Rhaegar Targaryen: the man, the myth, the legend. He is one of the most mysterious characters in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, but one who has a huge impact on the story before it even begins. In the official history Rhaegar abducted and raped Lyanna Stark – holding her captive at the Tower of Joy and igniting Robert’s Rebellion – which put an end to the Targaryen dynasty. However, a careful reading of the books paints another picture of Rhaegar; one at odds with this version of the story.
It all began at the Tourney of Harrenhal, when Rhaegar jousted his way to victory and proceeded to crown Lyanna Stark the Queen of Love and Beauty. Later, it is said he fell upon her in the Riverlands and carried her off…but why? Did he see her at the tourney and fall hopelessly in love, or determine that she was essential to fulfilling a prophecy? Did she return his affection and run off with him willingly? She seemed less than enthusiastic about her betrothal to Robert Baratheon, but would she be so rash?
Rhaegar is a polarizing figure, and there are numerous interpretations of his actions. Some believe he and Lyanna were in love and ran off together. Another theory is that he was obsessed with the prophecy of the Prince that was Promised and did everything in his power to ensure it came true. Most people assume Rhaegar was politically ignorant and either didn’t think about the consequences of his actions, or didn’t care. This seems at odds with the information we have Rhaegar from those who knew him – that of an intelligent, capable man who excelled at everything to which he put his mind.
After reading the existing theories and piecing together information from the books (the main series as well as The World of Ice and Fire) – along with the information we are given about Rhaegar’s and Lyanna’s personalities – I present an alternative analysis about what really occurred at Harrenhal, why Rhaegar took Lyanna, and what happened in the aftermath. There is still much we don’t know, but I have attempted to cover the bases as thoroughly as possible.
The following contains facts as well as speculation; if you want more in-depth analysis with references from the written material, please check out the four-part series The Harrenhal Conspiracy as well as Rescue at the Crossroads. I drew heavily from both theories (which are well worth your time) and added my own thoughts and conclusions.
The Tourney at Harrenhal
“Rhaegar had put his hand on Jaime’s shoulder. “When this battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but…well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.” – A Feast for Crows, Chapter 8 (Jaime I)
By the time of the Harrenhal tourney in the Year of the False Spring, opposition was growing against King Aerys due to his increasing paranoia and cruelty. Rhaegar (concerned about his father’s ability to rule) planned to call a Great Council to possibly force Aerys’ abdication. Meanwhile, the lords of the great houses (notably Stark, Tully, Arryn, and Baratheon) were attempting to strengthen their power and influence by forming alliances through marriages and fostering each other’s children.
The Harrenhal Tourney appears to have been arranged to gather together as many of the lords as possible – promising a lavish spectacle and generous prizes that Lord Whent (the host) could not afford. Likely the secret benefactor was Rhaegar, possibly with help from Tywin Lannister. Tywin had already resigned as Hand of the King due to his anger at Aerys for marrying Rhaegar to Elia Martell instead of Cersei, and for naming Tywin’s heir Jaime to the Kingsguard.
Unfortunately for Rhaegar, Aerys decided to attend the tourney despite not having left the Red Keep in four years (ever since he had been held captive during the Defiance of Duskendale). Aerys was becoming suspicious of Rhaegar’s intentions, believing (correctly) that Rhaegar was plotting to take the throne. This threw a wrench in Rhaegar’s plan, but he may have gone ahead with a council anyway if he thought he had enough support.
A Plot to Dethrone the Mad King
“Prince Rhaegar’s support came from the younger men at court, including Lord Jon Connington, Ser Myles Mooton of Maidenpool, and Ser Richard Lonmouth. The Dornishmen who had come to court with the Princess Elia were in the prince’s confidence as well, particularly Prince Lewyn Martell, Elia’s uncle and a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard. But the most formidable of all Rhaegar’s friends and allies in King’s Landing was surely Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning”. – The World of Ice and Fire, The Year of the False Spring
Rhaegar knew he had the backing of Dorne (House Martell), some of the Crownlands and Stormlands houses, a few men of the court, at least three of the Kingsguard (Dayne, Whent, and Martell), and the love of the smallfolk. He presumably counted on House Lannister as well, given the bad blood between Aerys and Tywin. Support for Aerys came chiefly from his small council, who had great influence and the ability to use the king’s madness to their benefit. What Rhaegar needed to know was where the other great houses stood (Stark, Tully, Arryn, and Baratheon). If he could count on them to support his ascension, he would have the leverage he needed to oust his father from the throne.
It’s possible Rhaegar and Arthur Dayne enlisted the help of Arthur’s sister Ashara to gather the intel they needed. At the opening feast, she was noted to have danced with a “white sword” (probably Arthur giving her information and instructions), a “red snake” (Oberyn Martell, with assurances of Dorne’s support), the “lord of griffins” (Jon Connington, telling her which court members Rhaegar could count on), and lastly the “quiet wolf” (Ned Stark). The “wild wolf” (Brandon Stark) had spoken with Ashara, asking her to dance with Ned, who was too shy to approach her himself – but could he have told her something more?
