S? Who’s S? S is Stark. Jon is an incest child.
Wait, what? Ew! No way. That’s sick. No way is Jon an incest child. Sick!
Yeah, I’m going there. Someone’s got to. It’s the nuclear option, and I’m pressing the button. BAM! Suck it in. This is the option that never gets discussed because as soon as anyone raises it, they get shouted down. Nobody wants it to be true. Well you probably wanted Oberyn to beat The Mountain. You probably wanted Syrio Forel to survive. You probably weren’t cheering on the Freys at the Red Wedding. This essay series is supposed to be dealing with the various possible answers to the parentage of Jon, and this is one of those possible answers. What’s more, it’s one with a surprising amount going for it.
But: EW! Sick!
Right, because GRRM would never tell a story that involved incest? Suuuuuuure, you tell yourself that. Then we can discuss this bridge I want to sell you. Ok, ok, but incest is a thing that evil Lannisters do, and produces utter cads like Joffrey, not GRRM’s good guys, like Jon. Or say Tyrion. Or Dany.
Uh… Oh. Yeah.
Three main characters: Jon, Tyrion, Dany.
Dany: Mother died giving birth to her. Both parents were Targaryens.
Tyrion: Mother died giving birth to him. Both parents were Lannisters.
Jon: Mother died giving him. Both parents were… wait, what?
The Uncomfortable Logic
Let me say this right now: I’m not sold on this theory. I wrote the R+L=J essay too, that’s who I think is most likely Jon’s parents. However, when you get past the “Ew! No way. That’s sick”, Jon as an incest child makes some sense. In fact, quite a bit of sense. Not enough to convince me, but enough to convince me more than any of the other alternatives to R+L=J. Enough to think that an essay series that’s supposed to be delving into Jon’s parentage that omits this option is shying away from a genuine possibility. Yet this theory, above all others, gets short shrift because nobody wants it to be true. Put aside those feelings of “ick” and pay attention, because we’re after the truth, not after puppies and rainbows and farts that smell of cotton candy. So let’s all be grown-ups and ask that pressing question in a calm and mature fashion: did Lyanna get jiggy with her bro? Was she boning Benjen? Did she like to play hide Brandon’s bratwurst? Was there nookie with Ned?
This isn’t one of the officially announced essays. It wasn’t on the list. I think that’s an oversight, and here’s why.
Firstly, Lyanna is Jon’s mum. I’m not going to try to prove that here. Look at my R+L=J essay, or a hundred other places, and you’ll see evidence enough. Secondly, what I said about the three main characters. Seriously, just look at that again. The three main characters who are exemplars of their respective families, who are our main eyes and ears in the story, with more chapters than anyone else, who are the main three characters in the book, share a lot in common. They are all outsiders. They are all “bastards and broken things”. Their mothers all died giving birth to them. Two of them, their parents were close relatives with the same family name. One of them, we’re told the father is a Stark, and we’ve figured out that the mother is a Stark. YOU DO THE MATH.
Come on guys, we’re TOLD this. Jon looks Arya. Arya looks like Lyanna. Therefore Jon looks like Lyanna. Ok, cool. We are also told that Jon looks like Ned. Red herring, because Ned must surely have looked like Lyanna? Maybe. Or maybe he looks like both of them because Jon is 100% pure Stark.
Tyrion thinks of Jon that “Whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in her son, “ but he also tells Jon that “You have more of the north in you than your brothers.” He sees only Ned in Jon, while he sees Cat’s influence in Jon’s brothers. If Jon is Lyanna’s son but the father was not a northerner, why would Jon have “more of the north” in him than his brothers? What Tyrion is observing is that the Stark characteristics are diluted in the other siblings, but undiluted in Jon. How do you get a child with undiluted Stark characteristics? Simple, you have two Stark parents.
Now let’s talk about something that’s either a major plot-hole or a major clue that everyone overlooks because they don’t want to believe this — Sherlock Ned. Donning his deerstalker and pipe, Ned cleverly detects that Robert’s bastards all have dark hair. He reads in Maester Mallion’s The Lineages and Histories of the Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms about how Baratheon-Lannister matches have produced dark haired kids before. He listens to Arya and Sansa’s disagreement about Joffrey – Arya says he’s a stag, not a lion. Sansa responds that Joffrey is nothing like that drunken king. BINGO!
