Rhaegar Targaryen (Image credit to duhi – DeviantArt here)
Rhaegar Targaryen. A name spoken with reverence by some and abhorrence by others, a man without whom much of the action of A Song of Ice and Fire would not exist. His abduction of Lyanna Stark helped spur a rebellion that toppled a near three-century-strong dynasty. In the east, both his posthumous sister and a boy claiming to be his supposedly murdered son draw upon his legacy in their bids for the seat that, by birth, should have been his. At the Wall and beyond, a boy who may very well be his other son unconsciously follows his character and personality as he rises to leadership of the Night’s Watch.
Yet Rhaegar would not have had so great an impact on the political stage of Westeros (and Essos too) without the women of his life: his wife Elia Martell, the Queen Who Never Was; Lyanna Stark, his Queen of Love and Beauty; and Cersei Lannister, the Queen Who Was (and Might Have Been).
This series will examine those ladies, and Rhaegar’s relationships with them, in the context of Westerosi politics. Why did Rhaegar marry Elia (and not Cersei)? What drew the Prince of Dragonstone to the wild Lady of Winterfell? How did these relationship result in the political reality of the current age in Westeros (and partly Essos)? These will be the questions I’ll be exploring in this multi-part series that is part character analysis, part exploration of meta-thematic impulses in George R.R. Martin’s writing and part chronicling of the turbulent times of the women whose impact on Westeros was greater than any sword swung or army marched.
Love and Duty: Jaehaerys II and the Problem of Marriage
Jaehaerys II (image credit to Amok-gallery here)
All three of the sons of the fifth Aegon had wed [sic] for love in defiance of their father’s wishes. And because that unlikely monarch had followed his heart when he chose his queen, he allowed his sons to have their way, making bitter enemies when he might have made fast friends. Treason and turmoil followed, as night follows day, ending at Summerhall in sorcery, fire, and grief. – Barristan Selmy (A Dance with Dragons “The Kingbreaker”)
To understand Rhaegar and his ladies, however, we must first travel back in time, to the reign of his great-grandfather, Aegon V. The problems of Rhaegar’s relationships with women–love and duty, politics and prophecy–began with Aegon V and his children, especially his successor, Jaehaerys II.
Jaehaerys was not born to be king. He was the second son of Aegon V, the middle of three brothers. His mother was “Black” Betha Blackwood, whom Aegon had married for love in 220 AC. Aegon’s marriage, however, had been conducted while he was still a prince, fourth in the line of succession, with two older brothers who could produce heirs of their own. Thus, a marriage to a noble Riverlands lady was a perfectly acceptable match for a fourth-son-of-a-fourth-son prince.
Yet Aegon himself had grand plans for his children’s marriages. The king had enacted a number of reforms to improve the lives of the smallfolk of Westeros–reforms which won him popularity, but which caused some resentment and resistance among his high lords. With three sons and two daughters to spend on the marriage market, Aegon knew he could create a series of alliances with the great houses of Westeros, to win their support for his reforms. Additionally, Aegon was no supporter of the ancient Targaryen practice of wedding brother to sister, and wished to eradicate the tradition from his family:
“It had long been the custom of House Targaryen to wed brother to sister to keep the blood of the dragon pure, but for whatever cause, Aegon V had become convinced that such incestuous unions did more harm than good.” (“Aegon V”, The World of Ice and Fire)
With two willful, stubborn parents, however, all but one of the children defied Aegon’s plans. His heir Duncan spurned the Iron Throne to marry the common-born Jenny of Oldstones, while his third son Daeron rejected marriage altogether. Most importantly, for the story of Rhaegar, Jaehaerys turned down a Tully bride, falling in love and eloping with his sister Shaera (then betrothed to the heir to Highgarden). Aegon grudgingly relented to the match, but was left with the ire of two of his Lords Paramount.
Jaehaerys had wed for love, just as his father had, but while Aegon had been a minor princeling, Jaehaerys was the new heir to the Iron Throne. His marriage would have sent an immediate signal to the lords of Westeros: that Jaehaerys was of a more traditional mind than his reforming father, and that he was willing to undermine his future high lords in order to keep to this tradition. His son Aerys would later replicate Jaehaerys’ mindset in part, when the question of his own son’s marriage arose.
