Jon snow series: what to know about the 'game of thrones' sequel

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Fans look back at the mystery that shaped 20 years of fandom, from the early internet through today.

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Javier Zarracina | hydroxyzinex.com
Aja Romano is a culture reporter for hydroxyzinex.com, focusing on criticism and the ethics of culture. Before joining hydroxyzinex.com in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot.
As Game of Thrones enters its final season, the show’s fans will finally get to see the onscreen resolution of a plot point they’ve been waiting on for over two decades. And we’re not talking about who will ultimately sit on the Iron Throne, though that outcome may have a lot to do with the plot point in question.

Rather, we’re talking about what was for nearly 20 years the central mystery of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, on which the HBO show is based: the question of Jon Snow’s true parentage. It’s a riddle that was finally answered at the end of season six (and then more fully at the end of season seven), as the show confirmed the fandom’s most prominent and popular theory on the subject: “R+L=J”.

Some fan theories become legend because they’re solidly constructed yet wildly unlikely, like the theory that Ron is Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. Others become legend because, right or wrong, they fundamentally alter the way fans view the series, like the theory that Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord, which may have been originally intended as part of the plot of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Then there are some theories that take off because they’re so outlandish they just might work.

But while Star Wars fans may never know conclusively if Jar Jar was meant to have been a Sith Lord, R+L=J worked its way into the parlance of Game of Thrones fandom from a very early date, and became, over time, a core part of how fans of the books understood the series’ direction, an arc that later applied to the TV series as well. The rise to prominence of the (correct) belief that Jon Snow was the true Targaryen heir isn’t just a nifty case of savvy fans picking up tiny clues to a giant puzzle. It’s also the story of a fandom evolving over two decades along with the internet itself.


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R+L=J: the fan theory that holds the key to Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — a planned seven-book fantasy epic that to date is still in progress — attracted admiration from die-hard fantasy fans and writers when it was published in August of 1996. But it didn’t, at first, have huge numbers of readers. Over the next 20 years, the online fandom for A Song of Ice and Fire (universally shorthanded as ASOIAF) steadily grew: fans found one another, formed mailing lists and communities and forums, and discussed theories. Ultimately, this fandom would shift into the gigantic fan base for Game of Thrones, and amid significant changes, the prominence and belief in R+L=J would remain the one constant — the crucial takeaway from two decades of fans collectively solving a mystery.

As Game of Thrones winds to a close, we celebrate with a look back at the fan theory that started out like a whispered rumor and grew into a juggernaut.

The internet’s first known instance of the R+L=J theory dates back to 1997

On September 18, 1997, a user going by the handle Rodrick Su posted a short list of unanswered plot questions from the book A Game of Thrones to the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written. After discussing other issues like lines of succession and mystery characters, he wrote :

4. Jon Snow"s parent. It is wholely consistent that Jon Snow is the offspring of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Ned probably keep this a secret because Rober Baratheon is obsess with killing off all Targaryen, especially any offspring of Rhaegar.

5. If Jon Snow is a Targaryen, then by tradition, he is the most likely mate to Daenery, being that she is his aunt...

This is the internet’s oldest known instance of someone putting forth the basics of “R+L=J” — the fan theory that Jon Snow, commonly referred to as “Ned Stark’s bastard,” was actually the son of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s sister, and Rhaegar Targaryen, the slain eldest son of the fallen Targaryen dynasty that once ruled Westeros.

In the series, the common story told of the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna is that Rhaegar fell in love with, kidnapped, and raped Lyanna, thus incurring the wrath of her fiancée, Robert Baratheon. In what is now known as Robert’s Rebellion, Robert went to war with the entire Targaryen clan over his belief that Rhaegar had kidnapped Lyanna, resulting in the downfall of the Targaryen dynasty and the ascension of Robert to the crown. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that Lyanna and Rhaegar eloped, and that she gave birth to his son, dying in childbirth. Ned Stark, the last person to see Lyanna alive in a “bloody bed,” made a vague promise to her — the subject of which has yet to be revealed, in the books at least.

R+L=J is only one of numerous fan theories about Jon Snow’s parentage, but almost from the moment the first book in the series was released, many, many fans believed it to be the correct one — the only theory that would not only answer the basic question of Jon’s parentage, but would also unlock a host of side-mysteries about the ASOIAF universe. It was also the only theory that would seem to unite the storyline’s titular “ice” (the Starks of the chilly north) and “fire” (the dragon-riding Targaryens) in one genetic destiny.

Rodrick Su, the original R+L=J poster, appears to have disappeared into the ether, but other discussions, posts, and expansions on the theory followed. Long before season one of Game of Thrones actually aired, R+L=J was treated as gospel in the ASOIAF fandom. And in the season six finale of Game of Thrones, fans learned that this long-held belief in Jon’s parentage was correct, via a flashback that all but confirmed Lyanna died giving birth to Rhaegar’s son in the Tower of Joy in Dorne.

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Rhaegar and Lyanna are wed in secret in the season seven finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” HBO As a bonus, the season seven episode “Eastwatch” revealed the twist that Lyanna and Rhaegar were secretly married, making Jon a legitimate heir to the Targaryen throne. And in the season seven finale, the other prediction Rodrick Su made so long ago — that their connection would lead to romance between Jon and Daenerys — finally came true as well.

