Game of Thrones (2011)

GoT: Why Rhaegar Risked Everything for Lyanna & May Be the True Hero of Westeros

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Rhaegar Targaryenthe man whose actions shaped A Song of Ice and Fire‘s path and fortunes—where the fall of House Targaryen, Robert’s Rebellion, and Jon Snow’s birth ensued. While beyond the Wall, an apocalyptic winter grew. We watched, read, or both, the forbidden love, prophecies, and partisan subversion of Rhaegar and may have wondered what it means for Westeros’ fate. 

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This question is especially true for fans who only watched the show where Rhaegar and Jon’s stories seemed and were over-simplified, stunted, and unfinished. Except for the details of Rhaegar’s story are significant. So much that I believe it gives us answers as to why he risks his House, family, and his life for Lyanna and could be the true hero of Westeros. Come to think of it; only George R.R. Martin would kill Rhaegar, the single most important character in A Song of Ice and Fire, before the story even begins.

Summary of Events: How Rhaegar Shaped the Fortunes of Westeros

Before Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen, the King of Westeros was Aerys II Targaryen, the “Mad King.” His children were prince Rhaegar, son and heir—and brother of Viserys and Daenerys. Rhaegar was married to Elia Martell of Dorn, Oberyn’s sister, and they had two young children, a daughter Rhaenys and a son Aegon. But things went wrong when Rhaegar attended a tournament at Harrenhal, and passed over his wife Elia and crowned Lyanna Stark, the sister of Ned Stark, as his “queen of love and beauty,” when she was promised to marry Robert Baratheon. Angering the Baratheon’s, Starks, and Martells, the next year became worse when Rhaegar decided to run off with Lyanna—provoking Robert to start a war to get her back. 

Veserys, Daenerys, and Rhaegar.

During the war, King Aerys was killed by Jamie Lannister, Daenerys and Viserys escaped east, Elia, Aegon, and Rhaenys were murdered by the Mountain and Amery Lorch. Lyanna died giving birth to Jon Snow (Aegon Targaryen), and Rhaegar was killed in the Battle of the Trident by Robert. Not long after this, Ned Stark was commanded by Robert Baratheon to take over King’s Landing, but before he could, it was raided by the Lannister’s. Then Robert Baratheon became King of the Iron Throne by taking Cersei Lannister as his wife. The Targaryen dynasty, which has ruled Westeros for hundreds of years, had now fallen and ended.

Game of Thrones

So much happened in a year because of Rhaegar’s actions, and the remaining effects were seen 15 years later when the first book, A Game of Thrones, begins. However, what actually happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna is still a mystery. Stories of all sorts were told. Robert hotly attests that Rhaegar abducted and raped Lyanna, which we learn in Season 7: “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie…” / “Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt or rape her. He loved her. And she loved him.” (Bran Stark, S7E07).

The Tower of Joy where Lyanna and Rhaeger escaped the world.

Moreover, the start of their love is hinted at in the book, where Lyanna is described riding in disguise as a mystery knight into the Harrenhal tournament. For which Rhaegar was sent to find her and is likely how they met. “The Knight of the Laughing Tree had vanished. The King was wroth, and even sent his son the dragon prince to seek the man, but all they ever found was his painted shield” (Meera Reed, in Bran II, ASOS). Developed over a year, they fell in love, secretly got married, ran away to the Tower of Joy in Dorne (named by Rhaegar) to have sex all day, until they were fatally interrupted by Robert’s retribution. Where Rhaegar “would die with Lyanna’s name on his lips.” At any rate, this is not only a tragic love story but something more complicated. 

Understanding Rhaegar’s Choices: Politics

An illustration of Elia with her and Rhaegar's two young children.

He risked and destroyed his own House, family, and life to be with Lyanna by starting a war; and left his two young children and ill wife with no explanation or goodbyes to their brutal deaths. Nevertheless, the complex reasons behind this go deep into politics, prophecy, and Westeros’ fate. Rhaegar knew conflict was inevitable if the truth was told and that women could not choose whom they loved, yet he did it regardless. And like all Lady’s, marriage is political, which Lyanna was a political tool that the Baratheon’s and Starks were used to form a marriage alliance. Taking Lyanna Rhaegar ruined those plans and insulted Dorne by rejecting his wife Elia and simultaneously pissing off three of the most powerful families.

