Saturday, April 23, 2016

HBO Game of Thrones: Who is Jon Snow's Mother?

The last thing Ned Stark told Jon Snow was that the next time they talked he would tell Jon all about Jon's mother. Benioff and Weiss had to answer (presumably correctly) this post title question for GRRM before he allowed them to adapt his A Song of Ice and Fire series for HBO. 

Although this post does not technically contain spoilers as GRMM, Benioff or Weiss haven't publicly answered the question, this post provides what I consider to be the correct, obvious and most widely held answer. Season Five of Game of Thrones made increasingly obvious (IMO) hints to the answer. Season Six may include flashbacks, some of which could be written about below. So if you don't want to discuss Jon Snow's mother and why that's important to the story, you should probably skip this post. This post references numerous book details, which if you've not read the books, might be things you don't want to know. Caveat lector.

Rickard Stark, Ned Stark's father, wanted to link the Starks and the North to powerful Southern families. Rickard fostered Ned with the Arryns of the Vale. Rickard arranged for his eldest son and heir Brandon, to marry Catelyn Tully of the Riverlands. Rickard Stark betrothed his only daughter Lyanna to Robert Baratheon of the Stormlands. 

Remember that in GRRM's fictional world, similar to our own, upper class marriages are often not about love between a man and a woman but rather about political alliances, settling rivalries, ending wars, and obtaining land and wealth. A person's individual happiness, romantic dreams or sexual satisfaction are unimportant when weighed against other factors. 

Lyanna Stark and Brandon Stark were both more impulsive than their stolid brother Ned. It's described in the books as having "wolf-blood". Ned thinks that their headstrong nature led to their demise. How did this happen? Prince Rhaegar won a tournament and gave the prize to Lyanna Stark, instead of to his own wife, Elia. 

Eventually, as the story goes, Rhaegar kidnapped, and per Sansa Stark's recounting, raped Lyanna Stark. When Brandon Stark and later Rickard Stark went to King's Landing to demand justice the Mad King Aerys had them murdered in the most grotesque of ways. Rickard Stark was cooked to death in front of his son. Brandon Stark was slowly strangled while vainly trying to save his father. 

Aerys wanted to make a clean sweep of Starks and their supporters. He ordered Jon Arryn to surrender his wards Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. Jon Arryn suggested that the King commit an anatomically impossible act. Arryn called his banners. It was on. Ned Stark and Jon Arryn each married Tully daughters to seal their alliance with House Tully. Ned impregnated Catelyn and went off to war. Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar Targaryen. Lyanna Stark died from unknown causes.

At the war's end Ned returned safe and sound to his wife and firstborn son. But he also brought back a child, a boy named Jon. To put it mildly, Catelyn wasn't exactly ecstatic about this turn of events. To be fair who would be? If your new spouse came home with a child that wasn't yours would you be happy? Ned refused to discuss Jon or his mother. Ned let people believe that Jon's mother might be any number of women, most of whom were conveniently deceased, lowborn or continents away. 

It wasn't uncommon for a wealthy Lord to father a child out of wedlock, but it was VERY unusual for a Lord to raise such a child with his trueborn children. That was a violation of social mores and a serious insult to a wife. This is why Catelyn Stark, in both book and show, never warmed to Jon Snow. To Catelyn, Jon was a walking reminder of Ned's infidelity. Catelyn also viewed Jon as a peril to her children's inheritance. Catelyn could not fully vent this frustration to Ned. But Catelyn certainly showed Jon her indifference and/or disdain. 

We know that Ned and Catelyn had an unusual marriage for Westerosi nobles because they actually liked and loved each other. Ned valued his wife's counsel. Catelyn learned to appreciate Ned's reserve and caring nature. In books they each separately think about how nice it would be to have another child together. But loving spouse or not there are clearly some limits beyond which Ned will not go. In the books the one time Catelyn recalls Ned being mean or cold to her is when she asks him about Jon's mother. Catelyn suspects that Jon's mother is an old flame of Ned's.

