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Ask the Maester: Why Is Jon the Heir to the Iron Throne?

And what does his parentage mean for Season 8?

Jon Snow and other Game of Thrones characters HBO/Ringer illustration

All hail King Aegon VI Targaryen, the Wolf of the North, the Dragon of Winterfell, son of crown prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Lady Lyanna Stark. He got laid. What a journey it’s been. A rocky one, no doubt, with some nice ups and many troubling downs. Shouts to the last 30 minutes of “The Dragon and the Wolf” for saving Season 7 from debacle status.

On to your questions.

Mitchell asks, “With Jon now being confirmed as Aegon, and Dany’s nephew, why does that make him the heir to the Iron Throne? Do the Targaryens hold to an agnatic-cognatic succession progression, where a female heir can inherit only if there are no viable male heirs?”

Someone has been playing Crusader Kings! This is a great and important question. Westeros, generally speaking, follows male-preference primogeniture rules of inheritance. A king passes his lands and titles to his first-born son, who passes them down to his first-born son, and so on and so forth. If the lord’s firstborn son should die, the second son then becomes the heir, and so on, and so on. If the lord has no viable sons, the heir becomes the king’s younger brother, even if a daughter exists. Should no clear successor exist, the realm has, in the past, called together all the lords of Westeros, great and small, to decide the matter in what’s known as a Great Council.

Westeros has seen three Great Councils — in 101 AC, 136 AC, and 233 AC — along with several more failed attempts to organize the conclave. All of them are interesting. But the most impactful is surely the council of 101 AC, because it was that gathering that, in the minds of many, set the precedent for favoring the male line over the female in questions of succession.

This was late in the reign of Old King Jaehaerys “The Conciliator” Targaryen (who, until this episode, was widely thought to be Jon Snow’s namesake; more on this in a bit). The Conciliator’s 55-year stewardship of the continent was a smashing success in every way. He unified the legal codes, bringing disparate customs and the Faith of the Seven under Targaryen control. He embarked on massive public works projects, overseeing the construction of wells and aqueducts to bring water to the people of King’s Landing, as well as drains and sewers to carry away their waste. He (at the behest of his wife, Good Queen Alysanne) did away with the onerous practice of “first night,” which allowed a lord to sleep with any common woman on his lands on her wedding night. With the help of the humbly born polymath Septon Barth, Jaehaerys reunited the Faith of the Seven and the crown after years of bloody religious warfare.

The Conciliator’s reign was, if anything, too successful. As Jaehaerys neared the end of his run, Westeros was cursed with a surplus of possible heirs, none of whom had a particularly compelling case. Thus the first great council (an attempt in 37 AC to call one had failed) was assembled. Like so many influential events in Westeros, the location of the gathering was at Harrenhal, as the late Harren the Black’s enormous melted ruin was the only castle capable of holding so many people.

Eleven claims in all were heard, nine of which were disqualified in short order. That left only Laenor Velaryon and Prince Viserys. Laenor was the firstborn son of Princess Rhaenys Targaryen — the eldest daughter of the Old King’s second son, Aemon — and Corlys of House Velaryon, a well-regarded seafaring family with roots in Old Valyria. Viserys was the eldest son of Baelon the Brave, King Jaehaerys’s third son with Queen Alysanne. Each claimant had his pros and cons.

Laenor was a firstborn son, an important mark of legitimacy, and rode the silver-gray dragon Seasmoke. His influential father, Corlys, the Sea Snake, traveled the world and became the wealthiest man in Westeros. Corlys’s journeys were so impressive that a book — The Nine Voyages — was written about them.

Prince Viserys was also a dragonrider. He was the last person to fly Balerion the Black Dread, the legendary mount of Aegon the Conqueror, before the beast died of old age. And, probably most importantly, because nothing quite scares the realm like a child king, Viserys was 24 while Laenor was only 7.

