The question of Jon Snow’s parentage is a complex one. In this article, we propose to tackle it by laying out what facts we know of his birth and its timing in relation to the war and then surveying the potential parents in terms of where they were likely to be at the time of his conception. We will then focus on the possible pairings to see which are the likeliest. This article will make heavy reference to the FAQ entry on Robert’s Rebellion:
We know from this e-mail that Jon’s birth is 8-9 months prior to Daenerys’s, and that Daenerys is born almost precisely 9 months after the death of Rhaegar and the Sack of King’s Landing (I: 25). This would place Jon’s birth within one month, give or take, of the Sack. As we know the war lasts “close” to a year which is often just referred to as a “year” (I: 96, 233), suggesting 10-11 months is likelier than 9 months. Given this, his conception seems to have been between 1-3 months into the war. Interestingly, this contradicts suggestions from Catelyn and Ned that Jon was concieved some time after Robb’s conception (in itself an event taking place several months into the war), so either GRRM is mistaken or he has accidentally clarified a piece of information which was intended to be obfuscated in the series (I: 54, 92). Our own view is that the latter is the case, as GRRM is rather precise about the relative birthdates in a way that seems too absolute to be a random error.
Finally, considering the genetics of the series and Jon’s very Stark-like features—grey eyes, brown hair, long face—it seems safe to suppose that any viable theory must include a minimum of one Stark in the equation, or one person whose features are similar to a Stark’s. A common point of reference in some discussions has been the tournament at Harrenhal, which seems to have happened a minimum of several months prior to the war, and for purposes of the discussion is unimportant beyond noting that due to the timing Jon Snow could not have been concieved there.
Examining the locations of potential mothers and fathers in light of the above may be helpful.
Wylla: Now a servant of House Dayne, and possibly such even at the time of the war, the general belief is that she must have been in the company of Lady Ashara Dayne to be Jon’s mother. If this is the case, the question is where Lady Ashara could have been approximately 1-3 months into the war. What we might say is that they do not appear to have been in King’s Landing, at least, at this time due to the fact that it would certainly be a noticeable discrepancy with the publicly-accepted notion that the child is Eddard Stark’s. For this to be plausible, the women must have been in some less known location which Eddard Stark could plausibly have reached roughly around the time of the child’s conception. It is also possible that Wylla did not enter the service of House Dayne until some time during or even after the war, which would make her location much more difficult to pin down. Wylla’s appearance is unknown.
Ashara Dayne: As above, we seem to be able to safely say they were not at King’s Landing, at least, for the belief that Ashara Dayne is Jon Snow’s mother to be generally considered plausible. Moreover, one can infer from previous remarks from GRRM that Ashara Dayne was not a companion of Elia’s in the last year of her marriage, at minimum (SSM), which would coincide with the war. Ashara Dayne is described as very beautiful, with dark hair and violet eyes.
Lyanna Stark: Lyanna’s location in all this is fairly well-known: with Rhaegar. We know Rhaegar, at least, was not in King’s Landing (II: 582) at the apparent start of the war and it seems probable that Lyanna was not there either. It’s later said that Rhaegar “returned from the south” towards the end of the war (III: 418), and certainly that is Lyanna’s final location (I: 354-355).
Benjen Stark: Benjen spent the war in Winterfell (SSM).
Robert Baratheon: Robert appears to have been with Eddard in the Vale when the war began (I: 21), and then went from the Vale to Storm’s End—probably by sea—which would have taken time. Certainly, two months into the war he was either on his way to Storm’s End or in its vicinity, and by four months into the war he was likely fighting his way across the Seven Kingdoms towards the riverlands. It should also be noted that Robert clearly believes Jon is Eddard Stark’s bastard son.
Howland Reed: Howland Reed’s precise location is unknown. In all likelihood he was at the Neck in the first months of the war, and then would have come down with Lord Eddard’s forces. One possibility, however, has been that he was one of the ones who first reported Rhaegar’s alleged crime against House Stark, suggesting he was in Lyanna’s vicinity at the time. Howland Reed’s appearance is unknown, although his children have brown hair and green eyes.
