Game of Thrones: Season 6 Ned Stark Flashback Explained

Robert Aramayo as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones Season 6

[WARNING - This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the Game of Thrones season 6 finale.]


Game of Thrones delivered another rousing finale with 'The Winds of Winter,' capping off what's been a season unlike any other. Major characters were killed, others found themselves in new positions of power, and now the pieces are being set for the thrilling conclusion of this "great game."

But while so very much of the season 6 finale looked towards the future, concerning itself with where we'll find these characters when it returns next year, there was one very important peek into the past. Yes, it was a return to the Tower of Joy, the moment from the past wherein Bran first learned that what he's always been told happened isn't always the same as what did happen. Previously, Bran witnessed his father not win against the Sword of the Morning in fair combat (as he had always heard it happened) but rather narrowly avoid getting killed by a fortunate bit of back stabbing. The scene set the tone for a larger reveal yet to come, one that fans have been discussing for well over a decade and was summarily confirmed in the Game of Thrones season 6 finale.

R+L=J, quite possibly the longest running fan theory connected with George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels is, in fact, true. Though, for viewers not well versed in what the R+L=J theory suggests, this week's flashback to a young Ned at the Tower of Joy may not have been entirely clear. To help elaborate on the big reveal, we've broken down why what Ned did -- and perhaps more importantly, what Bran saw -- inside the Tower of Joy is so significant.

Ned Stark Tower of Joy Game of Thrones Season 6 Finale

In 'The Winds of Winter,' we see Bran return to the point in time where he had previously called out to his father as Ned began ascending the tower's stairs. Now, without the previous Three-Eyed Raven there to stop him, Bran follows Ned as he enters the tower to find his sister, Lyanna, lying in bed, covered in blood. It was she who Ned had come to the tower to retrieve, believing she had been kidnapped by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen -- oldest son of the Mad King and recently slain at the Battle of the Trident by Robert Baratheon. Yet, it's hard to say whether Lyanna was truly kidnapped by Rhaegar or not, and there are many who believe the two were secretly lovers and that Lyanna ran away with Rhaegar willingly.

The whole affair between Rhaegar and Lyanna began at the Tourney of Harrenhal, where, after winning the tourney, Rhaegar layed a crown of winter roses in the lap of Lyanna, passing over his own wife, Elia Martell, and crowning instead the Stark girl the tourney's "queen of love and beauty." The gesture, as it turns out, was one with enormous consequences, leading to Robert's Rebellion and the end of the centuries-long Targaryen rule in Westeros.

The story as it was told insists that a year after the fateful day, Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna, raped her and locked her away in the Tower of Joy. But as we've already seen, how history is told doesn't always align with events as they actually happened, and as several characters -- from Littlefinger to Ser Barristan -- have pointed out, Rhaegar and Lyanna's tryst may not have been as nefarious as has been implied. Robert, who was betrothed to Lyanna, may not have wanted to believe it, but it's just as likely that Lyanna fell in love with Rhaegar just as much as he fell in love with her.

Rhaegar Lyanna Artwork by Mathia Arkoniel A Song of Ice and Fire
Artwork by Mathia Arkoniel.

Regardless of their intentions, their time together was brief. Rhaegar was killed by Robert and when Ned finds Lyanna within the Tower of Joy she's moments from death herself. The cause of death, however, has always been a mystery, with Ned only ever recalling the barest of details, while in a fever dream brought upon by taking milk of the poppy. It is from that scene in the first novel we learn of Lyanna's dying words: "Promise me, Ned." We're also informed Ned heard Lyanna scream while he was fighting the remaining Kingsguard outside the tower, a detail Game of Thrones made sure to include.

From those clues, fans posited the now famous (and seemingly accurate) R+L=J theory, which asserts: Lyanna died in childbirth, having become pregnant with Rhaegar's son, a boy who grows up to be Jon Snow. And for those looking for confirmation, it was all there in editing, as Ned is handed a newborn baby, the camera cuts to the child's face, quickly followed by another cut to an adult Jon Snow. Of course, we still don't know the entirety of what Lyanna whispered to Ned in those fleeting moments (surely some fans are already hard at work lip reading and deciphering her message), but it seems safe to assume she was asking Ned to promise her he'd look after the child. Which we know he did, bringing the baby home with him and passing him off as his bastard son.

Kit Harington Jon Snow Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 10

With Jon's true parentage revealed  -- or at least as strongly implied as it's ever been -- the question now becomes, what does this mean for the new King in the North? Jon is not the son of Ned Stark, but he is of Stark blood thanks to his mother. Moreover, Jon is a Targaryen, the only living child of Rhaegar, potentially giving him an even stronger claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys. Though, the flashback does nothing to enlighten us to whether or not Rhaegar and Lyanna ever married, but assuming they did not (and it'd have been tough with Elia, Rhaegar's wife still alive), Jon would still be a bastard under Westerosi custom, possibly negating his presumed birthright. There's also the question of Jon being Azor Ahai or "the prince that was promised," since Rhaegar was convinced one of his children would fulfill that prophecy. Melisandre certainly believes he is and she isn't even aware of Jon's Targaryen blood.

Still, though Bran and we, the audience, have been let in on the truth of Jon's parents, the knowledge that he is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark isn't widely known, so it's not as if this development will have an immediate effect on the series. Presumably, if and when Bran reunites with his family, the truth may come out, but until then the world will continue to operate under the impression that Jon is Ned's bastard. And that lineage alone has served him well, since as of the finale, Jon finds himself hailed by the North as their new King and liege lord of Winterfell -- the White Wolf.

How do you think the reveal that R (Rhaegar) + L (Lyanna) = J (Jon Snow) is the real deal will affect Game of Thrones moving forward? Is this information that will likely become common knowledge throughout the kingdom? Or will it simply inform some future development for the character? Leave us your theories in the comments!

Game of Thrones will return to HBO with season 7 in spring 2017.

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