The week of April 12, 2015

Everything Jon Snow does not know

By Michelle Jaworski

There are two universal truths to Jon Snow, as anyone who’s seen Game of Thrones could tell you: He’s Ned Stark’s bastard, and he knows nothing.

You know nothing, Jon Snow. His wildling lover Ygritte makes that observation no fewer than 17 times in A Storm of Swords, the third book of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. After she dies, that’s all Jon remembers her saying.


GIF via Giphy
The phrase is repeated so often that it’s become its own meme. What does it all mean? Don’t ask Kit Harington, who’s played the brooding teenager for the past five years, to explain it. He doesn’t get it either.

On the surface, it’s about how naive Jon is about the world outside the cushy walls of Winterfell, where he grew up in privilege. He may be a bastard, but he got a noble’s education. As Ygritte points out, Jon knows nothing of what the free folk north of the Wall have lived through. But “you know nothing” may have a deeper meaning.

Ygritte, it seems, sees an inner greatness in Jon. Restless fans have flocked to the Internet to discuss their own theories: Who is he, exactly? Who are his parents? Why is what Jon doesn’t know so important? With season 5 approaching, Jon Snow’s identity may be the central mystery of Game of Thrones, the most important factor in the story to come.

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Jon Snow doesn’t know his potential as a warg

In Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), skinchangers can control the minds of animals at will, but wargs, a type of skinchanger, are able to specifically enter the minds of dogs and wolves. For the Starks, this is demonstrated by the bond between their direwolves, which goes above and beyond any bond we’ve seen so far—except perhaps that between Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons.

According to Martin, all of the Stark children are wargs, but “the amount of control varies widely.” For characters such as Robb and Rickon, whose points of view we don’t get in the books, that degree is unknown. Lady, Sansa’s direwolf, died early on. Arya, long since separated from Nymeria, has dreams through the eyes of her direwolf thousands of miles away; she’s also entered the mind of a cat. Bran’s abilities are the most developed. He’s warged into both Summer and Hodor multiple times. By the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones, he’s been brought to the Three-Eyed Raven for advanced warg training. 

As a Stark in blood (but not by name), Jon can also inhabit the body of his direwolf, Ghost. After being captured by wildlings while out ranging, Jon finds himself around other skinchangers. In a dream, he encounters a weirwood tree with Bran’s face on it. Bran tells him not to be afraid and to “open [his] eyes.” When Jon wakes up and explains his dream, Qhorin tells him he had a wolf dream; another brother calls him a skinchanger.

But he doesn’t know his full potential. Melisandre later offers to help Jon with his warging abilities, but he declines. Varamyr Sixskins, the narrator of the A Dance With Dragons prologue, can sense Jon for what he is the moment he spots him and Ghost. Varamyr senses that Jon is a talented but untaught warg who stifles his gift, “still fighting his nature when he should have glorified it.”

Jon has yet to consciously warg into Ghost, but his time may come soon enough.

Jon Snow might not be Ned Stark’s bastard—or a bastard at all

In a moment of desperation toward the end of A Game of Thrones, Jon leaves the Night’s Watch after Ned’s death and comes to a few grim realizations about himself. 

Tyrion Lannister had claimed that most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it, but Jon was done with denials. He was who he was; Jon Snow, bastard and oathbreaker, motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life—however long that might be—he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.

Jon’s parentage—his “true name”—is probably one of the most highly contested questions George R.R. Martin has to answer before the final pages of the planned seventh book, A Dream of Spring. As far as Jon knows, Ned is his father, and Ned refuses to speak about Jon’s mother to anyone. (A promise to discuss it when Ned returns from King’s Landing is broken the moment his head leaves his body.) 

Jon Snow’s identity is the central mystery of Game of Thrones.

But a large amount of evidence taken from the books suggests Jon is not actually the son of Ned Stark. Rather, he’s the son of Ned’s sister, Lyanna, and Daenerys’s brother Rhaegar Targaryen, conceived after Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna (or she ran away with him) and Ned claimed Jon as his own to protect him after her death.