In the end, the realm voted overwhelmingly — some say by as many as 20–1 — for Prince Viserys. Despite the fact that the ages of the claimants played an important part in the decision, the Great Council of 101 came to be thought of as establishing the precedent that, regardless of age, the crown could not pass to a woman or be inherited through a woman to her male descendants. It was a precedent that would have fateful consequences at the very next succession, when King Viserys I Targaryen named his favorite daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen, his heir. The princess’s opponents, in part, used the decision of the council of 101 to justify supporting her half brother Aegon’s claim. The result was the devastating war of succession known as the Dance of Dragons.

Nabeel asks, “If Jon hadn’t needed saving, wouldn’t there have been a good chance that the White Walkers wouldn’t have had an ice dragon with which to breach the Wall? Could history look back at saving Jon to be a huge mistake for mankind?”

Mallory Rubin, my Binge Mode cohost, had an interesting take on the events of Episode 6: What if the Night King let Jon and Co. escape? What if he foresaw the events of the ranging, knew Dany would ride north with her three dragons, and selected Viserion, the harder target between Drogon and Rhaegal, for some purpose beyond impressing all of us with his javelin technique? Last week, Mal and I wondered what the army of the dead was actually doing over by the mountain-that-looks-like-an-arrowhead. They weren’t, as we initially thought, searching for something. So, were they waiting there simply to lure Jon and the dragons in? After all, what was the Night King’s backup plan for getting past the Wall going to be if he didn’t end up bagging a dragon?

Nick asks, “Who is the Hound referring to that is coming for the Mountain? Do we know?”

This was clunkily written, but Sandor could only be talking about himself. The two have a fraught, brutal history. It was young Gregor, the future Mountain, already a bull-necked squire, who picked up his younger brother Sandor and pressed the boy’s face against the family hearth, disfiguring him. That moment of abuse and brutality from the person who ostensibly should have been his protector is the animating force in Sandor’s life. #CLEGANEBOWL.

Aaron asks, “So with Bran giving away the game on the show vis-à-vis Jon, what do you think is Howland Reed’s purpose in the series?”

I’m hoping that, since Howland was with Ned at the Tower of Joy, it’s to confirm to the wider realm that Jon is indeed the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.

Nick asks, “With Littlefinger out of the picture, who is leading the Knights of the Vale?”

Robin Arryn has been Lord of the Eyrie and Warden of the East for some time now, just with Baelish acting as a Rasputinesque Lord Protector — essentially Robin’s legal guardian — until the boy came of age. Robin can now rule with the training wheels off.

Justin asks, “Why did Tyrion look uneasy about Jon and Dany banging?”

That was troubling. To be fair to Tyrion, people in Dany’s orbit have a tendency to fall in love with her. Khal Drogo, Daario, Jorah, and now Jon have all, often against their better judgment, been carried away by that mix of fiery charisma, platinum hair, fierce sincerity, and idealism tempered with a troubling tendency to burn people. And Tyrion, as one of the purest examples of the story’s cripples, bastards, and broken things theme, is prone to crushes on unavailable women that bloom into full-blown unrequited love affairs. On last week’s Binge Mode, Mal and I discussed Tyrion’s feelings for Dany. We both agreed that he’s in love with her. That’s in character for him.

What isn’t in character, and what his lurking in the shadows and listening to sex moans implies, is that Tyrion might actually do something about it. Jon and Tyrion bonded in the first few episodes of Season 1 over their shared outsider status. “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes,” Tyrion tells Jon in the yard at Winterfell. It’s unthinkable that Tyrion would imperil an alliance upon which the fate of the world depends because he got caught up in his feelings with a woman he knows he has no shot with. But that’s certainly what this scene seems to suggest.

Ana asks, “Is Tyrion lurking while Jon and Dany are together a way of foreshadowing the ‘deadly rivalry’ GRRM wanted to create between Jon and Tyrion because of Arya in the original treatment of the books (when it was just a trilogy)?”

I think that’s a fair assumption. Though, as with deleted scenes in movies and unfinished songs in the deluxe editions of albums, there’s usually a reason that plot points get discarded from stories.

Andrew asks, “Why would Rhaegar name his third child the same as his second? Is this likely a show-only thing?”

