Beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time
Lyanna Stark. The L in R+L=J. The woman whose memory Robert Baratheon fought for and cherished until the end of his days. A beauty of the seven kingdoms, a maid with blue winter roses in her hair. A wild she-wolf of Winterfell who longed for her own future and adventure. Her life and her flight from marriage brought an entire country into civil war, and her legacy continues to shape Westeros to the current day.
Much like her husband Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, she is a character wrapped in mystery, yet understanding who she was and wanted to be is crucial for knowing the future of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. Who was Lyanna Stark, and why did she run away with Rhaegar?
As with Rhaegar, let’s start with the basic facts of her life. Some of this information comes from the books and may not be included in the show.
Lyanna was born in 266 AC, 7 years after her future husband Rhaegar, as the third child and only daughter to Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell Rickard Stark and his wife Lyarra Stark. Lyanna was born and raised in Winterfell. She had a reputation of having “wolf blood” and was known as what we would call a tomboy today. Lyanna loved fighting, riding, and playing like one of the boys with her brothers Brandon, Ned, and Benjen. Years after her death, she is still known in the North for her incredible skill riding horses.
Arya was breathing hard herself then. She knew the fight was done. “You ride like a northman, milady,” Harwin said when he’d drawn them to a halt. “Your aunt was the same. Lady Lyanna. But my father was master of horse, remember.” – A Storm of Swords, Arya III
Brandon was fostered at Barrowton with old Lord Dustin, the father of the one I’d later wed, but he spent most of his time riding the Rills. He loved to ride. His little sister took after him in that. A pair of centaurs, those two. – A Dance With Dragons, The Turncloak
Horses… the boy was mad for horses, Lady Dustin will tell you. Not even Lord Rickard’s daughter could outrace him, and that one was half a horse herself. – A Dance with Dragons, Reek III
This flashback from season 6’s “Home” of Lyanna and her brothers shows much the same. She shows off her skill at riding, gives Wylis (later known as Hodor) tips on how to beat her brothers, and participates in the boys’ games.
This scene is very similar to one shown in Season 1, Episode 1, “Winter is Coming,” where Arya, so much like her aunt years earlier, shows up her own brothers in the practice yard too.
Much of the details of Lyanna’s life comes from the memories of her older brother, Ned. Unfortunately for viewers of Game of Thrones, many of these scenes have been cut as they are his internal thoughts. Much like Rhaegar in my previous feature, it is difficult picturing a character we know so little about. It helps if you think of Lyanna as a more grown-up version of Arya Stark. Ned very early on draws these comparisons between Arya and Lyanna in contrast to the images we get of her in the show.
Her father sighed. “Ah, Arya. You have a wildness in you, child. ‘The wolf blood,’ my father used to call it. Lyanna had a touch of it, and my brother Brandon more than a touch. It brought them both to an early grave.” Arya heard sadness in his voice; he did not often speak of his father, or of the brother and sister who had died before she was born. “Lyanna might have carried a sword, if my lord father had allowed it. You remind me of her sometimes. You even look like her.”
“Lyanna was beautiful,” Arya said, startled. Everybody said so. It was not a thing that was ever said of Arya.
“She was,” Eddard Stark agreed, “beautiful, and willful, and dead before her time.” – A Game of Thrones, Arya II
But that was not all there was to Lyanna; she also was like her other niece Sansa. Lyanna loved flowers and music, particularly the blue winter roses that grew in the gardens of Winterfell. Long after her death, Ned would bring those same blue winter roses and lay them on her statue.
Her brother Ned was fostered in the Vale of Arryn with a young Robert Baratheon under the watch and tutelage of Lord Jon Arryn. Ned and Robert became as close as brothers. The two schemed that they truly could be brothers if Robert married Ned’s sister. Ned suggested the match and Lord Rickard Stark agreed. The young Lord of Storm’s End and Lyanna Stark were bethrothed. However, and this is critical for understanding her, no one asked what Lyanna thought of her future being decided for her, or took her opinion into account.
We know this because Lyanna expressed doubts about the match. She had never met Robert Baratheon before but knew him by reputation. She was no fool, and he had the same reputation for womanizing in his youth that he did later as king.
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
She spent most of her life as if she would end up as Brienne of Tarth, a warrior woman clad in armor traveling the Seven Kingdoms with a sword at her side. Drastically her future changed from a wolf running through the forests of the North (like her son would one day) into being the lady-wife of a stranger in the damp, dreary, foreboding castle of Storm’s End while her husband bedded every woman he could. Robert and the life he offered was not one she wanted. But, Lord Rickard had spoken, and the betrothal moved forwards.
Robert never really knew Lyanna, demonstrated here in the first episode at her tomb. Robert gave her a feather and wanted her buried on a sunny hill. Lyanna loved blue flowers and requested to be buried in the crypts. Robert knew and loved Ned as a brother- but the same can’t be said for his “beloved” Lyanna. The future king loved the idea of Lyanna not the real person.
