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Rhaegar Targaryen is the most important ‘Game of Thrones’ character you don’t know
Westeros’s late crown prince lived a short life filled with tragedy, violence, and prophecy.
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 respects him. Selmy—a character who’s still alive in the books—tells Daenerys 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 Targaryen 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 Targaryen 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 Targaryen 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 Targaryen, 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.)
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Rhaegar Targaryen and “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. Some fans tend to believe that they’re the same prophecy; they both, for example, mention a bleeding star.
Rhaegar ‘s marriage and children
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). 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. After the birth of Rhaegar’s son Aegon, we see a glimpse of 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 the tournament. Decades later, it’s remembered not just for the displays of wealth and bravery, but rather for 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.”
Lyanna, who was already betrothed to Robert at the time, hadn’t met Rhaegar prior to the tourney. Yet she wept upon hearing Rhaegar perform.
What happened next depends on whose side of the story you believe. Lyanna was taken by Rhaegar Targaryen with help from two members of the Kingsguard. That much is agreed on. According to Selmy, Rhaegar “loved his Lady Lyanna” but did concede that thousands of people died because of it.
Thanks to the Game of Thrones season 7, we now know that Rhaegar never kidnapped or raped Lyanna as Robert Baratheon and the Starks believed. They loved each other, and Rhaegar annulled his first marriage with Elia to marry her. (It’s possible that Elia, who knew of Rhaegar’s obsession with prophecy, may have a more active role if he does annul their marriage in the books.)
High Septon Maynard performed the secret ceremony, which Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly would put together decades later. It was so secret that members of Lyanna’s own family feared the worst. Her disappearance directly led to Robert’s Rebellion.
After hearing Lyanna disappeared, 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. Brandon strangled himself in one of Aerys’s cruel contraptions trying to save him. (The show simplifies this a bit by having Aerys burn both Rickard and Brandon.) When Aerys demanded the heads of Ned and Robert, they revolted along with Jon Arryn of the Vale.
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 uttered 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 (and whose real name is Aegon Targaryen). While it was heavily implied that Rhaegar was the father, Game of Thrones didn’t explicitly reveal Jon’s father until the season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.”
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 or Daenerys and Bran Stark warging into a dragon now that Viserion is under the control of the Night King.) We now know that Rhaegar and Lyanna married in secret before Rhaegar’s death and Jon’s birth, which makes Jon their legitimate son and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.
After seven seasons, we’ve finally met Rhaegar, who’s briefly portrayed by actor Wilf Scolding. As Jon heads to Winterfell, the motherload of reveals is waiting for him from Bran and Sam, and it will probably question and challenge everything he thought he knew about the world.
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Michelle Jaworski is a staff writer and the resident Game of Thrones expert at the Daily Dot. She covers entertainment, geek culture, and pop culture and has brought her knowledge to conventions like Con of Thrones. She is based in New Jersey.