Elementary, my dear Eddard. Robert is not Joffrey’s father. Cersei must have been sleeping with someone else. So how then, Mr. Stark, did you come up with this?
“My brother is worth a hundred of your friend.””Your brother?” Ned said. “Or your lover?””Both.” She did not flinch from the truth.
Deducing that Robert wasn’t the father is simple if genetically somewhat dubious detective work. Deducing that Jaime must be the dad is a shot out of the blue. As far as we know, there has been no hint of it to Ned. I’ve heard it suggested that it was the attempt on Bran’s life that filled him in. So what, if the real father of Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella had been someone unrelated to Cersei, Robert wouldn’t have minded? It’s only because Cersei’s kids are children of incest that they’d get disinherited and Joff would lose the throne? REALLY? Just because Baratheons wear horned helmets doesn’t mean they like being cuckolded. No, that holds no water. So how about the way Joffrey looks so purely Lannister? Once Ned knows what to look for, surely he’d be looking to see what other features he could see in the kids. Cersei and Jaime are twins, though. He wouldn’t see any features in Joffrey that aren’t apparent in his mother. You could almost say that whoever his father had been, he had left little of himself in his son. Like when Tyrion says of Jon, “whoever his mother had been, she had left little of herself in her son.”
And there’s the rub. Ned has been raising Jon, who has all the features of just one of his parents, apparently. How could Ned, of all people, not be familiar with the idea that a child might look the spitting image of just one of his parents? That makes no sense at all. Unless… unless Ned knew that Jon showed no signs of his other parent because his parents were very similar looking siblings. In that case, Ned would have had a direct example of what he was seeing in Joffery to make him jump to that conclusion. Elementary indeed!
That link between Jon and Joffrey is an important one, because they are intentionally drawn as opposites who have a hidden similarity. Golden Joffrey, dark Jon. Both sons of the leading houses of the land, but one will inherit everything and one nothing. They’re even called jON and jOFF, for heaven’s sake! Ok, that one might be a bit silly.
The first time we see Joff is in Arya’s very first chapter where he’s directly contrasted to Jon.
“What did you think of Prince Joff, sister? He’s very gallant, don’t you think?”
“Jon says he looks like a girl,” Arya said.
Sansa sighed as she stitched. “Poor Jon,” she said. “He gets jealous because he’s a bastard.”
He gave her a half smile. “Bastards are not allowed to damage young princes,” he said. “Any bruises they take in the practice yard must come from trueborn swords.”
As it turns out, Joff is a bastard too. Fancy that. I wonder what else they have in common. Here’s a funny thing: Sansa and Arya’s talk about who Joff takes after gives Ned his little epiphany. There’s another person who Sansa and Arya think about in terms of familial resemblances and the question of parentage, and that’s Jon.
Well let’s take a look at their mothers. Funnily enough, Cersei and Lyanna keep getting compared too. Cersei worries about a “new Lyanna”. She believes that she was meant for Rhaegar but ended up with Robert. She believes that Lyanna was meant for Robert but ended up with Rhaegar. Cersei ended up having children with neither, being too busy shagging her brother. Might then Lyanna have ended up having children with neither, being too busy shagging her brother too?
Seems like a lot of incest going on. Sure, the Targs swing that way, but do the Starks? Well, about as much as the Lannisters do. Tywin married his cousin Joanna Lannister, and two of their children went a step further. Funnily enough, we don’t get told who Lyanna’s mother was in the books. They’re strangely silent about Rickard Stark’s wife, but the world book is not. As it turns out, Lyanna’s mother was Lyarra Stark. Yep, another cousin. Another parallel between Lyanna and Cersei.
Lyanna Stark lived a parallel life to Cersei. Jon is compared to Joff. When Ned thinks about a child who, just like Jon, is noted for looking like one parent alone, Ned’s assumption is that both parents must have been siblings of similar appearance. In Joff’s case, that is true. In Jon’s case, the one that Ned is most familiar with, does it make sense that it isn’t true? If Chewbacca lives on Endor, then you must acquit!
