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Ask the Maester: Does It Matter If Jon Snow Is a Targaryen?

Plus: could Rhaegar really have had his marriage annulled?

Drogon and Jon Snow HBO/Ringer illustration

“Eastwatch” was a lot. I would argue it was too much. The pace at which the show blows past story-altering twists and reveals that, once upon a season, would have taken multiple episodes to unfurl, is, in this maester’s judgment, slightly concerning. World-building requires meticulous, brick-by-brick consideration—and it isn’t always the most obvious story structures that end up carrying the load. If the show knew it was going to kill Randyll and Dickon, why not have Lord Tarly mention Heartsbane, the Valyrian steel sword Sam stole last season, just once? It’s not like they were going to have to resolve the issue; Drogon would see to that. Why does Jon not mention Longclaw, the former ancestral weapon of House Mormont, to Jorah? Why is Jorah so eager to leave Dany, the love of his life, who he had just crossed the world and conquered greyscale to be with? Davos considers Gendry, who he had a conversation with four seasons ago, “a surrogate son,” apparently. By the way, Davos has a wife and a family; they live in the Stormlands and he’s yet to go visit them or even mention their existence in several seasons. Sam, who cured greyscale because he pays attention better than anyone else, hand-waves Gilly’s monumental discovery then quits the Citadel because … reasons. Actually, that’s a great jumping-off point for your questions.

Ford asks, “If Jon petting Drogon is proof that he’s a Targaryen does that mean the other two allowing Tyrion to get close and free the chains prove that he is a Targaryen?”

An amazing—or bad, depending on your mood and perspective—aspect of “Eastwatch” was that it gave us several huge reveals as C- and D-plot. There was Gilly discovering Rhaegar’s annulment and concurrent nuptials to, we presume, Lyanna Stark in Dorne. This was a world-shaking bombshell teased out like a plot from a Friends episode (the mystery of Jon’s parentage enduring because … Gilly mispronounces “Rhaegar”; Sam, i.e., the Person Who Cured Greyscale Because He Pays Attention, hand-waving the reveal). Then there was Drogon “sniffing out” Jon and allowing the King in the North to pet his scaly cheek like a very, very, very good boy—yet another confirmation that Jon is a Targaryen and the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna.

On its own, without Gilly’s discovery, Drogon’s acceptance of Jon wouldn’t necessarily prove Snow’s lineage. This is one of the show’s dragon-centric retcons. The book history is clear that a prospective dragon rider need not be strictly a Targaryen, or even half-Targ. After all, Targaryens were but one of several notable dragon-riding families of Old Valyria.

During the devastating Dance of Dragons civil war, which took place over 150 years before the events of the show, riders were in such short supply that an open audition was called. The two sides in this classic war of succession were the “blacks” and the “greens.” The former supported the claim of Rhaenyra Targaryen, the first-born child and handpicked successor of her father, King Viserys I. The latter believed that the male line should always take precedence over the female, the will of the king be damned, and, thus, favored the claim of Aegon II, Rhaenyra’s half-brother, the first-born son of King Viserys and his second wife, Queen Alicent. (Aegon, when offered the throne, initially refused, saying his sister was the heir. That idealism faded quickly.)

The greens had many advantages. They could call on a massive army; Queen Alicent was a Hightower, and their military alone dwarfed that which Rhaenyra could call upon. Aegon ruled from King’s Landing, giving him access to the symbols of legitimacy and power—the Iron Throne, the Red Keep, Aegon the Conqueror’s sword—while Rhaenyra sat isolated, out of sight and mind, at Dragonstone (sounds familiar!). Additionally the greens could field four battle-ready dragons: Vhagar (former mount of Aegon the Conqueror’s sister-wife Visenya, and the largest, most fearsome living dragon), Dreamfyre, Tessarion, and King Aegon II’s beautiful mount, Sunfyre, whose scales gleamed golden in the sunlight. Nothing to sneeze at. But the blacks had more.

