The secret is well and truly out in the open.
The night is dark and full of spoilers, everybody. If you haven’t watched the first episode of Game of Thrones season eight yet, now is your chance to save yourself from learning more than you wish to know. Otherwise: read on.
In the immortal words of Stylist’s digital editor (and my fellow Game of Thrones superfan) Kayleigh Dray, if you’re not already well-versed in the family trees of the biggest Westerosian Houses, then what have you been doing with your life?
Kayleigh takes a dim view on anyone who can’t recite great swathes of the history of the Seven Kingdoms at will. But it is also true that there are some people who have lives that they need to live and that they are choosing to live them instead of spending an entire month rewatching Game of Thrones in advance of the season eight premiere, unlike myself.
I get that. Which is why I am here to help explain to anyone left scratching their heads after last night’s episode about just how close the relationship between Jon Snow and Daenerys really is.
A recap: the premiere of season eight saw Jon and Daenerys arrive a deux at Winterfell. It was an important callback to the first episode of the entire series, which saw the previous royal family, including King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei Lannister rolling up to Winterfell. Back then, Robert arrived on horseback while Cersei hung back in the litter. But Jon and Dany arrived together, side by side, in a show of solidarity and support.
All is not well in Winterfell, though. The Sisters Stark aren’t pleased at Jon bending the knee so easily to this silver-haired Dragon Queen, and they’re certainly not happy that she has swanned into their ancestral home with her two terrifying dragons, allowing them to feast on precious livestock at will.
A world-weary Jon squares off first against Sansa and then Arya – “Now you’re defending her,” he says, incredulously, when Arya tells Jon that Sansa is protecting the Stark family – as he backs up the woman that he loves. No wonder that Jon and Dany escape frost-bitten Winterfell on the backs of Drogon and Rhaegal for a little smooch in front of a waterfall.
(Sidebar: isn’t it lovely to see both Arya and Daenerys – two characters who have endured so much in the series – smile as many times as they do in the premiere? Arya grins both at Jon and at Gendry, while Dany’s warm smiles are all for Jon and Jorah.)
Jon and Dany can only be love’s young dream for so long, though. We, the audience, know the truth about Jon’s parentage, after Gilly and Sam unearthed the news about Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark’s secret marriage in season seven. Finally, in the dying minutes of the first episode of season eight, Sam passes this information onto Jon himself.
In short, Jon isn’t the illegitimate son of Ned Stark but the trueborn first child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. His real name is Aegon Targaryen. And as Rhaegar’s son he is the true heir to the Iron Throne.
He’s also Daenerys’ nephew.
Game of Thrones has a fairly fluid relationship with incest – see: Jaime and Cersei Lannister; every awful scene at Craster’s Keep – so the fact that Jon and Daenerys are closely related isn’t exactly a shock in the show. In the history of the Seven Kindoms, the Targaryens were famous for marrying their female relations. In this sense, the close relationship between Jon and Daenerys is part of a centuries-long Targaryen tradition.
But let’s break down the family tree. The Mad King Aerys Targaryen had three children by his wife Rhaella, who was also his sister. Those children were Rhaegar, Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. We know what happened to Viserys and Daenerys. The two infants were smuggled out of Dragonstone, where Dany was born, and into Pentos. From there, Viserys sold Dany to Khal Drogo and the rest is a long, bloody history.
Rhaegar is Daenerys’ older brother. He was originally married to Elia Martell, with whom he had two children Rhaenys and Aegon Targaryen. Elia, Rhaenys and Aegon were killed by The Mountain during the battle for King’s Landing, a brutal act that, famously, Oberyn Martell sought revenge for only marginally successfully in season four.
But Rhaegar had a child with another. In the Game of Thrones that we see on screen, almost all of the events that kickstarted Robert’s Rebellion and shake up the great battle for the Iron Throne happen off screen. But we know from the lore that Rhaegar and Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna met at the Tourney of Harrenhall, where Rhaegar was crowned victor. There, the beautiful blonde Prince gave his victor’s wreath to Lyanna, who was then betrothed to Robert Baratheon.
Robert has always maintained that Rhaegar abducted Lyanna and raped her, and it was this motivation that led to Robert’s ensuing battle – with Ned at his side – to overthrow Targaryen rule. In that time, Ned’s brother and father Brandon and Rickard were both executed by the Mad King Aerys, Jon Arryn joined Robert’s Rebellion and Aerys was eventually killed by Jaime ‘Kingslayer’ Lannister. Robert was crowned King and, after Lyanna was found dead by Ned, he married Cersei Lannister.
What happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna in the small Dornish castle known as the Tower of Joy is Game of Thrones’ million gold dragon question. Robert and his supporters believe that it was there that Rhaegar violated and abused Lyanna.
But the truth of the matter is that Lyanna ran away with Rhaegar, the man that she loved. Rhaegar applied to the High Septon for an annulment of his marriage to Elia Martell – the evidence of which Gilly and Sam unearthed in the Citadel – and were married by a priest. She soon fell pregnant with Rhaegar’s baby. (Little Jon!) But Rhaegar died on the battlefield at the hands of Robert’s warhammer.
It was then that Ned sought out Lyanna and, finding her hidden away in Dorne, was able to see her one last time before she died in childbirth. Her dying words to Ned were that her child’s name was Aegon Targaryen, and she demanded that Ned swear to keep him safe from Robert, knowing that if Robert unearthed the truth that Aegon was Rhaegar’s lawful son and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, he would have him murdered.
Ned kept his sister’s promise and returned to Winterfell with the tiny baby Jon Snow, telling his wife Catelyn that the child had been born of an affair during the war and that he would be raised as part of the family. Catelyn never warmed to Jon, though the boy forged close relationships with his brothers and his sister Arya.
As of the season eight premiere, Jon knows what fans have known for a few series now: he’s not a Stark. His father is not Ned Stark. He’s not Arya, Sansa and Bran’s brother, he’s their cousin. And instead of the illegitimate King in the North, he’s the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne.
How good, honourable Jon Snow – his father’s son in temperament if not in literally anything else – is going to cope with this knowledge is a question for next episode. His response to Sam’s shocking revelation was horror that his father Ned had lied to him for the duration of his life, and continued fealty to his love Daenerys.
But there was a glimmer of something else in Jon’s eyes, too. When Sam told Jon that Dany had flambéed his father and brother on the road from Highgarden to King’s Landing, Jon seemed shocked. This kind of cruelty isn’t what he associates with his queen.
And yet the tendency towards insanity, poor judgement and egotistical rule is right there in Daenerys’ blood. It’s in Jon’s too, for that matter. How will Jon’s honour reckon with his new understanding both of how close his relationship to his new girlfriend is, and how his new girlfriend is acting in pretty dangerous and terrifying ways?
All will soon become clear. But I think that Davos, Tyrion and Varys’ hopeful discussion of a union between the King in the North and the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms might have been a teeny, tiny bit premature. I wouldn’t go preparing for a wedding banquet just yet.
Game of Thrones airs on Sunday nights on HBO in the US and Monday mornings (and again in the evening) in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.