day to the Targaryen family.
While celebrating the upcoming birth of Rhaegar at Summerhall, a Dornish castle the Targaryens liked to visit, a great fire broke out, destroying the castle. The blaze also killed King Aegon V Targaryen, Ser Duncan the Tall (whose early adventures are chronicled in The Tales of Dunk and Egg), and Aegon’s eldest son Duncan Targaryen. Much isn’t known about the Tragedy at Summerhall, though some believe that it involved sorcery and Aegon’s obsession with trying to bring back the dragons.
Rhaegar was born that day, and he became obsessed with Summerhall and would often travel there. As a boy he was well-read, a talented musician whose songs could bring women to tears, and he wasn’t interested in sword-fighting. He was called beautiful and had many of the Targaryens’ distinct features. An illustration of Rhaegar published in A World of Ice and Fire—George R.R. Martin’s official encyclopedia and history of Westeros, Essos, the Targaryen struggles, and beyond—makes him look like an even more regal version of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.Everything changed for Rhaegar, according to A Storm of Swords, after he read something on a scroll. (While it doesn’t specify what, the common theory is that he read “The Prince That Was Promised” prophecy.)
“The Prince That Was Promised”
The Prince That Was Promised (TPTWP) theory, in short, proclaims that a savior born amidst salt and smoke will rise to save the world from darkness. Rhaegar and Daenerys’ grandfather, Jaehaerys II Targaryen, was told by a woods witch that TPTWP would come from his son Aerys’ line, so he made him and his daughter Rhaella marry each other in another union of Targaryen incest. And given he was born amidst a great fire and tragic loss, Rhaegar (and Maester Aemon for a time) believed that he fit the prophecy.
It’s a prophecy similar to Azor Ahai, which refers to a legendary hero who lived thousands of years ago during the Long Night and fought the White Walkers. He is prophesied to be reborn after “a long summer when the stars bleed and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world.” Azor Ahai and TPTWP are often referred to interchangeably—sometimes by Melisandre—so some fans tend to believe that they’re the same prophecy; they both, for example, mention a bleeding star.
Rhaegar learned how to fight and was knighted at age 17, although he rarely fought in tourneys. And when he came of age, he married Elia Martell of Dorne because he didn’t have an of-age Targaryen sister (this was years before Daenerys’ birth) and a trusted advisor of Aerys, Robert’s father Steffon Baratheon, couldn’t find anyone fitting enough for Rhaegar to marry.
Rhaegar and Elia eventually had two children. After two difficult childbirths—one in which she nearly died—maesters told Rhaegar that Elia wouldn’t be able to have more children. It’s the time after the birth of Rhaegar’s son Aegon that we see a glimpse of in a vision Daenerys has in the House of the Undying. After Elia asks if Rhaegar wants to write his new son a song, he replies that he already has one. He believes Aegon is TPTWP after a comet was spotted above King’s Landing after he was born.
“He has a song,” Rhaegar told Elia. “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire. There must be one more. The dragon has three heads.”
The Tourney at Harrenhal
As King Aerys’ paranoia about everyone who served him grew—including suspicion of his own son—a great tournament took place that was meant to rival every tournament before it. Although some believed that Rhaegar and great lords set it up to discuss forming a Great Council to remove Aerys from power, it was officially to celebrate the birthday of a lord’s daughter. All of the noble houses of Westeros attended, and It’s remembered decades later not just for the display of wealth and bravery it put on, but rather how it ended.
Rhaegar, who usually didn’t enter tournaments, won the whole thing. Tradition called for him to crown a woman as the queen of love and beauty, and instead of giving the honor to his wife, Princess Elia Martell, he bestowed it upon Lyanna Stark—who may have done some fighting of her own early on in the tourney. Ned would later call it “the moment when all the smiles died.”
While Lyanna, who was already betrothed to Robert at the time, hadn’t met Rhaegar prior to the tourney, she weeped upon hearing Rhaegar perform.
What happened next depends on whose side of the story you believe. Lyanna was taken by Rhaegar with help from two members of the Kingsguard, that much is agreed on, but it’s unclear if she was kidnapped and raped (as Robert believed) or if she went willingly. According to Selmy, Rhaegar “loved his Lady Lyanna” but did concede that thousands of people died because of it. Her disappearance directly led to Robert’s Rebellion.After hearing Lyanna was gone, her eldest brother Brandon went to King’s Landing to confront Rhaegar, but was met by King Aerys instead. Aerys killed their father, Rickard Stark, by roasting him in his own armor, and Brandon strangled himself in one of Aerys's cruel contraptions trying to save him. When Aerys demanded the heads of Ned and Robert, they, along with Jon Arryn of the Vale, revolted.
Rhaegar and Robert met months later at the Battle at the Trident, where it was reported they fought one another in single combat. Robert struck Rhaegar down with his warhammer, and as Daenerys saw in the House of the Undying, he utters Lyanna’s name right before he dies.
Although what happened during most of Lyanna and Rhaegar’s time together is unknown, we know how it ends: Nearing death at the Tower of Joy, she asked Ned to make her a promise. The season 6 finale revealed that Lyanna asked Ned to protect her child, who we now know as Jon Snow. While less evident (but still fairly obvious), it’s heavily implied that Rhaegar is the father. Given that the Game of Thrones showrunners had to correctly answer the identity of Jon’s mother to get Martin’s blessing for the show, fans have presumed that R+L=J is now canon. And it’s had plenty of supporting evidence over the years.According to the theory, Rhaegar and Lyanna loved each other and she willingly ran away with him instead of being kidnapped. At some point before he died, they conceived Jon. Rhaegar’s wife Elia was believed to be infertile, so it’s possible he might’ve sought out someone else in order for the dragon to have three heads (a metaphor for his third child) as a prophecy called for. (Since Rhaenys and Aegon were killed at the hands of the Mountain, some fans now believe the three heads of the dragon refer to Daenerys and Tyrion Lannister.) Some fans believe that Rhaegar and Lyanna may have married in secret, which would make Jon a legitimate Targaryen with a real claim to the throne.
Will we see Rhaegar in the show? One musician said he was playing the long-dead Targaryen months ago, but some fans doubt his claims. If Game of Thrones brings Rhaegar back through a vision or flashback, it’ll be a secret role like Lyanna’s in the season 6 finale. As Jon prepares to face his destiny in the seasons to come—and has at least one red priestess who believes he’s The Prince That Was Promised—the prospect that he might learn who his father really is could one day be a reality.