The marriage of Jaehaerys and Shaera produced two children: a son, Aerys, and a daughter, Rhaella. That the two would eventually wed one another was assured, not merely by the traditionalist mindset of Jaehaerys, but by a mysterious woman who came to court with Jenny of Oldstones. The prophecy she delivered would shape the futures not only of Aerys and Rhaella, but that of House Targaryen into the current age.
Born of Prophecy: The Dragon of Summerhall
The Burning of Summerhall (image credit to Marc Simonetti – portfolio here)
“I saw your father and your mother wed as well. Forgive me, but there was no fondness there, and the realm paid dearly for that, my queen.”
“Why did they wed if they did not love each other?”
“Your grandsire commanded it. A woods witch had told him that the prince that was promised would be born of their line.” – Barristan Selmy, to Daenerys Targaryen, (A Dance with Dragons, “Daenerys IV”)
Sometime between 240 AC (when Jaehaerys and Shaera wed) and shortly before 259 AC (when Prince Rhaegar was born), Jenny of Oldstones brought to court a woods witch of whom she had become fond. This woman – dwarfish, elderly, and believed by Jenny to be a mythical child of the forest – prophesied that that prince that was promised – a long-foretold hero of Valyrian (and potentially even older) legend, sent to deliver humanity from darkness – would be born from the line of Aerys and Rhaella. Jaehaerys was so seized by the woods witch’s prophetic utterance that he commanded his children to wed.
If Jaehaerys’ idea to base his only heir’s marriage on a millennia-old prophecy seems somewhat strange, keep in mind that the Targaryens had a long history, before and after the Doom, with prophecy, connected with their genetic ability to receive visions of the future in dreams. Daenys the Dreamer, a direct ancestress of the royal Targaryen line, had compelled her family to retire to Dragonstone from their home in the Freehold, proclaiming that Valyria would be destroyed (as it was, not 12 years after her family made the move). Nor was her vision an isolated incident: Daenys wrote an entire book of her prophecies, called Signs and Portents. King Aerys I, uncle to Aegon V, was deeply interested in written prophecies, and had discovered through his research a prophecy that the mighty dragons of House Targaryen’s past would return:
Egg lowered his voice. “Someday the dragons will return. My brother Daeron’s dreamed of it, and King Aerys read it in a prophecy. Maybe it will be my egg that hatches. That would be splendid.” (Egg, “The Mystery Knight”)
The Daeron of Aegon’s quote was his elder brother, Daeron “the Drunken” Targaryen, whose prescient dreaming also made an appearance at the Tourney of Ashford:
“My dreams are not like yours, Ser Duncan. Mine are true. They frighten me. You frighten me. I dreamed of you and a dead dragon, you see. A great beast, huge, with wings so large they could cover this meadow. It had fallen on top of you, but you were alive and the dragon was dead.” (Daeron Targaryen, “The Hedge Knight”)
Nor was this power limited to the legitimate branch of House Targaryen. Daemon Blackfyre, third son of the “Black Dragon”, confessed not one but three prophetic dreams to Ser Duncan while at the Tourney of Whitewalls:
“Why,” the Fiddler said, “I dreamed that you were all in white from head to heel, with a long pale cloak flowing from those broad shoulders. You were a White Sword, ser, a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard, the greatest knight in all the Seven Kingdoms, and you lived for no other purpose but to guard and serve and please your king.”
“I dreamed it. This pale white castle, you, a dragon bursting from an egg, I dreamed it all, just as I once dreamed of my brothers lying dead. They were twelve and I was only seven, so they laughed at me, and died. I am two-and-twenty now, and I trust my dreams.” (Daemon Blackfyre, “The Mystery Knight”)
Two important characteristics can be seen in both Daeron’s and Daemon’s dreams. First, while Dunk, as the real individual he is, appears in both, the “dragon” in each dream represents not a physical beast, but a living Targaryen. The “great dragon” of Daeron’s dream was the valiant Baelor Breakspear, who collapsed onto Dunk as he died at the Tourney; the hatching dragon of the Fiddler’s dream was young Egg, who asserted himself as a Targaryen while helping to unravel the Blackfyre conspiracy afoot. Second, in both cases, the men who received these visions had an absolute trust in their truthfulness, and take real action based on their dreams. Daeron admitted his dream to Dunk in fear that he was the dragon, and that the combat trial of which both of them were a part would prove his death; Daemon tried to ignite a second Blackfyre Rebellion based on his confidence in a dragon (the traditional Targaryen trump card) hatching for him at Whitewalls. Their trust reflects a larger Targaryen dependence on prophecies as a means of their salvation, triumph, or both.
