In Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, we are accustomed with seeing enormous, flashy moments that drastically change the plot. Miracle dragons hatching from stone eggs, huge landslides from surprise attacks led by dead men, violent dinners, murderous weddings. However, these events are often the payoff for a meticulous and well-thought-out series of smaller but vital moments that lead logically to the headline moments. Today we’ll talk about a few more of these stepping stones that lead into the twist and turns we love.
Arguably the most important single event in the story is when Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark run away from their marriages together. Their actions start a war that topples the Targaryen dynasty and leads to a top-down reforming of the traditional power structures in Westeros, as well as the deaths of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, and an untold amount of suffering. The two first met at the Tourney at Harrenhal and their paths converging there is built on coincidence and oddity. Long before that moment and even before his marriage to Elia Martell, the coincidences begin stacking up.
The first, and my favorite, is the story of Elia and her brother Oberyn Martell’s travels around Westeros looking for marriage alliances.
“Do you recall the tale I told you of our first meeting, Imp?” Prince Oberyn asked, as the Bastard of Godsgrace knelt before him to fasten his greaves. “It was not for your tail alone that my sister and I came to Casterly Rock. We were on a quest of sorts. A quest that took us to Starfall, the Arbor, Oldtown, the Shield Islands, Crakehall, and finally Casterly Rock . . . but our true destination was marriage. Doran was betrothed to Lady Mellario of Norvos, so he had been left behind as castellan of Sunspear. My sister and I were yet unpromised.
– A Storm of Swords, Tyrion X
The most promising suitor Elia met was the young, handsome, and of splendid repute heir to Oldtown, Baelor “Brightsmile” Hightower. After his introduction to Oberyn and Elia, Baelor received a very different nickname.
The only one who was even halfway presentable was young Baelor Hightower. A pretty lad, and my sister was half in love with him until he had the misfortune to fart once in our presence. I promptly named him Baelor Breakwind, and after that Elia couldn’t look at him without laughing. – ASOS, Tyrion X
A fart derailed a union between Elia and Baelor and sent the two on their way. As Tyrion remarks to himself:
Had Elia wed him in place of Rhaegar Targaryen, she might be in Oldtown with her children growing tall around her. He wondered how many lives had been snuffed out by that fart. – ASOS, Tyrion X
Imagine how much would’ve changed if young Baelor had held it in. Elia, from her reaction to him, may have ended up marrying and living in Oldtown for the rest of her life. Without Elia, Rhaegar marries someone else and could be less motivated to run with Lyanna. Also, Aerys has nothing to hold over Dorne and any rebellion against Aerys’ madness is probably far more successful. Aerys held Elia and her children hostages for the good behavior of Prince Llewyn Martell and the spears of Dorne. Without their support, the royal army likely folds against Robert and Ned’s forces. And even if Baelor wasn’t Elia and Oberyn’s first choice, he would’ve been an acceptable back up plan for the Martells’ first choice: Casterly Rock.
In their youth, the Princess of Dorne and Joanna Lannister were ladies in waiting to Queen Rhaella Targaryen, forging a close-knit friendship. After they left Rhaella’s service and began having their own children, the friends tried like many do to get their children to marry and make their friends part of their family. The princess of Dorne had her two unmarried children, Oberyn and Elia. Joanna had two unmarried children, Jaime and Cersei. The marriage pacts for a joining of the Rock and Sunspear seemed ready-made. And we are told explicitly by Oberyn that was the plan :
Just so. It was my belief that the mothers had cooked up this plot between them. Squire Squishlips and his ilk and the various pimply young maidens who’d been paraded before me were the almonds before the feast, meant only to whet our appetites. The main course was to be served at Casterly Rock.”
“Cersei and Jaime.”
“Such a clever dwarf. Elia and I were older, to be sure. Your brother and sister could not have been more than eight or nine. Still, a difference of five or six years is little enough. And there was an empty cabin on our ship, a very nice cabin, such as might be kept for a person of high birth. As if it were intended that we take someone back to Sunspear. A young page, perhaps. Or a companion for Elia. Your lady mother meant to betroth Jaime to my sister, or Cersei to me. Perhaps both.” – A Storm of Swords, Tyrion X
However, during the Martell siblings’ travels to Casterly Rock, Joanna Lannister unexpectedly dies and Lord Tywin has no intention on following through on the plan. Tywin has only one acceptable match in mind for his daughter Cersei: the crown prince Rhaegar.
