Lore of Thrones: Explaining the history behind Game of Thrones’ big face-off

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HBO’s Game of Thrones is a dense series with a huge weight of history behind its story, so in practically every episode, something happens that could use a little explanation. So every week, The Verge will be diving into a scene or event from the latest installment of the series and explain how we got here. Whether you’re basically a Game of Thrones maester or you need a little reminder about previous events, we’ll try to help you keep your history straight.

Game of Thrones is a much a show about politics as it is about war, intrigue, and the occasionally gratuitous violence and nudity that the show is occasionally known for. So to truly explain the events of tonight’s episode, we’ll be looking back across centuries of Westerosi history to make sense of the long-awaited meeting in “The Queen’s Justice.”

Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 7, episode 3

Daenerys and Jon Snow go head to head

It’s been one of the most anticipated moments in the seven seasons of the show: Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen — arguably the two closest things the ensemble cast of Game of Thrones have to actual protagonists — finally met in tonight’s episode. But the meeting was momentous more for what it signified (i.e., the joining of the titular “ice” and “fire” factions that lend George R.R. Martin’s book series its collective title) than any actual events that occurred. And that’s because, as Jon and Daenerys both pointed out, there’s some seriously bad blood between the Starks and the Targaryens, spanning centuries.

The king who knelt

It all goes back to the original Targaryen conquest of Westeros, when Daenerys’ many-greats-grandfather, Aegon the Conquerer, used his dragons to take over the Seven Kingdoms. One of those seven kingdoms was the north, ruled over by the last King in the North, Torrhen Stark. Faced with Aegon and his dragons, Torrhen chose to swear fealty to Aegon instead of fighting the Targaryen host, and was branded “the King Who Knelt” by his countrymen. In exchange for his loyalty, Torrhen was made Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, a position the Stark family continued to hold for centuries, until the era of the current series. While the Starks may not have liked the arrangement, loyalty to their word is sort of the family’s thing.

Daenerys’ argument to Jon Snow is simple — recognize her as the Targaryen queen of the Seven Kingdoms, like Torrhen did Aegon, and continue to serve as generations of Stark lords have served before.

jon snow

jon snow

It was the dragons we bowed to…

Times have changed in the North since Aegon’s conquest. During the War of the Five Kings, the North rebelled against the Iron Throne — as Greatjon Umber phrases it during Robb’s coronation, “It was the dragons we bowed to, and now the dragons are dead.” After all, if Torrhen only knelt to Aegon’s dragons, the North has no obligation to serve a Lannister king who commands no dragons. And as Daenerys and Cersei are both finding out, once people have declared their kingdoms as independent again, it’s a bit of a tough sell to get them to come back peacefully.

Robert’s Rebellion and the Mad King

But beyond the fact that the North has already declared its own king (or two) and proclaimed itself a separate kingdom again, the Starks turned against the Targaryen dynasty before the show even started.

As Jon argues back, Ned Stark — loyal, faithful Ned, who is so honest and good that it literally gets him and almost his entire family killed — turned his back on the Targaryens that so many of his ancestors served as Warden of the North. And he made that decision because of the atrocities of Mad King Aerys II, Daenerys’ father. Aerys killed Ned’s father (Lord Rickard Stark) and older brother (Brandon Stark) after Brandon attempted to save his sister, Lyanna Stark, from Rhaegar Targaryen, who allegedly abducted Lyanna. More on that in a second. In response to Aerys murdering his family, Ned joined Robert Baratheon and Jon Arryn in rebelling against Targaryen rule, putting the events of Game of Thrones in motion.

Photo: HBO

R + L = J

That brings us back to the impasse in tonight’s episode — Daenerys demands that Jon fulfill the oaths Torrhen took, and Jon argues that Aeyrs’ betrayal of the Starks is a valid reason to stand independent. The irony is that, as long theorized by fans (and possibly revealed by Bran’s visions last season), the inciting incident of this whole conflict — Rhaegar’s “abduction” of Lyanna — was likely due to the pair actually being secretly in love, leading to the birth of Jon Snow. Jon would still be a bastard, though: Rhaegar didn’t produce Lyanna and smooth things over with the Starks because she was off giving birth to Jon in the Tower of Joy, and also because he was already married to Elia Martell, Oberyn’s sister. (Because everyone is related here.) She was later raped and killed by Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane during Robert’s Rebellion, leading to Oberyn’s quest for revenge, which resulted in his own untimely death. In any event, Jon’s parentage remains a secret for now, except perhaps to the new Three-Eyed Raven, Bran Stark, who seems to be hoping to talk with Jon…

For now, it seems things are largely at a standstill — Jon refuses to bow to Daenerys, and Daenerys seems content to leave Jon to his devices on the island mining dragonglass for the war she doesn’t believe is real. But while history shaped where they are, it doesn’t control where they go together from here.

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