One of the first mysteries in ASOIAF that we are introduced to is in Ned’s first chapter.
He could hear her still at times.Promise me, she had cried, in a room that smelled of blood and roses. Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes. Ned remembered the way she had smiled then, how tightly her fingers had clutched his as she gave up her hold on life, the rose petals spilling from her palm, dead and black. After that he remembered nothing. They had found him still holding her body, silent with grief. The little crannogman, Howland Reed, had taken her hand from his. Ned could recall none of it. “I bring her flowers when I can,” he said. “Lyanna was … fond of flowers.”
These words, “promise me Ned”, echo throughout ASOIAF.
But what did Ned actually promise? And what promises does he punish himself for breaking?
TLDR: Ned couldn’t keep all his promises to Lyanna, and I suspect one of them was to tell Jon the truth of his parentage
What do we know?
Obviously, this post is based on the assumption that the popular, very well supported theory R+L=J is true – that Rhaegar and Lyanna are Jon Snow’s parents.
It’s a theory that is so well accepted that many fans, including me, consider it an unrevealed fact. A fact that will be revealed or confirmed in the coming season 6 GOT and forthcoming 6th book TWOW, especially as we know from set spoilers that we will see the Tower of Joy, to some extent, as a flashback (though whether we see it through Bran’s eyes in a weirwood vision, or something else, remains to be seen.)
The basics of the R+L=J evidence is:
- Ned is remarkably chill when he thinks about Rhaegar, the man who supposedly captured and raped his sister, in contrast to the venom and fury Robert Baratheon. This supports the inference that Lyanna was not abducted by the Crown Prince: she ran away voluntarily with Rhaegar.
- Ned has flashbacks to finding Lyanna dying of a fever “in a bed of blood” at the Tower of Joy. The phrase “bed of blood” is used elsewhere in ASOIAF (and our own pre-industrial cultures!) to refer to a childbirth bed.
- Inference from these two pieces of evidence: Lyanna, at least, loved Rhaegar (I’m on the fence about whether Rhaegar loved Lyanna or just wanted The Prince That Was Promised or something…) and she gave birth to Rhaegar’s child, dying as a result of puerperal fever (childbed fever).
- The lack of consensus about who Jon Snow’s mother is in the text
- Ned’s own silence on the topic
- The connections in the text about blue roses – blue roses on Lyanna’s tomb, a wreath crown of blue roses in her crown as the Queen of Love and Beauty, the image of a blue rose growing in a chink of ice in the Wall in Daenerys’ vision at the House of the Undying in ACOK, Lyanna clutching an old dead bunch of blue roses…. we are bashed around the head with the imagery of Lyanna = blue roses = Jon throughout the book. The Dany vision one is particularly key, because it is otherwise totally unconnected to the Starks and Ned. Dany has no idea what this blue rose part of her vision is about, and hasn’t yet thought about it since.
- The obvious one: Ned, famously honourable, who no one saw have a fling, turns up after the war with a baby and his sister’s bones.
Now, Narrativium (the “force of magical nature” that Terry Pratchett uses to describe things that happen in fiction Because The Plot Requires It) means that no one in Westeros has joined the dots like we have: no one saw Ned have a fling, his sister was “repeatedly raped” or in a distant castle with her lover for months, and he brought home a dead sister and a baby. It’s really not rocket science that the baby was connected to the dead sister and her dead lover/raper…. but Narrativium requires that Westeros doesn’t think too much about all this, so that Jon is raised in safety.
What don’t we know?
Well, we don’t actually know what Ned promised Lyanna! We can guess, but we don’t know.
Promise me, Ned. The fever had taken her strength and her voice had been faint as a whisper, but when he gave her his word, the fear had gone out of his sister’s eyes.
OK, so clearly it was important to Lyanna. Something she was scared about – caring for her child? Taking him back to the North? Keeping him safe from Robert Baratheon’s anti-dragon rage? That would seem the logical option.
But we also know from Ned’s very first chapter, that there was more to it, when he gently rebukes Robert for thinking that he knew Lyanna better than her brother Ned:
“She should be on a hill somewhere, under a fruit tree, with the sun and clouds above her and the rain to wash her clean.”
“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.”
So part of his promise was to take her home, from Dorne to Winterfell, and to be buried in the Stark crypts.
But interestingly, Lyanna is the only female and her and Brandon are the only non-ruling heads of House Stark in those lines of the Kings of Winter. Ned broke with tradition in the placement of Lyanna and Brandon – he gave them the honour of being the Lord Who Should Have Been, placed alongside the other Starks who ruled Winterfell …. and Lyanna, was she buried in that line too as a Queen Who Never Was?