A video primer from Alt Shift X explains the basic premise.

Ned names his sons after men in his life who are important to him: Robb for Robert Baratheon, Bran for Ned’s older brother, Brandon, and Rickon for Ned’s father Rickard. Jon shares a name with Ned’s father figure, Jon Arryn. And it’s important to note that Ned, not Jon’s mother—whoever she may be—gave Jon his name.

One fan on Reddit’s r/ASOIAF board spelled it out in a way that solidified R+L=J even further in people’s minds: 

Why Jon Arryn? Ned’s relationship to Arryn parallels the relationship he feels with Snow. Jon Arryn raised Ned like a son even though he was not. Furthermore, when the king (Aerys) called for Ned’s head, Lord Arryn raised his banners in rebellion and defied the king to save him. No doubt Ned is defying Robert by hiding the Targaryen’s claim to the throne.

Being the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna—noted by the shorthand “R+L=J”—would still make Jon a bastard by definition. Rhaegar wasn’t married to Lyanna, which means that Jon was still born out of wedlock. But even that’s not clear. The Targaryens had a long history of polygamy and incest; Aegon the Conqueror, for instance, wedded both his sisters. Thanks to Daenerys’s vision in the House of the Undying, we know that Rhaegar once held an infant Aegon and said, “There must be a third.” (Here’s a lot more info on the prophecy he’s referencing.) Jon Connington, a trusted advisor of Rhaegar’s, believes that Rhaegar’s wife, Elia Martell, became infertile after her second pregnancy and Rhaegar needed a way to complete it—a third child. 

If R+L=J, Rhaegar marrying Lyanna in secret would make Jon a legitimate Targaryen. If Rhaegar and Lyanna weren’t married, there’s another way Jon might not be a bastard: if he were legitimized by a king.

In A Storm of Swords—book spoilers ahead—Stannis Baratheon offers Jon the chance to become Jon Stark and inherit Winterfell if he bends his knee to him. Jon refuses and becomes the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch instead. But before heading off to the Twins for the Red Wedding, Robb, as King of the North, legitimized Jon in his will and named him his heir; he didn’t want Tyrion, Sansa’s husband, to inherit Winterfell, and he believed all his other siblings were dead. But it’s unknown who was aware of Robb’s will or where it ended up. 

As a member of the Night’s Watch, Jon can’t claim land or crown—but there may be a loophole. (More on that later.)

Jon Snow doesn’t know his mother 

As the plot progresses, Jon’s family dwindles while he’s helpless at the Wall to stop it. Ned loses his head; Robb gets a new one at the Red Wedding; Jon believes that Theon Greyjoy killed Bran and Rickon; Arya’s presumed dead. Sansa is the only one Jon believes is still alive, but she hasn’t been seen since Joffrey was poisoned.

But what about Jon Snow’s mother? 

Martin has said Jon will eventually learn about his parentage. When he does, it won’t be a happy moment: Every woman who might have been Jon’s mom is dead. Jon is an orphan.

  • Lyanna Stark (with Rhaegar Targaryen): She succumbed to her wounds—or childbirth.
  • Ashara Dayne (with Ned Stark): She committed suicide sometime after Ned killed her brother at the Tower of Joy or after she had a stillborn daughter.
  • Wylla (with Ned Stark): Jon’s wet nurse, whose fate is unknown in the books but is dead in the show.

Incredibly, Jon’s best-case scenario is the one in which he killed his mother in childbirth. That puts him in elite company: The two other characters whose mothers died giving birth to them are none other than Tyrion and Daenerys. And he’s got more in common with them than he realizes.

What Jon doesn’t know could save the Seven Kingdoms.

Jon Snow doesn’t know the true power of the Wall

There’s no way to talk about this theory without spoiling book 5, A Dance With Dragons, but let’s just say Jon’s about to settle in for a very long nap within the Wall.

