Rhaegar Targaryen. The R in R+L=J. The dead man that Robert Baratheon cursed until his last days. An honorable man according to those who knew him who enjoyed spending his time playing his harp among the common people. A demon to those who saw him on the other side of the war.
With all the conflicting reports and opinions on Rhaegar Targaryen, who was he really? Why are fans obsessed with him across Twitter and social media, and why is it a big deal that it was revealed in the last episode of Game of Thrones that he annulled his marriage?
Let’s start with the basics. Some of the information on Rhaegar comes from the books and may not be included in the show.
Rhaegar was born crown prince to the Seven Kingdoms in 259 A.C. (after conquest, 39 years before the events of Game of Thrones). His parents were Aerys II, the Mad King, and Aerys’ sister and queen Rhaella. He was born at the Targaryen country palace of Summerhall on the day it exploded and killed most of his family, including then-current king Aegon V. It was rumored that King Aegon was trying to hatch dragon eggs, and a terrible accident swallowed the Targaryens in flame. Rhaegar carried their deaths with him for the rest of his life, even though he was only a newborn.
Contrary to the picture of Rhaegar as the brutal rapist we get from Robert Baratheon:
In his youth, Rhaegar was described as a bookish, intelligent introvert who preferred the company of libraries to other people.
From Barristan to Daenerys in A Storm of Swords – Daenerys I:
“As a young boy, the Prince of Dragonstone was bookish to a fault. He was reading so early that men said Queen Rhaella must have swallowed some books and a candle whilst he was in her womb. Rhaegar took no interest in the play of other children. The maesters were awed by his wits, but his father’s knights would jest sourly that Baelor the Blessed had been born again. Until one day Prince Rhaegar found something in his scrolls that changed him. No one knows what it might have been, only that the boy suddenly appeared early one morning in the yard as the knights were donning their steel. He walked up to Ser Willem Darry, the master-at-arms, and said, ‘I will require sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.'”
It remains to this day a debated topic about what Rhaegar read in his scrolls that turned his life, but in a very dramatic way, from that day forward Rhaegar was different. (Click here to read my theory on what Rhaegar read.) He began fighting, jousting, engaging in politics, showing interest in people, and being the prince that those around him wished he would be. A martial young leader as his father Aerys began showing signs of his coming madness. Someone the realm could breath easier knowing was in line to take the throne.
In public, he was the noble, handsome warrior coming to lead the Seven Kingdoms described by Ser Barristan.
Rhaegar inspired devotion and love from many. Cersei Lannister in her youth had hoped to marry Rhaegar, inwardly thinking she would’ve preferred him over her own twin Jaime.
Next to Rhaegar, even her beautiful Jaime had seemed no more than a callow boy. The prince is going to be my husband, she had thought, giddy with excitement, and when the old king dies I’ll be the queen. Her aunt had confided that truth to her before the tourney. “You must be especially beautiful,” Lady Genna told her, fussing with her dress, “for at the final feast it shall be announced that you and Prince Rhaegar are betrothed.” – A Feast for Crows – Cersei V
He was also known far and wide for abilities as a singer and a player of the harp.
Prince Rhaegar was returning from Dorne, and he and his escort had lingered here a fortnight. He was so young then, and I was younger. Boys, the both of us. At the welcoming feast, the prince had taken up his silver-stringed harp and played for them. A song of love and doom, Jon Connington recalled, and every woman in the hall was weeping when he put down the harp. – A Dance with Dragons – The Griffin Reborn
There was always a strangeness to Rhaegar though, noted early on in his life by those around him, and he kept most people at arm’s length. No one really knew him, they only knew what he choose to show them. And for his deepest secrets, he kept a very small council. Why? Because Rhaegar believed, very strongly, in prophecy and that he, or eventually his children, would fulfill that prophecy. You may recognize it from Melisandre this season when she described it to Daenerys.
The Prince That Was Promised who would beat back the darkness and save the world from the endless winter. It turns out that Rhaegar’s primary confidant about this was old Maester Aemon, who he wrote back and forth to for many years. Aemon, on his death bed in the books, describes their interactions.
