Game of Thrones: Jon-Daenerys' relationship follows a Westeros tradition (and we don't mean incest)
Towards the end of the Game of Thrones season 7 finale, as the show's two protagonists — Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen — consummated their love, fans were struck by something that took place outside the bedroom: Tyrion Lannister stands in the darkness, an inscrutable (but certainly unhappy) look on his face as he watches the lovers. Viewers wondered what the look meant: could it be jealousy, with Tyrion too having fallen in love with to Dragon Queen he serves? Or was it a secret deal he struck with his sister Cersei, that now troubled him? Or did he feel that Dany's rule would be jeopardised by a romantic entanglement with Jon?
The answer that actor Peter Dinklage (who plays Tyrion) provided was far simpler: "No, it's not good — it should be, but it's not. It's Game of Thrones, there's a long history of romance not ending well in this show." What Dinklage didn't need to add: This romance is particularly unlikely to end well.
Jon and Dany's relationship follows a fairly wells established tradition in GoTverse (and we aren't referring to incest). Love is usually a complication, unions often lead to negative outcomes, and these relationships rarely give their principles more than fleeting happiness (if that).
Let's begin with Jon's parents, who the season 7 finale confirmed, were indeed Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark:
"He (Rhaegar) rode past his wife and he lay a crown of winter roses in Lyanna's lap. Blue as frost."
The Rhaegar-Lyanna relationship sets off Robert's Rebellion, effectively ending 300 years of Targaryen rule over the Seven Kingdoms. Love in this case, makes Rhaegar annul his marriage to Elia Martell of Dorne (with whom he has two children) and Lyanna set aside her betrothal to Robert Baratheon. It leads to the deaths of Lyanna's father and brother at the hands of Rhaegar's father — the Mad King Aerys. It sends the realm into chaos, with thousands of good men killed in Robert's uprising. And it ends with the deaths of Rhaegar and Lyanna themselves.
Jon's half-brother (who we now know was really his cousin) Robb Stark also chooses to marry for love — despite his mother, Catelyn Stark, having struck a bargain with Lord Walder Frey that the King in the North would wed one of his daughters in exchange for his support against the Lannisters. Robb's marriage to Talisa leads to the Red Wedding — the slaughter of Robb, his wife, their unborn child, his mother, Grey Wind, several of his bannermen, and a major portion of his army.
Tyrion, who watches Jon and Dany with such obvious unease, has had his own share of doomed romances. First, it is his teenage bride Tysha, who Tywin Lannister denounces as a whore and gives to his men to gang-rape. Later, Tyrion finds a measure of love with Shae — until she betrays him, and he strangles her to death.
Tyrion's siblings Cersei and Jaime, meanwhile, are the longest-standing 'couple' among the pivotal characters of this universe. And apart from their three illegitimate children, the Cersei-Jaime relationship leaves a trail of devastation in its wake that we're all too aware of.
Daenerys' wedding to Khal Drogo is brokered by her brother Viserys and the magister Illyrio and it is hardly a loving marriage in the beginning. Dany and Drogo do fall in love, but their union only lasts a short time. After a festering wound nearly kills him, Dany pleads for Drogo's life to be saved by Mirri Maz Duur. The witch consents — granting Drogo a catatonic stupor in the name of "life". Dany is then forced to smother Drogo to death.
Jon himself has a sad romance with Ygritte. Not only are they enemies — him a sworn brother of the Night's Watch and her a wildling — Jon's pledge includes having 'no wife, lands or children' (the other men are known to frequent brothels, but Jon stays celibate). Honour means a great deal to Jon, and when he makes love to Ygritte, it is a huge moral conflict for him. The relationship, expectedly, ends badly: when he makes his way back to Castle Black, and the wildlings attack, he faces Ygritte in battle, and she dies in Jon's arms.
There are a host of other characters whom love serves none too well:
Dany's mother Rhaella Targaryen loves a knight called Ser Bonifer Hasty, but is compelled to marry her older brother Aerys Targaryen instead. It is a deeply unhappy marriage (Jaime, who is then part of Aerys' Kingsguard, refers to this), with the Mad King subjecting his sister-wife to rape and emotional and physical brutality.
Catelyn Tully is pledged to Brandon Stark, until his death at the hands of Aerys, leads to her being married to his younger brother Ned instead. Her sister Lysa, loves and beds their father's ward, Petry Baelish (who in turn 'loves' Catelyn). However, she is married to Jon Arryn, and Littlefinger manipulates her into murdering her husband, blaming the Lannisters for it, and effectively triggering the War of the Five Kings.
Tywin Lannister and his cousin Joanna are among the exceptions. It's a love match: Joanna doesn't bring Tywin any lands or wealth when they marry; it is said she is the only one who can make Tywin smile. Her death while giving birth to Tyrion is said to drain Tywin of all happiness, making him even sterner than he was before. The only bump in their happiness is Aerys Targaryen's seeming fascination with Joanna, that causes friction between the Mad King and his Hand, Tywin. (This is where the theory that Tyrion is a product of Joanna's rape by Aerys comes in.)
Shakespeare may have said, 'the course of true love n'er did run smooth', but in Westeros — as these instances prove — it must endure a particularly bumpy ride.
Even by these standards, Jon and Dany's relationship has a rough storm to weather.