Perhaps Brandon told her that the Stark/Tully/Arryn/Baratheon alliance would throw their support to Rhaegar; maybe even sealing the deal with a promise of marriage – Ned (who was not yet betrothed and needed a suitable match) to Ashara. This would give Rhaegar enough confidence in his victory to call a council. I believe he arranged for himself to win the tourney and crown his wife Elia as the Queen of Love and Beauty as a signal that the council would convene as planned. After all, two of Rhaegar’s opponents (Brandon and Arthur) were involved in the conspiracy, and the others (Yohn Royce and Barristan Selmy) could have been given orders to take the fall.
The Knight of the Laughing Tree
“The mystery knight was short of stature, and clad in ill-fitting armor made up of bits and pieces. The device upon his shield was a heart tree of the old gods, a white weirwood with a laughing red face.” – A Storm of Swords, Chapter 24 (Bran II)
So why didn’t the council happen? One of the key pieces of information about the tourney comes from A Storm of Swords, when Meera Reed recounts a tale she heard from her father Howland, about the Knight of the Laughing Tree. This mystery knight defeated three squires who had been bullying a crannogman (presumably Howland) before Lyanna put a stop to it and befriended him. While we don’t know for certain, the most widely accepted theory is that the knight was Lyanna in disguise. If so, this is a vital part of the Rhaegar and Lyanna relationship.
King Aerys, in his paranoia, believed the mystery knight was an enemy and a traitor – he thought the tree was laughing at him. He ordered Rhaegar to discover the knight’s identity, which almost certainly led him to Lyanna. She already seemed infatuated with him (like every other woman in Westeros); “the dragon prince sang a song so sad it made the wolf maid sniffle” at the opening feast. I think Rhaegar found Lyanna intriguing and admired her spirit, bravery, and selflessness in defending Howland. They probably developed a mutual attraction and respect, and Rhaegar promised to keep her secret.
How did this impact Rhaegar’s plan? It’s very possible that Lyanna had discovered the true motive behind the Stark/Tully/Arryn/Baratheon alliance – to force a council to be called and to switch their allegiance from Rhaegar to Robert Baratheon. After all, Robert was in the line of succession via his Targaryen grandmother, and his ascension would be a boon to those houses – they stood to wield much more power and influence than they would under Rhaegar. If she told this to Rhaegar, he would have had no choice but to postpone the council to avoid defeat. Not only would he have wanted his line to continue; he may have seen shades of Aegon IV in Robert: a lecherous, unworthy king who would ultimately tear the realm apart.
Why would Lyanna betray her family? Maybe she didn’t want to be queen (she certainly wasn’t overjoyed about marrying Robert anyway). Maybe she felt it was the right thing to do. Maybe she cared enough for Rhaegar that she didn’t want to see him overthrown. We already know of her resemblance to Arya, but she seemed to have Sansa’s romantic tendencies as well. Whatever the reason, it gives another layer to Rhaegar crowning Lyanna – acknowledging her bravery as the mystery knight, thanking her for divulging the truth, and signaling that there would be no council after all. No wonder “all the smiles died” – their scheming had been stopped in its tracks.
An Abduction, or a Rescue?
“Someone told. Someone always tells.” – A Feast for Crows, Chapter 21 (The Queenmaker)
After the tourney, Rhaegar returned to Dragonstone with the pregnant Elia to prepare for their son’s impending arrival, and King Aerys returned to King’s Landing. Aerys had initially thought Jaime Lannister was the mystery knight at Harrenhal; that he had defied Aerys who had ordered him back to King’s Landing after taking his Kingsguard vows. Upon his return to the Red Keep, doubtless Aerys was informed that Jaime had been there for the duration of the tourney. It’s not likely Aerys would have forgotten his anger over the mystery knight, so either someone eventually found out the truth or he deduced it on his own. Either way, it’s very possible Aerys ordered Lyanna’s arrest as a traitor to the crown.
Around the time of her “abduction” Lyanna was in the Riverlands for the wedding of Brandon Stark and Catelyn Tully. Her father Rickard was on his way from Winterfell, and Brandon was on his way from Riverrun to meet up with his father’s party. Rhaegar had left Dragonstone and was also journeying to the Riverlands with six companions. Could he have discovered his father’s plan to arrest Lyanna? If so, he would have felt obligated to help her, knowing the fate that would have been in store for her. He would have also rightly assumed the execution of a Lord Paramount’s daughter would start a war, and he would have wanted to avoid that at all costs.
If there was a confrontation, it’s reasonable to think it happened at the Inn at the Crossroads. The inn has served as the site of many momentous events throughout the course of the books, and this would certainly be one of them. A conflict between Targaryen soldiers and Lyanna’s and Rhaegar’s parties could have been misinterpreted (or deliberately reported) as an abduction. It’s also possible that Littlefinger was in the area, returning to the Vale from Riverrun after his duel with Brandon. Knowing Brandon’s rashness (and harboring resentment for the wounds he took from him), could Littlefinger have arranged for Brandon to be told about the “kidnapping” before he could hear the truth?
