The problem with Rhaegar


They had come together at the ford of the Trident while the battle crashed around them, Robert with his warhammer and his great antlered helm, the Targaryen prince armored all in black. On his breastplate was the three-headed dragon of his House, wrought all in rubies that flashed like fire in the sunlight. The waters of the Trident ran red around the hooves of their destriers as they circled and clashed, again and again, until at last a crushing blow from Robert’s hammer stove in the dragon and the chest beneath it. When Ned had finally come on the scene, Rhaegar lay dead in the stream, while men of both armies scrabbled in the swirling waters for rubies knocked free of his armor.

Rhaegar Targaryen is, to put it mildly, problematic.

At worst, he’s a kidnapping, prophecy-obsessed rapist. At best, he’s a fool in love who forgot everything political he knew (or ought to have known) to run off with 15 year old Lyanna Stark.

What we know about Rhaegar is all second hand: the discussions of maesters writing history books, Robert’s vengeful obsessive hatred, Ned Stark’s curiously dispassionate reflections, Dany and Jorah’s conversations about the Last Dragon, Jon Connington’s romantic idealisation of his silver prince.

For the first time in years, he found himself remembering Rhaegar Targaryen. He wondered if Rhaegar had frequented brothels; somehow he thought not.

Ned thinks that the man who, according to the Baratheon dynasty’s version of history, kidnapped and raped his sister was not the sort of man to frequent brothels. This is a curious thought, and one of many thoughts that Ned has about Rhaegar that suggest that Ned is well aware that Robert’s version of history may be an alternative fact.

“My brother Rhaegar was a fierce warrior, my sun-and-stars,” she told him. “He died before I was born. Ser Jorah says that he was the last of the dragons.”

Dany never knew her eldest brother, only the stories about him that Viserys, himself a troubled, paranoid mess, remembered, and what Ser Jorah Mormont has told her. Now: let’s get down to brass tacks. Why hasn’t Dany twigged that Ser Jorah of House Mormont, a NORTHERN house, fought with the Usurpers against her darling brother? Ser Jorah is not forthcoming with this information as he tries to ingratiate himself with the Targaryen princess that he sees as his ticket home (first through selling information to Robert’s Small Council, and then later he sees himself as her Kingsguard… or King.)

Anyway. Beyond the problems of Ser Jorah the Not Entirely Honest, there are major problems with the information that Dany receives from Viserys, Jorah and Ser Barristan the Bold about her idolised oldest brother. She is told that he was bold, brave, a great tourney knight, that he loved Elia and Lyanna, that he would have saved the realm from the Usurper (and the Mad King) but…

Is any of that really true?

Rhaegar: the Saviour of House Targaryen

OK, this is the first problem.

Ser Barristan, Ser Jaime Lannister and a whole ton of other characters in the books have this idea that Rhaegar could have been a good king, he could have saved the realm from the madness of Aerys…

Except he didn’t? 

We are explicitly told that there was distance between Rhaegar and Aerys after Duskendale, when the wheels were well and truly coming off the reign of Aerys II.

Meanwhile, King Aerys was becoming ever more estranged from his own son and heir. Early in the year 279 AC, Rhaegar Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone, was formally betrothed to Princess Elia Martell, the delicate young sister of Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne. They were wed the following year, in a lavish ceremony at the Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing, but Aerys II did not attend. He told the small council that he feared an attempt upon his life if he left the confines of the Red Keep, even with his Kingsguard to protect him. Nor would he allow his younger son, Viserys, to attend his brother’s wedding.

TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Aerys II

So: not only did Aerys seek to isolate Viserys from Queen Rhaella, refusing to allow the boy’s mother to be alone with her second living child, but he also ensured that his sons were distant and not allowed to meet up even for major events such as Rhaegar’s wedding.

Then there’s Harrenhall…

Stripping past all the double-talk and diplomatic rendering of history in The World of Ice and Fire, it’s quite clear that Rhaegar sponsored the Tourney at Harrenhal held by House Whent in order to gather all the great lords of the realm together in order to have a covert Great Council, to shore up the nobility’s support for ousting his father, who was clearly unfit for rule.