That was his curse. Robert would swear undying love and forget them before evenfall, but Ned Stark kept his vows. He thought of the promises he’d made Lyanna as she lay dying, and the price he’d paid to keep them.
Ned made Lyanna more than one promise, and he has paid a price to keep them.
We know already that Jon is a sore point in Ned’s marriage to Catelyn – she can cope with the fact he has a bastard, but not that he keeps his bastard at his own home, and raised him alongside her trueborn children. Logically, this is one of the prices Ned has paid to keep his promise to Lyanna to raise Jon in Winterfell.
But he specifically says here “promises” – what else did he promise Lyanna? 1. Raise Jon. 2. Bury me at Winterfell. 3. ???
These promises were obviously important to Ned – he keeps remembering the promises, kept and broken, and the price he paid to keep them, in his dreams:
He was walking through the crypts beneath Winterfell, as he had walked a thousand times before. The Kings of Winter watched him pass with eyes of ice, and the direwolves at their feet turned their great stone heads and snarled. Last of all, he came to the tomb where his father slept, with Brandon and Lyanna beside him.
“Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood.
This is before he is awoken by guards to come and deal with the fallout from Robert’s boar injuries. Later on, after his failed coup and injury, Ned has this dream and wakeful fretting in the black cells:
When he kept very still, his leg did not hurt so much, so he did his best to lie unmoving. For how long he could not say. There was no sun and no moon. He could not see to mark the walls. Ned closed his eyes and opened them; it made no difference. He slept and woke and slept again. He did not know which was more painful, the waking or the sleeping. When he slept, he dreamed: dark disturbing dreams of blood and broken promises. When he woke, there was nothing to do but think, and his waking thoughts were worse than nightmares. The thought of Cat was as painful as a bed of nettles. He wondered where she was, what she was doing. He wondered whether he would ever see her again.
… Ned Stark reached out his hand to grasp the flowery crown, but beneath the pale blue petals the thorns lay hidden. He felt them clawing at his skin, sharp and cruel, saw the slow trickle of blood run down his fingers, and woke, trembling, in the dark.
Promise me, Ned, his sister had whispered from her bed of blood. She had loved the scent of winter roses. “Gods save me,” Ned wept. “I am going mad.”
The way Ned has his past memories and future worries fuse into one waking and sleeping nightmare, is interesting. Blue roses appear again. Blood is also a recurring theme – Lyanna’s bed of blood, her bloody tears, the blood of his hands when pricked by the blue roses. He wakes from dreams of broken promises and thinks of Cat…
The obvious broken promise to Cat is his alleged infidelity. That’s not rocket science.
But Ned seems to be implying that he broke one of his promises to Lyanna too – which one? To tell Jon the truth of his parentage? To raise Jon to be Rhaegar’s heir and King?
Sadly, Ned then loses his head, and with him we lose the only POV character who has any insight into the mysteries of how Lyanna died, and what promises Ned made to his sister.
The only person left who was at the Tower of Joy is the mysteriously missing Howland Reed, Lord of Greywater Watch in the crannog marshes.
We may not get any insights as to the truth of the promises Ned made Lyanna, and what he could and could not keep until Howland Reed shows up and informs Jon or the readers about what it all means.
Well, I think the obvious ones are
- Keep Jon/my baby safe (because we know from GRRM that Ned named Jon so he wouldn’t have been Jon to Lyanna…)
- Take me (Lyanna) back home to Winterfell
But beyond that?
I think Lyanna, by the time the war was over and Ned was at the Tower of Joy, was either completely on board the PTWP prophecy train, or absolutely over it. Which one it was will depend on what the other promises were.
Because I’m pretty sure Lyanna wanted her child to know who his parents were – but Ned couldn’t fulfil that promise, because it was too dangerous. Robert Baratheon was still venomously opposed to all “dragonspawn” so even 14 years later, it was still too soon for Ned to tell his ‘son’ that “yer a dragon Jon”
Did Lyanna want her son to know of his father’s hopes and dreams fuelled by prophecy? Did Lyanna also believe her son was The Prince That Was Promised?
Did Lyanna want her son to be raised to the Iron Throne in place of his dead father?
Or did she just want him to be raised as a Stark, in the North, and to leave all of this Southron shit behind?
Did Ned feel guilty that he never told Jon that his mother loved him? That he let him grow up thinking she abandoned him? That his father probably/possibly/maybe loved him too? (Kind of hard to tell with Rhae-Rhae…)
What could have been….