If you do not wish to learn anything about Rhaegar and Lyanna that has been gathered from the books and around the web, skip this. There is no real spoilers as it just clarifies what you should probably already know or have figured out on your own.
The stuff about Season 8 is hidden by a read more tag so you can read this without spoiling yourself. Although this too is put together by things we’ve seen already and just what the natural way of things usually go, but this is George R.R. Martin we’re talking about here and the whole thing is more speculation than outright knowledge.
Let’s begin with a history lesson that could be quite important:
Rhaegar Targaryen was the eldest son of the Mad King Aerys and Queen Rhaella Targaryen. Known as the Prince of Dragonstone, he was the older brother of Viserys and Daenerys Stormborn. Rhaegar was married to Elia Martell of Dorne, and together they had two children: Rhaenys and Aegon. This is Rhaegar’s immediate family tree as recognized across Westeros, but as we’ll soon learn, there is more to Rhaegar’s past than meets the eye.
At the conclusion of Robert’s Rebellion, the war which ended the Targaryen dynasty roughly two decades before the first season of Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister slew the Mad King. Elia Martell and Rhaegar’s two children were in King’s Landing when Tywin Lannister’s forces sacked the city; Gregor Clegane AKA The Mountain murdered Rhaenys and Aegon before raping and killing Elia. Meanwhile, a pregnant Queen Rhaella and Viserys were safely on Dragonstone. After Rhaella died giving birth to Daenerys, loyalists to the Targaryens then brought Viserys and the infant Daenerys across the Narrow Sea to Essos to live in exile lest they be killed by the new regime usurping the Iron Throne.
As for Rhaegar himself, he met Robert Baratheon in the decisive battle at the Trident. Robert bashed in Rhaegar’s chest with his war hammer and killed him. With the heir to the Iron Throne slain, Robert Baratheon became King. And, because history is written by the victors, the version of events established by the triumphant Baratheons and Starks is the history that took hold across the Seven Kingdoms. However, the accepted story about what Rhaegar Targaryen did to spark Robert’s Rebellion was manufactured to hide the truth, which is known to very few in Westeros who are still alive.
The official story oft-repeated about the ill-fated affair between Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, the sister of Ned Stark, is that Rhaegar abducted Lyanna, raped her and killed her. Thus Robert Baratheon, whom Lyanna was betrothed to, started a war to save her that ultimately brought down the Targaryen dynasty. This version of events is widely believed, including by Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who repeated the tale to Lord Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen) when they were at the Stark family crypt beneath Winterfell in season five.
Littlefinger in turn told Sansa a different story involving Rhaegar and Lyanna, which he personally witnessed. Years ago, there was a tournament at Harrenhal which was attended by all of the noblest highborn families, including the Mad King. Rhaegar won the tournament and in victory, he rode past his own wife Elia Martell and crowned Lyanna Stark the Queen of Love and Beauty. As Littlefinger tells the tale, all the smiles that day vanished and the crowd fell into silence.
Why would Rhaegar do such a thing by very publicly insulting his own wife and giving this accolade to a woman he barely knew? Robert Baratheon’s vision of Rhaegar as an evil man who kidnapped, raped and killed Lyanna is the accepted explanation, tarnishing his hated rival’s reputation for a generation. Yet, when Ser Barristan Selmy was Kingsguard to Daenerys Targaryen in season 5, he told her a story of how her brother Rhaegar loved to walk among the people of King’s Landing and sing songs for them with his harp, even trying to see how much money he could earn by donations. Rhaegar was apparently a beloved man of the people who disliked fighting and killing, in contrast to his increasingly insane father the Mad King and to Rhaegar’s reputation manufactured after his death. These two opposing versions of Rhaegar Targaryen don’t add up, but Rhaegar’s apparently lovely singing voice is one of the keys to unlocking the mystery of Rhaegar and Lyanna.
