Something that is often brought up by new fans, and I sure as hell was one of them, is the realisation that if Rhaegar Targaryen + Lyanna Stark = Jon Snow, then our dearly beloved bastard of Winterfell isn’t actually a Snow!
Yeah nah. Not how bastard names in Westeros work.
Here is a quick guide to my interpretation (opens to feedback otherwise!) about how GRRM intends bastard names to work in Westeros.
The power of a name
Firstly, you need to understand what names do in feudal society. They dictate your social position. Remember, this is a very rigid hierarchical society, where your social status at birth dictates what you can do for the rest of your life!
The hierarchy is pretty straightforward:
- The King.
- The Great Lords – the seven Lords Paramount
- The Powerful lords how aren’t great lords (more below!)
- The poor nobility – titled but little lands, minimal income
- Noble born bastards, claimed and raised in a noble house
- Small folk
- Wildlings – although an argument could be made that as far as the nobility are concerned, small folk and wildlings are on the same social strata. I suspect the small folk of Westeros would beg to disagree.
So your name is really important, it helps identify who you are and where you sit on this rigidly defined and maintained social ladder.
Catelyn of House Tully, daughter of Lord Hoster Tully, who is Lord Paramount of the Riverlands.
Brandon of House Stark, eldest son of Lord Rickard Stark, heir to Winterfell.
Ser Loras Tyrell, fourth son of Mace Tyrell, Kingsguard to Tommen, First of His Name etc etc
Lord Petyr Baelish, lord of the “little fingers” – who over the course of the series goes up in the world, to Lord Paramount of the Riverlands (a title removed from House Tully and bestowed on Baelish as Lord of Harrenhal, the traditional seat of Harren Hoare, King of the Islands and Rivers at the time of Aegon’s conquest.)
So to navigate all of this, you need to know a bit about Westerosi geography and history. You need to know who the Lords Paramount are – the heads of their regions, who come from the line of kings who knelt to Aegon the Conqueror, or noble houses formerly loyal to kings who defied Aegon and were extinguished.
- Lord Paramount of the North: House Stark (reverts to independent kingdom under Robb Stark, transfers back as non-royal Lord Paramount to House Bolton after the Red Wedding)
- Lord Paramount of the Vale: House Arryn
- Lord Paramount of the Iron Islands: House Greyjoy (becomes independent kingdom)
- Lord Paramount of the Riverlands: House Tully (transferred by military conquest and the near extinguishment of the Tully line to Baelish)
- Lord Paramount of the Reach: House Tyrell
- Lord Paramount of the Westerlands: House Lannister (although who the Lannister who holds this role at current is up for debate. Ironically, Cersei probably has the strongest claim, given that Jaime foreswore all his family honours and lands when he joined the Kingsguard, and Tyrion has been denounced as a traitor and kingslayer!)
- Lord Paramount of the Crownlands: doesn’t exist – that’s the King. The Crownlands are the royal family’s lands, from which they draw their income through tithe, taxation and goods grown and traded within those lands
- Lord Paramount of Dorne: styled the Prince (or Princess) – House Martell
OK, so underneath those guys sit all the other nobility – in theory, all equal in their honour to each other. But… there’s nobility and nobility, right. Papa Clegane was given a lordship, and produced two of the most fearsome and unknightly knights ever seen: the Mountain and the Hound. Petyr Baelish resents how he was dismissed from Riverrun and told he was not fit to lick the boots of the Tully daughters, as he was too poor and his fostering was only a kindness promised to a wartime companion. And so on.
So realistically you have the traditionally powerful major houses in each region: your Hightowers, or Umbers, or Florents, or Yronwoods, or Daynes, to think of a geographically spread out few. They are accorded prestige and power as befits their immediate ability to play the game of thrones, and their past history.
Underneath them sit the minor nobility: totally outclassed in the game of thrones, and perfectly happy to live on their little lands.
The small folk do all the work for all the nobles: the farming, the shepherding, the milking, the manufacturing, providing protection as armed militias in service to their local lords, or income as traders for that region.
Noble born bastards sit above them, although their lot in life is really up to how the noble parent treats them. Some are lucky, like Jon Snow – raised as part of the family, within the lordly keep, given a noble’s education (including military training for the boys.) Some are given the socioeconomic security, but no affection (Edric Storm, raised at Storm’s End by a castellan and sent the odd present by his royal father, who otherwise forgets about the boy.) Some are ignored until useful. (Ramsay Snow.)
Bastard girls can be a useful political marriage chip (cf: Tywin Lannister arranging for the Westerlings to be brought back into the Westerland fold and forgiven their ‘treason’ in shacking up with Robb Stark by a Westerling son being promised a Lannister bastard bride.) Bastard boys can go to the Watch, the Citadel, be members of the household guard, go off to be a hedge knight, or sent off to Essos to make their own life as a sellsword.