When she was just a little girl, her father had promised her that she would marry Rhaegar. She could not have been more than six or seven. “Never speak of it, child,” he had told her, smiling his secret smile that only Cersei ever saw. “Not until His Grace agrees to the betrothal. It must remain our secret for now.” – A Feast for Crows, Cersei V
Again, one of these small footnotes in history that will be lost to time when people tell the tale of Rhaegar and his lady Lyanna. Joanna Lannister’s death blew up the carefully laid plans for the children of two old friends joining their houses and instead leads into the eventual marriage between Elia and Rhaegar. As with Baelor’s unfortunate rip, the death of Joanna continued the chain of events that lead towards the eventual doomed marriage of Rhaegar and Elia.
This didn’t just happen on Rhaegar’s side of R+L=J either. Lyanna has her own turning points in the narrative. Ned and Robert were best friends in a similar situation as Joanna and the Princess of Dorne, being raised in a lordly court. Robert and Ned hatched a scheme that they could finally become brothers if Robert married Ned’s little sister, a proposal that Lord Rickard Stark accepted against the wishes of his daughter.
“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 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 had 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.” – A Game of Thrones, Eddard IX
Had Ned spoken up for Lyanna, or if Rickard had consulted Lyanna on what she really thought of the impulsive stranger she was now betrothed to, her eventual flight could have been averted. Lyanna didn’t just run away with Rhaegar in love, she ran from the unhappy future Robert was offering. This situation falls squarely on Ned’s shoulders as he ignored all the warning signs for Robert and Lyanna’s betrothal because he was so excited that Robert would be joining his pack.
Another moment that history pivoted on was, of all people, the crannogman Howland Reed. Howland spent a year on the Isle of Faces next to Harrenhal communing with the Old Gods, and finally emerged for the great tourney held at the fortress. It was at this tournament Rhaegar and Lyanna met for the first time; however most forget that the chain of events that lead to their meeting started with the young Reed.
“Sometimes the knights are the monsters, Bran. The little crannogman was walking across the field, enjoying the warm spring day and harming none, when he was set upon by three squires. They were none older than fifteen, yet even so they were bigger than him, all three. This was their world, as they saw it, and he had no right to be there. They snatched away his spear and knocked him to the ground, cursing him for a frogeater.”
“None offered a name, but he marked their faces well so he could revenge himself upon them later. They shoved him down every time he tried to rise, and kicked him when he curled up on the ground. But then they heard a roar. ‘That’s my father’s man you’re kicking,’ howled the she-wolf.” A Storm of Swords, Bran II
To get revenge for Howland, it is widely thought Lyanna dressed up as the Knight of the Laughing Tree and entered the lists. This mystery knight aroused Mad King Aerys’ suspicions and he ordered his son to investigate. Rhaegar did as he was bid and discovered that beneath the armor was not Jaime Lannister, an enemy, or an ambitious squire but the she-wolf Lyanna Stark. None of that happens if Howland doesn’t walk in front of those three specific squires, a coincidence that makes some fans wonder if he did it intentionally. He specifically needed to be beaten up by squires in front of Lyanna Stark or else she never sees it happen and goes on with the Tourney and her life.
A last R+L=J turning point is Brandon Stark the Wild Wolf. After Rhaegar and Lyanna ran away together, a minor scandal turned into a war when somehow her brother Brandon is informed that Lyanna has been kidnapped.
“He was on his way to Riverrun when . . .” Strange, how telling it still made her throat grow tight, after all these years. “. . . when he heard about Lyanna, and went to King’s Landing instead. It was a rash thing to do.” She remembered how her own father had raged when the news had been brought to Riverrun. The gallant fool, was what he called Brandon.