“No one ever looked for a girl,” he said. “It was a prince that was promised, not a princess. Rhaegar, I thought . . . the smoke was from the fire that devoured Summerhall on the day of his birth, the salt from the tears shed for those who died. He shared my belief when he was young, but later he became persuaded that it was his own son who fulfilled the prophecy, for a comet had been seen above King’s Landing on the night Aegon was conceived, and Rhaegar was certain the bleeding star had to be a comet. What fools we were, who thought ourselves so wise! The error crept in from the translation. Dragons are neither male nor female, Barth saw the truth of that, but now one and now the other, as changeable as flame. The language misled us all for a thousand years. Daenerys is the one, born amidst salt and smoke. The dragons prove it.” – A Feast for Crows – Samwell IV
It is also from Rhaegar that we get the title of the book series Game of Thrones is based on. From Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying:
“Will you make a song for him?” the woman asked.
“He has a song,” the man replied. “He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” He looked up when he said it and his eyes met Dany’s, and it seemed as if he saw her standing there beyond the door. “There must be one more,” he said, though whether he was speaking to her or the woman in the bed she could not say. “The dragon has three heads.” He went to the window seat, picked up a harp, and ran his fingers lightly over its silvery strings. Sweet sadness filled the room as man and wife and babe faded like the morning mist, only the music lingering behind to speed her on her way. – A Clash of Kings – Daenerys IV
There’s speculation that Rhaegar spent most of his adult life trying to become that Prince, and when eventually it showed that he could not be (as the White Walkers never showed up to be his foe) he turned his focus on having children who would fulfill it for him. And this is where all the trouble begins that lead to war and his death.
Rhaegar eventually married Princess of Dorne, Elia Martell – the very same sister of Oberyn and Doran Martell.
Barristan comments on their marriage as well to Daenerys.
“You saw my brother Rhaegar wed. Tell me, did he wed for love or duty?”
The old knight hesitated. “Princess Elia was a good woman, Your Grace. She was kind and clever, with a gentle heart and a sweet wit. I know the prince was very fond of her.”
Fond, thought Dany. The word spoke volumes. I could become fond of Hizdahr zo Loraq, in time. Perhaps.
Rhaegar and Elia seemed to be an average political marriage between future highlords, an arrangement built on their positions rather than passion and romance. It could’ve been a personality mismatch, a more political marriage that Rhaegar arranged to counter his father’s growing racism against the Dornish. Or perhaps Rhaegar was expecting something more…magical to happen from their marriage. Like a bleeding star, salt and smoke, signs of the prophecy coming true.
What happens next, summarized nicely by Oberyn in the above video, is that there was an enormous tournament at Harrenhal that all the great lords and ladies of the Seven Kingdoms attended. At this tournament, it appears that Rhaegar had a dramatic effect on one particular attendee, Lyanna Stark.
Under Harren’s roof he ate and drank with the wolves, and many of their sworn swords besides, barrowdown men and moose and bears and mermen. The dragon prince sang a song so sad it made the wolf maid sniffle, but when her pup brother teased her for crying she poured wine over his head. – A Storm of Swords – Bran III
After winning the joust, which included a surprise mystery competitor named the Knight of the Laughing Tree (that many suspect was Lyanna in disguise), Rhaegar was allowed to proclaim a woman his queen of love and beauty. As his wife Elia was in attendance, it was expected that Rhaegar would give her the crown of blue winter roses. Instead, Rhaegar rode past Elia and gave the crown to Lyanna Stark.
A little under a year later, Lyanna Stark went missing with Prince Rhaegar and several of his companions.
Those on the side of the Starks and Baratheons insist that Lyanna was kidnapped, that Rhaegar was a mad dragon who abducted their beloved sister and Robert’s fiancee. Those on the side of the Targaryens insist that Rhaegar and Lyanna loved each other, having met at the tournament and citing his lack of passion for Elia, and ran off together in a romantic gesture.
Whatever the truth may be, this caused Brandon Stark to ride to King’s Landing and call for Rhaegar to “come out and die” to his father’s face. This ill-advised act led to his execution along with his father, leading to Robert’s Rebellion. Robert was betrothed to Lyanna, and after the death of Rickard and Brandon, he started a war to reclaim her from Rhaegar and depose King Aerys for his crimes.
Rhaegar eventually re-emerged and led the Royal Army against Robert, falling to Baratheon’s warhammer at the Trident. It was revealed that Rhaegar had been in Dorne, at a tower he named “The Tower of Joy” with Lyanna Stark, where she was found by her brother Ned pregnant with Rhaegar’s child.