Great idea. Shame it didn’t work. Varys was just a little too good at his job (and the fact that he was happy to shore up his role as Master of Whisperers for a clearly unwell and incompetent king really goes against his whole “for the realm” schtick that he has in ADWD…)

So instead the realm got together, had an awkward party, and then Rhaegar made a bold statement… of crowning someone who wasn’t his wife Queen of Love and Beauty. Romantic and poetic, but politically stupid move.

The immediate consequences were to piss off two major Houses: Baratheon (as Robert was Lyanna’s betrothed) and Stark (because while Brandon and Ned might have indulged their sister’s crush, they were both old enough and worldly enough to realise the implications of their sister being propositioned so publicly.)

Yet if this were true, why did Lady Lyanna’s brothers seem so distraught at the honor the prince had bestowed upon her? Brandon Stark, the heir to Winterfell, had to be restrained from confronting Rhaegar at what he took as a slight upon his sister’s honor, for Lyanna Stark had long been betrothed to Robert Baratheon, Lord of Storm’s End. Eddard Stark, Brandon’s younger brother and a close friend to Lord Robert, was calmer but no more pleased. As for Robert Baratheon himself, some say he laughed at the prince’s gesture, claiming that Rhaegar had done no more than pay Lyanna her due…but those who knew him better say the young lord brooded on the insult, and that his heart hardened toward the Prince of Dragonstone from that day forth.

TWOIAF, The Fall of the Dragons: The Year of the False Spring.

We are told by Barristan and others than House Martell was also shamed, but none of our Martell POVs suggest that Elia was particularly vexed about this move, or that they harbour a massive grudge against Rhaegar for it. Perhaps Barristan is reading too much into things again, just as he does with his assertion that Ashara Dayne was “shamed” by a Stark.

Oberyn and Doran Martell want vengeance for Elia and her children, but they want it from Tywin Lannister, not Rhaegar. Is this just the Dornish being more accepting of non-monogamous relationships and sex in general, or do they know more than we do about Elia’s own feelings on Rhaegar’s relationship with Lyanna?

Regardless of whether Elia felt offended by Rhaegar’s gesture to Lyanna at Harrenhal, it is an early demonstration that Rhaegar’s political ambitions were secondary to his passions. And that doesn’t really bode well for a potential political saviour. Would King Rhaegar have been another Baelor the Blessed, obsessed with religious mania, another Aerys I, entranced by esoteric scrolls, another Aegon V, prepared to do anything to bring back dragons?

A child of prophecy

In all fairness, Rhaegar was kind of screwed from the beginning.

His grandparents, Jaehaerys II and Shaera, married for love (even though they were siblings and betrothed to Celia Tully and Luthor Tyrell, respectively.) But Jaehaerys forced their children, Aerys and Rhaella, to love for prophecy: because the woodswitch who followed Jenny of Oldstones to the royal court at Summerhall said that The Prince That Was Promised would come of their line.

When Rhaella gave birth to Rhaegar as the fires consumed the palace and most of House Targaryen at Summerhall, it seemed that the prophecy had come true: here was the Prince That Was Promised. Rhaegar studied scrolls, books and immersed himself in the legends and myths of House Targaryen, until one day he found something that made him decide he must be a warrior. Then he went and asked for a warrior’s training.

We aren’t told what books Rhaegar was obsessed with reading, but it’s a fairly safe bet that these are the same books, scrolls and prophecies that have been a source of Targaryen inspiration for generations, and probably date back to Daenys the Dreamer in Valyria. We know that Bloodraven studied these scrolls during the reign of Aerys I, who was obsessed with them as well, and that as far as House Targaryen is concerned, the legends of Azor Ahai Reborn and The Prince That Was Promised are intertwined.

As I’ve tried to nut out before, I’m pretty sure that AAR is a R’hllorist legend from the East, whereas TPTWP is House Targaryen’s version of it, or an extension of it.