Queen Rhaenyra had eight dragons at her disposal—Caraxes, Syrax, Vermax, Arrax, Tyraxes, Meleys the Red Queen, Moondancer, and Stormcloud (though he was young and had yet to be mounted)—and a clutch of eggs in hand, ready to hatch. And Dragonstone, though remote and poor in terms of resources and manpower, did have one advantage: It’s the ideal location for raising dragons. The Dragonmont, the volcano from which the island sprung, provides a natural rookery from which the beasts can fly freely around the island, growing stronger and larger than their cousins caged in King’s Landing’s Dragonpit. The volcano was also the home of several dragons whose riders had died—Silverwing (former mount of Good Queen Alysanne, a great friend to the Night’s Watch), Seasmoke (the former dragon of Rhaenyra’s late husband, Laenor Velayron), Vermithor (once owned by Old King Jaehaerys the Conciliator)—and three wild dragons—Sheepstealer, Grey Ghost, and the Cannibal. All these creatures called the Dragonmont home. All that was needed was the riders.

Enter the Dragonseeds. Over the centuries, the Targaryen overlords of Dragonstone had, shall we say, intermingled with the common women of the island. The bastards born from these dalliances were called dragonseeds and there were plenty of them. Desperate for riders, Rhaenyra’s blacks invited them to audition. Many wannabe riders were maimed, many were killed. But a few dragonseeds managed to claim their dragons. They included Addam of Hull, a 15-year-old bastard of mysterious origins; Hugh Hammer, the bastard son of a blacksmith; Ulf the Sot, an alcoholic man-at-arms; and Nettles, a 16-year-old girl who fed the dragon Sheepstealer a sheep every morning until it accepted her. How much Targaryen or Valyrian blood is necessary to build a bond with a dragon? We don’t know. But, certainly, Drogon’s reaction to Jon, and the reasoning behind it, is a change from the book continuity. And one that I don’t really mind.

Joanna asks, “How can you annul a marriage that was consummated TWICE?!?! .”

WELCOME TO THE PATRIARCHY! Yeah, it’s not great that Rhaegar can peace out on two children and years of marriage to Elia Martell. But he was the crown prince and soon-to-be (so everyone thought) ruler of the Seven Kingdoms! The king is the embodiment of Westeros and all power and property flows from him. All lords of Westeros wield their authority in the name of the king and he can strip them of their lands, titles, and even their lives basically at will. The flip side of that is that doing the king a favor is never not rewarding! I imagine it wasn’t particularly difficult for Rhaegar to make High Septon Maynard amenable to doing a one-time-only annulment/wedding mashup in some (I assume) random tower in Northern Dorne.

Unfair as it might have been, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Rhaegar was able to pull this off. Divorce is rare in Westeros, but the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms has the power to set aside marriages, either for cause (like when a union fails to produce offspring) or because they feel like it. And in any case, Targaryens approached marriage in their own inimitable way, with little regard for tradition or morality. They regularly married sister to brother. Aegon the Conqueror went full-polygamy with his incest and married BOTH of his sisters—Rhaenys and Visenya. For anyone else, acts such as these would be considered abominations. Certainly, the Faith came to object to Targaryen marriage practices, most forcefully during the reign of Maegor the Cruel. But, in the end, after much bloodshed, the Targaryens got their way. Kings usually do.

Matt asks, “Jon’s entire pitch to anyone who will listen is that the petty squabbles of the past are meaningless. If we believe him, does it truly matter whether he is a Targaryen, Stark, or even just a Snow? Where does the information that Jon is the rightful king take us from here? Isn't it all just titles, titles, titles?”

Yes and no. The no. 1 thing a potential ruler of Westeros needs to have is the ability to take and hold the continent. Everything else flows from that. Aegon the Conqueror was not the legitimate king of Westeros! The position, in fact, had not yet been invented. He had the power, in the form of three dragons, to conquer Westeros and so he did. In this world, might ultimately makes right. Robert Baratheon’s claim to the throne was thinner than Aegon’s. Robert held his lands and titles at the pleasure of the king and rose in rebellion anyway. At least Aegon wasn’t breaking any oaths when he overthrew the various petty kingdoms that made up Westeros at the time. Dany, the rightful Queen of Westeros, was begging in the streets of Essos not long ago. She’s taken seriously now because of her dragons.

Jon Snow is (as far as anyone except Gilly and Drogon and Bran knows) a bastard. His right to be King in the North is based on being the only Stark-blooded male around at the time and being a person the Northern nobles want to follow. And Jon doesn’t get proclaimed in the first place if Lyanna Mormont doesn’t push the issue.