Arthur Dayne: While Dayne’s precise location is not explicitly noted except at the very end of the war, when he was at the tower of joy (I: 354-355), it seems probable that as Prince Rhaegar’s closest friend and companion that he likely accompanied Rhaegar from the start of the war until Rhaegar departed for King’s Landing and the Trident. This would mean he spent the entire time with Lyanna. He appears to have been violet eyed, apparently a standard Dayne trait (not, according to Martin, due to any particular Valyrian lineage), but whether he was dark haired (like Ashara) or dark (like Edric) we do not know.
Aerys Targaryen: Clearly, King Aerys spent all of his time in King’s Landing during the war.
Eddard Stark: Eddard appears to have been with Robert in the Vale when the war began (I: 21), and then went from the Vale to the North—probably by sea—and from there on to Winterfell, which would have taken time. In all likelihood, Lord Stark did not come down south of the Neck again until several months into the war. By the fourth or fifth month of the war, he and his forces were likely in the riverlands.
Rhaegar Targaryen: Until he is recalled “from the south” (III: 418) it is widely supposed that Rhaegar was always with Lyanna Stark at this time.
What can we make of this?
Benjen Stark: Besides being quite young, his being located in Winterfell throughout the war makes it practically impossible for him to be Jon Snow’s father, especially in relation to Lyanna whose location was obviously with Rhaegar at the time of Jon’s conception.
Robert Baratheon: Not Jon’s father. He could not be Jon’s father by Ashara Dayne, for one thing, due to the appearances of the prospective parents not fitting the Stark look at all (considering Jon’s eye color). He could not be Jon’s father by Wylla, because the name means nothing more to him than the alleged woman who fathered Eddard Stark’s bastard—it seems he probably never even met her, which makes sense since Eddard and Robert were likely moving to their respective domains and therefore were apart if Wylla is the mother. Robert and Lyanna is the only possibility here, and this requires Robert to somehow come into intimate contact with Lyanna within 3 months of the beginning of the war. This very clearly did not happen. Finally, Robert Baratheon’s black hair is a famously dominant trait, with Varys claiming that all of Robert’s bastards that he knew of by a number of different mothers came out with it (II: 178), which makes it even more unlikely that he could be Jon Snow’s father.
Howland Reed: If Wylla is the mother, it raises the question of just why all the secrecy, as well as why Eddard would claim the child as his own and as being of his own blood. If Ashara Dayne is the mother, it seems somewhat less likely that Jon Snow could come out so clearly Stark in appearance, although not impossible if Howland Reed shares those features. However, again, it does raise the question of why Eddard claimed the child as his own and as being of his own blood. Dorne seems relatively open to pre-marital relations and resulting bastardy, at least when compared to the Seven Kingdoms, so it seems it’s unlikely as an attempt to protect Lady Ashara’s honor. Finally, Howland Reed does not really seem possible as the father by Lyanna, as she was with Rhaegar and he almost certainly was not any further south than the Trident at the time of the conception. Since he would not have been in contact with Lyanna at the time of Jon Snow’s apparent conception, he is ruled out.
Arthur Dayne: Like Rhaegar, it’s not impossible for Ser Arthur to have fathered the child on Wylla or Lyanna. That said, his place as a Kingsguard—one who was considered one of the finest knights in the realm—and Eddard’s admiration seem to rule him out. There is also the question of why Eddard would claim the child as his own instead of revealing the truth.
