I’ve been wanting to write something about Game of Thrones ahead of the premiere for weeks now and have been COMPLETELY PARALYZED for reasons that are probably best explored with a professional and not my audience. The problem, I think, is that in part I wanted to write something different from what everyone else has already written (WHO WILL DIE? WHO WILL WIN THE IRON THRONE? WHO WILL DROGON EAT FIRST?) and in part, I wanted to avoid writing something stupid that would be proven to be completely wrong within five minutes of the first episode airing. My husband suggested that I do a post on the episodes that you should watch before the new season began, but there have been a number of those articles and, frankly, I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of each episode, so.
Instead, I’ve decided to focus my attention on a pair of themes and one narrative device that I believe point to how this story will end — in the broadest of terms. While making up wild theories can be fun, the best theories — the ones that often pan out — tend to be rooted in very traditional storytelling techniques: character arcs, overarching themes and motifs, and the art of foreshadowing. While there are several major themes woven through Game of Thrones, I’ve chosen to focus on just two of them mostly for expediency as I tend to suffer from a bit of logorrhea. That said, there are many other important themes worth talking about in depth: the use of magic and time travel; power and politics; the importance of religion; the corruption of the natural world; and how morality is not binary, but rather exists on a spectrum.
But! I don’t have time for that, and instead am going to focus this post on the issue of identity.
Throughout Game of Thrones, characters struggle with questions about who they are and how they fit into their world — a world (not unlike our own) that defines you by your family name and where you grew up. The most obvious example of a character’s journey to self-discovery is Jon Snow who spends the majority of the narrative believing incorrectly that he is the bastard son of Ned Stark. But there are countless other examples of characters whose identities are hidden, whose names change, and who are searching to answer the fundamental question: who am I?
Just a few examples of how these identity issues are illustrated in our story: the crisis that ignites the War of the Five Kings is the grand lie that Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella are Baratheon children, when in fact they are Lannister bastards; most characters spend the entire story wrestling with nicknames that they are stuck with, fairly or otherwise, like The Kingslayer or The Hound or The Imp; some characters deliberately misrepresent themselves like the Faceless Men or Melisandre; and then there are the characters who begin as human but become something … else, like the wights, the Night King and Bran, our Three-Eyed Raven.
Identity issues, they’re everywhere!
Theon Greyjoy, for instance. For a secondary character, Theon’s search for self-knowledge is as complicated as any.
When Theon was eight, he was taken as a ward of the Starks after his father, Balon, was all, “KING ROBERT IS SOME BULLSHIT AND IMMA BE KING OF THE IRON ISLANDS” and rebelled unsuccessfully. But the Starks being the Starks, Theon was not raised not as a prisoner, but alongside their children. As a result, when our story begins, Theon considers himself almost a brother to Robb and a superior to Jon, but he is always conscious of the fact that he is not actually one of Ned’s children. He has one or two insecurity issues as a result.
During his war with the Lannisters, Robb sends Theon to the Iron Islands to seek an alliance with Balon, but when Theon arrives at home for the first time in a decade, his father is disgusted with his northern manner of dress and general attitude. Theon, desperate for acceptance as a Greyjoy (and feeling a little rejected by Robb for being sent on this mission in the first place) …
… agrees to conquer Winterfell for his father. To make it official, Theon is baptized in the Iron Island’s faith, the Drowned God, thereby formally reclaiming his Greyjoy identity and shedding his Stark-ness.
Theon does take Winterfell, and goes so far as to kill two of the men who helped raise him, Ser Roderick and Maester Luwin (albeit indirectly), and two innocent children who he claims are Bran and Rickon (another instance of false identities). However, Winterfell is soon invaded by northern bannermen led by Ramsay Snow who takes Theon hostage. Ramsay tortures Theon and strips him of literally everything: his manhood, his pride, his very name, nicknaming him “Reek” and turning him into a terrified and obedient servant.