It’s not yet clearly stated within ASOIAF exactly why the Targaryens are convinced that one of theirs will be the saviour of humanity against the Others, but here we are. They are, and let’s be honest, Jon probably will be…

But for most of his life, Rhaegar was convinced that he was this Prince. It’s unclear if this view was encouraged by his father or mother – you would think that there must have been some parental influence on him to be so studious and obsessive, because it’s not like babies just pop out and think “I’m the saviour of the world!” But maybe in Westeros they do?

Then something happened… somewhere along the line, for reasons unknown, Rhaegar became convinced that “of the line of Aerys and Rhaella” didn’t mean that he was TPTWP, but that his son would be TPTWP. By this stage he had also latched on to this confusing phrase, “the dragon must have three heads,” and decided that this meant he would have three children…. even if Elia was barely physically capable of bearing two.


As we know, Elia could not bear this third child. Maybe she and Rhaegar agreed that he could look elsewhere? Or maybe Rhaegar just independently decided that he would look elsewhere?

Either way… the whole “dragon has three heads” is where Rhaegar’s obsession with prophecy intersects with his political ambitions, and left everything to go pear shaped.

Why Lyanna Stark?

This is where things get tricky, as we have minimal information to work from. There are basically three versions of the story.

  1. Robert Baratheon’s version of history: Rhaegar abducted Lyanna and raped her to death
  2. A more romantic version, possibly supported by Ned Stark’s memories, and Meera Reed’s Knight of the Laughing Tree story: Lyanna ran away with Rhaegar because she didn’t want to marry Robert; Rhaegar fell in love with this plucky young woman who was ballsy enough to ride as a mystery knight at Harrenhal.
  3. But then there’s a more cynical option… Lyanna might have been in love, but Rhaegar just needed a bride with the blood of First Men and the Kings of Winter – someone to give him a son of ice and fire.

Let’s dispense with the first one quickly: it’s the official Westerosi history version, because history is written by the victors and Robert Baratheon defeated Rhaegar Targaryen at the Trident.

But Ned is strangely silent and has some interesting thoughts when Robert starts ranting about all the horrors of Rhaegar… not consistent with someone whose dearly beloved sister was kidnapped and raped to death. So let’s assume the Official Version is bullshit.

Conclusion: Rhaegar did not kidnap and rape Lyanna Stark

Instead, did two young lovers simply run off?

“Robert will never keep to one bed,” Lyanna had told him at Winterfell, on the night long ago when their father had promised her hand to the young Lord of Storm’s End. “I hear he has gotten a child on some girl in the Vale.” Ned had held the babe in his arms; he could scarcely deny her, nor would he lie to his sister, but he had assured her that what Robert did before their betrothal was of no matter, that he was a good man and true who would love her with all his heart. Lyanna had only smiled. “Love is sweet, dearest Ned, but it cannot change a man’s nature.”
AGOT, Eddard IX

Lyanna knew exactly what kind of man Robert Baratheon was and would be as a husband: the same kind of boorish, unfaithful, violent, rapist that he was to Cersei. He would have never been the loving husband he pretends he would have been to Lyanna – she had just as much personality and forthrightness as Cersei Lannister.

“You never knew Lyanna as I did, Robert,” Ned told him. “You saw her beauty, but not the iron underneath. She would have told you that you have no business in the melee.”

AGOT, Eddard VII

So it’s very easy to see how Lyanna, fuelled by dreams of love and beauty just like Sansa is in the current events, would see a life with Rhaegar as her one chance to get away from her betrothal to a boorish drunk, a chance to get away from her overbearing father who planned her life out without consulting her, a chance to be her own princess in the tower.


Does that mean that Rhaegar loved her back? This is where I’m not so convinced.

At the time of their elopement at the Isle of Faces in 281 or 282 AC, Rhaegar was 22 or 23. (Born 259 AC, dies 283 AC.) Lyanna was just 15. (Born 266 or 267 AC, dies 283 AC.) This is a world where Robb Stark is considered man enough to be king, albeit a young king, at 16. Rhaegar had been the Crown Prince since birth, and a knight since 17.

What am I getting at? He was young, but not so young within the context of Westeros that he should be prone to flights of fancy such as eloping with a young noble girl while married to someone else, and trying to take the throne from his mad father.

So why did he run off with her?