Despite the epic consequences of their prophesied union, neither Aerys nor Rhaella wished to marry each other. Aerys had fallen in love with Joanna Lannister, a cousin of the heir to Casterly Rock (and fast friend of Aerys), Tywin, and was even rumored to have enjoyed a sexual relationship with her before her betrothal. Rhaella, for her part, had been crowned Queen of Love and Beauty at a tourney by the young landed knight Ser Bonifer Hasty, and may have developed romantic feelings toward him.
Aegon had planned to force his own children into alliances to further his political goals, but in the end allowed each of his sons to follow his own feelings. Why did Aegon then allow Jaehaerys to command his own children to marry one another, when neither wished for the match? As noted before, Targaryens knew the power of prophecies, especially the prophetic visions received by some Targaryens in dreams. Moreover, towards the end of his reign, Aegon became obsessed with the idea of hatching dragon eggs, believing dragons to be the only force capable of ensuring his pro-smallfolk reforms were enacted by the high lords. That Aegon had also dreamed of a dragon hatching at his father’s former seat is likely, given that the king took seven of his House’s precious dragon eggs, along with a number of pyromancers, with him to Summerhall in 259 AC.
This obsession led directly to what is known as the Tragedy of Summerhall. Instead of receiving a dragon, Aegon instead perished in a great conflagration, alongside Prince Duncan, Lord Commander Duncan the Tall, and many of his court. Yet all was not tragic at Summerhall, for on that day Rhaella (who was present, and likely rescued by Duncan the Tall) gave birth to Rhaegar, the last Targaryen Prince of Dragonstone. It was a birth amidst smoke (the burning palace) and salt (the tears of those who wept for the tragedy’s victims), the very requirements of the prince that was promised.
Yet instead of being a savior, the dragon hatched at Summerhall would actually cause the collapse of his own house. There is a sense of prophetic irony at play here, in keeping with classical tradition. Consider Croesus, King of Lydia. While preparing to war against Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia, Croesus consulted the famous oracle at Delphi, who prophesied that if Croesus proceeded with his campaign he would destroy a great empire; Croesus went to battle, but ended up destroying his own kingdom against the Persian force. Martin himself cited a (probably apocryphal) story of a knight from the Wars of the Roses when discussing his own use of prophecy in the series; this knight zealously avoided a castle where he had been told he would die, yet when he was found dead his body was resting by an inn whose sign had an image of that very castle. Likewise, Rhaegar’s birth is the beginning of Martin’s twist on expectations of the prince’s story; multiple prophecies appeared to be fulfilled at his birth, but appearances–and prophecies–are often deceiving.
So literally from birth, Rhaegar is burdened by destiny and prophecy. He owes his existence to his grandfather’s belief in prophecy, and seems at his birth to meet the requirements of the foretold prince that was promised. Yet dueling this strong adherence to prophecy is an equally strong notion of marriage for love. A prince can marry for duty or for love: he can further his own (or his father’s) political or prophetic desires, or he can seek love for its own sake. These two contending notions would come to a head in Rhaegar’s own life, to the destruction of himself and his house.
When You Don’t Have a Sister to Wed #targaryenproblems
The Dragonlords of Valyria (image credit to Magali Villenueve – portfolio here)
The dragon kings had wed brother to sister, but they were the blood of Old Valyria where such practices had been common, and like their dragons the Targaryens answered to neither gods nor men. – Catelyn Stark, (A Clash of Kings, “Catelyn IV”)
All of this comes as (somewhat lengthy) prelude to explain the problem of marriage faced by Prince Rhaegar as he came of age.
By the time Rhaegar came into his majority in 275 AC, Rhaella had yet to produce another surviving Targaryen. The queen had suffered a number of miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths during her marriage to Aerys, which had only served to make her husband suspicious of foul play. He punished first his wife (with imprisonment in Maegor’s Holdfast), then the wetnurse (with beheading), then his own mistress (with torture, of her and her family). Only when Rhaegar turned 17 did Rhaella produce another living Targaryen, Viserys. But with the queen’s unhappy record of bearing surviving children, the odds of a sister for Rhaegar to wed being born remained low. Additionally, with only an infant brother (with multiple siblings who had died very young) as a remaining heir, Rhaegar could not afford to wait for Rhaella to produce a sister (and for that girl to mature) before he had an heir or his own.
