[WARNING - This article contains HUGE SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season 5 and the ASOIAF novels.]
While much of our time post-Game of Thrones season 5 has been spent theorizing how Jon Snow could escape the fate handed him in the season finale, there's another theory concerning Jon Snow that has kept fans busy since George R.R. Martin published his first A Song of Ice and Fire novel. Who are Jon Snow's parents?
To the unimaginative, the answer is obviously Ned Stark and some woman (either Wylla or another tavern wench), as this is what Jon is told by several sources throughout the novels. And while that was the story Ned told until the day he died, it's never been one that fans have accepted as the truth. Ned was as honorable as Joffrey was cruel, so for him to sire a child out of wedlock and bring home the bastard wouldn't just be out of character - it'd be character assassination on the part of GRRM.
For the more astute Game of Thrones fans, there's a far more compelling theory about the identity of Jon Snow's parents. It's a theory well-supported by evidence from the novels and now the HBO series, and as filming begins on season 6, there's another revelation that seemingly implies the infamous "R+L=J" theory will at least be explored next season - if not outright confirmed.
What is R+L=J?
What's plainly obvious when looking at the above phrase is that it is an equation, and since we're discussing Jon's parentage, it only makes sense for the "J" to represent his name and the "R" and "L" to represent his parents' names. "R" and "L" aren't inherently distinct enough to provide any clues on their own, but to those who've been paying attention and are able to keep all the many names and lineages of Westeros' straight, there are only two possible candidates: Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
Rhaegar is the son of The Mad King and Lyanna is Ned's sister. At the time, Rhaegar was married to Elia Martell (Oberyn and Doran's sister) and Lyanna betrothed to Robert Baratheon, but after Rhaegar won the tourney at Harrenhal, he passed over his own wife to instead crown Lyanna the queen of love and beauty. It was a hugely awkward scene to say the least, and when Rhaegar and Lyanna mysteriously vanished together a year later, their disappearance set off the string of events that brought about Robert's Rebellion.
From this point on the story differs depending on who's narrating. Robert, for instance, paints a picture of a lecherous Rhaegar kidnapping Lyanna and raping her. Viserys explains it to Daenerys as Rhaegar being bored with Elia and seeking a distraction. But Ser Barristan Selmy, a close friend of Rhaegar's, tells Daenerys he truly believes Rhaegar was in love with Lyanna, though he regrets what happened at the tourney and believes had it happened differently, many lives could have been spared.
No matter which version of the above events you believe, the "R+L=J" theory proposes that Rhaegar would eventually impregnate Lyanna and the resulting child grows up to become Jon Snow. But why is it that Jon is raised as Ned's bastard? Well...
What Happened at the Tower of Joy?
The closest we have to a reliable narrator of what happened to Lyanna after she disappeared is Ned, since he and several companions - among them Howland Reed, father of Bran's companions, Jojen and Meera - came to rescue Lyanna once Robert's Rebellion was all but won.
Ned and the six other knights traveled to the Tower of Joy, located in Dorne on the edge of the Red Mountains, where Lyanna was being held. There they found three knights of the Kingsguard - Ser Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent, and Lord Commander Gerold Hightower. What followed was a bloody skirmish of which only Ned and Howland survived, only to then enter the tower and find Lyanna dying in a "bed of blood."
Readers learn what happened at the Tower of Joy during the first book when Ned is experiencing a fever dream in response to taking milk of the poppy. Because of his compromised state of mind, many details during his recollection of what happened are left out - namely, what killed Lyanna and whether or not she was pregnant or had given birth.
However, one rather important detail is revealed: Lyanna's dying words to her brother are, "Promise me, Ned." And it's that phrase that proponents of the "R+L=J" theory suggest is the moment when Lyanna asks Ned to raise her and Rhaegar's child as his own. A difficult childbirth is a more than believable cause of death for Lyanna, and honoring such a difficult promise to his dying sister is behavior that is far more in line with Ned's character than Jon being his own bastard, giving only more credence to "R+L=J."
Will Season 6 Reveal the Truth?
The debate over who Jon Snow's parents are will rage until the day it's finally revealed, but that day is steadily approaching. Either on the page in Martin's next novel or on screen in Game of Thrones - the identity of Jon Snow's parents will likely be confirmed. And there's new evidence suggesting in season 6, Game of Thrones will depict the events that transpired at the Tower of Joy, possibly confirming Jon's heritage in the process.
The news comes from a list of new filming locations for Game of Thrones season 6 (via Spanish site Movistar) that includes the Castillo de Zafra in Guadalajara, Spain (below). This castle, with its tall, solitary tower and surrounding mountainous landscape, would make for a great Tower of Joy. Plus it's located in Spain, a country that has already been used as HBO's real world stand-in for Dorne
In addition to the new locale, we previously learned of several new characters being cast for next season. Of those new characters was the vaguely named, Legendary Swordsman, who is described as "a great swordsman and a paragon of knighthood" and carries a "hugely famous sword on his back." For those familiar with the men present at the Tower of Joy, that description sounds like a dead ringer for Ser Arthur Dayne and his family's ancestral blade, Dawn.
So it sure seems as if Game of Thrones will depict the events of the Tower of Joy in a flashback next season. Will it start out season 6 as Cersei's flashback began season 5? That would make for an incredibly strong start to the season, that's for sure. But even if it does, it's possible that Game of Thrones' version of what happened at the Tower of Joy still won't confirm that Rhaegar and Lyanna are Jon's parents. It may only provide a few more pieces to the puzzle, leaving the full truth for an even more climactic reveal.
What do you think of the Tower of Joy and the important events that transpire there being including in Game of Thrones season 6? Could it the scene also include information yet to be revealed from The Winds of Winter? Could it finally confirm or debunk "R+L=J"? Let us hear your wild theories in the comments below!
Game of Thrones season 6 will air on HBO in spring 2016.