Why Game of Thrones’ Tower of Joy Flashback Is So Important

Tower of … Blood. Photo: HBO

This post was originally published in May. We have updated it to reflect the events of Sunday night’s finale.

On Sunday night’s season-six finale of Game of Thrones, viewers who had read George R.R. Martin’s novels finally got confirmation for the show’s longest-running fan theory when Bran Stark used his his greenseeing powers to see the exciting conclusion of Ned Stark’s visit to the Tower of Joy. What did he see? His father taking a little-bitty baby away from his dying sister, and deciding to raise it on his own. Yes, finally, it appears that R plus L really does equal J — or, since there’s no need for secrecy anymore, Rhaegar Targaryen plus Lyanna Stark equals Jon Snow.

The Tower of Joy scene appears early in Martin’s novels, in elliptical references that pop up in Ned Stark’s memory throughout the first book: Promise me, Ned. Near the end of the book, once Ned ends up in the Black Cells, these turn into a full-fledged flashback, where Ned recalls the battle that took place there. It was the end of Robert’s Rebellion, nearly 20 years earlier, and Ned rode with six Northern companions to find his sister, Lyanna, who had been abducted by the Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. (The Lyanna-Rhaegar thing was introduced all the way back in the pilot, but if you need a refresher: Lyanna was betrothed to Robert Baratheon; Rhaegar took her; Robert launched a rebellion and eventually killed Rhaegar; and Lyanna died of unknown causes.)

They found her at the Tower of Joy, in the mountains that formed the border with Dorne. Guarding her were three men of the Kingsguard, including Ser Arthur Dayne, the best swordsman of the age, who carried a white sword named Dawn said to be forged from a meteor. (In the show, it’s only two; sorry Ser Oswell Whent!) Like some Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of World War II, the Kingsguard did not think that the end of the war was any sort of reason to lay down their arms, and they dueled the Northerners to the death. In the end, only Ned and Howland Reed (father of Meera and Jojen) survived. Though Ned often said he would have died if not for Howland, how exactly the two men came out on top had been a mystery. Some fans thought Howland might have skin-changed into Dayne at a crucial moment; others delighted in imagining him using a crannogman weapon, like a net or a spear, to save the day. In the show, at least, the answer was much much less glamorous: Howland Reed just stabbed Arthur Dayne in the back. You can see why Ned might think a lie of omission would be the right way to go there.

In the Song of Ice and Fire community, the Tower of Joy scene is a reader favorite, in part because it contains some of Martin’s most sparsely evocative prose. Here’s a fan video of the scene, which uses Roy Dotrice’s audiobook narration:

Of course, that wasn’t the only reason people love it, as the scene also contains a whole bunch of clues for something bigger. Besides the presence of the Kingsguard, the Tower scene also includes a reference to Lyanna dying in a “bed of blood,” and the implication that Ned swore to obey her last wish, details that made their way faithfully into the show version. It all adds up to an idea that either blew your mind when you figured it out for yourself, or blew your mind slightly less when you heard about it from the internet: that Lyanna died giving birth to a child fathered by Rhaegar, and made Ned promise to raise the kid himself … and that kid grew up to be Jon Snow. (Another scenario where Ned chose to employ a very strategic lie of omission.)

Before the season-six finale, this idea was technically still just a theory in the books, but it was a theory in the way gravity’s a theory. No one came up up with anything better, so we all just sort of agreed it was true. Remember the story about how showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to correctly answer Martin’s question about the identity of Jon Snow’s mother before they were allowed to adapt the series? An answer of “Lyanna Stark” would have indicated they’d passed Thrones 101.

For years, fans debated how this mystery of Jon Snow’s parentage, which was probably very important to the series’ endgame, would be answered in the show. Season one came and went without Ned having any visions in the Black Cells, and the show’s no-flashbacks policy seemingly indicated the Tower of Joy would be excised entirely. Fortunately, Bran’s vision quests provide a handy way to introduce such backstory without the show getting too bogged down in exposition. But as the earlier episodes proved, this wasn’t a reveal that Benioff and Weiss wanted to drop on us all at once. They strung it out, so we found the truth of Jon’s heritage the same night he was proclaimed King in the North.

How will Jon himself find out? This is one of those areas where book readers are as much in the dark as everyone else; the last time we saw Jon in the novels, he was way too preoccupied with all those people stabbing him to worry too much about his mom. The battle at the Tower of Joy still has one living participant — will Howland Reed simply show up and give Jon the answer in a lengthy monologue, just like Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction? Or will Bran himself be the one to spill? Whatever the answer, it will be interesting to see the effect the news has on Jon himself. The man’s already come back from the dead, how much big news can one man take?

Why GOT’s Tower of Joy Flashback Is So Important