Jaime poured the last half cup of wine. “He rode into the Red Keep with a few companions, shouting for Prince Rhaegar to come out and die. But Rhaegar wasn’t there. Aerys sent his guards to arrest them all for plotting his son’s murder. The others were lords’ sons too, it seems to me.” – A Clash of Kings, Catelyn VII
By threatening the crown prince’s life in front of his unstable and violent father, Brandon lit the fire that made the whole realm burn. King Aerys executed all of Brandon’s companions, save one, who were heirs and sons of highlords across Westeros. Later he tortured and executed Brandon and his father Rickard. Aerys then called for the heads of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark, which was the last straw and caused the rebellion to rise against the crown. It’s a common misunderstanding that the mere act of Rhaegar and Lyanna eloping caused a war. Specifically, the conduct of Aerys in response to Brandon started the war.
It is unknown how Brandon arrived at the conclusion that Lyanna was kidnapped. Was he told by somebody it was a kidnapping? Did a messenger get the message wrong? Did Brandon just assume it was a kidnapping? Whatever caused this misunderstanding in Brandon caused the war that followed. The realm may never forget how the Wild Wolf charged into the Red Keep yelling for blood, but they will forget what set him off on his rage.
To turn away from R+L=J for a moment, let’s look at the eponymous J himself, Jon Snow. If Jon’s life continues on its epic trajectory, his many deeds will be recorded and analyzed for generations to come. But there’s one moment that won’t be recorded, yet had an enormous impact on his life. That is the moment when he holds his sword against the wildling Ygritte.
Jon lowered his sword. “Go,” he muttered.
“Now,” he said, “before my wits return. Go.”
– A Clash of Kings, Jon VI
In this moment, Jon accepts the humanity of his enemy and lets his future love escape. Had he not done so, there is no one that can speak up for him when Rattleshirt’s hunting party catches Jon and Qhorin Halfhand. No one that will vouch for Jon in front of Mance and Tormund. Without Ygritte, Jon is another Waymar Royce- just another cocky lordling slain beyond the Wall.
And even if he survived, his romance with Ygritte is a primary motivator for his character. He carries her like a torch inside him, the fire to his ice. A Jon that has never known love and lost it is not the Lord Commander we know. He’d still be a boy playing at the grown-up game. The loss of his love matured and hardened his heart to do what Maester Aemon tells Jon he must do,
Kill the boy and let the man be born.
– A Dance with Dragons, Jon II
History, in real life and the fantasy world, is often told in terms of massive battles and huge moments. With the American Civil War, people can rattle off the names of battles and large turning points, and yet, like with Game of Thrones, the small moments are often forgotten. For instance, Special Order 191 was a set of orders from General Robert E. Lee detailing his upcoming strategy- and accidentally left behind in a Confederate camp. The Union got a hold of these orders and by chance, Brigadier General Alpheus Williams’ aide verified the orders as being legitimate because they were written by a former colleague whose penmanship he recognized from his former career as a paymaster. The Union acted on these orders and were finally able to find Lee’s army, leading to the bloody Battle of Antietam and the Confederates fleeing back into Virginia. This was an enormous turning point in the war that would’ve never happened if that set of orders wasn’t found, and if a general didn’t recognize the penmanship.
This event is such a clear turning point that it has been used to create alternate timelines and fiction of what happens if the orders aren’t discovered in television series, stories, comic books, and even video games. And yet, not many people know or are taught about it, much like these examples from ASOIAF. George R.R. Martin is a noted student and lover of history, and it’s unsurprising that he chose to insert these kinds of innocuous yet world-changing events into his narrative. And also given that his world is one of magic, prophecy, and limited time travel, it creates a question for us whether or not these events were manufactured or random.
The dominoes that fall, leading to war and devastation, are often unassuming in their time. Yet when seen from a longer view, they are great chains going backwards from flash points, fuses lit and sparking across time. Entire wars have been started or won on small individual decisions. Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are no different. Nothing just happens; there’s cause and effect in the places we least expect. As we watch the final season of the show and the books come to a close, we should continue looking for these kinds of pivotal moments. They are the building blocks that the moments we cheer and cry for are built on.
Special thanks to @MistahWoodhouse for his help in the creation of this article.