Nor could Rhaegar look to cousins or other family members for a bride. Neither of his great-uncles, Prince Duncan (whose descendants may have have been considered morganatic and unmarriageable anyway) and Prince Daeron (who had died unmarried, fighting in a rebellion), left issue, while his great-aunt Rhaelle had had only one child, Steffon, with Lord Ormund Baratheon before the latter died in 260 AC. As a direct consequence of his grandfather’s generation’s willfulness in marriage, Rhaegar was left without a close relative to wed, to continue the Targaryen tradition revived by Jaehaerys II.
Tywin Lannister, Hand of the King, thought he had an answer for the marriage and succession problem: his own daughter, Cersei. Lord Tywin foresaw a match between his daughter and Aerys’ son as the perfect expression of the king’s trust in his Hand, Aerys and Tywin’s personal closeness, and the union of the crown and the richest and (arguably) most powerful House in Westeros. He planned a tourney in Lannisport in 276, in honor of the new prince’s birth, at which time he expected the betrothal to be announced.
His scheme, however, was frustrated by King Aerys. Never the same man after his capture and rough treatment during the Defiance of Duskendale, Aerys had grown paranoid and fearful of the power of his nobility and, especially, his Hand. Instead of consenting to an Aegon V-like scheme of marriage between a Lord Paramount’s daughter and a Targaryen prince, Aerys callously dismissed Tywin as little more than a crown servant, too lowly to for his daughter to wed the heir to the Iron Throne. In 278, Aerys sent his cousin Steffon Baratheon on a mission to the Free Cities, there to find a Valyrian-blooded bride for his son. It was an insult to Aegon V’s marriage alliances plan, and a reaffirmation of his father Jaehaerys’ traditionalist view of conserving the “blood of the dragon” within Targaryen (and likewise Valyrian-descended) families.
One may wonder why Aerys looked east, instead of internally, for a bride for his son. After all, the Targaryens had wed the Velaryons–a likewise Valyrian-descended family, although not as exalted as the Targaryens in the Freehold–since before the conquest, the Conqueror’s own mother being a Velaryon. Yet no Velaryon had been wed to a Targaryen since the reign of Aegon III. The Velaryons may not have had an eligible daughter to offer, or paranoid Aerys–despite his employment of Lucerys Velaryon on his council–may have seen any Westerosi match, even with a family so historically loyal as the Velaryons, as a threat to his person.
Essos, by contrast, offered two advantages for Aerys. One, the blood of the Valyrian Freehold remained strong, particularly in Lys and Volantis:
The blood of Valyria still runs strong in Lys, where even the smallfolk oft boast pale skin, silver-gold hair, and the purple, lilac, and pale blue eyes of the dragonlords of old. The Lysene nobility values purity of blood above all … (“Lys”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Only those who can trace their ancestry back to Old Valyria are allowed to dwell within the Black Walls … (“Volantis”, The World of Ice and Fire)
For a man whose own father had reverted to the traditional Valyrian practice of incestuous marriage, such qualities would have been prized indeed. Second, and equally as importantly, a maiden of the Free Cities could not hope to find natural allies in Westeros. Both the Norvoshi Mellario, Prince Doran’s consort, and the Lyseni Larra Rogare, wife of Viserys II, eventually abandoned their families and returned to the cities of their birth, unable to completely integrate themselves into Westerosi culture; the Myrish Lady Serala Darklyn had been villainized even by those who remained faithful to Denys Darklyn in his Defiance. An Essosi bride would always remain a foreigner, without natural allies in Westeros–allies she and Rhaegar might use to topple the Mad King.
Rhaegar himself was not yet in a position to make the choice his grandfather and great-uncles had made, between obeying the political machinations of the father or chasing a chance at love. Melancholy and introverted, the Prince of Dragonstone was a skilled knight but had no close friend save Ser Arthur Dayne. Additionally, Prince Rhaegar was a well-learned young man, and convinced of his own identity as the long-awaited prince that was promised; prophecy may have consumed his life, but it had not yet worked its way into his marriage or his romantic desires.
Lord Steffon’s mission was not a success; not only was no eligible maiden of Valyrian blood found in Essos, but Steffon himself perished on the voyage home. Aerys would have to look elsewhere for a bride for his son. He did indeed find one, but the story of their union is a tale for another time.
Thanks for reading! In Part 2, we’ll examine the marriage of, and relationship between, Prince Rhaegar and Elia Martell.