The next major event in Lyanna’s life was the famous Tourney at Harrenhal. Many remember it for the sheer number of lords and ladies from all corners of Westeros who showed up on the shore of the God’s Eye. In the show, Harrenhal was shown as a dreary ruin. Yet in those days, when held by House Whent, it was a spectacular sight. Banners of every lord streaming above the ground, heroes and knights clashing in the jousts and melee, and lusty cheers for the Silver Prince Rhaegar above all. But, in the middle of the pageantry, there was Lyanna, her brothers, Howland Reed (you may remember him from the Tower of Joy), and a mystery knight known only as the “Knight of the Laughing Tree”. It’s a major story related to Bran Stark by Jojen and Meera Reed left out of the show thus far (except for the season 6 Histories & Lore). To quote the Reeds:
“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 wolf on four legs, or two?”
“Two,” said Meera. “The she-wolf laid into the squires with a tourney sword, scattering them all. The crannogman was bruised and bloodied, so she took him back to her lair to clean his cuts and bind them up with linen. There he met her pack brothers: the wild wolf who led them, the quiet wolf beside him, and the pup who was youngest of the four.
“That evening there was to be a feast in Harrenhal, to mark the opening of the tourney, and the she-wolf insisted that the lad attend. He was of high birth, with as much a right to a place on the bench as any other man. She was not easy to refuse, this wolf maid, so he let the young pup find him garb suitable to a king’s feast, and went up to the great castle. – A Storm of Swords, Bran II
Lyanna, angry that squires would hurt her father’s bannerman in Howland, beat them back with a training sword and offered him the courtesy of the North. This is the Lyanna the North knew. Fierce, brave, and not afraid to swing a sword. As for the music I mentioned earlier:
“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 II
Prince Rhaegar, known for his harp-playing and singing, performed for the lords and even Lyanna cried at his song. It’s here, in this night, the connection between the eventual husband and wife began. However, this is only how Lyanna noticed Rhaegar. What made him notice her among all the other ladies at the tourney? That came next in the jousts, and the Knight of the Laughing Tree:
“Whoever he was, the old gods gave strength to his arm. The porcupine knight fell first, then the pitchfork knight, and lastly the knight of the two towers. None were well loved, so the common folk cheered lustily for the Knight of the Laughing Tree, as the new champion soon was called. When his fallen foes sought to ransom horse and armor, the Knight of the Laughing Tree spoke in a booming voice through his helm, saying, ‘Teach your squires honor, that shall be ransom enough.’ Once the defeated knights chastised their squires sharply, their horses and armor were returned. And so the little crannogman’s prayer was answered . . . by the green men, or the old gods, or the children of the forest, who can say?”
It was a good story, Bran decided after thinking about it a moment or two. “Then what happened? Did the Knight of the Laughing Tree win the tourney and marry a princess?”
“No,” said Meera. “That night at the great castle, the storm lord and the knight of skulls and kisses each swore they would unmask him, and the king himself urged men to challenge him, declaring that the face behind that helm was no friend of his. But the next morning, when the heralds blew their trumpets and the king took his seat, only two champions appeared. 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, hanging abandoned in a tree. It was the dragon prince who won that tourney in the end.” A Storm of Swords, Bran II
With Lyanna’s martial prowess, her skill at riding, and her fearlessness, many in the fandom have come to the conclusion that the Knight was actually Lyanna in disguise. The Knight specifically called out the knights whose squires had been bullying Howland and were chased off by Lyanna. The Knight also was extremely skilled on their horse and unhorsed mighty lords and knights as if they had been doing it for years. Which, coincidentally Lyanna had been, as she trained with her brothers for years, daring her father to make her stop. And in the line, “Even sent his son the dragon prince to see the man,” many have further speculated that not only did Rhaegar find the Knight as commanded, he unmasked the knight only to find Lyanna- the same pretty young girl who had cried at his songs during the feast. Rhaegar did not turn in Lyanna, but instead gave her the crown of winter roses meant for his wife Elia Martell. This gesture was interpreted by those at the tourney as romantic. The champion of a tournament was allowed to declare anyone his “Queen of Love and Beauty”. Most wedded lords and knights give the honor to their wives. Not Rhaegar, and all the smiles died. Littlefinger explains the offense well to Sansa in this scene from the crypts of Winterfell in front of Lyanna’s statue.
A common misconception is that Rhaegar and Lyanna left together from this tourney. On the contrary, from the end of the tourney to their eventual disappearance, almost 8 months passed. Lyanna was on her way for her oldest brother Brandon’s marriage to Catelyn Tully (Ned’s eventual wife) when the infamous abduction happened.
As mentioned before, 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.