Bastards can also be allowed, with permission from the king or Lord Paramount, to set up a new cadet branch of the family: the Karstarks, the Blackfyres all start off in this way. (Presumably a noble bastard girl can be wed to a hedge knight or something and also be set up as a new house, but it seems to happen more with bastard sons raised by decent parents.)
The biggest problem with being a bastard is the ingrained hatred within Westerosi society towards bastards, discussed in more detail in another blog post. People might be willing to look at what you can do, like the Watch electing Jon Snow as Lord Commander, or they might always want to remind you that you can’t be trusted (think about Egg’s childhood comments about Bloodraven.)
Bastards get special names: they don’t get to bear the household name of their noble parent/s, they are denoted as a bastard by their name.
- The North – Snow
- The Vale – Stone
- The Iron Islands – Pyke
- The Riverlands – Rivers
- The Westerlands – Hill
- The Reach – Flowers
- The Crownlands – Waters
- Dorne – Sand
What people get confused about is whether the bastard name goes by the father’s location, the mother’s location, the child’s birth place, or where the child is claimed and raised.
My interpretation of the way that GRRM has set it up in the books: it’s about where the child is claimed and raised. What do I mean by claimed? I mean their noble parent acknowledges them: says, “yep, I made that.” Perhaps a good way of identifying good bastard parents from the bad is that a claim = raising them as well, whereas acknowledging them just is “oh yeah, my bad…” (aka the BobbyB method!)
Jon is a Snow, because he is claimed by Eddard Stark and raised in the North.
Mya is a Stone, because she is acknowledged by Robert Baratheon and raised in the Vale.
Brynden is a Rivers, because he is claimed by his mother Missy Blackwood, born in the Riverlands and presumably raised there for a time. (I’ll come back to the problem of Bloodraven later.)
Daemon is a Waters, because he is born in the Crownlands to Daena and Aegon IV Targaryen, but out of wedlock (and they were aunt/nephew. Ew.) He later becomes Daemon Blackfyre because his half-brother Daeron II Targaryen let him establish a new noble house.
Consistency: or the problem of Bloodraven
OK, so here is where GRRM makes things difficult. He’s not big on consistency. Which is cool… except when people are trying to make orderly sense of the socio-political structures of his world.
In all other examples, the bastard gets the name associated with where they grow up.
- Jon Snow – borne in Dorne, raised in the North, father a Northern lord (or… mother a Northern noblewoman…)
- Mya Stone – borne in the Vale, raised in the Vale, father the Lord of the Stormlands
- Edric Storm – born in the Reach/Crownlands (where are the Florents from?!), raised in Storm’s End, father the King
- Obara Sand – born in Dorne, raised in Dorne, father a Dornish lord (probably not a good example)
But Bloodraven is a problem.
We are not specifically told in TWOIAF where Bloodraven and his sisters were born – King’s Landing, or the lands of House Blackwood in the Riverlands. What we are told is that
Brynden Rivers… had been able to maintain his close relations at court – for Bloodraven’s mother had been well loved during her life, and was fondly remembered, so the Blackwoods did not suffer as the Brackens did when the king cast off his respective mistresses.
This brief passage tells us that Brynden Rivers spent considerable time at court as a child as well as an adult, and that his mother and her children were not cast out of King’s Landing when the king moved on to his next mistress.
So … if he was acknowledged as a noble, even a royal bastard, and raised in the Crownlands, wouldn’t that make him Brynden Waters? Not Brynden Rivers?
I think the most likely answer is:
- we know GRRM isn’t good with consistency (see Jeyne’s hips don’t lie – but then they do when GRRM forgets how he described her the first time around)
- Brynden Rivers sounds better to him, for whatever reason (it does have a nice ring to it, I guess?)
and these two things contribute to the lack of consistency about born/raised/claimed with bastard names. Because frankly, if Aegon IV’s children were claimed and raised in King’s Landing, then they should all be Waters.
Instead, his children apart from Daemon Waters/Blackfyre are given the regional name of their mother’s home region – probably most likely because when Aegon tired of his mistress (and their kids) he threw them out of King’s Landing, and so these kids were raised in their mother’s lands. (See: Aegor Rivers, aka Bittersteel.)
Why does this matter?
Because if R+L=J, that doesn’t make Jon a Sand, or a Waters, or a Blackfyre. He is still a Snow. He was claimed by Ned and raised in the North. The fact that his parents are Rhaegar and Lyanna don’t change this. He is still a Northern noble bastard – a Snow.
And there’s not a chance in hell he’s legitimate. Rhaegar deciding to spring a weirwood wedding, if that happened at all, doesn’t make it valid – polygamous marriage was never approved in Westeros except for the very early Targaryens, and there is a strong case that part of Jaehaerys the Conciliator’s truce with the Faith was that the Faith would stop complaining about House Targaryen’s incestuous marriages if the Targaryens stopped polygamy.
If Rhaegar married Lyanna while still married to Elia Martell, it wouldn’t be valid.
Jon was conceived and born outside the confines of a legally recognised marriage.
He was raised in the North.
His name is Snow.