Jon Snow’s parentage has become an increasingly important plot point on Game of Thrones. But, if you’re a casual viewer who hasn’t read the books or re-watched the show a million times, it can get confusing. While your Thrones know-it-all friends gasp over references to Rhaegar Targaryen, it’s all rather tangled.
Jon Snow grew up thinking that his parents were Ned Stark and a random woman Ned slept with. But that’s a lie. As Bran Stark’s visions in Season 6 revealed, Jon Snow’s real mother is Ned Stark’s deceased sister, Lyanna. This means that he’s not Arya, Sansa, and Bran’s half-brother as they all think. He’s their cousin. Got it so far?
So, Lyanna Stark was betrothed to Robert Baratheon, who was the king in Season 1. Before the events of the show, Lyanna vanished under mysterious circumstances with Daenerys Targaryen’s older brother Rhaegar. He was the Mad King’s son and heir, and he died before Daenerys was born. That’s why Daenerys and Jon are close in age, even though she’s his aunt. There was a wide gap between Rhaegar and Daenerys.
Rhaegar was the whole package: he was legendary on the battlefield, he was so handsome that Cersei Lannister thought he was the “most beautiful man.” But like his son, Jon Snow, he did not enjoy fighting, even though he excelled at it. He preferred playing music.
Some people think Rhaegar abducted and raped Lyanna; some think they fell in love and she ran away willingly. As Season 7 revealed, she was likely willing, because they actually got married.
It was all very Helen of Troy and Paris — the two ran away together, but their union sparked a war. In fact, although Petyr Baelish tells Bran Stark in Season 7 that the catspaw dagger is largely responsible for the events of Game of Thrones, there’s a much stronger case to be made for the union of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Baelish asked Sansa in Season 5.
Ned Stark’s father and older brother went to King’s Landing to demand that the Mad King address his son absconding with Lyanna. Because he was insane, the Mad King murdered them instead and ordered the deaths of Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon.
Robert Baratheon obviously didn’t take kindly to the murder order or a Targaryen prince absconding with his fiance. He rose up in what became known as “Robert’s Rebellion,” the events that would eventually install him on the Iron Throne.
Rhaegar was already married to Oberyn Martell’s sister when he fell for Lyanna. As Gilly discovered in Season 7’s “Eastwatch,” he annulled that marriage and married “someone else” at the same time in Dorne. There’s nobody else it could have been besides Lyanna.
After their marriage, Rhaegar and Lyanna went to the Tower of Joy in Dorne. Rhaegar left Lyanna there and went to battle — ultimately falling to Robert Baratheon’s hammer in the Battle of the Trident.
So, yes, in Season 7’s “Eastwatch,” Gendry and Jon bonded over the fact that their dads were friends since both think that Ned Stark is Jon’s dad. But in reality, their biological fathers were enemies, and Gendry’s father killed Jon’s.
Before Rhaegar went to battle, he left his friend and Kingsguard behind to guard his pregnant wife. As Bran Stark saw in Season 6, Rhaegar’s Kingsguard fought a young Ned Stark who came looking for his sister. Ned and his friend Howland Reed killed him dishonorably. Lyanna Stark subsequently gave birth to Jon Snow and died.
On her deathbed, she made Ned Stark give a mysterious “promise.” The general consensus is that Ned promised to raise Jon as his own son. Otherwise, the new king, Robert Baratheon, and his allies would kill Jon, since he’s Rhaegar’s son and heir and, therefore, next in line for the Iron Throne.
However, the fact that she said “promise me” has also been used to argue that Jon Snow is the prophetic prince who was promised. It helps that Rhaegar was preoccupied with this prophecy, too. Melisandre mentioned this figure earlier in Season 7 as the legendary savior.
The end result is two trails of blood from two great Houses. That’s what led to Jon Snow’s existence. He’s half Stark and half Targaryen. He’s a mixture of ice and fire. He’s got the blood of the dragon but life experiences that were forged in ice.
Game of Thrones Season 7 is currently airing Sunday nights on HBO.