Do you find yourself asking questions like, ‘Is my mother alive?’ and, ‘Does she know about me, where I am, where I’m going? Does she care?’ as you prepare to ride for a massive, frozen man-made structure up North? No, because your name isn’t Jon Snow and you don’t live in the world of Westeros where whorehouses welcome you (your money) with open arms, where the invitation is accepted with such regularity, it’s equivalent to having a membership and where infidelity is the national pastime.
Bastards are spawned ad nauseum and there’s very little concern about whether or not mommy or daddy will be around to change the diapers.
With regards to everyone’s favourite bastard, however, people want answers.
Who is Jon Snow’s mother? This is one of the most frequently debated topics amongst book readers as well as non-book readers.
Is she a whore that Ned met while fighting alongside Robert Baratheon? Is it The Lady Ashara Dayne, the sister of Ser Arthur Dayne who was killed by Ned during combat?
It’s Robert Baratheon’s remark, ‘’ She must have been a rare wench to make Lord Stark forget his honor” that I’m using to spark this debate. Rare wench, indeed. You could even use the word ‘fictional’ if you like. Catelyn Stark notes that ‘Whoever Jon’s mother had been, Ned must have loved her fiercely, because nothing she said ‘would persuade him to send the boy away.’ Yes, Ned did, in fact, love Jon’s mother fiercely. Contradiction at its best? Not quite. Please take a moment to appreciate the dramatic irony.
I all but fell out of my chair when I received the go-ahead to present the theory that has everyone’s knickers in an excited twist. Before proceeding, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that all the events referred to in this article took place before the series starts. Also, remember that George R.R. Martin has yet to divulge who Jon’s parents are. He, alone, knows the answer to the delectable enigma that he’s created. This is, at best, speculation.
Albeit cleverly supported speculation.
‘Lord Eddard Stark is my father.’ Jon says to Tyrion Lannister in episode one. When pulling at the thread of this particular claim, the secret begins to unravel. No, my dove, I’m afraid he isn’t.
But, even at the tender age of fourteen, Jon is described as bearing the most striking resemblance to the Starks than any of his half-siblings. Catelyn observes that he ‘looked more like Ned than any of the trueborn sons she bore him.’ Curious. Unless you entertain the widely popular belief that Ned is, in fact, Jon’s uncle and that his sister, Lyanna Stark, and Rhaegar Targaryen were Jon’s biological parents. Just when you think Jon can’t possibly get any sexier/more interesting, gods old and new, the half-dragon card gets played.
Let’s try to uncover one of the realm’s best kept secrets, shall we?
Lord Eddard Stark is a man of indisputable honour and loyalty. But, as the story is said to go, the noble Lord marries Catelyn Tully and she falls pregnant with his son, Robb. The newly wed then has to embark upon Robert’s Rebellion and, during this time period, he casts aside his husbandly duty – such a Ned thing to do – and beds another woman while the mother of his unborn child waits for him at Riverrun. A year after his departure, he returns to Winterfell with an illegitimate bundle of joy.
Can we put this version of the event to eternal rest? Immediately? Those who have come to understand Ned know that he is governed by nothing short of sainthood.
Lord Stark’s unwaveringly noble disposition aside, what other evidence is there to support this theory? I’m thrilled you asked because it took an hour to find the relevant book passages and episode scenes.
The first seed of suspicion should begin to grow in light of just how little information is provided about said affair in relation to how prominently the subject of who Jon’s mother’s is, features in the story. The hearsay accounts are ambivalent and disparities exist when the identity of the woman comes into play. The question arises far too often for it not to have a significant answer. And amidst all the speculation, what’s Ned doing? Why, he’s busy evading and deflecting questions while wearing a most aggrieved expression on his face of course.
Now, Robert Baratheon seems certain of Jon’s mother’s identity. While lunching along the King’s Road and engaging in a bout of ‘Who bedded whom?’ nostalgia, he poses the question to Ned, “Yours was, Elena. You told me once, your bastard’s mother. Meryl?” To which Ned reluctantly responds, “Wylla.” Robert goes on to say, ‘’You never told me what she looked like.” Ned’s answer signals the end of the discussion. “Nor will I.” Well, there you have it, case closed. It is known. Is it? If her identity is this uncomplicated, why won’t Ned share the information or even so much as her name with Jon?
Or clarify the matter with his wife who suspects that The Lady Ashara Dayne is Jon’s mother? Oh dear. Upon her return to Winterfell, she finds baby Jon and his wet nurse setting up home. It’s understandable that a wife would have a few questions about the new addition to the family. But Ned, who isn’t prone to displays of insensitivity, hurts Catelyn deeply by remaining tight-lipped. After the whispers from the rumour mill reach her ears of the beautiful Lady Ashara, she musters the courage to ask Ned about her. His response marks the first time that Catelyn is ever truly frightened of her husband. ‘“Never ask me about Jon,” he said, cold as ice. “He is my blood, and that is all you need to know.”’