Which Stark dad, then? We have a choice of three possible sister-shaggers, who’s the secret Jaime?
Brandon the Womaniser is the obvious choice. Poor Brandon, everyone blames him for everything. He seems to have done the deed with every other woman in Westeros, so why not Lyanna? If Brandon was in love with Lyanna – and even more, if Brandon knew Lyanna was carrying his child – it would help explain why Brandon blew his top so spectacularly. However, I don’t like it. Firstly, I’m bored of Brandon the shagger theories. Yeah, he liked sex. Big deal. That doesn’t mean that every deadbeat dad in the series is Brandon. He was just a bit of a mini-Robert. Lyanna wasn’t into Robert because of his proclivities, so it’s a fair bet she’d be the same about Brandon. Then there’s the fact that GRRM has said that Brandon never had a son. On top of that, Brandon had probably been dead for three months when Jon was conceived, and that tends to kill the mood. Let’s put Brandon’s corpse aside as possible dad-material.
So onto the middle brother, Eddard. It couldn’t possibly be honourable Ned though. Ned wouldn’t shag Lyanna, Right? Right? Not “Dearest Ned”, who “had loved her with all his heart”, and “dishonoured [himself] and dishonoured Catelyn, in the sight of gods and men”? Wait, what?
Ok, so that’s all out of context. Ned loved his sister AS A SISTER, ok? That, plus his famous honour, is why he made a promise to her that meant he had to lie to Catelyn. His dishonouring of Cat was by lying to her. And possibly by lying with Ashara as well. The sly old dog!
Yes, sensitive Ned. Over-sensitive, indeed, because as far as Catelyn was concerned, “He was welcome to whatever solace he might find between battles,” so she doesn’t feel like she’s been dishonoured. That’s why he lies awake at night, his sleep troubled for fourteen years by the terrible knowledge that he hadn’t actually done anything wron… uh, I mean… well. “Old guilts”, right? That’s what causes it. The guilt about the lie. That lie really eats at old Ned. He’s such an honourable and innocent soul, that one lie is enough.
“I have made more mistakes than you can possibly imagine”, Eddard tells Cersei, making that interpretation rather dubious. Does he think of lying to Cat as one of those mistakes? Perhaps, but he has had 14 years to correct that mistake, and that leaves a lot of other mistakes too. Regrets, he’s got a few. Yes, Ned’s honourable. That’s why doing something dishonourable eats at him. But really, all that fuss over one little white lie, the dying wish of his beloved sister? Surely there’s got to be more? Well how about: “The thought of Jon filled Ned with a sense of shame, and a sorrow too deep for words.” Shame? That seems a little bit strong. Or not, if you were slipping your sister a length of Valyrian steel.
How could this happen, though? Ned’s movements are fairly well attested, but there is a tiny window of opportunity. After leaving Cat he could have rushed south at top speed to the Tower of Joy, had a quickie with Lyanna, high-fived Rhaegar, then raced up north to gather an army to overthrow Rhaegar’s family. It would explain how Ned managed to find the ToJ so quickly after raising the siege of Storm’s End if he already knew where it was, but no, it’s not a very satisfactory story. Too many questions.
That just leaves little Benjen. Too little? We don’t know for sure, but not necessarily. He could be within a year of Lyanna’s age. From Bran’s visions they seem to have been close. In the Knight of the Laughing Tree story, it’s Benjen who tells Howland he knows where to find some armour. The KoTLT then turns up in mismatched armour, and it’s a fair bet that’s the same suit of armour. The KoTLT was either Lyanna or Benjen (who on our first meeting with him is described laughing, looking at Ghost with amusement, and always having a hint of laughter in his eyes). Benjen and Lyanna were close, and kept secrets together.