“Brandon had been twenty when he died, strangled by order of the Mad King Aerys Targaryen only a few short days before he was to wed Catelyn Tully of Riverrun. His father had been forced to watch him die. He was the true heir, the eldest, born to rule.” – A Game of Thrones, Chapter 4 (Eddard I)
Brandon rushed to King’s Landing with his men and demanded for Rhaegar to “come out and die.” Of course, Rhaegar wasn’t there, but Aerys imprisoned them all for plotting to murder the prince and summoned their fathers to the capital. Rickard Stark arrived with 200 men, all of whom were executed by the Mad King – who perhaps wasn’t as mad as he is made out to be. After all, he had Varys whispering in his ear and informing him of actual plots to dethrone him.
The lone survivor was Brandon Stark’s squire, Ethan Glover. Could he have been spared because he divulged the plot to put Robert on the throne? Aerys wrote to Jon Arryn demanding the heads of Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. Presumably Aerys wanted Ned to answer for the “treason” of his brother and father, but why Robert? If Aerys knew of the plot to crown him it makes perfect sense. Of course, Jon Arryn refused to give up his wards (and the potential claimant to the throne), which sparked the rebellion and led to the downfall of the dragon kings.
“Prince Rhaegar loved his Lady Lyanna, and thousands died for it.” – A Dance with Dragons, Chapter 67 (The Kingbreaker)
What of Rhaegar and Lyanna? After he rescued her from his father’s men, Rhaegar needed to get her someplace safe – eventually taking her to the Tower of Joy. If Rhaegar didn’t abduct her or run off with her out of love, how would Jon have been conceived? It’s possible that Rhaegar tried to get word to Lyanna’s family to keep war from breaking out, but it arrived too late, or not at all. Once Lyanna learned the news of her father’s and brother’s deaths, she would have been devastated. She may have turned to her rescuer for comfort, and perhaps it led to something more.
Rhaegar would have found it difficult to reject a grieving girl, and perhaps the admiration he already felt for her grew into love. I don’t think he planned for it, or that he used her to fulfill a prophecy – in fact he already thought his son Aegon VI was the promised prince. It could be a similar situation to Robb Stark and Jeyne Westerling; she gave herself to Robb when he was recovering from a battlefield injury, and he married her so as not to dishonor her. Yes, Rhaegar was already married, but the Targaryens had practiced polygamy in the past. Perhaps he thought that once the rebellion was defeated and Aerys was deposed, he would have the power and ability to make the realm accept a second marriage.
On the other hand (and following the show’s lead), maybe an annulment was the answer. This has historical precedence with the example of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis VII of France, who dissolved his marriage to Eleanor but ensured the legitimacy of her children. We know that by this point another pregnancy would likely mean death for Elia, and Rhaegar (who seemed fond of Elia if nothing else) would undoubtedly not have wanted to endanger her life. A union and a child with a Stark could also be used to ensure the loyalty of the North and the Riverlands, swaying them from their plot to crown Robert.
Since King Aerys didn’t seem to have viewed Rhaegar absconding with Lyanna as an act of treason, Rhaegar could have sent word that he was holding her as a hostage in a secret location. Rhaegar believed he would be victorious and that he could take care of his father once the war was over. He may have also been in contact with the Ghost of High Heart (who foresaw that the Prince That Was Promised would come from the line of Aerys and Rhaella, among other things), as they both had a connection to Summerhall and could have encountered each other there.
It’s possible the Ghost of High Heart saw a vision of a dragon winning a great battle on the Trident which convinced Rhaegar of his certain victory, when instead her vision could have been of the White Walkers’ defeat (Daenerys dreams of fighting an enemy “armored all in ice” at the Trident in the books). Rhaegar was likely also communicating with Tywin Lannister to win his support and felt certain Tywin would come to his aid; however, Tywin stayed his hand to ensure he only backed the winning side. Unfortunately Tywin’s decision likely led to Rhaegar’s death, and the rest is history.
Given Rhaegar’s penchant for prophecy, it’s logical to assume his fixation on Lyanna was primarily to ensure the birth of the Prince That Was Promised. However, prophecy in A Song of Ice and Fire is almost never straightforward or certain. Many times people try to avert prophecy and end up causing it instead, or they purposely try to fulfill it and make it happen in an unanticipated way. As far as we know, Rhaegar never lost his assumption that his firstborn son – Aegon VI – was the promised prince, and what happened with Lyanna was incidental to the prophecy. Jon Snow was the unintended outcome of Rhaegar’s misguided beliefs and will ultimately be the hero Rhaegar had expected all along.
Rhaegar wasn’t a villain, and he wasn’t a hero – he seemed to be an honorable but flawed man who probably did the best he could given his circumstances. Much like many other complex characters in the series, he tried to be the hero of his own story. Whether or not he succeeded ultimately depends on your perspective. Rhaegar lost the throne and his life, but perhaps his son will save the realm.