Who is Lyanna Stark on 'Game of Thrones?' How Will She Shape Season 8's Final Episodes?

Jon Snow's late parents are influencing 'Game of Thrones' from beyond the grave.

No single character has mattered more to both the beginning and end of Game of Thrones than Lyanna Stark, but the most important character on Game of Thrones is also one of the fantasy series' most obscure, going completely unseen until Season 6. Her decisions shaped the past—creating the Westeros we see in the very first episode of the series—and will determine its future, including who will sit on the Iron Throne when Game of Thrones comes to an end in Season 8 (premiering on HBO April 14). So who is Lyanna Stark? Who is her husband, Rhaegar Targaryen? And what does Jon Snow's parents, real name and family tree mean for the Season 8 end of Game of Thrones ?

Who is Lyanna Stark?

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For much of "Game of Thrones," this is the best look we get at Lyanna Stark. HBO

On Game of Thrones Lyanna Stark is played by Aisling Franciosi (The Fall), though the character is unseen through most of the series. Instead, she is talked about. A lot.

We first learn about Lyanna Stark early in the very first episode of Game of Thrones. King Robert Baratheon, visiting Winterfell to ask Eddard Stark to serve as Hand to the King, ditches his wife Cersei to visit the castle's underground catacomb. He reminisces about wooing Lyanna with feathers from southern birds and about killing Rhaegar Targaryen, oldest son of the "Mad King" Aerys II Targaryen. Eddard and Robert both believe Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna. For Eddard, Lyanna's death was the loss of a sister, for Robert, the loss of his betrothed. Together, they are the two central figures of Robert's Rebellion, begun on Lyanna's behalf.

Since we see more of Lyanna as a statue in the Winterfell crypt than a living human, it's worth looking at how she's depicted in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (ASOIAF), which paints a more complete picture of Jon Snow's mother. Just like on Game of Thrones, Lyyanna is more a background figure than an active character in ASOIAF. She's described differently by several characters, but Eddard sees a resemblance between his younger sister and his daughter Arya, in both looks and personality.

Who is Rhaegar Targaryen?

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Jon Snow's parents, Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, on "Game of Thrones." HBO

Like his wife, Lyanna Stark, Rhaegar Targaryen died years before the events of Game of Thrones. On Game of Thrones, Rhaegar is played by Wilf Scolding (Bees Make Honey).

The oldest son of the Mad King, and heir to the throne, Rhaegar was married to Elia Martell, with whom he had two children (slaughtered by Gregor Clegane a.k.a The Mountain after the Lannisters turned on the Targaryen king). Rhaegar was well-liked—a wise and temperate ruler in waiting—but he couldn't bring himself to go against his increasingly mad father, instead trusting that the king's Hand, Tywin Lannister, could keep Aerys in check.

Rhaegar may have sealed his own fate at a jousting tournament held at Harrenhal. After winning the tournament, Rhaegar gave the victor's wreath to Lyanna, spurning his wife and infuriating Lyanna's betrothed, Robert Baratheon. A year later, Rhaegar would "abduct" Lyanna, setting in motion Robert's Rebellion and his eventual defeat at the Battle of the Trident.

As with Lyanna, we get a better picture of Rhaegar in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. We know he had purple eyes, like many of the Targaryens. He was taller than Viserys, but with similar hair. Rhaegar was just as much a musician as a warrior, known for his talents as a harpist. He was also a ravenous reader. The books on which HBO's Game of Thrones are based portray Rhaegar as a good man dragged into a terrible conflict by his increasingly insane father.

Robert's Rebellion was Built on a Lie

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Bran witnessing the secret marriage of his aunt, Lyanna, to the Targaryen heir, Rhaegar. HBO

Robert's Rebellion took place seventeen years before the events of Game of Thrones and began after Rhaegar "kidnapped" Lyanna Stark, an event which is revealed, years later, to have a much different explanation than what the Starks believed. Outraged at the eldest Targaryen son, Eddard's oldest brother, Brandon Stark, confronted the Mad King, who had him imprisoned, then summoned Lord Rickard Stark, their father, to King's Landing. The Targaryen king burned Rickard alive, in the throne room and also executed Brandon.

Eddard and Robert rebelled, starting a war that divided Westeros. Soon after Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar Targaryen in combat the Lannisters, seeing the tide of the conflict turn, betrayed the Targaryen king. The Mad King, sensing defeat, planned to burn down King's Landing around him until Jaime Lannister, a member of the Aerys' kingsguard, assassinated him despite having sworn an oath to defend The Mad King with his life.. As Tywin Lannister sacked King's Landing and Jaime Lannister killed the king, Rhaegar's mother Queen Rhaella fled the capital and gave birth to Daenerys Targaryen at Dragonstone. From there, Daenerys and Rhaegar's brother Viserys were smuggled out of Westeros, setting in motion the chain of events that bring us, inevitably, to Daenerys' reinvasion of Westeros in Season 7 and 8. Robert Baratheon declared himself king and took the Iron Throne, ending the three-century Targaryen dynasty.

But Robert's Rebellion was built on a lie. Eddard and Robert were wrong to believe Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna. As Bran Stark tells Samwell Tarly at the end of Game of Thrones Season 7, "Robert's Rebellion was built on a lie. Rhaegar didn't kidnap my aunt, or rape her. He loved her. And she loved him."

Jon Snow's Parents on Game of Thrones

Rhaegar and Lyanna ran off together to the Red Mountains in Dorne, where they hid in a castle called the Tower of Joy. There, the High Septon granted Rhaegar an annulment and wed him to Lyanna. After Rhaegar's death, Ned Stark came to the Tower of Joy to rescue his sister. When Eddard finds her she had just given birth, but was dying because of complications during labor. "His name is Aegon Targaryen. You have to protect him. Promise me, Ned," Lyanna tells Eddard before dying.

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Eddard Stark finds his sister Lyanna dying in the Tower of Joy soon after the birth of Aegon Targaryen, who he would name Jon Snow to keep the child's royal lineage hidden. HBO

Eddard Stark, newly the lord of Winterfell, concocted a lie, raising Jon Snow as his own bastard son.

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen Related

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow are related, though they don't yet know it. Daenerys, the youngest sister of Jon's father, is actually his aunt. And since Snow is the son and heir of Rhaegar, who was himself next in line to rule Westeros, Snow has the better claim to the Iron Throne.

For years, Game of Thrones fans have speculated on Snow's true parentage, with most subscribing to the "R+L=J" theory—Rhaegar plus Lyanna equals Jon. Though often described as a fan theory, the evidence was abundant for close readers of the series. The truth was revealed in Season 6 of Game of Thrones (which beat the ASOIAF series to the punch), when Bran used his greenseer powers to see into the past and watch his father assault the Tower of Joy. The Season 7 finale provided crucial context, confirming that Jon Snow is not a bastard but a legitimate Targaryen heir.

The reveal of Jon Snow's real parents and real name is likely to be one of the most consequential moments in Game of Thrones Season 8. In the very first episode of Game of Thrones we hear one version of Lyanna's life. In the most recent episode, the Season 7 finale, it's inverted. The future of Westeros turns on the truth of Lyanna's choices. Without her, there would be no one to protect the North and all of Westeros from the army of the dead. Determining both the past and future of Game of Thrones , Lyanna and Rhaegar are two characters whose legacies are essential to understanding where Game of Thrones will head in its final season.

Game of Thrones Season 8 premieres April 14 on HBO.

Who is Lyanna Stark on 'Game of Thrones?' How Will She Shape Season 8's Final Episodes? | Culture