It had taken her a fortnight to marshal her courage, but finally, in bed one night, Catelyn had asked her husband the truth of it, asked him to his face.
That was the only time in all their years that Ned had ever frightened her. "Never ask me about Jon," he said, cold as ice. "He is my blood, and that is all you need to know. And now I will learn where you heard that name my lady." She had pledged to obey; she told him; and from that day on the whispering had stopped, and Ashara Dayne's name was never heard in Winterfell again.

Well isn't this curious. Ned Stark, Mr. Nice Guy himself, is suddenly coldly dismissive to his wife to the point of frightening her. He evidently severely corrects some gossipy Winterfell residents. Obviously Jon's parentage is a sore spot with Ned. Even more curious, notice that Ned refers to Jon as "my blood" and not "my son" when speaking to Catelyn. 

In the show Ned is not as abrupt with Robert when Robert teases Ned about his infidelity but he nonetheless makes it crystal clear that he doesn't want to talk about Jon or his mother. During the last season Stannis, who is strict and inflexible in a different fashion from Ned, mused that infidelity was never Ned's way. Ned was if nothing else, a righteous man. Do we really believe that a man who tried his best to live by both the letter and the spirit of the law would dishonor his new wife by immediately cheating on her? 

That seems unlikely. Although Westeros may not have divorce as such Ned would be risking the new alliance with the Tullys by insulting Catelyn. He would also risk losing the respect of his bannermen, something that in a milieu lacking centralized armies could be dangerous. Ned may not be the most devious man to ever come from the North but he's not stupid. He wouldn't hurt his wife or damage his own reputation unless he had no choice. So why would he feel he had no choice? Because Ned made a promise. And you know how Ned feels about promises. 

Ned and six of his closest bannermen apparently learned that Lyanna was at the Tower of Joy. They tracked her down to that location only to find that she was being guarded by three Kingsguard members, one of whom is the brother of Ned's former crush. In the ensuing showdown only Ned and his bannerman Howland Reed, father of Jojen and Meera, survived. Lyanna died shortly afterwards in a "bed of blood". Among her last words to Ned were "Promise me Ned." This memory is something which causes Ned immense grief. He believes that he's paid a cost for that promise for the past decade and a half.

He could still hear her at times. Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. “I will,” Ned promised her. That was 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.

Hmm. To what price is Ned referring? Remember that per books, Catelyn's annoyance with Jon is heightened by the fact that Jon resembles Ned more strongly than any of her children except Arya. Jon and Arya look alike. 

But Robb, Sansa, Rickon and Bran all take more after their mother, Catelyn. When Arya is depressed/angry about her unconventional looks, Ned raises her spirits by telling her that she's a late bloomer. 

Ned says that Arya is actually a dead ringer for Lyanna Stark, who was considered one of the great beauties in all of the Kingdoms. So if Arya looks like her aunt Lyanna and Jon looks like Arya, it makes sense that Jon looks like his mother Lyanna. And since the Starks are not incestuous Lannisters, Ned is not Jon's father. Rhaegar Targaryen is. Ned took the child as his own to protect Jon from Robert's wrath. Robert Baratheon hated Rhaegar Targeyen for "stealing" Lyanna Stark from him. At the rebellion's end Robert Baratheon was happy/relieved to see the Lannisters present the slaughtered children of Rhaegar Targaryen to him. Years later Robert was making plans to assassinate Rhaegar's sister, Daenerys.

It's safe to say that Robert is not exactly rational on the subject of Targaryens. Although Robert is Ned's best friend and foster brother, he's also Ned's king. Robert accepts more honest talk and disagreement from Ned than he does from most people but the bottom line is that when Robert gives Ned a direct order, he expects Ned to follow it. And Robert would want to kill Rhaegar's last son. Robert would see the son of the previous heir to the throne as a direct threat to his rule. It's unthinkable that Ned would ever turn over his sister's son to his best friend for execution. Ned keeps his promises. 