Later, Theon’s sister Yara attempts to save Theon, but he refuses to leave with her, insisting that he is “Reek,” not Theon. It is only when his Stark foster sister Sansa returns to Winterfell and he witnesses Ramsay brutalizing her, it is only after Sansa reminds him that he is Theon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands, and it is only after the woman who helped castrate him threatens Sansa that Theon remembers who he is, and helps Sansa escape from Ramsay. It is only then that Theon is able to return to the Iron Islands where he pledges to support his sister in her quest to become leader. And then he and Yara help Daenerys, Yara gets captured by their evil uncle Euron, and Theon sets off to rescue her, blah blah blah.
The point is, Theon’s arc takes him from a confused young man, torn between who he is as a Greyjoy and yet wanting to be a Stark but never feeling entirely worthy, to embracing his Greyjoy-ness, to becoming nothing before he can find his true identity, his heroic identity: a Greyjoy, yes, but one instilled with the Starks’ values, and a man willing to risk everything for his sisters, foster and biological.
Sadly, Theon has one probable end in all of this: death. But the good (?) news is that he will certainly die a hero’s death, most likely sacrificing his own life for someone else (probably his sister), thereby completing his redemption arc.
(A quick sidenote about his sister, Yara: when Theon returns to the Iron Islands, he doesn’t recognize her, and she allows him to be inappropriately flirty with her because incest is a CONSTANT THING in this story FOR SOME REASON. GEORGE. Yara later reveals that she’s his sister, that she lied to him about who she was so as to test him and to see who he was as a man. It’s an interesting little interlude designed to show just how long Theon had been away from his Greyjoy roots and to suggest that she is a far more appropriate heir to their father. But also, too, it’s yet another false identity.)
There are echoes to Theon’s story to Arya’s, the character with perhaps the most identity issues in the series. From the beginning of our story, Arya resists the role she is expected to fulfill as a highborn girl. Unlike her sister, Sansa, she has no interest in marrying a lord or a prince, but instead wants to focus on her talents in the more masculine arts like archery and sword fighting. In fact, when she and her father and sister are in King’s Landing, she is repeatedly mistaken for a boy by strangers, including her “dancing” instructor, Syrio.
Being a tomboy works to her advantage when, after Ned’s death, Arya is forced to go into hiding with Yoren of the Night’s Watch, the man who spirits her out of King’s Landing by having her pose as one of his recruits.
After Yoren is killed and his “recruits” are taken by Tywin Lannister’s men, Arya becomes Tywin’s cupbearer, and once again has to change her identity lest Mr. Daddy Lannister discover that she is the very girl his family are searching hell and high Volantian sea for. Arya claims to be from the Riverlands, but Tywin sees through this, recognizing that she is a Northerner. Somehow, he never quite puts together that she is a Stark — THE Stark that they are looking for.
It is while she is in Tywin’s custody that she meets — and saves — Jaqen H’ghar, placing him in her debt.
He eventually invites her to come with him to Braavos to train with the Faceless Men, a guild of assassins who worship the Many-Faced God, and who themselves can literally change their faces with some mask hoodoo. However, Arya does not accept his offer until after a season or so of further adventures with the Brotherhood Without Banners and The Hound.
But eventually to Braavos she goes, where as part of her training with Jaqen H’ghar, she is expected to shed her entire past and identity, all of her Stark possessions and become “no one.” Arya throws her clothes into the sea, but she is unable to give up Needle, the sword Jon gave her before leaving to become a member of the Night’s Watch. She hides Chekov’s sword.
Early on, Arya uses the skills she has learned to kill this one asshole on her kill list — but it was a kill that was not sanctioned by the Faceless Men. She is warned by Jaqen H’ghar that, “only death can pay for life,” but fortunately for Arya, she is given a second chance and left blind until she proves her “no one”-ness.
Eventually, she is assigned to kill an actress (again, playing on this theme of adopting identities and pretending to be someone else), but having grown fond of the woman, Arya is unable to go through with her mission. This leads to a whole conflict with one of the Faceless Men, “The Waif,” whom she kills with Needle, and whose face she brings back to Jaqen H’ghar. However, when H’gar declares that she’s finally become “no one,” Arya explains that she will always be Arya Stark of Winterfell before leaving Braavos to return home.