Either he really did fall in love with the Knight of the Laughing Tree, or he simply saw Lyanna as a means to an end: he describes his son Aegon to Elia in Dany’s vision as the one who has “the song of ice and fire,” but where is this ice? Aegon is the product of the Sun and the Dragon – all heat and fire. Did Rhaegar realise that he needed the blood of First Men, mixed with the Valyrian royal blood of the Targaryens, to produce The Prince That Was Promised? And not just any First Men house – but the Kings of Winter?

This is possible and probable. Which makes Lyanna’s story even sadder than just dying in childbirth, alone and terrified at 16. She would have also died knowing that the great love of her life, the one that she threw everything away for… he just saw her as a means to a prophetic end.

Conclusion: it’s entirely possible that Rhaegar and Lyanna were in love. But it’s also possible that Rhaegar was thinking with his prophecy-obsessed brain more than his heart. 

But why does this make Rhaegar such a bad leader?

Rhaegar’s meant to be the saviour of House Targaryen, right? The Prince who will not only save humanity from the Others, but in the more immediate future, will save Westeros from the Mad King.

But… he just ran away with a young girl, and shacked up at an isolated tower in Dorne.

Rhaegar was willing to abandon Westeros to the cruelties of his father either for love or for his obsessive need to bring about TPTWP. Neither of which speaks particularly highly of Rhaegar’s real concern for Westeros.

And this is really the whole problem with Rhaegar: his actions may well turn out to be vital in saving humanity (i.e. his shitty decision making skills led to the birth of Jon Snow, who is most likely going to be the sword that defeats the Others in the coming battle.) But at the time… he really just abandoned everyone when they needed him the most.

It’s no wonder that the other nobles were thinking of a dragonless Plan B.

6 thoughts on “The problem with Rhaegar

  1. southwer says:

    unless Rhaegar had reason to believe that he and Lyanna conceiving a child was somehow more important in the eventual salvation of Westeros from the Others than saving Westeros in the near term from the Mad King?


    1. LadyKnitsALot says:

      Given that Rhaegar’s political failings led to Robert’s Rebellion, which led to Cersei’s Regency, War of the Five Kings, Northern collapse and the general state of the Seven Kingdoms being totally unprepared to deal with the Others….

      That’s the problem.

      If that was Rhaegar’s justification, it’s a shit one! It hasn’t panned out, thus far. Arguably, it’s only made things worse.


  2. Dee says:

    Ohh I totally agree about your assessment of Rhaegar. I do not think he just fell in love at first sight with a 15 year old and forgot all his duties to the realm etc. It’s obvious to me that all his actions are motivated by his prophecy primarily, though he could have had genuine admiration/attraction to Lyanna Stark.

    However, I don’t think Lyanna Stark was a hopeless romantic like Sansa. She played swords in the godswood with her little brother, she had “iron” will, she loved to ride horses; all of this makes her sound more like Arya IMO. She cried at the song that Rhaegar played from the harp, that’s true, but it could be because the song’s sadness coincided with her own depression/sadness at the thought of her life as a married lady. It just seems to me that EVEN if Lyanna thought the prince was handsome and likable, she HAD to remember he was still married to the princess and a father of her children. Why in the heck would she run away from one promiscuous betrothed to a cheating, married prince?

    …which is why MY theory always considered she might not have run off for love either. I bet Rhaegar told her something like, “I can hide you away from your family and your betrothed for a while/I can get you a ship to Essos so you don’t have to get married.” I bet he made it sound like he could help her to a life of freedom. I highly doubt he would have said, hey I think you’re hot, will you have my babies? and Lyanna would go hell yes and elope with him.

    Now, once she did leave with him that’s a different question. I always thought that Rhaegar then tried to woo her, or else convince her about the prophecy, but I would bet that Lyanna would see through the BS. But at that point it would have been too late for her to run away. I always believed the ToJ (princess in the tower, hello?) is more of a prison than a nice little honeymoon spot. So yep, as you said, she might have left with Rhaegar willingly, but I doubt she stayed there willingly. She was only 15-16 when she got pregnant. I can’t imagine a free spirit like her being very happy about that.


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