The incest angle is the first: As the son of her brother Rhaegar, Jon is Dany's nephew. (Dany is born around 24 years after Rhaegar, and she is at least 8-9 months younger than Jon). Now this may prove to be more of a stumbling block for Jon than Dany. Let's not forget, Dany's parents were brother and sister. Her grandparents, Jaehaerys and Shaera Targaryen, were also brother and sister (the Targaryens inter-marry to keep their bloodlines pure). In the books, when she is being 'presented' to Drogo as his prospective bride, she is confused because she had always assumed she would 'marry Viserys when she came of age'.
Jon, however, is a Northener through and through (Targaryen blood notwithstanding) and his moral code may balk more at being in a relationship with his aunt. The answer may perhaps lie in what Jon tells Theon of his confused identity in the Game of Thrones season 7 finale: 'You are a Greyjoy, and you are a Stark', and require Jon to embrace his Targaryen heritage in addition to his Stark upbringing.
Their relationship will be further complicated by the fact that Jon is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, and not Dany.
A Telegraph piece noted that when it comes to Game of Thrones, fans seem to think there's such a thing as 'good incest' and 'bad incest'. We frown on Cersei and Jaime's relationship, but approve of Jon and Dany's. Of course, they are different:
Cersei and Jaime are twins, Jon and Dany are nephew-aunt; Cersei and Jaime were raised together as siblings, Jon-Dany are relatively new acquaintances who have fallen in love while being unaware of their true relationship. Then there are the characters themselves — Cersei and season-1 Jaime are seen as bad people, their incest is also adultery, and the very first time we become aware of the nature of their relationship (along with an inquisitive Bran Stark), we see the complete lack of compunction the couple has, in taking the life of a child if it means keeping their secret safe.
Jon and Dany, on the other hand, are seen as good, noble; they serve a cause higher than themselves — the saving of humanity itself. Their relationship harms no one (but themselves). So we're more accepting of the fact that their relationship crosses a boundary we wouldn't sanction in others. (Some fans also posit that Daenerys may not be Aerys' daughter, but the product of Rhaella finding comfort from the insanity of her husband in some member of the Kingsguard, which would make the family relationship between Jon and Dany slightly weaker — but this is one of the more outre theories and there isn't much support for it.)
Whether it has external sanction or not, Jon and Dany's relationship is pre-destined. He is ice, she is fire. Either one of them could be Azhor Ahai, the 'prince/princess who was promised'. Alternatively, the child born of their union could be the prophesied saviour.
And there will be a child — not just because this season has foreshadowed it on so many occasions. Dany believes she is infertile after her first miscarriage — her child Rhaego is born 'hideously deformed', with 'wings like a bat, and scales all over' (sounding remarkably like a dragon?). Mirri Maz Duur also prophesises to Dany:
"When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east; when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves; when your womb quickens again, and you bear a living child. Then he (Drogo) will return, and not before."
Dany believes, logically, that these things will never come to pass — but the Long Night could provide this inversion of the laws of the universe.
There is also the factor that Dany herself is a throwback to the early Targaryens of old Valyria. Neither of her brothers — Rhaegar or Viserys — share Dany's imperviousness to fire. She has magic in her blood, which is what allows her to be the mother of dragons, bringing Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion into a world where their kind haven't been seen for hundreds of years. Dany may never have borne a living child with any other man — but Jon is not any other man, he is also a Targaryen.
Jon also has some magic of his own — something beyond the moral conviction and courage that makes him such a natural leader of men. Why else would Melisandre be able to revive him from the dead? Yes, Jon isn't the only one to be brought back from the dead in this universe: Ser Berric Dondarrion, Catelyn Stark (as Lady Stoneheart), Ser Gregor 'The Mountain' Clegane, even Khal Drogo are others who have crossed over from the side of the dead to the 'living'. The Night King and the other White Walkers also 'raise' the dead. In all of these instances, however, the bringing 'back to life' rarely restores the person to who they were before. The person brought back is usually changed in some essential way, as Ser Berric explains: "Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the colour of that woman's hair. Who knighted me, old friend? What were my favourite foods? It all fades. Sometimes I think I was born on the bloody grass in that grove of ash, with the taste of fire in my mouth and a hole in my chest. Are you my mother, Thoros?” But Jon, post-resurrection, is unchanged.
George RR Martin's love for symmetry is seen in the way Dany and Jon's life events are mirrored: the loss of their families, the deaths of their mates, their strong commitment to what they see as their duty, their morality — in a universe where people have little use of it. The mothers of both die in childbirth. (Incidentally, Tyrion's life also reflects many of these same markers, lending credence to him possibly being a Targaryen as well.) For them to not be together would be strange.
Fans believe that Jon and Dany won't both survive the war against the Night King, and/or Cersei. Some theorise Dany's fate will mirror that of Lyanna Stark and Rhaella Targaryen, and she will die giving birth to her child with Jon. There are as many who think that it is Jon who will not make it — dealing a death blow to the Night King, even as he takes one himself. There will be no reviving him this time. Enough fans also hope that Jon and Dany, having paid the price in earlier sorrows, will find some measure of peace together. George RR Martin has said that the ending of the series will be 'bittersweet' — but that could encompass a variety of possibilities for our favourite power couple from the Seven Kingdoms.
Whether or not Jon and Dany subvert the Game of Thrones trope about love invariably leading to loss will only be clear when the series returns for its eighth season, in 2019. Till then, we'll be as worried for Dany and Jon as Tyrion is — even as we remember Maester Aemon's words about his great-great niece: "A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing". For now at least, the two (known) Targaryens in the world seem to have found each other.