Because of its ubiquity — and, apparently, accuracy — it’s tempting to think that R+L=J was obvious from the start. But that’s not exactly the case. The proliferation of R+L=J throughout the ASOIAF/Game of Thrones fandom offers a fascinating distillation of the growth and spread of the fan community over a 20-year period, as well as the theory itself. In order to get a sense of that evolution, hydroxyzinex.com asked a number of longtime fans to tell us about their experience with the theory, and the fandom, in their own words.

Our guests

Laura Brondos, longtime reader and member of ASOIAF fandom

What was your impression of the fandom community back when you first joined?

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

I discovered the books in 1997 when I was in my second year of college. I started reading A Game of Thrones and couldn’t put it down. I only discussed the books with one friend in real life, and he told me about the first website dedicated to the books. It was called Dragonstone and was one of the first websites I ever visited. I discovered Westeros.org shortly after its inception and didn’t participate in the forums much, but loved reading other people’s theories. was definitely small.

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Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

There was a website in Australia called Dragonstone. The website itself seems to have popped up in 1998.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

October of 1998, that is the earliest time the fan forum existed.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

Back in the murky dark days of the early internet.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

We’re talking pre-Google. Yahoo was the search engine everyone used. Peter Gibbs, bless him, started his site on a server in Australia, but the internet connection to the rest of the world that Australia had was basically like a piece of strings and two cans.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I stumbled onto in 2004 after reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. I knew nothing about ASOIAF besides the fact that A Game of Thrones has a quote from Robert Jordan endorsing the series. In 2004/2005, the Game of Thrones community was growing rapidly (A Feast for Crows was a New York Times No. 1 bestseller in 2005), but compared to today, it was still quite small. Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit didn’t exist, or were just primitive versions of what they are today. So it wasn’t easy to find a community or repository of fan theories.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

There’s a number of people I’ve known longer than anyone outside of family thanks to our being part of the fandom — people who were there, we’re talking 20 years now, almost. A lot of people miss the days before the TV show.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

It was much more intimate before, and some people prefer it when you know everyone posting in a forum. You don’t, these days.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Just before the show launched I think we had 10,000 to 12,000 members on the forum, and now we have over 100,000 thanks to the show. After the first episode, we gained like 9,000 new members — we almost doubled in size, basically, in a single day.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I finished by 2005 and George had also announced that the next book, A Dance with Dragons (ADWD), would be coming out the following year in 2006. Perfect timing! Well … by 2011, with no new book, I had all but forgotten about the books and was not that excited when ADWD was announced. What did get my interest was the show. After following the show for four seasons, I decided to dive back into the books and reread them all, including ADWD for the first time. In 2015 the online community had completely changed from a decade ago.

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I joined the community in 2012 after finishing A Dance with Dragons for the first time. By then, the show had finished its second season, and The Winds of Winter wasn’t that far off in the horizon, right? My first fan community was the A Song of Ice and Fire subreddit. I was not a redditor before I read the books, so I joined Reddit to become a part of that community.

Back then, the subreddit had maybe 30,000 to 40,000 members. There was some great discussion, but Game of Thrones was only coming into its own as cultural zeitgeist — meaning that the theories and analysis which has come into its own in the years since were in their infancy. But beyond that, there were a lot of great fans already in the community — many of whom I learned from, admired, and still chat with.

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

In the earlier, preshow days of the fandom, things felt much smaller and harder to break into. I remember trying to join into message board discussion and finding it not very welcoming — most everyone seemed to know each other, and were slow to warm up to newcomers. For all the negative aspects of the Game of Thrones fandom , I appreciate how welcoming it is, with a wider array of communities for people to find a place to belong.

When and how did you first become aware of R+L=J?

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

Linda and I have distinct memories of Linda having found discussions on Dragonstone.

Linda Antonsson, co-owner, Westeros.org

I particularly remember a post laying out the evidence of this theory. It’s not the first time the theory was brought up, but in terms of our contact with it, there was a post, and it mentioned among other , Dany’s vision in the second book in the House of the Undying when she sees a blue rose growing out of a wall of ice. And that, I think, was the thing I really fastened on as very decisive.

Elio Garcia, co-owner, Westeros.org

That would mean we became aware of it sometime after <1998’s> Clash of Kings, which is amazing, because we first read A Game of Thrones> in 1997, so we’re talking a year later, we had vague suspicions that something was up, but we ourselves didn’t pick it up from the novel.

Jeff Hartline, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I did not know about R+L=J before I read the books. In fact, I didn’t even suspect R+L=J until after I finished A Dance with Dragons. There, my brother introduced me to the theory with a, “So, you think that Ned Stark is Jon"s father…” line.

Greg Hou, moderator, r/ASOIAF

I had no idea. I began reading the books thinking this was just another high fantasy series. When I joined the ASOIAF community on Reddit, I was blown away by all the thoroughly researched new theories and conspiracies that I had once again missed on my reread. Apparently this theory had been floating around since the first book.

Laura Brondos, longtime fan

I came to the books “cold,” so the first I heard of R+L=J was in a Google or Yahoo group email. The online community was virtually nonexistent at that time, but I did discover Yahoo and Google groups and we discussed the books in a giant email chain. I remember that someone named Dave suggested, “Wanna bet that Jon is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna?”

Susan Miller, editor, Watchers on the Wall

I read the books on my own, back before <2005’s> A Feast for Crows had come out (long before the TV show), and I barreled through the series over a couple months. So I didn"t cruise message boards before reading the books, and I hadn’t chatted with any of my friends about the books enough to hear any major theories. Coming to the books “cold” is a good way to put it. Cold as ice, dropped into the series like a shock. It"s the best way to do it. R+L=J became a slow suspicion I developed over the first few books.