The solution that Ned found was to sacrifice his own reputation and some closeness with his wife in order to keep his nephew safe. It's not just Robert whom Ned would need to worry about. What would various other factions do if they knew there was a Targaryen heir still alive in Westeros and that Lord Stark was protecting him? Blackmail could be the least of Ned's worries. Ned doesn't tell Catelyn because as Ned muses, if Catelyn were ever in a position to protect her own children by sacrificing Jon, she just might do it. The best way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself. Catelyn couldn't reveal what she doesn't know.

Ned thought, If it came to that, the life of some child I did not know, against Robb and Sansa and Arya and Bran and Rickon, what would I do? Even more so, what would Catelyn do, if it were Jon’s life, against the children of her body. He did not know. He prayed he never would.
In an internal monologue why would Ned not list Jon with his other children?
Ned and Barristan Selmy never remember Rhaegar as any sort of rapist or cruel man. That seems really odd for someone like Ned, who clearly adored his baby sis. 

Wouldn't it seem that Ned would have some negative thoughts about Rhaegar if Rhaegar really did what some say he did? Robert, not Ned, is the one who is constantly bad mouthing Rhaegar. Robert places Lyanna on a pedestal. That could well be because Robert never really knew Lyanna, as Ned gently points out. Robert liked Lyanna's beauty and the idea of Lyanna marrying him but Lyanna didn't necessarily reciprocate those feelings. Lyanna was a strong willed young woman who wasn't crazy about marrying Robert Baratheon, who even as a youth already had a reputation for being something of a ladies man.

“Robert will never keep to one bed,” Lyanna had told him at Winterfell, on the night long ago when their father had promised her hand to the young Lord of Storm’s End. “I hear he has gotten a child on some young girl in the Vale.” Ned had held the babe in his arms; he could scarcely deny her, nor would he lie to his sister, but he assured her that what Robert did before their betrothal was of no matter, that he was a good man and true who would love her with all his heart. Lyanna had only smiled. “Love is sweet, dearest Ned, but it cannot change a man’s nature."

Lyanna was a fantastic horserider who could handle weapons and may have defeated knights at a joust. We also know that she cried tears of joy at Rhaegar's music. It's a good bet that not only was Lyanna able to defend herself if need be but also that she liked Rhaegar. And unlike say Gregor Clegane, there are no hushed tales told of Rhaegar's rapes or crimes. 

Isn't it possible, even likely, that Lyanna willingly eloped with Rhaegar instead of being kidnapped? So any intimacies were consensual. There are some characters in A Song of Ice and Fire who speak dismissively of women in battle, pointing out that a woman's battle is in the birthing bed, not the field. So what was Lyanna doing in a "bed of blood"? And why were Kingsguard members there if not to protect someone of royal blood? I think Kingsguard members were there to protect the pregnant Queen and newly born royal prince, Jon Snow, who is Ice (Stark) and Fire (Targaryen). And since Targaryens were polygamy friendly, who's to say that Rhaegar and Lyanna weren't legally married, making Jon Snow Targaryen the legitimate ruler of the Seven Kingdoms? 

There's probably only one man alive who knows the truth of the matter, Stark bannerman Howland Reed. It's easier on Robert's ego for him to believe that his betrothed was abducted, raped and murdered than to accept that a woman coolly evaluated him, considered her options and ran away with someone else. And Ned being Ned never sees fit to correct his friend. Although Robert may well view Lyanna's "kidnapping" as casus belli it's not clear that anyone else does. 

Without Brandon Stark foolishly challenging Rhaegar to come out and die and the Mad King's overreaction, war could have been avoided. Anyway, Ned Stark does not believe in hurting children. He lied and confessed to treason to save Sansa's life. Ned was willing to be insulted and dismissed from court to save Daenerys' life. And Ned was willing to dishonor his name and damage his relationship with Catelyn to save Jon's life. 
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