Who is Rhaegar Targaryen? His actions sparked most of the events we see on Game of Thrones. So how can a dead man have so much impact?

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Rhaegar Targaryen is one of the more important characters on Game of Thrones with the least amount of screentime. His actions catalyzed most of the events we witness. So how can a dead man still have so much influence?

A Family Man

Rhaegar Targaryen was the son and heir of the “mad King” Aerys II and Queen Rhaella, and the older brother of Viserys and Daenerys. King Aerys had a more strained relationship with his son, mostly due to his growing paranoia that Rhaegar was trying to overthrow him and take the Iron Throne, which was entirely possible due to the Mad King’s questionable mental state towards the end of his reign. While Dany was too young to remember what her oldest brother was like, Viserys remembers him for his bloody murder and thinks of him as a good killer and lover of violence, qualities he looks up to.

Throughout Game of Thrones history Targaryens have been marrying their siblings to keep their Valyrian bloodline pure, but as there were no eligible relatives,  Rhaegar ended up marrying the Dornish Elia Martell, better known in the show as Oberyn Martell’s sister. Tywin Lannister wanted him to marry Cersei, but the mad king felt this match was beneath Rhaegar. Rhaegar & Elia had two children who didn’t end up living long after the War of the Usurper, or Robert’s Rebellion, began.

Most importantly, Rhaegar had a third son with Lord Eddard Stark’s sister Lyanna, who did survive,  growing up to become one of the show’s most beloved characters: Jon Snow. Lyanna, who was betrothed to Robert Baratheon , was allegedly abducted by Rhaegar and gave  birth to their son secretly. (We’ll get into the question of what exactly Rhaegar’s and Lyanna’s relationship was in a bit.) Were Robert to find out about this illegitimate competition to the throne, it was thought that he would kill the baby, so Lyanna’s brother Eddard took him in as his own bastard son. Thus  Rhaegar’s  his blood and his legacy live on most tangibly in Jon Snow.

The Real Rhaegar

Because Rhaegar is dead at the start of the story, we never get the opportunity to truly make a judgment on his character. All we see are the judgments of others, from Robert Baratheon telling Eddard Stark that he dreams of killing Rhaegar repeatedly as revenge for stealing his bride-to-be to Ser Barristan Selmy telling Daenerys of how he and Rhaegar used to donate money to orphanages after Rhaegar played music in the streets. So what was he really like?

What makes his personality so controversial is a shift in his priorities - from book worm to fighting knight - which is discussed in the books. Though he grew up intellectual and peaceful, he switched his focus to combat training after reading a prophecy in a scroll talking about the second coming of Azor Ahai, a legendary hero who fought off the darkness with a sword called Lightbringer. With the prophesied coming of the White Walkers, Rhaegar believed first that he was “The Prince That Was Promised,” then later believed it would instead be all three of his future children working together because the Targaryen sigil is a three-headed dragon.  So more than his intelligence or his strength, Rhaegar believed in the power of destiny and his duty towards it. When Dany sees her older brother in her vision in the House of the Undying, he reveals this prophecy, which could foreshadow that three dragon riders (potentially Jon, Dany and maybe Tyrion) are needed to reclaim the Iron Throne.

R + L = J

One of the most popular long-running (and now proven) fan theories is that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.

This begs the question of how Jon’s parents met and fell in love in the first place, since they were from opposing houses, Rhaegar was already married, and they had never been seen together in public. Were they truly in love or was Rhaegar the kidnapping, raping monster the enemies of the Targaryens thought of him as? [clip from 5x04 when Sansa tells Petyr about the “horrible” Rhaegar]

To get any solid facts, it’s necessary to go back to the books. They tell us  Rhaegar won a jousting tournament at Harrenhal, one of the greatest tourneys of the time, and instead of choosing his wife Elia as the queen of love and beauty, he rode right past her and placed the crown of blue winter roses in Lyanna Stark’s lap, shocking the entire audience.

According to the books, earlier in the tournament, there came a masked jouster to defend the honor of a man who had been bullied by a few squires. The mystery man was smaller than the others and carried a shield with a laughing tree on it. He later disappeared, and the king, in his mad state, thought that the knight must be his enemy. The king sent Rhaegar to go find the knight of the laughing tree, but Rhaegar claimed he could only find the knight’s shield.

Fans have theorized that Rhaegar discovered the the Knight of the Laughing Tree was Lyanna, that the pair fell in love and that he actually lied to the king to save her. Think this is too much of a stretch? Well, it seems to check out: Rhaegar wouldn’t have told his father because of his shaky relationship with the king. Lyanna was a skilled swordsman but smaller in stature, and it would explain why Rhaegar chose Lyanna over his wife to be the queen of love and beauty, a seemingly random and definitely dangerous choice. Rather than celebrating merely her physical beauty, he was honoring the strength and kindness she had shown by defending the bullied man.

Some fans have also theorized, however, that this less a love affair and more a strategic move for Rhaegar. If truly believed that he needed three children to fulfill the “The Prince That Was Promised” prophecy, he would have had to have an affair with another woman because his wife Elia was deemed unfit to have a third child.

Shortly after the Knight of the Laughing Tree episode, Lyanna was taken to the Tower of Joy to give birth to Jon Snow and died shortly after childbirth. Rhaegar, his wife Elia, and his first two children were all killed.

WHAT HE’S LEFT BEHIND

So who was Rhaegar, really? Was he a hopeless romantic, swept away by his love for Lyanna Stark, or was he just another adept player in the game of thrones? Or a little bit of both?

Like many characters of Westeros, Rhaegar may have roots in historical figures. Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales, with his reputation of intelligence and musical talent, may have inspired Rhaegar’s early years. Meanwhile the  English Prince Edward known as “The Black Prince,” son of Edward III, could be a model for Rhaegar’s skill as a jouster and military commander. Much like Rhaegar, both real-life princes were beloved in their time and died before they had a chance to become king, causing their countries to mourn over their respective losses.
As a character, he displays the most complex and deeply-layered example of George RR Martin’s ability as a writer. Without ever physically appearing in the present story, Rhaegar Targaryen manages to not only impact the lives of an entire kingdom of people; he also manages to come across as one of the most three-dimensional characters. In a way, he can be compared to real-life celebrities and politicians: we’ll never truly know what their intentions or inner life, yet the results of their actions can be immensely influential and polarizing. While audiences can form set opinions about each of the core Game of Thrones cast, we have to imagine Rhaegar for ourselves because  -- we only see the impact he leaves behind.

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