Benjen also has the best opportunity. People will tell you that he was the Stark in Winterfell at the time, but was he really? Let’s go to the source, this SSM:
6) When, specifically, did Benjen join the NW? Was it a couple of years after Ned returned, or immediately?It was within a few months of Ned’s returning. The reason being that there always was a Stark at Winterfell, so he had to stay there until Ned returned. GRRM refused to say the reason why Benjen had to join the NW. source
This certainly tells us that in the latter stages of the war, Benjen was the Stark in Winterfell. It tells us nothing about what was happening at the beginning. People often assume that Benjen was there all along, that he was left as the Stark in Winterfell while all the other Starks were heading to Riverrun for Brandon’s wedding, but this is nothing but a guess. I’ll make a different guess. Lyanna, daughter of one of the most powerful men in Westeros, one of the five most eligible women in Westeros, would not be wandering around the riverlands without a very trusted escort. Ideally a member of the family. This would be the perfect kind of responsibility for the youngest Stark son, on the edge of manhood and in need of just the kind of minor command experience that being in charge of a couple of soldiers escorting Lyanna on her travels would give him. Doubly perfect that Benjen and Lyanna had always been so close.
So Bad Boy Benjy could have been at the right place at the right time. It’s very reasonable to think he was with Lyanna at the time of the abduction, and he might have accompanied Lyanna to the Tower of Joy (or wherever Rhaegar and co. went first). Plenty of time for some sister-boffing. When the nasty consequences of the abduction became clear, who better to send as a messenger from Rhaegar & Lyanna to try to stop the rebellion in its tracks and forestall further tragedy than Benjyboy? So Benjy heads back to Winterfell, meets up with Ned while he’s there raising the banners, and tries to explain to Ned that all is not as people thought. Sorry Benjy, too late for that. Aerys lost his head, and won’t be happy until Ned and Rob lose theirs too. Not too late, however, to be the Stark in Winterfell while Ned needs to be off leading the fight. As a bonus, Benjen can tell Ned where Lyanna is, so that he can race there at speed after the fight is won, explaining the mystery of how Ned found the ToJ so fast, and why the 3KG seem so unsurprised to see him.
Of course in such a situation, we would expect there to be serious repercussions. Ned would return from the tower with Lyanna’s sprog, knowing just what kind of thing his kid brother had been doing. He would not be a happy Stark. Little Benjen has been naughty, and big Benjen would have to pay. Have you ever wondered why Benjen went to the wall just after Robert’s Rebellion? Because if you haven’t, HELLO, THIS IS PLANET EARTH CALLING.
It would be just like GRRM, if Jon was Benjen’s son, to hint at it. Jon and Benjen meet first in chapter 5 of GoT, so let’s take a look. Our first mention of Benjen is as Jon describes watching the high and mighty entering the hall at Winterfell for the feast. As they go past the bench where Jon was seated, Benjen takes the time to give Jon a smile. Later, Benjen comes looking for Jon.
“Is this one of the direwolves I’ve heard so much of?” a familiar voice asked close at hand.Jon looked up happily as his uncle Ben put a hand on his head and ruffled his hair much as Jon had ruffled the wolf’s. “Yes,” he said. “His name is Ghost.”
Our first meeting with Benjen, and he does something that Jon does too. Jon ruffles Ghost’s hair. Benjen ruffles Jon’s hair. Ghost is Jon’s pup. Does this hint that Jon is Benjen’s pup? Sneaky old GRRM!
Benjen asks why Jon is not eating with his “brothers”. Jon tells him that Cat thought the royal family might be offended, and Benjen’s response is a rather flat “I see,” and a glance back at his brother Ned. Again Benjen seems to be checking up on Jon, trying to make sure that Eddard is treating him like one of the family. As the two had agreed, perhaps.
Benjen’s first act is to see what Jon has been drinking, and ask how much he’s drunk. Then he laughs it off, remembering that he was younger the first time he had been drunk. Benjen is looking out for Jon, paying attention to his development. Quite paternal, really.
Then a rather odd thing happens.
Benjen gave Jon a careful, measuring look. “You don’t miss much, do you, Jon? We could use a man like you on the Wall.”
Benjen seems to be suggesting to Jon that he consider joining him at the wall, yet immediately he seems to try to talk Jon out of it, to tell him about the things he will miss if he becomes a man of the Night’s watch. It’s almost as if he regrets the suggestion, that he was making the suggestion and then realising it was selfish. As if he wanted Jon with him, but didn’t want Jon to have to pay the price. There are two interesting passages in this segment:
“I am almost a man grown,” Jon protested. “I will turn fifteen on my next name day, and Maester Luwin says bastards grow up faster than other children.””That’s true enough,” Benjen said with a downward twist of his mouth. He took Jon’s cup from the table, filled it fresh from a nearby pitcher, and drank down a long swallow.