The tourney at Harrenhal as depicted by Paolo Puggioni.

At first glance, Rhaegar shows he does not care much for the traditions and politics of the time and the dangerous consequences of going against them. His unwell “Mad King” lineage creates an even more delicate political situation known before the tourney at Harrenhal. “Aerys was mad, the whole realm knew it” (Catelyn VII, ACOK)/ “an ever-increasing obsession with dragonfire”/ “The Mad King could be savagely cruel, as seen most plainly when he burned those he perceived to be his enemies.” (Aerys II, TWOIAF) He was a terrible king, and lots of powerful people wanted him gone. Tywin says, “but if [Aerys dies], we have a better king right here.” Whereupon [Tywin] raised a hand to indicate Prince Rhaegar” (Aerys II, TWOIAF). 

Plans to Dethrone the Mad King

It also indicated the Starks, Baratheon’s, Arryn’s, and Tully’s were allying against The Mad King—marrying Lyanna was part of that. Rhaegar himself was plotting against his father too: “Some claimed that the crown prince was planning to depose his father and seize the Iron Throne for himself” (Aerys II, TWOIAF). He is quoted to have had no interest in the tourney and intent to gather great lords of the realm together for an informal council to discuss ways to deal with his father’s madness. “By means of a regency or a forced abdication”/ “It was a perilous game that Rhaegar Targaryen was playing” The Year of the False Spring, TWOIAF.

We are told the tourney of Harrenhal began as a plan so Rhaegar could conspire with the great houses to force his dad into retirement. So Rhaegar was playing the political game—he knew how dangerous things were, and he was carefully scheming to work with the houses to peacefully replace the Mad King. Until he unexpectedly cast that all away by publicly crowning Lyanna, offending the same families who could have been allies against Aerys. Only to further the blow by running off with Lyanna and setting off a chain of events causing the war.

The True Start of Robert’s Rebellion

With Lyanna now missing, Stark men go angry to King’s Landing and are killed by the Mad King, who then demands Lord Jon Arryn execute Robert and Ned. Some feel this is the true start of Robert’s Rebellion when Lord Arryn refuses and not the “lie” of an abduction. Tensions were established between Aerys and the great houses for which Rhaegar did not fix or help by running off with Lyanna. 

Rhaegar’s Notoriety and Temperament

He took a dangerous risk at a terrible time and maybe in the name of prophecy, as the text suggests. Let’s look back at Rhaegar’s childhood and temperament. There are several quotations indicative of his beliefs and reasons behind his seemingly destructive actions with Lyanna. “he did everything well…that was his nature” / “The maesters were awed by his wits” / the Prince of Dragonstone was a most puissant warrior“/ (Barristan Selmy, in Daenerys IV, ASOS) Everyone also thought he was beautiful, including Cersei as a child, where she hoped to marry him. Also, “Able. That above all. Determined, deliberate, dutiful, single-minded” (Barristan Selmy, in Daenerys I, ASOS). And an honorable fighter, he was referred to by many as the last dragon. He was even “popular with the common people.” / “Rhaegar is still remembered, with great love” (Barristan Selmy. In Daenerys II, ASOS).

Born in Grief

Summerhall burns by Marc Simonetti. Depicted is Rhaegar's birth amongst the flames.

Although, “It was said no man ever knew Prince Rhaegar, truly” (Barristan Selmy, in Daenerys I, ASOS)/ “The Red Keep had its secrets too…Even Rhaegar” (The King Breaker, ADWD). Maybe he knew what was in store for him. “there was a melancholy to Prince Rhaegar, a sense…of doom” (Selmy in Daenerys IV, ASOS). It was due to Rhaegar’s birth at Summerhall, a Targaryen “palace” in the south. Rhaegar’s great-grandfather King Aegon the Fifth, brought his family there “to celebrate the impending birth” of Rhaegar. But Aegon also seemingly tried to achieve a fiery magic ritual to hatch some dragon eggs, and the fire got out of control and killed king Aegon and much of his family. It was during this tragedy that Rhaella, “amongst the flames,” gave birth to Rhaegar. For, born in grief, that shadow hung over Rhaegar “all his days.” (Barristan Selmy, in Daenerys, IV, ASOS).