Aerys Targaryen: Ashara Dayne is impossible, due to both having features quite different from the Starks, as well as the highly unlikely chance that she was in King’s Landing at this time. The same can be said about Wylla, unless Wylla was not in the service of the Daynes at this time, but then the whole question of just why Eddard Stark would claim her child as his own blood seems very curious; presumably it would be to protect the child from Robert’s hatred of Targaryens, but why passing the child off as his blood is a more natural and better choice than passing him off as some loyal soldier’s or something such makes this seem very doubtful. Aerys with Lyanna is the only one that could certainly work genetically, although this would require her to be in King’s Landing at around the time of conception, which does not seem to be the case. If she was with Rhaegar, she was not there when Brandon and his father were killed at what was essentially the start of the war, and she was not there by the last few months of the war. Could Rhaegar have brought her to King’s Landing at some point between the start of the war and the conception? It seems improbable, given that the area of the first three months of the war eventually featured Robert and his forces in the stormlands on the move, making such journeys hazardous.
Eddard Stark: Unless Wylla or Ashara Dayne were either in the Vale or the North in the first three months of the war, they cannot be Jon Snow’s mother. That said, given that these two are considered plausible in the book, it seems they cannot be ruled out until we have more information on their locations. We do know that it has been put about that Wylla is the mother of Jon Snow, a fact that Eddard has implied and which she has apparently claimed while in Starfall (I: 92. III: 494), and certainly there is no great reason to doubt that she was at least at some point Jon Snow’s wetnurse. This has implications for other candidates: they have to have had contact with Wylla at the same time that Eddard was alleged to have done so and we can therefore rule out Robert, Ser Arthur, and Aerys since they were not in the same locations as Eddard 1-3 months into the war. One problem with Eddard being the father by Wylla is that the lies that have haunted Eddard since the war’s end (I: 96) do not make a great deal of sense—other than perhaps allowing others to say that Rhaegar raped Lyanna if he knew that this was untrue, he would not seem to have to tell any particular lies. If Wylla is willing to share this sordid story with people at Starfall, it seems mindboggling that Eddard Stark would make a secret of it to the point of making it an issue that troubles his marriage to his wife (I: 55).
Jon being Eddard’s son by Ashara Dayne runs into the same timeline problems, as she would have to have concieved the child 1-3 months into the war during which time Eddard Stark appears to have been in the Vale and the North.
Finally, there is Lyanna. Clearly, she was with Rhaegar at this time and could never have come into contact with her brother in that timeframe. Of course, Eddard is also improbable for a host of personal reasons, such as his apparent distaste for the incestuous union of Jaime and Cersei Lannister, his never thinking anything remotely like it, and so on.
Rhaegar Targaryen: Given the detail mentioned above, if Wylla or Ashara are considered plausible mothers based on Eddard Stark’s movements, then Rhaegar Targaryen would likely have to have been in the North or the Vale at the time for him to have fathered a child on either of them, a clear impossibility. Even if we suppose that the confusion of the war has made their locations uncertain, they would then certainly have to have been in the south (i.e., in the vicinity of Dorne) for this to work. This is reasonable enough, given that Ashara is Dornish, but Ashara and Rhaegar can probably be ruled out for genetic reasons. Wylla and Rhaegar could not be ruled out similarly, however, but it does raise the question of Eddard’s claim to Jon. Finally, Rhaegar and Lyanna works best, because we have very strong evidence that he was actually with her in the entire timeframe of Jon Snow’s conception, while at best there is supposition for all other candidates and in some cases significant periods of improbability.
Given the above, we believe the strongest candidates from the above timeline-focused analysis are Rhaegar and Lyanna, Eddard and Ashara, and Eddard and Wylla in order of plausibility (most to least). Robert Baratheon seems entirely ruled out of all the potential combinations, while Howland requires great amounts of supposition to explain certain details. Aerys Targaryen with Lyanna is very distantly possible, but there is no supporting evidence. There’s also the speculative argument that since Jon Snow received a direwolf with Eddard Stark’s children, that this at least proves one of his parents must be a Stark, which lends weight to ruling out or significantly discounting all those combinations of parents which do not include at least one Stark.
