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Tracking the origins of the oldest Game of Thrones theory

Jon Snow knows nothing, but his fans knew everything

Once upon a time, George R.R. Martin set out to write a trilogy of medieval fantasy books that tracked the ruling families of a fictional land called Westeros. That trilogy’s planned length grew into the seven-novel A Song of Ice and Fire, a saga so long that Martin has yet to complete it, even as the television adaptation, HBO’s Game of Thrones, comes to an end.

Jumping from character perspective to character perspective, Martin’s novels are robust with histories, prophecies, and foreshadowing. The murkiness gave birth to an onslaught of “fan theories” that have existed nearly as long as the book series. But which is the oldest? The answer, as far as internet sleuthing can determine, won’t surprise book readers or die-hard TV viewers, but how it erupted from fan chatter speaks to the power of Martin’s storytelling. The theory involves Jon Snow’s true parentage, and while the novels still haven’t confirmed it true, the finale of Game of Thrones’ penultimate season showed us once and for all that “R+L=J.”

The acrostic addition alludes to Rhaegar Targaryen (“R”) and Lyanna Stark (“L”) being the true parents of Jon Snow (“J”), raised as a bastard of Ned Stark, much to the chagrin of everyone involved. Unlike Martin’s book, the television adaptation didn’t have the benefit of being inside Ned Stark’s head during the first season, so the story about his sister Lyanna being kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar Targaryen, kicking off Robert Baratheon’s Rebellion, was stuffed into the first two episodes of the show.

The TV series’ condensed version didn’t have the breathing room to hint that this was one of history’s great lies, and that Rhaegar and Lyanna were very much in love, with Lyanna dying in childbirth, and Ned taking her son under his wing, making him swear to keep the child — a Targaryen/Stark, and potential heir to the throne — safe. So, considering Martin has yet to confirm the truth in the book series, how and when did fans stumble across one of the core twists of the series? Why were audiences so prepared when showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss finally pulled back the curtain in flashback?

young ned stark and lyanna stark in Game of Thrones season 6 Helen Sloan/HBO

When A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s series, was published in 1996, some readers quickly theorized that Jon Snow’s true parentage could me much more complicated than presented. A close read revealed that Ned Stark’s memories and dreams didn’t entirely line up with the historical narrative, or at least left room for interpretation. A Storm of Swords, the third book published in 2000, included a sequence in which Rhaegar presented Lyanna with blue roses at the Tourney of Harrenhal. The series adaptation has yet to flash back to that moment, but it’s been a key piece of the puzzle in the saga of “R+L=J” throughout its 20-plus-year history.

A Song of Ice and Fire fandom was fervent far before HBO’s Game of Thrones and remains so. When Weiss and Benioff ushered in a series based on Martin’s books, the question of Jon’s parentage was really a litmus test to see which readers had been paying attention. The theory was widely discussed in the fan community amongst many other possible threads, and only propagated further as the show ramped up, thanks to new audiences poring over the books. Eventually, the fervor provoked a reaction out of Martin. The author told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014, “At least one or two readers had put together the extremely subtle and obscure clues that I’d planted in the books and came to the right solution.”

Tracing the definitive origins of “R+L=J” is a bit tricky. Curious fans have speculated that the first person to propose the theory was actually Anne Groell, George R.R. Martin’s publisher. Being deeply involved with every tweak made to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire text, Groell was in a position to suggest that certain clues be better hidden or excised entirely. Notably, Groell once guessed that the character of Coldhands was actually Benjen Stark — the sign of an editor engaging in some theorizing herself. Martin simply wrote “no” under her question.

The “R+L=J” theory may have snowballed out of fan chatter and book groups reacting to Ned’s fever dream in the first novel, though the first signs of online discussion date back to September 1997. As uncovered by our friends at Vox.com in their oral history of the theory, the proposal dropped in the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written stumbles into what would eventually become a full-fledged theory.

@primenet.com (Rodrick Su) wrote:

4. Jon Snow’s parent. It is wholely [sic] consistent that Jon Snow is the offspring of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Ned probably keep this a secret because Rober [sic] Baratheon is obsess [sic] with killing off all Targaryen, especially any offspring of Rhaegar.

5. If Jon Snow is a Targaryen, then by tradition, he is the most likely mate to Daenery, being that she is his aunt...

Like Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s parallel creation of calculus, the seeds of “R+L=J” sprouted up all over the forum scene. Just a few weeks later, in January 1998, one user wrote on rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan:

From: Sarah
Subject: Re: TAN: A Game of Thrones ( Was Re: You Know It’s Too Long Between Books When)
Date: 1998/01/13
Organization: Harvard University University Information Systems
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written.robert-jordan

On Mon, 12 Jan 1998, Dave wrote:

> Speaking of which, doesn’t it seem odd that none of the Targaryens, nor any
> of Cersei and Jaime’s children, seem to have shown the physical annomallys [sic]
> that are rather more common in children of incest? I know that this happens
> less than is popularly believed, but over the course of a few hundred years
> within the same family, I’d think something bad is bound to happen. But
> then, I’m no geneticist.

That bothered me, too. Then it occurred to me that there seems to be a healthy dose of insanity in the family. I think mental disorders are one of the traits associated with inbreeding.

Speaking of Targaryens, wanna bet Jon is really the son of Lyanna and Rhaegar?

In 1999, as sub-groups of the internet found each other on the asoiaf.westeros.org message boards, “R+L=J” became more prevalent as other readers bought into the notion. Boosted by the release of A Storm of Swords, there was more in the books in favor of the theory than there was evidence it was untrue. With everyone guessing that Rhaegar and Lyanna made Jon, the narrative math was on the way to becoming fan nomenclature.

There are several searchable threads on the ASOIAF forums that use the actual “+” and “=” notation. A quick search shows the earliest could be a May 2, 2006 thread titled “The Lyanna + Rhaegar = Jon Thread.” The first comment to the original poster reads: “Wow, I’ve never heard this idea before. ;) Welcome to the boards. While nodding to the theory’s popularity before that post, the comment doesn’t discount the possibility that user “StarkFuture” may have been the first to abbreviate it as “R+L=J.”

jon snow’s parents getting married - game of thrones season 7 Helen Sloan/HBO

A Song of Ice and Fire fans meeting, embracing, and becoming Game of Thrones fans created the ultimate necessity of “R+L=J.” The first season of the show is a very straight adaptation of A Game of Thrones, meaning fans of the novels already knew the fates of some main characters in the show. Specifically, and most famously, those who knew about the Red Wedding, an event in A Storm of Swords in which Robb and Catelyn Stark are massacred by the Freys that didn’t take place until the third season of the then-popular television show.

Fans needed a spoiler-free way to speak to one another, a secret code that worked between people who had read the books. Thus, we get fun little shorthand for events based on nicknames or catch phrases: The Red Wedding, The Purple Wedding, “For The Watch,” and “Only Cat,” each allude to a major event in the novels that would later appear on HBO. A lack of context meant the spoilers were kept under lock and key.

Fans have been out there saying “R+L=J” for well over 10 years to allow non-book readers to experience the revelation in the seventh season of Game of Thrones (and perhaps again in this final season, too). In that way, the origin of the oldest fan theory is also an optimistic story of fandom itself: everything can be a surprise, if everyone plays along.


Dave Gonzales is an entertainment writer and podcaster. Find him on Twitter @Da7e.