‘He is my blood’. The phrasing is crucial. Again, in episode two, Jon rides for the Night’s Watch and, before they part ways on the King’s road, Ned says, “The Starks have manned the Wall for thousands of years. You may not have my name but you have my blood.‘ The folks of Westeros may refer to Jon as Ned’s bastard son, but does Ned ever use the word ‘son’? The subtlety of the wording would be completely lost on anyone who isn’t asking the right questions. Ned certainly can’t be accused of lying. If Lyanna is Jon’s mother, Stark blood does indeed flow through his veins. Ned’s is an act of omission. It’s my feeling that he loathes fueling any lies but he’s not prepared to reveal the truth either. His words and responses are selected with careful deliberation.
But why the need for secrecy? The answer to this question hinges on the magnitude of Robert’s hatred towards the Targaryens and the promise that Ned made to Lyanna as a result of that hatred.
Ned’s transgression was said to have occurred during Robert’s Rebellion against the Targaryens, but we’re working from the basis that there was no affair. Let’s proceed.
It was believed that Rhaegar Targaryen kidnapped Lyanna – Robert’s betrothed – and that he raped her numerous times. Now, I’m using the words ‘kidnapped’ and ‘raped’ very loosely because it’s a belief that, I suspect, originated with Robert.
And Robert was biased. His feelings towards Rhaegar soured the moment Rhaegar made his interest in Lyanna uncomfortably known at the Tourney at Harrenhal. Rhaegar was declared the champion and ‘Ned remembered the moment when all the smiles died, when Prince Rhaegar Targaryen urged his horse past his own wife, the Dornish Princess Elia Martell, to lay the Queen of Beauty’s laurel in Lyanna’s lap. He could see it still: a crown of winter roses, blue as frost.’
Roughly a year later (to commemorate the event?) Rhaegar ‘kidnapped’ her (I would’ve suggested sending a card instead.) This roused Robert’s fury.
Perhaps I’m mistaken, but Rhaegar Targaryen doesn’t fit the profile of ‘wicked rapist.’ Adored by the smallfolk, he was described as an intelligent, honourable, valiant man who often succumbed to melancholy. He excelled at knighthood but he preferred to read books and play the harp. He could sing ‘songs of such beauty they could reduce women to tears’ – a most dreadful fellow indeed. Married to Elia Martell, he fathered two children with her. His only crime may have been that he loved another woman.
Lyanna Stark was no delicate flower either. She was blessed with unrivaled beauty, but she was described as a very headstrong, stubborn young girl (much like her niece, Arya). Her feelings towards Robert were ambivalent. She may have cared for him, but I couldn’t find any definitive evidence to suggest that she loved him as she should have. If Lyanna was taken to King’s Landing, it’s because she went willingly. If she had intimate relations with Rhaegar, they were consensual. Rhaegar loved her and I believe she loved him in return. These are possibilities that didn’t enter Robert’s mind. In his eyes, Lyanna could do no wrong. “You never knew Lyanna as I did, Robert.” Ned once remarked.
But Rhaegar’s life, the nature of his relationship with Lyanna, the prophecy and the metaphorical three-headed dragon are a 2900 word story for another time.
Ned’s father, Rickard and his brother, Brandon, rode to King’s Landing to reclaim Lyanna, but it was an unsuccessful mission. You see, the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, had other plans – he decided to murder them instead. Don’t worry, your Grace, Jaime Lannister’s got your back.
The murder of Ned’s father and brother is what triggered Robert’s Rebellion and, with the Mad King slayed, Robert eventually won the Iron Throne as well as the title of ‘Usurper’.
We’re (purposefully) provided with very few details, but it was also sometime during the campaign that Lyanna died. Her death unleashed Robert’s full devastation, fury and hatred. Ned had loved his sister ‘with all his heart. Robert had loved her even more.’
Ned notes that ‘Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was a madness in him.’ And it was a madness that drove a rift between the two of them for a period of time. When Tywin Lannister presented the bodies of Rhaegar’s family to Robert , ‘Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war.’ Ned couldn’t advocate the murder of children but Robert’s reply was, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.”
Robert sought his vengeance and he found it. He killed Rhaegar at the Battle of the Trident but the victory was a hollow one. He felt that even a thousand deaths would not have been good enough for the Targaryen Prince. And, to him, Rhaegar was the victorious one because, in death, he still had Lyanna. Robert’s unquenchable bitterness and hatred stretched out its hand to all of Rhaegar’s kin. Viserys and Daenerys Targareyn – Rhaegar’s younger siblings – were smuggled out of Westeros and across the Narrow Sea in the nick of time. His hatred was to be his companion for the rest of his life. Only later, on his deathbed, did he have a change of heart and instruct Ned to revoke the order to have Daenerys killed.