So what do we know about the Wall? It’s 700 feet high and runs 300 miles long. It serves as the border between the inhabited part of Westeros and the land beyond. Jon’s long-ago ancestor, Bran the Builder, created it after the longest winter to ever hit Westeros thousands of years ago, and the Night’s Watch protects it.

But legend (and Martin himself) suggests that there’s something else woven within the Wall besides snow and ice. Something like magic.

It’s magic so formidable that it stops necromancy in its tracks. When the White Walkers approach the Wall, it’s going to take a powerful force to keep human corpses from waking again. The Wall might have a few tricks within its ice. 

Ygritte tells Jon that “this wall is made o’ blood” after they scale it in A Storm of Swords. Jon comes to believe the Wall protects itself after witnessing a few wildlings fall to their death. But the magic is even more evident when Bran runs into Samwell Tarly at the Nightfort, one of the castles along the Wall, later in A Storm of Swords.

Samwell and Gilly are rescued by Coldhands, a wight-like creature who directs them to the Black Gate (a hidden gate as old as the Wall that can only be opened by a brother of the Night’s Watch) to bring Bran back to him. But Coldhands is unable to cross the gate due to ancient spells and magic woven into the Wall. Even though Coldhands appears as an ally, there’s something about him the Wall just doesn’t like.

And if what the wildling Val says about greyscale is true—that it kills even children north of the Wall—it could be the Wall that protects its inhabitants from being infected from Shireen Baratheon, whose greyscale currently lies dormant. 

The wildlings warn Jon to burn the dead so that they don’t turn into wights. Instead, Jon keeps two corpses in the ice cells, hoping they wake as wights and he can study them. But to his frustration, when he checks in on the bodies, they’ve remained dead. 

Jon’s visit to the ice cells occurs in A Dance With Dragons right before everything falls into chaos, implying that those spaces will be important later. Cells built at the base of the Wall (such as the ice cells) have been used to preserve food, or “cold preserves,” Maester Aemon says to Samwell at one point in A Feast for Crows. Could those cells also preserve a body until a man could return to his own? 

If nobody clears the cells while a body lies there, which may happen in the aftermath of this chaos, this body could become encased within the Wall—and then reborn in ice, not unlike Daenerys being reborn in the fire of Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre. (It’d be—wait for it—“a song of ice and fire.”) 

The true power of the Wall is enough to make your head spin.

As further evidence, Daenerys has a vision of a “a blue flower [that] grew from a chink in a wall of ice, and filled the air with sweetness” in the House of the Undying. Blue flowers have been associated with Lyanna Stark, thought to be Jon’s mother—but in the case of the Wall, those flowers could represent Jon himself. (Dany’s visions often come true; remember the Red Wedding?) And through his tutelage with the Three-Eyed Raven in A Dance With Dragons, Bran Stark has a vision of the Wall shining like blue crystal. He sees “his bastard brother Jon sleeping alone in a cold bed, his skin growing pale and hard as the memory of all warmth fled from him.” 

But if Old Nan’s stories are true (and at this point, you should really just assume as much), the Wall’s magic might not hold out much longer. Nan tells Bran that monsters can’t pass through the Wall “so long as the Wall stands strong and the men of the Night’s Watch are true.” The Wall has been in disarray for decades, but what if the final straw were a mutinous turn against the Lord Commander?

Jon Snow doesn’t know who his true friends are

No, clearly, his friends are not on the Wall. Without spoiling too much from the books, let’s just say Jon’s radical ideas for the Night’s Watch aren’t very popular. He plays nice with wildlings, he hosts an unstable giant, and he even uses the Wall as a storage ground for pre-zombies. In the show, we already know Jon will sail to a land of cannibals to rescue wildlings he can’t feed. Naturally, his allies aren’t happy. And soon they will make their concern very clear.

