Game of Thrones: R+L=J Theory Explained

Game of Thrones Finale Jon Snow Dead Killed

Anyone who’s read or watched the novels or TV series of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones knows that there are enough family feuds, war, politics and intrigue for ten franchises. But for all the shocking deaths, betrayal, and strokes of luck that the series has featured thus far, there’s one question that fans debate more than any other, believing that it may hold the secret to the entire story.

The mystery hinges on Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, former head of Winterfell - the identity of Jon's mother, to be exact. It’s one riddle that readers and viewers are both hopeless to solve until the end of the story, but one theory has risen above the rest. And if it’s true, Jon Snow may not just be an underdog hero, but the savior of all mankind (whose fate is not what it seems so far).

Obviously there will be plenty of POTENTIAL SPOILERS in our look at Game of Thrones: R+L=J Theory Explained.

The Prince That Was Promised

Red Priestess in Game of Thrones

Before we get to the current timeline, there’s one prophecy in Martin’s universe that most fans should know about, which is claimed to date back thousands of years. The prophecy claims that one day, a noble prince will be born 'between smoke and salt,' with the power to unite and save all of the kingdoms of man (whose song will be that "of ice and fire").

Known as “the prince who was promised,” or 'Azor Ahai by' the Red Priestess Melisandre, this hero will arrive to stop a terrible winter – most likely a reference to the cold and monstrous creatures living North of The Wall. Plenty of people have claimed they were the prophesied prince, but there’s one candidate who actually seemed like a frontrunner.

The Dragon Prince

Rhaegar Targaryen Theory

Art courtesy of scrapchap on DeviantArt

Since the HBO series picks up long after the story that this theory is based on, viewers may not know of The Dragon Prince, but readers definitely do. There are constant references to the last Targaryen ruler (Aerys II, a.k.a. The Mad King), who met his end when Jamie Lannister stabbed him in the back when he refused to surrender to Robert's forces. But it’s the Mad King’s oldest son, Rhaegar, who is far more important. Strong, beautiful, and a born leader, those close to the royal family claimed that the boy was the promised prince, since he was born amidst the smoke and ash of a burning castle.

Most of the nobility and common folk seemed to agree that Rhaegar was a great ruler in the making, and would have made an incredible king. But he never got the chance to take the throne, or fulfill the prophecy. At least, not the prophecy that people expected. But if you ask some people in the North, Rhaegar was no savior king, but a monstrous criminal. All because of a single woman…

Lyanna Stark

Game Thrones Rhaegar Lyanna

In the very first episode of the HBO series, viewers hear exactly how Lyanna Stark, the sister of Ned Stark, kicked the entire story into motion. You see, Lyanna was betrothed to Robert Baratheon, the Starks’ family friend and future ally. But engaged or not, Lyanna was just as amazed by Rhaegar’s beauty as any other woman in the kingdom. And when the heir to the Targaryen throne made a trip to Winterfell, the two fell instantly in love (to the chagrin of everyone present, including Rhaegar's wife), and escaped to be married. At least, that’s how people from the south, or supporters of Rhaegar tell the story.

But when the prince escaped from the North with Lyanna, Robert called the royal heir a rapist and kidnapper – and used the theft of his future bride as the final straw in kicking off a rebellion. His friend Ned was only interested in getting his sister back, but Robert was keen on removing the Targaryens from King’s Landing once and for all. Not to mention take his revenge on Rhaegar for his crimes against Lyanna.

Robert's Rebellion

Game Thrones Robert Baratheon

It’s worth pointing out that in the novels and TV show, Ned holds back from actually accusing Rhaegar of any crime, staying silent when Robert or his friends claim that his sister was abused or wrongfully kidnapped. The novel gives a detailed account of the rebellion, with Robert killing Rhaegar in combat, and the prince dying with Lyanna’s name his last words. As the wannabe king headed to the capitol, Ned headed to a faraway tower where Lyanna had been stashed - known as the Tower of Joy - and guarded by the best and most loyal of Rhaegar’s guards.

Why did he leave the woman he apparently kidnapped so heavily guarded, instead of using those men to fight beside him? We’ll get to that in a minute. The important thing is that while Robert took the crown of Westeros, what Ned found when he arrived at the tower... wasn’t as much of a victory.

Lyanna's Death

Game of Thrones Season 6: Ned Stark

George R.R. Martin has kept extremely vague about what Ned actually found in the tower. But considering the prophecy, Rhaegar’s apparently heroic nature to all but Northerners, and the details we do get about the scene, one theory starts to form. Ned found his sister Lyanna in the tower after killing those guarding her, but found her dying in a bed filled with blood. Her cause of death is never given, but she does make one last request of her brother: begging him to make her a promise, and keep it, no matter what.

With only Ned and his most trusted bannerman (who survived the fight) actually knowing what that promise was, he began his trip back to the North: back to his family, and back to his wife. And as fans know, he happened to be bringing a baby back with him.

The Secret King?

Things You Didn't Know About Khaleesi: Jon Snow

The baby would be named Jon Snow, and dismissed as illegitimate, but the clues that Jon is actually the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna – born after they were married – don’t stop there. In the books, Jon is described as looking the most like a Stark out of all of Ned’s children, which makes his wife despise the boy even more. But there's never the slightest suggestion that Ned would actually cheat on his wife, and this remains his only lapse in judgement. And the noble Stark has remained silent about his apparent mistress for the decades since.

It didn’t take long for readers to claim that Jon, not Rhaegar, was the prince who was promised, possessing the wisdom, strength, and courage to save man from a terrible enemy. As the child of the silver-haired Targaryen and jet black Starks – the salt and smoke – the fact that his pet direwolf, Ghost, is also white as snow seemed like the final clue. And as the son of Prince Rhaegar and his wife, Lyanna, that makes him the rightful heir – the only rightful heir – to the Iron Throne.

Unfortunately, Ned Stark’s death means there’s only one other person who knows of Lyanna’s promise: Ned’s bannerman, Howland Reed. He’s yet to appear in the books or TV show, but it’s his children who are watching over the lost Stark boys (Brand and Ricken). So all the theory needs, supporters claim, is for Howland to arrive, confirm Jon’s true parents, and step aside to let him take the throne. But considering the monsters gathering North of The Wall, Jon may have to save mankind before he can even think about becoming king.


That’s the basic story behind the leading theory that R+L=J, which means you can now wait with readers, viewers, and every other kind of fan to see if it’s proven true. What do you think? Would this potential ending seem like the most satisfying, if it’s true? Or would you prefer that the Mother of Dragons, or another contender win the throne? Let us know in the comments, and remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more videos like this one.

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