What was revealed in this past episode “Eastwatch” is that Rhaegar had legally annulled his marriage with Elia Martell in Dorne with the help of the High Septon and then married another woman. The implication is that this other woman was Lyanna Stark. This is seemingly a fulfillment of “the song of ice and fire”, with Lyanna being the Ice from the Starks of the Frozen North, and Rhaegar being the fire of the dragonlords, Targaryens born from the volcanoes of Valyria.
Why this matters is that, while annulling marriage does not remove others from the line of succession, Rhaegar’s children by his new wife have a claim to the Iron Throne. It turns out the Battle of the Bastards only had one bastard battling- Jon is a legitimate Targaryen heir. If proven and recognized, Jon’s claim is actually better than Dany’s as, being the son of the crown prince, he would come first before Rhaegar’s younger sister.
And more than the question of succession- what kind of person abandons his wife and children to run away with a teenage girl to get married? Book fans have for year favored that Rhaegar married Lyanna in addition to Elia, citing that Aegon the Conqueror famously has two wives. It’s difficult to defend someone that left behind his family, especially knowing her eventual fate at the hands of Tywin Lannister’s men.
On the other hand, it was revealed that Elia Martell had almost died in both of her births. She spent weeks and months bedridden and recovering. If Rhaegar truly believed “the dragon has three heads” meaning that he needed three children, then by taking Lyanna as his new wife, he was sparing Elia from what seemed to be certain death in childbirth.
After the birth of Princess Rhaenys, her mother had been bedridden for half a year, and Prince Aegon’s birth had almost been the death of her. She would bear no more children, the maesters told Prince Rhaegar afterward. – A Dance with Dragons – The Griffin Reborn
He seemingly chased prophecy to the end of his days, making huge decisions in his life based on whether or not he and Aemon felt those choices would better fulfill The Prince That Was Promised. He gambled the fate of Westeros and the lives of untold numbers of people, including his own estranged wife and children, his family, friends, his home, his own life, that he knew the correct interpretation of a prophecy. It is because of these incredibly hard decisions that Rhaegar remains a character whose morality, decision making, actual actions, and goals have inspired many impassioned debates.
Did he actually kidnap Lyanna? Did he hold her captive in Dorne even if she willingly left with him? If they left as lovers, why do the Starks think it was kidnapping and rape? How much of Robert’s Rebellion was his fault? Was it Aerys and Brandon’s rash actions that turned a scandal into a war? Was it a good idea to run away with a high-born girl, leaving his unstable and violent father Aerys to deal with the fallout? And from this past episode, he also abandoned his wife and children. Even if he believed that Lyanna Stark fulfilled the prophecy that would save the world, creating the Song of Ice and Fire, is Rhaegar justified in treating his wife and children as poorly as he did? Is it worth the deaths of hundreds of thousands, to save the world from eternal darkness?
If it is hard to imagine Rhaegar as a character, we luckily have a character who followed a similar path in his life: Stannis Baratheon. Stannis was convinced by Melisandre he was also the savior of Westeros. He ignored his wife Selyse for another woman in Melisandre. Stannis famously burned his daughter Shireen alive in an offering to the Lord of Light.
The idea behind the murder of Shireen was that the outcome would be worth the atrocity, as Stannis believed (like Rhaegar) that he was a prophetic figure of destiny against the darkness. Rhaegar may have faced the exact same choices in his life. Stay with Elia, Rhaenys, and Aegon (although he doesn’t feel they fulfill his destiny and it may kill Elia to do so) or run away with/kidnap Lyanna Stark, hoping she is the right woman for him, and trusting that the realm won’t erupt over it. It’s an impossible choice when you fervently believe the fate of the entire planet is in the balance.
Rhaegar is one of my favorite characters for these reasons, a fascinating creation of George R. R. Martin designed specifically to be mysterious and not easily understood or judged. As the show reveals more about him in the coming seasons in relation to his supposed son, Jon Snow, I feel it’s important to keep in mind the complexity of Rhaegar’s actions and character and that the man who may end up saving Westeros through his children may not be a classical hero, or even a moral person. Rather he was a melancholy book nerd who found destiny shoved into his hands, and tried to play the role given to him. How well he played that role, we’ll have to wait and see.