After a quick detour to the Twins where she pretends to be a servant girl so as to kill Walder Frey …
… and then using Walder Frey’s face to kill his entire family …
… Arya returns to Winterfell where she and Sansa struggle to trust each other, unfamiliar with these new iterations of themselves. Well, they do for about five seconds and then they’re all, “WE’RE COOL.”
Arya’s arc — at least in terms of her identity — is similar to Theon’s, in that they both spend time gazing into the void, into the lack of an identity, before pulling back from the brink to firmly assert who they are. After being stripped of his identity, he comes to accept that he is Theon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands; after becoming “No One,” Arya embraces the fact that she is Arya Stark of Winterfell.
However, unlike Theon, Arya, I fear, will not have a hero’s death. While she wields Valaryian steel and will be useful when the White Walkers descend upon Winterfell, in the end, she still owes the Many-Faced God a life (or many lives when you consider what she did to the Freys), and I suspect he will collect.
Finally, there’s Jon, the most monomythic of our many heroes. The truth about Jon Snow’s identity is one of the most crucial elements of this entire story: who he is biologically sets much of the story in motion, and could potentially change everything in its conclusion.
But I suspect it won’t.
A quick reminder of who the hell Jon Snow is: Daenerys’ nephew and perhaps the one true heir to the Iron Throne.
So, Rhaegar Targaryen, the son of the last Targaryen king, King Aerys II (also known as the Mad King on acccount of his being all crazy in the head) was married to Elia Martell. But that didn’t stop him from falling in love with Ned’s sister Lyanna, who was supposed to marry Robert Baratheon. In secret, Rhaegar had his marriage annulled and secretly married Lyanna. But the story that got put out there was that he abducted Lyanna, and like that whole mess with Helen of Troy, a war broke out to get her back. Robert and Ned — who were already pretty pissed at the Mad King after he killed Ned’s dad and brother — led a rebellion against Aerys, and eventually, Robert killed Rhaegar. Meanwhile, Lyanna was put up in the Tower of Joy down in Dorne, which is where Ned found her moments before she died from giving birth to Aegon Targaryen.
Ned, knowing full well that Robert would kill a Targaryen heir — ESPECIALLY one that was born by his dead beloved Lyanna — Ned returned to Winterfell with the baby, claiming it was his bastard son, “Jon Snow.” Thus, from the time he was born, Jon Snow has never known even the most elemental fact of his identity: who he actually is.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: When our story begins, Jon is embarking on his Hero’s Journey, leaving the known world, the world of his childhood, Winterfell, to enter the world of the unknown, The Wall and beyond, to begin his life as a member of the Night’s Watch. To become a member, Jon must forgo his familial connections and become a “Black Brother.”
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
However, Jon’s loyalty to the Night’s Watch is tested following Ned’s death and Robb’s declaration of war. Jon is prepared to abandon his post to help his brother, until the Lord Commander informs Jon that the Night’s Watch intends to march beyond The Wall to find out what happened to his uncle Benjen, and insists that the coming war against the White Walkers is far more consequential than whatever nonsense the Starks and Lannisters are up to. (TRUTH.)
CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD: Through a series of misadventures beyond The Wall, Jon is taken captive by the Wildlings, a group of Freefolk who consider the Night’s Watch their enemy. Jon insists he wants to join their ranks, going so far as to kill his Night’s Watch brother, Qhorin Halfhand (with his urging) to prove himself.
INITIATION/ROAD OF TRIALS/THE WOMAN AS TEMPTRESS: So Jon Snow, the Black Brother, becomes Jon Snow the Wildling — at first, just as a spy for the Night’s Watch, but over time, he begins to find common cause with them, and (sorta) breaks his vows by falling in love with and having sex with Ygriette, a Wilding woman. However, Jon’s loyalty to the Night’s Watch is constantly tested by the Wildlings who — correctly — never quite believe that he has relinquished it. Eventually, he reveals (in not so many words) to Ygriette that he still is more loyal to the Brotherhood than to the Wildlings, so, a badass woman scorned, she shoots him up with a bunch arrow, and he is forced to retreat back to Castle Black.