Here’s where a very interesting point arises. Whenever Robert reflects and rages, Ned offers a few pacifying words and waits for the tirade to end. It begs the question, ‘Why is Eddard Stark so damn chilled?’ He doesn’t need to show his grief by killing babies, but if Rhaegar really did kidnap and rape Lyanna , the sister that he loved so much, shouldn’t his anger match at least a fraction of Robert’s? Why does Ned seem to remember the young Prince in a way that suggests admiration, even sadness?
Ned, is there something you’re not telling Bobbie?
“Promise me, Ned.” These are Lyanna’s final words. He often recalls them and, coupled with the memory that they conjure, they torment him for the rest of his life. ‘He could hear her still at times. “Promise me,” she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. “Promise me, Ned.’’’ While the circumstances of her death may be vague, we know one thing for certain. Ned was with her when she died.
There’s the admission that he can scarcely recall the moment when they found him, still clutching Lyanna’s body. The book structures Ned’s memory in a manner that feels fragmented and incomplete. It’s also written in such a way as to lead one to believe that what she’s asking of him is to be buried in the crypt at Winterfell, ‘to rest beside Brandon and Father.’ However the weight of the burden that’s placed on his shoulders isn’t in keeping with such a small request. He describes honouring the promise as his curse. ‘Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them.’
‘I promise, Lya. I promise.’ And he kept his promise. He didn’t reveal that that Lyanna had fallen pregnant, that Jon was her son and that Rhaegar, not him, was his father. This is a hefty claim, I know.
Let’s examine it. Various passages describe it simply as a fever that took her life, but the ‘bed of blood’ reference could suggest that Lyanna died while giving birth to Jon. Ned doesn’t mention a baby, but as I said, it feels as though we’re privy to a partial memory only.
The peace of mind that his word offers her is staggering. ‘The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black’
Sidenote: Rose petals you say? ‘Lyanna loved the scent of winter roses.’ Wasn’t it thoughtful of Rhaegar to present her with a crown of the flowers that she loved? Very sweet. I wish I had the time/space/patience to explore the importance of the symbology.
What was Lyanna so fearful of? Simply put, she didn’t want her son to move to the top of Robert Baratheon’s hit list.
‘She belonged with me. In my dreams, I kill him every night.’ Robert says. ‘It’s done your grace. The Targaryens are gone’ is Ned’s response.
‘Not all of them.‘
But Robert is, of course, referring to Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. Perhaps Jon will be safe, even if his true identity is known.
‘I’ll kill every Targaryen I get my hands on.’ Perhaps not.
Allow me to be frank. It’s possible that Robert and Lyanna consummated their betrothal, but it seems unlikely to me and, once again, there’s no real evidence to support the claim that they did. Robert loved Lyanna, I think she’s the one thing he would’ve wanted to keep sacred. I feel he would’ve waited to consummate the union after they were married. This could further explain the intensity of his rage. In his eyes, it could never have been anything other than ‘rape’. Rhaegar had been the one to take Lyanna’s innocence. Robert saw it as a vile, unforgivable act, the defiling of one that was so pure and beautiful to him.
If you want to argue that they did have an intimate relationship and that the child could have been Robert’s, why was Lyanna so afraid? Robert fathered many bastards and let’s be honest, no one would list ‘observant’ as one of his strengths (Enter Cersei and her three golden haired offspring.) She must have known, beyond a doubt, that Robert was not the father and that he would have drawn the same conclusion. If Lyanna fell pregnant, whether by rape or consent, she must’ve believed that Robert would have known the child was Rhaegar’s. And I don’t have the strength to spell out how Jon’s story would have ended.
Ned lied to his best friend. He allowed his wife to believe that his honour had been compromised and that he had had an affair. He withheld the identity of Jon’s biological parents from everyone, including Jon. This was his burden, this was his sacrifice. He did it in order to keep his word to Lyanna. He did it to protect the son of the sister that he loved so much from Robert Baratheon’s vengeance. What an honourable man.
George has to be commended for his writing prowess. He chooses his words with care and deliberation. One won’t find conclusive evidence to rule Ned out as Jon’s father. Instead, Martin dances around subtleties, omissions and carefully worded phrases that leave room for debate and that will allow him to creatively steer the story in the direction that he sees fit. He uses the characters to reflect on Ned’s alleged lapse of honour, and this foregrounds the idea. But, when it’s juxtaposed with his actions and the constant sacrifices that he makes for the sake of honour, it forces us to ask the question, ‘Come again?’ The true brilliance is fully appreciated when focusing less on what is made explicit and paying attention, instead, to what is being said implicity.
If the Lyanna/Rhaegar theory is correct, it holds very big, exciting implications for the future of the realm. In addition, writers often like to create symmetry. In literary terms, if Jon is a Targaryen, this will form one of several potential literary harmonies that George has set up beautifully.