Of the three options mentioned above, it is widely held that Rhaegar and Lyanna are by far the likeliest. Besides the evidence above regarding the timeline, the fact that Lyanna would provide Jon the necessary genetics to come out with the Stark look, and the obvious reasons for why Eddard would claim Jon as being his own blood on such an occasion, there is some other speculative evidence in support of it. One piece of possible evidence that has had a strong impression is Daenerys’s vision of a blue rose growing in the side of the wall (II: 515-516). As noted in the Prophecies section, this single reference appears to draw a direct connection between the story of Bael the Bard and the winter rose (in which a Stark daughter is stolen from the family, only to give the House a son by her lover), Lyanna Stark (who is associated with the blue winter roses and with Rhaegar), and Jon Snow (who is on the Wall). While it may simply be hinting at Jon’s presence on the Wall, given the significance of the blue rose that we learn of in A Clash of Kings, we find it a promising piece of evidence.
There’s also the cause of Lyanna’s death. The smell of blood and the fever that Ned recalls (I: 35-36) can certainly be read as the aftermath of childbirth and ensuing fatal illness. This is certainly suggestive that Lyanna could have had a child. It has been proposed that Lyanna was actually killed by one of the Kingsguard, or perhaps even by her own hand, but both seem to speak against the fever Ned remembers and the former, at least, seems sharply at odds of Eddard’s continuing admiration of Aerys’s Kingsguard.
Finally, there are other small hints which are certainly open to interpretation but which all share plausible interpretations pointing to Jon’s parents being Rhaegar and Lyanna, such as the juxtaposition of Lyanna’s pleading with Sansa’s in relation to the way Robert Baratheon responded to the deaths of the Targaryen children (I: 67), the presence of the Kingsguard which suggests they could have been protecting a possible heir to the throne (I: 354-355), Ned not listing Jon Snow among his children when thinking of what he would do to defend them (I: 406), and the fact that the Targaryens practiced bigamy which strengthens the possibility that a child by Rhaegar and Lyanna would be a legitimate heir to the throne (SSM). No other combination of persons really has the density of circumstantial evidence pointing towards it. While alone no single piece can provide a certain answer, the weight of them does make it seem very plausible.
Common objections to the “Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon” theory and brief responses to them:
“It’s obvious”: There is extensive anecdotal evidence—in the form of individuals new to the fandom expressing surprise when first introduced to the theory, because they themselves did not “connect the dots”—that this is not true. Moreover, some alternative theories—that Ned and Ashara or Ned and Wylla are Jon’s parents—are clearly far more “obvious”, since they are the ones explicitly put forward in the series. If obviousness is a factor that matters, then we can rule those combinations out.
“It’s cliche”: The response to this is that the basic idea is certainly cliche, but how it plays out is a complete mystery. If Martin turns it on his head by revealing that, yes, Jon is the “rightful heir” but that Jon is not going to become ruler (through death, politics, or choice), that adds another layer of complication and complexity to the story without playing out in a cliche manner. Jon could even end up ruling the Seven Kingdoms and it could be approached in a manner that rises above the underlying cliche. In the end, we simply do not know. What we do know is that the author often subverts fantasy tropes and cliches.
“It makes Daenerys unimportant”: The dragon has three heads, and has been something we’ve known since A Clash of Kings. Clearly, she is one of the heads of the dragon. If anything “intrudes” on this, it’s by design, and probably what it really means is that the story is going to be more complex than just, “Daenerys is the great heroine who matters above and beyond everyone else.”
“It romanticizes Rhaegar and Lyanna”: It can certainly lend itself to it. The author has pretty much played with notions of romantic tragedy from the start, with the beautiful image of the winter roses as a link between Lyanna and Rhaegar. That said, even if Lyanna is not Jon’s mother, the fact is that clearly Rhaegar and Lyanna had some sort of relationship which did indeed lead to a horrible tragedy. Why it played out as it did, we don’t know. We do have good reason to know why Rhaegar believed what he was doing was necessary, but certainly we can question the sanity of plunging a kingdom into war over some notion that you’ve deciphered a prophecy in which you (through your children) play a central role. But then, we’ve been told more than once about the loose relationship the Targaryens have with sanity.