Legitimacy and titles do have a place, though. In a world where might makes right—and any megalomaniac with enough cash, dragons, and men can seize an entire continent at a whim—they’re stabilizing mechanisms, allowing for (what everyone hopes are) peaceful transitions of power. They exist to defuse succession disputes which invariably blossom into full-blown wars.

Jon’s just-revealed legitimacy matters because it changes two decades of commonly held history and has the potential to upset the budding Targaryen-Stark alliance. (P.S., find you an ally to look at you the way Dany looks at Jon.) After all, Westeros has never had an undisputed female ruler (shouts to the aforementioned Rhaenyra for coming the closest). There’s centuries of precedent setting the male line of inheritance above the female line. If Jon wanted to be a dick about being Rhaegar’s trueborn son—which, on paper, makes him the rightful ruler—he could do that. The question then, though, is who would listen to him? Varys might. Tyrion, Missy, the Worm, the Unsullied troops, and Jorah would not. The Dothraki are Dany’s bloodriders, and will follow her to the death. Jon being Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark’s legitimate son is an important reveal. But at least in the short term, that information would likely cause more problems than it solves. What will the lords of the North think?! They’ve stated loudly that they won’t follow Southern lords anymore. Would they consider Jon the product of the South or North? And what happens when they all realize that the famously honest Ned Stark lied to Robert, Catelyn, and the entire North for years?

Kirk asks, “Why is Jon unwilling to discuss his resurrection with the woman who can't be burned by fire?”

I agree. Jon should mention it (or at least have Davos mention it), but it’s kind of a weird subject to broach, don’t you think? Hey, I came back to life once. Not really sure how that happened, but yeah. Also, there’s an inherent dissonance in arguing on the one hand that the army of the dead must be defeated while on the other being kind of an undead person. I think—and this is just my own theory—that Jon has something like survivor’s guilt. Thousands of people have died in Westeros’s various conflicts over the past few years, including Jon’s family members and first love. Why did he get to come back? This manifests in his discomfort discussing his resurrection and the way he approaches danger which, in my opinion, amounts to a death wish. I think Jon wants to die.

At the Battle of the Bastards, he rode out far ahead of his troops and attempted to fight the Bolton cavalry by himself. He, the King, volunteered to go south to treat with Daenerys despite the fact that the last four male Starks to go south—Lord Rickard, Brandon, Ned, and Robb—all met tragic ends. Dany’s father burned Lord Rickard alive and still, against the advice of his advisers, Jon went down to talk to her with, like, four guards plus Davos “I’m not a fighter” Seaworth, then promptly gave up his priceless Valyrian steel sword. He’s just volunteered to lead a ranging beyond the Wall to kidnap a wight, one of the dumbest plans in this season’s storied history of dumb plans. Again — HE’S THE KING IN THE NORTH! He’s supposed to delegate the really dumb, dangerous stuff to other people! In this context, Jon consistently putting himself in extreme danger seems less like bravery and kind of like a death wish.

Emily asks, “What exactly can Bran see? If he knows the past, present, and future (does he?), why does he need to warg into ravens to scout out the army of the dead?”

Great question! And one that there’s no satisfying answer to. Back in Season 6, the Three-Eyed Raven told Bran that the past cannot be changed. “The ink is dry,” the man who was once Brynden Rivers said. That, of course, seems to not be entirely true. While viewing the past, Bran warged into present-day Hodor through his younger self, thus damning young Wylis to a damaged and ultimately tragic life. Despite seeing a bunch of Phish shows, I’ve never actually traveled the pathways of time through the roots of a tree. But I imagine it’s a disorienting process! Bran says as much. “I can see everything,” he told Sansa in the godswood earlier this season. “Everything that’s ever happened to everyone. Everything that’s happening right now. It’s all pieces. Fragments. I need to learn to see better.”

Seems to me that one way Bran could be pretty sure that he’s doing stuff in the present, not the past, is to go see things via warging rather than “go” through time. Thus the ravens. There’s also the issue of the magical wards running the Wall. Last time Bran, in his astral form, encountered the Night King, the lead White Walker touched him, which shattered the magic guarding the Three-Eyed Raven’s lair. He surely does not want something like that to happen to the Wall.

See you next week!

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.