Look at Benjen’s reaction. He agrees with Jon’s comment about how fast he grows, and in response his normally amused demeanour changes. His mouth turns downwards and he takes a long drink. It’s almost as if he’s unhappy about Jon’s quick growth. Of course bastards don’t really grow up faster, but from Benjen’s perspective, seeing Jon only occasionally, Jon must seem to be growing up fast – and Benjen has missed most of it. If Benjen was Jon’s father, no wonder he needed a strong drink when that subject came up.
“You are a boy of fourteen,” Benjen said. “Not a man, not yet. Until you have known a woman, you cannot understand what you would be giving up.””I don’t care about that!” Jon said hotly.”You might, if you knew what it meant,” Benjen said. “If you knew what the oath would cost you, you might be less eager to pay the price, son.”Jon felt anger rise inside him. “I’m not your son!”Benjen Stark stood up. “More’s the pity.” He put a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “Come back to me after you’ve fathered a few bastards of your own, and we’ll see how you feel.”
Now this really is a telling passage. Benjen went to the wall only a few months after Ned returned from the war, yet he apparently did understand what he was giving up. Maybe this is just something he learned from visits to Mole Town with his new brothers, but it certainly seems to suggest that Benjen had been sexually active before he paid the price. The line “after you’ve fathered a few bastards of your own” almost sounds like Benjen is saying “like I did”, and Benjen actually calls Jon “Son.” Jon, feeling rejected by Ben trying to talk him out of it, lashes out with “I’m not your son”, and Benjen’s reaction is regret. As if the price that Benjen paid included Jon not being his son.
In the following Catelyn chapter, we learn that Benjen approached Maester Luwin, informing the Maester that Jon aspired to take the black. Two interesting things here. First, that we get the whole process of Eddard deciding to agree to this plan outside of his own PoV. We never get Ned’s thoughts on the matter, which would certainly be too revealing if Benjen was Jon’s dad. The other, that Benjen decided to go to Maester Luwin first, as if the Maester could make the case better than he could. What possible reason could Ned have for being dubious about an approach from Benjen himself, his own brother?
So who was slipping their sister some Stark sausage? I think we can put this in an order of likelihood. I’ll throw in a percentage likelihood based on a highly scientific process of pulling numbers out of my arse:
1. Benjen. Closest ties to Lyanna, unknown whereabouts at the time, mysteriously sent to the wall. 72.1%
2. Eddard. Would explain his guilt, but a narrow window of opportunity. 24.3%
3. Brandon. Most sexually active as far as we know, but somewhat dead at the time. 3.6%
The Big Picture
It’s notable that Ned doesn’t have Robert’s anti-Targaryen feelings, even though he’s the one with the reason to hate. Why would Ned have such a different view to Robert, unless he knew something Robert did not? Until Aerys forced Rhaegar’s hand, Rhaegar wasn’t actually involved in the rebellion. In fact, it was only after Rhaegar joined the King’s army that the rebellion chose someone to sit on the Iron Throne as a replacement to the Targaryen dynasty. Perhaps Ned learned something that allowed him to forgive Rhaegar for the abduction. Perhaps Ned was still going along with his father’s Southron Ambitions; Ned would initially have been happy to seat Rhaegar on the throne, and only after Rhaegar was forced to switch sides to keep his family safe from Aerys did Ned favour Robert? Perhaps knowing that they were at one point secret allies explains that sad smile on Arthur Dayne’s lips?
It’s a lot of perhapses, but as scenarios go it does have the advantage of less stupidity than most scenarios require. Let’s be honest, pretty much every scenario out there relies on people doing a lot of stupid things, like Prince Perfect starting a massive war because Mr. Sausage was hungry, or Lyanna forgetting to send word home that she was fine. From a political viewpoint, this actually makes sense without having to assume that Rhaegar didn’t give a damn about political concerns. There’s one other point in its favour: Ned apparently knew where the Tower of Joy could be found. If he’d already had some communication with Rhaegar, that would explain a lot.