Targaryen Prophecy

“There have always been Targaryen’s who dreamed of things to come, since long before the Conquest” (Brynden Rivers, in The Mystery Knight). Visions and prophecy have always guided them. The reason they endured the doom and came to Westeros, initially, was because of the visions of Rhaegar’s ancestor, Daenys the Dreamer. And the prophecy is why Rhaegar was born—his parents Aerys and Rhaella decided to get married because “A woods witch had told him that the prince was promised would be born of their line” (Barristan Selmy, in Daenerys IV, ADWD). The prince to be promised, or Azor Ahai, is a hero prophesied to be reborn, and “the darkness shall flee before him” (Melisandre, in Davos I, ACOK). The darkness is possibly referring to the White Walkers to be fought and led by whoever is the true prophesied Azor Ahai.

They would also be connected to the sword Lightbringer, which in the prophecy says the warrior will wield from the fire a burning sword. The original story says Azor tried three times, in which the first was tempered in water, second by stabbing the heart of a lion, and third by stabbing the heart of his beloved wife. In pain, then death, his wife’s strength went into the steel, forging the true Lightbringer, and the world was saved. It is a description that implies necessity (most likely the deaths of innocents) and fate to save the world. Rhaegar, his wife, two children, and the woman he loved all died for a possible and similar cause if Jon is in-fact the prophecy. 

The above images are of Azor stabbing his wife to gain power, wielding the fire sword, and ending with the death of Rhaegar in the hands of Robert.
Melisandre is quoted several times throughout the series spreading the prophecy and who may hold its power.

Including it has an eerie connection to Jon’s words: “I am the sword in the darkness…I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn.” (ADWD) Unfortunately, the book does not make the prophecy easy to decipher. The characters make it even more complicated and vague as they interpret it differently. Melisandre swears it is Stannis but is wrong; others think it is Daenerys or Jon. Melisandre’s later thoughts suggest Jon, such as when she says, “I pray for a glimpse of Azor Ahai, and R’hllor shows me only Snow” (Melisandre, ADWD).

The Child of A Song of Ice and Fire

Nonetheless, the prophecy guided Rhaegar from a young age as he was bookish to a fault. He had no interest in playing with other kids, only reading and shaping his life around fulfilling the prophecy of Azor Ahai. He trained relentlessly and became a great fighter. Nevertheless, later his beliefs changed, assuming the prophecy was his son with Elia named Aegon. He and maester Aemon Targaryen began making connections within the Targaryen House. Paraphrased: “Aegon. What better name for a king? He is the prince that was promised, and he is the song of ice and fire…The dragon has three heads” (Rhaegar Targaryen and Elia Martell, in Daenerys IV, ACOK). The three heads connect to the symbolism of House Targaryen and represent the three siblings who led the Targaryen’s three hundred years ago.

While Jon is being born, a legendary sword is next to the bed: Dawn, forged from the metal of a fallen star, similar to the bleeding star reference in the Azor Ahai prophecy. Could the blood-soaked sword of heroes be the prophecy's bleeding star?
Is Jon the promised hero of Westeros?

He soon thought his third child would be the prophecy. Though, not with Elia, she was always “frail and sickly” and could not bear any more children after Aegon. So, if Rhaegar trusted, “There must be one more,”—he would need another woman to bless him with a third child. That is where Lyanna Stark comes in. It is plausible that he had Jon Snow with Lyanna to fit the three heads of the dragon theory and be the hero Westeros would need. Besides, Rhaegar says that Azor Ahai is connected to something called the “song of ice and fire”—the name of the book series. And Lyanna Stark of Winterfell is connected to ice, while Rhaegar, fire, making Jon the child of a song of ice and fire

But does Jon, his third and last born possibly being the hero of Westeros based on a vague prophecy, make it right or justify what he did? Will the ending of the books as Jon saving everyone make Rhaegar the true hero of Westeros? Maybe none of that even mattered to the silver-haired prince, and it was just a selfish, reckless act, not of a hero. I firmly believe it is the former.

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