Aegon is a popular Targaryen name for obvious reasons. To date, there have been five Targaryen kings named Aegon and just as many princes. Still, it’s strange to name your kid the same name as your other kid, who was possibly (the timeline is a bit fuzzy) still alive.

Heather asks, “In ‘Eastwatch’ during the scene where the maesters are discussing the scroll sent from the Winterfell maester about the army of the dead … one of the maesters mentions a prophet Lodos who prophesied that the Drowned God would rise up and swallow Aegon the Conqueror. The fact that this was mentioned so blatantly and clearly has unnerved me since I heard it. And now that we know Jon’s real name, any chance this is a foreshadowing of things to come for Jon? Might Lydos have gotten the name right, but not the right Aegon?”

While I think there’s some element of foreshadowing to this, Aegon the Conqueror is a reference to a specific person, the Aegon who, three centuries ago, flew from Dragonstone with three dragons and his sister-wives and unified the continent. Just as Aegon the Unworthy (the fourth Targaryen king named Aegon) was a specific person. I’d be more concerned if Lodos has simply mentioned “Aegon” or “King Aegon.”

Josh asks, “Do you think Lyanna would have told Ned about the marriage? If so, why would Ned reach out to Stannis as the next heir? Wouldn’t Ned (since the show’s hit us over the head with it) be compelled by honor to install Jon as the true heir?”

Lyanna telling Ned that her son was named Aegon Targaryen was enough of a tell that her union with Rhaegar was consensual and legitimate.

Ned couldn’t have installed the infant Jon on the throne even if he wanted to. The Targaryens and their allies were defeated. Robert Baratheon was ascendent, and he had the wealth of the Lannisters and the might of the realm behind him. Tywin, in particular, was eager to prove his dedication to Robert’s cause after House Lannister switched sides, from Targaryen to Baratheon, quite late in the war. Which is why Tywin gave the order to Ser Gregor Clegane to kill Rhaegar’s wife and children. Ned announcing infant Jon’s true identity in an attempt to foment a Targaryen revanche, with no support, against his friend Robert, would have been a death sentence for the child and his adopted father.

John asks, “Seriously, why isn’t the plan for a mass migration to Essos?”

It’s a great question. The Long Night is coming. The White Walkers have a wight dragon and a massive army including giants, polar bears, and (I hope) ice spiders big as hounds. If the Walkers can’t swim, why not just split to Essos? Several reasons:

  • Essos is not, like, a placid, wide-open prairie where hundreds of thousands or even millions of Westerosi refugees could easily find safe harbor. Moving there would mean war, as the Free Cities of Essos would surely resist any mass incursion. Braavos, home to shadowy assassins of the House of Black and White, is likely the most powerful maritime power in the known world and an economic powerhouse. The dark sorcerers of Qohor openly practice blood magic and worship their god, the Black Goat. Volantis, located astride the mouth of the river Rhoyne, boasts a powerful land-based military. Hordes of Dothraki stalk the grassy interior of the continent. And Essos is teeming with mercenary companies — the Golden Company, the Second Sons, and the Stormcrows, to name just a few.
  • Much of the continent is an ecological disaster zone. The ruined Valyrian peninsula is cursed and crawling with highly contagious stone men, as is a long stretch of the Rhoyne river known as The Sorrows. Diseases like the pale mare, a form of dysentery, are common.
  • Except for Braavos (and, recently, the renamed Bay of Dragons), slavery is widely practiced and is a central pillar of the continent’s economy. In Westeros, the worst-case scenario (non-execution edition) for a hedge knight or a penniless lord is to be sent to the Wall. In Essos, it’s being thrown in shackles and forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of a paying audience.
  • The White Walkers may not be able to swim, but winter is coming to Essos anyway. We know, from various chronicles and folktales, that the Long Night hit Essos as far east as Yi Ti, which is at the very edge of the map. In other words, the army of the dead, and the winter they’re sure to bring, has the potential to be a global event if the Night King is left unchecked. In short: There’s no hiding from this.

See you in (possibly) two years!

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.