His true friends may be elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms. In fact, there are two main characters of Game of Thrones with whom Jon has a lot more in common than his brothers on the Wall: Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. Besides the whole dead-moms thing, let’s lay out the rest of the similarities:

  • They’re the third (and final child) of their parents
  • They’re all outsiders in their world—and constantly reminded of it
  • They’ve all held power
  • People have tried to kill them; they’ve been betrayed by those they trusted
  • They had a lover who’s now dead in part because of their actions

Rhaegar Targaryen was known to say, “The dragon must have three heads,” which is believed to be part of the Prince That Was Promised prophecy. Maester Aemon repeats this in a feverish state in A Feast for Crows, and he believes that Daenerys is one of them: “Prince” is gender-neutral in High Valyrian. The other two dragons are thought to be there to help the Prince, much like Aegon the Conqueror had his two sisters by his side when he conquered Westeros.

As a plot device, this connection would bring the three main protagonists of the story together, and it certainly helps that Daenerys conveniently has three dragons. But this theory goes way, way beyond Dany.

‘The Sphinx is the riddle, not the riddler’

In A Feast for Crows, Maester Aemon, sick and delirious, talks of dragon eggs. He says, “The sphinx is the riddle, not the riddler,” and “The dragon must have three heads.”

A sphinx is another way of saying “half-breed.” In the case of the maester’s novice Alleras—who’s believed to be Sarella Sand, one of Oberyn Martell’s eight bastard daughters, in disguise—it’s a term that means “biracial.” 

So if the sphinx is the riddle, as one theory posits, the three heads of the dragon need to be only part-Targaryen, not full Targaryen. For Dany, Tyrion, and Jon, the profile fits. Jon may be half Targaryen, if R+L=J is true. In Tyrion’s case, either he has Targaryen blood in him, or Tywin Lannister was right and Tyrion is no son of his. (Some believe that Tyrion’s father is Aerys II Targaryen, who either seduced or raped Tyrion’s mother, Joanna. Others believe Aerys is the real father of Jaime and Cersei.)

In Daenerys’s case, the theory gets a little wackier. In A Dance With Dragons, she learns from Ser Barristan Selmy that her mother, Rhaella, was once smitten with a knight named Bonifer Hasty. Rhaella married Aerys II out of duty, and it’s suggested that theirs was a loveless marriage. According to one theory, they conceived Daenerys once Rhaella escaped with her son Viserys to Dragonstone, where she eventually died due to complications from giving birth to Daenerys. 

“You know nothing” has a much deeper meaning.

And then there’s Melisandre, who—book spoilers ahead—makes an offhand comment that’s worth reading and rereading: “I am as mortal as you, Jon Snow.” In that moment, she’s basically saying, “I’m human, and I make mistakes too.” But like much of what Melisandre says, it probably carries a deeper meaning.

So who is Jon Snow, exactly?

He could be one-third of the answer to a long-established riddle about dragons with three heads. He could be the Prince That Was Promised in an ancient prophecy (much more on that here). One popular theory even asserts that Jon will broker a truce between humans and Others by taking an Other to bride.

No matter how you slice it, Jon has potential he has no idea how to realize. His destiny is only starting to unfold. And like his fellow Starks, he’s got powers he needs to learn how to unlock. He just has no idea how big those powers are.

That is, if he’s still around.

Major book spoilers here. At the end of book 5, it’s not clear whether or not Jon is still alive, but it’s clear there are a few ways he could make it. What’s to say Jon will even stay in his own body? He has Ghost to warg into to escape death. Many readers also believe Melisandre will sacrifice Shireen to “wake dragons”—meaning Jon—“from stone.” If Melisandre is convinced that Jon is Azor Ahai reborn, she’d have every reason to bring him back so he can defeat the real threat in Westeros: White Walkers. Plus, if he died and came back to life, he may have technically fulfilled his vows as a brother of the Night’s Watch. Having served until death, he’d be free to take crown, land, and even wife.

Jon could be set up for greatness, doom, or even just regular old death by the time we get to The Winds of Winter. There will be no more lurking in the shadows for him. 

Photo via Game of Thrones/HBO