A few incidents at the legendary Harrenhal tournament that are mentioned in George R.R. Martin’s novels, which have not been established in the television show, are still worth noting. The first was Lyanna Stark saving her father’s bannerman, Howland Reed, the father of Jojen and Meera Reed, from a beating by three squires. Lyanna brought Howland to meet her older brothers Brandon, Ned, and Benjen at the great feast for the tournament, where Rhaegar decided to serenade all of the attendees with a song. Rhaegar’s voice was said to have brought Lyanna Stark to tears.
There is also the mystery of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, an unidentified knight of smallish stature clad in mismatched armor who unseated three knights in the tournament, not coincidentally, knights from the same houses the squires who attacked Howland Reed belonged to. The Mad King charged Rhaegar to find the Knight of the Laughing Tree; after a time, Rhaegar returned with only the knight’s shield, claiming he was unable to find the knight himself. Some theories suggest the mystery Knight of the Laughing Tree was secretly Lyanna Stark, who was known for her skill riding a horse, and that Rhaegar did find her, but none of this was witnessed by anyone living and cannot be confirmed (unless Bran Stark as the Three Eyed Raven can confirm it on the show in a flashback).
In “Eastwatch,” Gilly finds a record at the Citadel that Prince Rhaegar married Lyanna Stark in a secret ceremony in Dorne. High Septon Maynard recorded the annulment of Rhaegar’s marriage to Elia Martell. We also recall that Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), Elia’s brother, told Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in season four that he despised Rhaegar for leaving his sister for another woman. This completely contradicts the story that Lyanna was abducted, raped, and murdered by Rhaegar, and the Citadel kept legal proof.
Following the Tourney of Harrenhal, the besotted couple ran off with one another and made a covert home for themselves in the Tower of Joy in Dorne. As Gilly recently discovered at The Citadel, this elopement happened after Rhaegar lawfully annulled his first marriage to Elia Martell, with whom he had two children, Rhaenys and Aegon, his first son. After ending his first marriage, Rhaegar and Lyanna were married in a forest setting not unlike the secret wedding of Robb Stark and Talisa Maegyr. Their marriage was presided over by the Maester of the Citadel in Dorne. As Robert’s Rebellion raged on, the couple absconded to the Tower of Joy, where Lyanna would receive protection from Arthur Dayne and his loyal Kingsguard. Though Rhaegar was killed by Robert Baratheon during the Battle of the Trident, his lineage lived on through the birth of his second son, Aegon Targaryen.
This does however raise several questions about Rhaegar’s sense of ethics. He not only abandoned his first wife and their two children, but he stole another man’s betrothed bride-to-be, impregnated her, then gave his second son the same name he and his first wife gave their first son? That’s questionable at best, but with a little background on Rhaegar’s obsession with prophecy, it makes a bit more sense.
Since he was a child, Rhaegar was fascinated by the legendary call for “The Prince That Was Promised,” and he seemed to believe that the Azor Ahai savior (the one who would return to save Westeros) must be named Aegon Targaryen. When Daenerys had her visions in the House of the Undying, she saw Rhaegar tell Elia Martell:
“Aegon. What better name for a king? 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.”
Rhaegar is actually the pioneer of the phrase, “the song of ice and fire.” That’s the first time George R. R. Martin’s book title had ever been directly referenced in the story. Rhaegar was equally driven to fulfil the “dragon has three heads” prophecy, and by fathering Rhaenys and Aegon with Elia Martell, he believed he had achieved two-thirds of the order. At the end of Daenerys’ vision in the House of the Undying, however, Rhaegar seemed to look directly at her and say, “there must be one more…the dragon has three heads.”
Why, then, did he give both of his sons the name of Aegon? There are several possible reasons for Rhaegar’s curious approach to child-rearing. On the one hand, his decision to dole out the same name twice may have been a failsafe if the first Aegon died prematurely or didn’t grow up to be a King-worthy man. On the other hand, given his love for Lyanna and his decision to annul his first marriage to Elia Martell, Rhaegar had effectively turned his first two children into bastards. Because the original Aegon Targaryen lost his surname in the annulment, Rhaegar needed a new, legitimate Aegon to take his place.