ATONEMENT WITH THE FATHER: Skipping over some of the details here — the Wildlings attack Castle Black, Stannis arrives in the nick of time to save the Night’s Watch, Stannis takes Mance hostage and sets him on fire — but at one point, Stannis suggests that if Jon supports his claim to the throne, he’ll legitimize Jon and make him the Lord of Winterfell. Instead! Jon decides to run for Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and wins. So twice Jon considers returning to the world of the known, and twice he doubles down on the commitment he made to the Night’s Watch (possibly the most Starkian thing about him).
APOTHEOSIS: However, being Lord Commander means making the hard decisions, and when Jon learns that a large group of Wildlings are about to be set upon by White Walkers and that the only way to save them — and prevent them from joining the army of wights — is to allow them to pass through The Wall, he recognizes that allowing them to do so will be an unpopular but necessary decision. And guess what? It IS an unpopular decision and a group of his fellow Black Brothers stab him.
Except, because this is the most monomythy arc in a show full of monomyths, Jon is resurrected by some witchy hoodoo courtesy of our red witch, Melisandre. Once alive again, Jon hangs the traitors, and as his last act as Lord Commander and a Night’s Watchman, hands over the command to his buddy Edd.
THE CROSSING OF THE RETURN THRESHOLD: Jon heads home to Winterfell where, after rallying the North to defeat Ramsay Bolton, he is named King in the North — a title that was briefly held by Robb, but until him, had not been held by anyone for almost three hundred years. It is as King of the North that Jon meets Daenerys to ask for her help in the war against the White Walkers. She, in turn, demands that he bend the knee to her, and after several episodes where he’s all, “nah,” he’s finally like, “sure.” So I guess he’s merely Lord of Winterfell now?
MASTER OF TWO WORLDS: Actually, he’s Aegon Targaryen, nephew to Daenerys, and rightful heir to the Iron Throne. But I doubt he’ll ever sit upon it.
For one thing, Jon is destined to die some big hero’s death, sacrificing himself for his people and the greater good. And the fact that he’s died before — and explicitly told Melisandre to not bring him back if he were to die again — pretty much guarantees that he’s going to die again. (And when Melisandre refuses to revive him? Methinks that will be what makes Arya snap and cross her off of her list once and for all.)
But there’s another piece to this which is that Jon just isn’t that guy, he’s not a conqueror, he’s a hero. But even more than that, he’s a Stark. Yes, we have learned that Jon is a legitimate Targaryen, but what I think we all have been ignoring is that he’s also a legitimate Stark, the one thing he has always wanted to be.
Stripping down all those words I wrote up there, Jon’s arc is: Jon Snow the Bastard becomes Jon the Brother in the Night’s Watch who becomes Jon the Wildling who becomes Jon the Lord Commander who becomes Jon the Dead who becomes Jon the Alive Again, who becomes Jon the King of the North. Now, if you compare this arc with the other two I described in detail, a pattern emerges: the character begins uncertain as to who they are, and torn between two identities, they try on other identities for size, they gaze into the abyss — or, in Jon’s case, descend directly into it — and they return knowing, finally, who they are.
Jon emerges from that abyss, and discovers that he is not a Black Brother, he’s a Stark, he’s the head of the Stark family and the King in the North. And so I believe when he learns that he is also a Targaryen, it’s not that it will be insignificant or unimportant to him, but I think it might be equally important to him that he’s a legitimate Stark, and he won’t feel a claim to the Iron Throne, knowing that his allegiance is to the North.
I mean, not that Jon is ever going to get to a place where it’s a question of whether or not he takes the Iron Throne, because he’s going to die before that happens.
Anyway, long story short: Theon’s gonna die; Arya’s gonna die; Jon’s gonna die. The end.
Unless I’m completely wrong. I should pause to note here that I’m probably going to be wrong about all of this, Jon and Daenerys will live happily ever after and make babies and rule the Iron Throne together, Arya will live a long and happy life chasing cats in Winterfell, and Theon will become a pleasure cruise ship captain.
Game of Thrones returns for its final season on Sunday, April 14 on HBO at 8/9 p.m. CST/EST, thank the old gods and the new.