In the TV show, it has been revealed in the season 7 finale that Rhaegar and Lyanna ran away together in passion, eventually marrying in Dorne.
However, even without that scene, if we take into account what we know about Lyanna, it is perfectly understandable that she did indeed run away with the crown prince of her own free will. Her wild and adventure seeking nature, her apprehension about marrying Robert Baratheon, how she wanted a future she determined. Rhaegar was handsome, intelligent, powerful, a master of the harp and song, and unlike other suitors, had seen Lyanna not as the daughter of Lord Rickard Stark, Ned’s sister, but as she truly was.
“You never knew Lyanna as I did, Robert,” Ned told him. “You saw her beauty, but not the iron underneath. She would have told you that you have no business in the melee.” – A Game of Thrones, Eddard I
However romantic, their elopement was ill-advised. Robert wasn’t just her betrothed, he was a hot headed lord of an entire kingdom with powerful, loyal friends and an army at his back. Rhaegar was already married to Elia Martell, the sister to the Prince of Dorne, and had two children with her. Lyanna’s brother Brandon’s antics in his young life made Lyanna look positively docile, from deadly duels to womanizing his way around Westeros. Rhaegar’s father King Aerys was paranoid on his best days and murderous on his worst days. These were extremely powerful and dangerous people that had enormous personal stakes in Rhaegar and Lyanna’s futures. And Rhaegar and Lyanna left them all behind anyway.
Rhaegar and Lyanna disappeared into the wilderness, with only Rhaegar re-appearing around 8-9 months later to take his place at the head of the Targaryen army. In those months, it’s likely Rhaegar took her all over Westeros. Places like his family’s destroyed palace of Summerhall, the magnificent castle Starfall that has housed the Daynes since the Dawn age and home of Rhaegar’s best friend Arthur, the obsidian caves on Rhaegar’s home of Dragonstone, the weirwoods of High Heart- and we know the eventual end of the journey was at the Tower of Joy in the mountains of Dorne. It is here, at this tower, that Ned eventually found Lyanna guarded by Aerys’ Kingsguard members Arthur Dayne, Gerold Hightower, and Oswell Whent (the last one present only in the books).
A large unanswered question about their relationship though is how much Rhaegar told Lyanna about his beliefs about how he or his children were the saviors of Westeros. The pair spent months together traveling through the wilds of Westeros and in Dorne and, for his many faults, Rhaegar seemed to be much more in love with Lyanna than he ever seemed to be with Elia. And with Elia, Rhaegar spoke openly about these beliefs. It appears likely that he did tell his Lady Lyanna what he was doing with his life.
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
However, Lyanna never mentioned it. In her final moments and dying in her bloody bed, Lyanna asked Ned to promise her that he’ll protect her newborn child from Robert’s wrath, and in the books, raise him as Ned’s own and bury her in the crypts of Winterfell along with her pack. Robert had turned into a raging demon during the war, promising death for all Targaryens. She had good reason to believe that Robert would kill her child once he found out Rhaegar was the father.
In the books, it is nearly identical with no acknowledgment that she knew what Jon would become.
I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.” He could hear her still at times. Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black. After that he remembered nothing. They had found him still holding her body, silent with grief. The little crannogman, Howland Reed, had taken her hand from his. Ned could recall none of it. “I bring her flowers when I can,” he said. “Lyanna was … fond of flowers.” A Game of Thrones, Eddard I
Ned kept his promise; Lyanna’s child was kept hidden as a bastard named Jon Snow and her body interred in the crypts with her family.
Lyanna’s story, like Rhaegar, is one of intense tragedy and mystery. Was she a young girl (only 15-16 at the time of her death), seduced by an older man and in way over her head? Do Rickard and Ned share blame for trying to take a free spirit like Lyanna and lock her into an arranged marriage against her wishes? Did she buy into Rhaegar’s theories about the future? What would she think of Jon today and all the hardships he has endured and overcome? Why didn’t she write a letter to her family explaining that she wasn’t kidnapped? If she did, what happened to it? What did she think of Elia and her two children that Rhaegar choose to abandon? How much of the responsibility does she share with Rhaegar for the wars and suffering that followed their escapade?
Many fans also believe that Lyanna was referenced along with Rhaegar in Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying, in A Clash of Kings.
A blue flower grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness. . . . mother of dragons, bride of fire . . .
Her own favorite blue winter rose growing from a chink in a wall of ice, a mother of a dragon in Jon, and the bride to Rhaegar’s fire.
We can only hope that Lyanna would be proud- of her brother for keeping her promise and Jon’s secret until his death, and of her son for leading men against the hordes of the dead and the endless winter Rhaegar knew was coming. It’s a tragedy that she died so young and so far from home, but she lives on in Jon: Lyanna’s son blooming at the Wall like her favorite flower, and his song is ice and fire.