Either way, Rhaegar was safe to hedge his bets before Rhaenys and Aegon were both murdered by Gregor Clegane (i.e. The Mountain). As part of Tywin Lannister’s coup d’état at King’s Landing, every Targaryen was indiscriminately slaughtered, and Elia Martell and her infant children bore the brunt of the kill order. While this eliminated Rhaegar’s progress towards fulfilling his precious prophecies, he and Lyanna were able to keep hope alive via their newborn baby.
Lyanna and Rhaegar were in fact legally married; their romance began at that fateful tournament at Harrenhal and blossomed since. Rhaegar even left his wife Elia for his new bride, who in turn willingly ended her betrothal to Robert Baratheon, which Robert blamed entirely on Rhaegar as her ‘abductor,’ likely unable to face the thought that Lyanna didn’t reciprocate his feelings towards her, despite being promised to each other. Meanwhile, having more than one wife isn’t unusual behavior for a Targaryen. The Targaryen family have a history of polygamy dating back to Aegon the Conqueror, who was married to both his sisters simultaneously. But that isn’t the case with Rhaegar. He left Elia – a marriage arranged by the Mad King – for Lyanna, whom he fell in love with and she apparently reciprocated that love.
We also know from Bran’s flashback to the Tower of Joy in season six that at the end of Robert’s Rebellion, his father Ned, Howland Reed, and four Stark knights went to Dorne to search for Lyanna and found Ser Arthur Dayne AKA The Sword of the Morning, Ser Oswell Whent, and Ser Gerald Hightower, who was Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Ned even questioned why three of the most famous knights of this era were mysteriously guarding Lyanna Stark in the Tower instead of fighting alongside their prince Rhaegar at the Trident. But they weren’t merely guarding Rhaegar’s wife. Ned and Howland were the only survivors of the fight.
In the Tower, Ned found his sister Lyanna dying from childbirth and her baby boy – Rhaegar’s son – whom Ned would promise to adopt and raise as his own son, Jon Snow. Ned’s cover story that Jon was Ned’s bastard from a tavern wench is one that Ned would maintain to his grave. Not even his wife Catelyn, and especially not his best friend Robert, who would kill Jon if he knew Jon was really Rhaegar and Lyanna’s son, would ever know the truth.
Skipping ahead to the world of Westeros as fans know it, as opposed to what Rhaegar might have believed, Jon Snow did turn out to be a head of the dragon, as is his aunt, Daenerys (Rhaegar’s sister). Should Jon and Daenerys (miraculously) have children in season 8, their eventual offspring could even become the third head of the dragon (though several fan theories point to other characters who might fit that role, most notably: Tyrion Lannister). Of course, given that season 7 ended with Jon and Daenerys in the throes of passion, it remains to be seen how the Mother of Dragons will react to the news that Jon is actually the rightful heir to what she perceives to be her throne.
Gilly’s discovery of a marriage record that proves Rhaegar and Lyanna were legally married, rather than Lyanna being his prisoner, means Jon Snow is not a bastard at all – he’s actually a trueborn Targaryen! As the only survivor of Rhaegar’s Targaryen line, Jon Snow has no claim to being King in the North (which by rights should now go to Sansa as the eldest Stark, since Bran abdicated the responsibility), but Jon does have legal claim to the Iron Throne! Jon may even have more claim to the throne than his aunt Daenerys, and certainly more than Cersei Lannister does. How any of this holds up legally, and whether one claim has more merit than another’s is anyone’s guess. War and bloodshed tend to be the primary way to settle such disputes in Westeros.
Indeed, Jon has had a claim to power since the moment he was born, but he spent every day of his life viewing himself as a second-class citizen. Even Tyrion, no stranger to public scorn, empowered him to accept his station in life and convert it into a source of strength. Against all odds, the designated ruler is also the humblest leader in all the land. He has made it abundantly clear: he doesn’t like his job, and he doesn’t want to lead. Feelings be damned, it’s his fate to do so. He is Aegon Targaryen. He is the Prince That Was Promised.
He is the song of ice and fire.
Now onto Season 8.