What’s in it for Rhaegar? Why would he abduct Lyanna, not to mention letting brother and sister shag beneath his roof? This is a very difficult question for any theory other than R+L=J, and it’s why people sometimes come up with complicated and frequently nonsensical theories about baby swaps and nobody noticing Jon being a year older than claimed. There is a hint of a possibility however.
In my “Puppets of Ice and Fire” essay I’ve dealt with the links between the ToJ and Mirri Maaz Duur’s ritual in the tent. There are a lot of similarities. Too many for coincidence. I believe that Rhaegar, obsessed by prophecy as his grandfather was, attempted to do what his grandfather failed to do at Summerhall, and what his sister later did succeed in doing. We know that at one point, Rhaegar believed Aegon to the the Prince that was Promised. Some people suggest that Rhaegar changed his mind and later believed Jon would be. Others propose that Rhaegar still believed Aegon was the prince, but needed a third child so there could be three heads to the dragon.
I’m not sure we understand these prophecies, and more specifically the way Rhaegar interpreted them, as well as we think. In the one instance we have of an attempt to hatch dragons that actually succeeded, we see a very interesting detail:
Inside the tent the shapes were dancing, circling the brazier and the bloody bath, dark against the sandsilk, and some did not look human. She glimpsed the shadow of a great wolf, and another like a man wreathed in flames.
Now why might there be a great wolf involved in a ritual that ends with the birth of dragons, and who could that great wolf be? The direwolf of Stark is certainly a “great wolf”, and Rhaegar is very familiar with the idea of exemplars of a family coming from interbreeding. When Rhaegar was sent out to discover the identity of the Knight of the Laughing Tree, he is said to have returned with only the Knight’s shield, yet later he crowns Lyanna as Queen of Love and Beauty. It seems like a pretty fair bet that Rhaegar knew more about the KotLT than he let on, and at that time became aware of Lyanna. If he was seeking a “Great wolf” as a necessary element in his ritual, who better to turn to? And knowing the Targaryen tradition of creating exemplar Targaryens by breeding brother with sister, which indeed resulted in his own birth, wouldn’t it make sense for him to believe that Aegon’s future may depend on a great wolf, bred from Stark brother and sister?
GRRM’s girlfriend Parris is quoted as dismissing R+L=J on the basis that “GRRM does not do simple.” It must be remembered that she has not been told the truth, but we shouldn’t dismiss her opinions lightly. My inclination is to think that R+L=J, but it’s not as simple as a plain old love story. If she’s right though, for Jon to be an incest child certainly fulfils the requirements of not being a simple story.
The problem with this theory, and indeed with any theory other than R+L=J, is that it requires us to ignore evidence. What’s going on with the story of Bael the Bard, if not R+L=J? Why, when he visited a royal bastard at a brothel, in a close parallel to his visit to the ToJ, did Ned’s thoughts turn to Rhaegar, if Rhaegar didn’t have a royal bastard at the ToJ? I can’t give an answer to that, but in this theory we at least have an alternative that can fit the story without jumping through hoops, and gives satisfying answers to some unanswered questions, such as Benjen’s reasons for going to the wall, how Ned seemed to know to go to the ToJ in advance, and why Ned is so damn guilty and filled with shame all the time.
As theories go, this really isn’t a bad one. It certainly deserves far more consideration that it ever receives, and the value in this essay, if nothing else, is to address that imbalance. It doesn’t have a mountain of evidence in support, but then it shares that with all the non-RLJ alternatives. It does explain the forgotten mystery of how Ned came to the conclusion that Joffrey was a child of incest, and intriguingly, the only evidence that Ned seems to have had for that (Joffrey displaying only Lannister features) also seems to apply to Jon (who displays only Stark features). What else it has in its favour is that one rather compelling calculus I mentioned at the start of the essay, and I’ll close by repeating that. Our three main characters, the three heroes of the series, three “bastards and broken things”, three outsiders, yet exemplars of their familes; Dany, Tyrion and Jon.
Dany: Mother died giving birth to her. Both parents were Targaryens.
Tyrion: Mother died giving birth to him. Both parents were Lannisters.
Jon: Mother died giving him. Both parents were… wait, what?