**There will be spoilers here for all seasons of Game of Thrones. If you have not seen up to the end of season 7, some major plot points will be spoiled for you!**
“How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar Targaryen chose your aunt?” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish asks Sansa in front of the tomb of Lyanna Stark in S5E4 of Game of Thrones.
Viewers of the television series knew by the end of Season 6 that the rumours were true… R+L does indeed = J. The newly enthroned King in the North, Jon Snow was not the bastard son of Eddard Stark but of Rhaegar Targaryen, eldest child of Aerys II, the Mad King, killed in battle before Games of Thrones begins. And rather than a wet nurse, fisherman’s daughter or Dornish beauty, it was Lyanna Stark, Lord Eddard’s own sister, who was Jon’s mother.
As you can see in the video above, in the Winterfell crypt Sansa replies bitterly to Littlefinger that Rhaegar “… chose her, abducted her and raped her”; the version of the story she had heard throughout childhood. The silence and wry smile from Littlefinger says everything; he does not seem quite so sure.
Before being abducted, or eloping, Lyanna was promised to Robert Baratheon. The match was to secure the alliance between his house in the Stormlands and House Stark in the North. However, this was not just a shrewd political move; Robert admitted that Lyanna was the only woman he ever loved. Losing her was the catalyst for Robert’s Rebellion, his killing of Rhaegar Targaryen at the Battle of the Trident, his taking of the Iron Throne and exiling of the remaining Targaryens to Essos. The instability this caused and the establishing of the Baratheon-Lannister alliance at King’s Landing in turn led to the War of the Five Kings and everything that is ‘the game of thrones’.
In classical literature there is a similar well told story in which a beautiful woman is discussed as the cause of a war that killed thousands, tested loyalties and spread turmoil among the great families of the age. Like Lyanna, Helen of Troy’s part in starting a war is taken for granted by some and questioned by others.
Helen, then of Sparta, was promised to Paris, son of Priam of Troy, by Aphrodite as a reward for judging her the most beautiful goddess by presenting her with the golden apple. However, at the time Helen was married to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon from the prestigious, but unfortunate, House of Atreus. Helen was so sought-after that Menelaus had had to compete against all the eligible heroes of the age in order to secure her as his bride. The competition had been so fierce that the other suitors swore an oath to defend the union in an effort to keep the peace. When Paris turned up later on a supposed diplomatic visit and decided to undiplomatically leave with Helen, it was not only the Acheans who recognised that there was not going to be a happy ending; Paris’ own family were dismayed, fearful of the outcome. And who exactly was to blame? The irresponsible young man who preferred playing the lyre to fighting, or the foreign woman who had tempted him?
Prince Rhaegar first met Lyanna Stark at the famous tourney at Harrenhal, presenting her with the bouquet of blue roses which crowned her his queen of love and beauty, preferring her over his own wife, Elia Martell. In the first book A Game of Thrones (Ch. 58), Ned Stark remembers the events whilst chained up in his cell waiting for execution, while viewers hear all about it from Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypt in the video above.
Like Paris, Rhaegar was an accomplished musician. Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys stories about the prince busking in the streets of Kings’ Landing in S5 E4. Indeed, Rhaegar played so beautifully at the tourney that Lyanna cried, suggesting it is believable that this young woman fell in love with the handsome, silver-haired warrior-musician. By the end of S7 it is confirmed that not only did Rhaegar not kidnap Lyanna, the two had been legally married, leaving Jon Snow not only not a bastard but the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne ahead of his aunt Danaerys.
In the world of Game of Thrones, as in the classical one, a marriage does not necessarily mean a love match of course. But Prince Rhaegar left his best swordsmen to guard the Tower of Joy as he went off to fight and die at the hands of Robert and his warhammer; was he protecting the family he loved or an heir he thought was ‘The Prince that was Promised’? Or both?
However, all the current claimants for the throne are still (for now) woefully unaware of the marriage and its implications, having never questioned what they had been told. The Three Eyed Raven, in S06E10, shows Bran Stark how events really unfolded under the Tower of Joy in a flashback, as his father comes to rescue Lyanna. It is at this point that Bran learns hard lessons about how the history you hear can be very different from the history that happened, as he watches the man he thought his father bravely defeated in battle get ignobly stabbed in the back and later discovers the true heritage (and name) of Jon Snow.
It seems that everyone around at the time remembers Lyanna and Rhaegar differently to those who have had their stories handed down to them. Rather than an abductor and rapist, Barristan Selmy describes Rheagar (S3E3) as the most noble man he knew and even Ned is never heard saying a bad word about him, although so blinded by rage and sorrow was he, Robert Baratheon had little good to say about the dead prince.
There is no consensus in classical literature on Helen’s character and motives. She can be portrayed as a victim of the gods and of mortal politics or as a vain, selfish schemer depending on the moral theme of the literature. In the Iliad, Homer’s Helen is full of misery and regret (III.173-175; Groten (1968)); Sappho (fr.16) decided Helen was assertive and pursued love; in the Troades (914-966), Euripides’ Helen blames love – either Aphrodite directly or the fact she is so desirable Paris is literally disarmed, and politics – the Achaeans are using her as an excuse for their military manoeuvring. In the history of art, Helen also has an ambiguous character, seen leaving Greece determinedly with her head held high, or crying as she is dragged away.
Lyanna’s story echoes Helen’s in the questions it raises about how the agency of women is perceived, of whether love is more noble than patriotism, what we are willing to believe to support our views, but maybe most importantly, to what extent history tells us more about the beliefs and values of the narrator and their society than what actually happened.
Dawn ‘Pickle’ Love