Welcome To Rhaegar Targaryen 101: Trust Us, You'll Need It

Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO
One of the most crucial characters in the Game of Thrones universe has actually never appeared on the show. Much like the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, Rhaegar Targaryen's name is mentioned only in passing. While his presence is merely hinted at in the show, he's all over Reddit fan theories. That's because understanding Rhaegar means understanding Jon Snow, and what the future might hold for our zombie King in the North.
With Rhaegar Targaryen likely to appear in season 7 of Game of Thrones, now is the time to get caught up. Let's go back to a time when the Stark family ruled united over Winterfell. A time before Jon Snow was resurrected from the dead by a witch in a red dress. A time before Game of Thrones even began.
Our story begins, like many tales of Game of Thrones, in the North. Hold tight, because you're about to find out who Rhaegar Targaryen is — and who Jon Snow might become.
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Jon Snow's life, up to now.

As you recall, Jon Snow was raised as the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell. While he grew up alongside the four Stark children, Lady Catelyn was frigid towards Jon, taking him as a symbol of her husband's infidelity.

Later, Jon joined the Night's Watch to escape the stigma associated with being a bastard in Westerosi society. For comparison, look at the great lengths to which Ramsay Bolton went to rid himself of the last name Snow. No one wants to be a Snow.
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But Ned Stark is not Jon's father.

Why would Ned bring home a baby who wasn't his? Why would he put pressure on his marriage, and carry around the weight of a lie through his whole life? Hold on tight, because you're about to get some mind-altering answers.

Talk about skeletons in the family closet — or, in this case, statues in the family crypt.
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Let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

To get Jon Snow's parentage, we have to go back in time 18 years before the start of Game of Thrones.

At the time, Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon were buddies living in the Aerie, studying under Jon Arryn. Robert Baratheon was set to marry Ned Stark's only sister, Lyanna Stark. But that was not to be.
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Lyanna caught the eye of a the heir to the Iron Throne.

Enter Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, son of King Aerys II Targaryen ("The Mad King"), and heir to the Iron Throne.

Lyanna and Rhaegar were both attending a humungous, 10-day jousting tourney in Harrenhal. After Rhaegar won the entire tourney, he rode past his wife, Elia Martell, and delivered the Crown of Love and Beauty straight to Lyanna Stark. This was a scandal. The gesture is reserved for courtships, and neither the married Rhaegar nor the engaged Lyanna were "on the market." And yet — Rhaegar was hooked.
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Brief aside to the Targaryen family tree.

To fit things together even more, Rhaegar is Daenerys and Viserys' older brother. In season 1, Daenerys named her stillborn child Rhaego, after her brother.
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Soon after the tourney, Rhaegar captured Lyanna.

Despite being married, Rhaegar pulled a Paris and abducted his Helen, aka Lyanna Stark, and hid her away in Dorne.
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But why would Rhaegar capture Lyanna?

This is something we don't know yet. Rhaegar had been a universally loved commander, and abducting an engaged woman seems very out of character for him. Some suspect that Lyanna and Rhaegar were in love, and she ran away voluntarily.

Perhaps the next season of GoT will go further into Rhaegar and Lyanna's backstories.
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How's Ned involved in all this?

Ned's older brother, Brandon, was on his way to Riverrun to marry Catelyn Tully when Lyanna was taken. Upon hearing that Lyanna was abducted, Brandon and his companions diverted course to King's Landing to demand Rhaegar's capture.

King Aerys agreed to a fair trial, if their fathers all came to King's Landing as well. The men should have known better than to trust the Mad King. Aerys burnt them all alive, including Brandon and his father.

This started a little something called Robert's Rebellion.
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Robert's Rebellion?

Yep. The capture of Lyanna Stark will lead to Robert Baratheon's eventual capture of the Iron Throne, but hold tight.

Remember that Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark were living with Jon Arryn in the Val at the time. Well, Aerys demanded that Arryn hand Robert and Ned over, and he refused. Forming an alliance with Holster Tully, Ned and Jon married Tully's daughters, Catelyn (who had been promised to the late Brandon) and Lysa, and rebelled against the king. House Lannister tagged along at the very end.
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Bye-bye, Targaryens in power.

The alliance between the Arryns, Starks, Tullys, Baratheons, and Lannisters successfully overthrew the king.

Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar himself, at the Battle of the Trident. A distant Targaryen cousin, Robert was able to seize the throne. Unfortunately, Lyanna didn't survive the war. Baratheon married Cersei Lannister, but continued to mourn his late fiancée.
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What happened to Lyanna?

We always knew she died in her brother, Ned's, arms. But at the end of season 6, a long-suspected fan theory was confirmed.

She died from birth complications after having Rhaegar Targaryen's son — the boy who would become Jon Snow.

At her death bed, Lyanna made Ned promise to keep her child safe, knowing that Robert would kill Jon if he discovered Rhaegar was Jon's father. After all, the Lannisters had sent Gregor Clegane to murder Elia Martell and her two children with Rhaegar to prevent any claims on the Throne. (That's also why Oberyn, Elia's brother, later demanded an apology from Clegane during their duel — and then died as a result.)

Lyanna had reason to worry. So, Ned took his nephew to Winterfell.
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What does this mean for Jon Snow?

A couple of things. First, it means that Jon is Danaerys' nephew — so that's cool. They might even team up and take the Iron Throne together.

Second, Jon might be able to harness his Targaryen superpowers and ride dragons.

Third, as Rhaegar's son, he has a pretty good claim to the Iron Throne. Even though he's a bastard, the Targaryens practice polygamy, so maybe Rhaegar and Lyanna's marriage was sanctioned. In fact, Jon's lineage may give him a more valid claim to the throne than Danaerys has.

Finally, Jon's status as a Targaryen means he has no political claim to the North. Winterfell belongs to Bran.