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

Tower of … Blood.


This article originally appeared in Vulture.

On Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, viewers who had read George R.R. Martin’s novels finally got a scene they’d been waiting for since 2011, when Bran Stark and the Three-Eyed Raven took a delightful time-travel trip to see Bran’s father fight a bunch of dudes in front of a lonely tower. But, as book readers know, that tower was not just any tower. It was the Tower of Joy, and for five years fans had been wondering when it would turn up onscreen, in the hope that it would confirm one particular Song of Ice and Fire fan theory—a theory so widespread it’s generally considered canon.

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 is much much less glamorous: He just stabbed 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 clues for the Game of Thrones fan theory to end all fan theories. 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. 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.)

While this idea—usually represented by the equation “R+L=J”—is technically still just a theory in the books, it’s a theory in the way gravity’s a theory. No one’s come up with anything better, so we all just sort of agree it’s 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 1 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. As Sunday night’s episode proved, though, this isn’t a reveal that Benioff and Weiss want to drop on us all at once. They want to string it out a bit, probably so that viewers are introduced to the idea at the same time Jon is.

How does 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 did the missing Benjen Stark (Jon’s uncle no matter who his dad is) figure out the truth, which he’ll reveal after making a surprise re-appearance? Or will Bran himself be the one to break the news? Whatever the answer, the show’s caginess about what exactly was going on in the Tower on Sunday should prove that R+L=J is on the table, and it’s only a matter of time until book fans get the vindication they’ve been waiting years for.

See also: Why It’s a Misconception That Game of Thrones Has Gone “Off-Book”