Features and Columns · TV

Game of Thrones: Exploring the Most Interesting Fan Theories

By  · Published on April 9th, 2015


If there is one thing that makes a big fantasy epic like Game of Thrones fun, it’s the fan theories. Any massively complex story – especially one that is so incomplete – is going to draw the interest and ire of its fanbase. The fact that the story is incomplete is what makes it so compelling and unique. It’s an interesting dynamic that I can’t say I’ve seen before. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books have been inspiring fans to read between the lines and come up with their own wild theories since the first book was published in 1996. To his credit (and the chagrin of die hards), Martin himself has furthered this situation both by building out a big and complex world and by taking many years to write each book. For the better part of two decades, fans have been placed in this constant cycle of binging on information followed by long droughts of despair. Either Martin is an evil marketing genius whose carefully hand-crafted the most cruelly engaging fantasy narrative of a generation or he’s just a great writer whose dreadful writing pace allowed him to luck into said situation. Either way, we’re all hooked.

The HBO show, shepherded along by creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, has added another layer to the dynamic. It has not only brought along a much larger audience, it has held true to mythology that makes Martin’s books so interesting. Every time someone on the show mentions Jon Snow’s parentage, George R.R. Martin must let out an evil chortle. The show is only amplifying the cruel and unusual fan punishment that the books have mastered.

Starting with little moments last season and ramping up greatly with the forthcoming fifth season of the show, we’ve begun to enter new territory: the show is going to surpass the books. Which is a very weird thing, indeed. If you think about it, modern audiences have not experienced this kind of uncertainty in their big fantasy stories. Before The Lord of the Rings movies were made, Tolkein’s books were more than finished and the ultimate ending was known. Even though the Harry Potter book series wasn’t finished by the time the movies started production, it did finish well before the movie franchise ended. There is no modern precedent for what Game of Thrones fans (book reader or otherwise) are about to go through.

This is why fan theories are fun, because of the unknown. And right now is the exact time we should be talking about the most interesting of these theories, on the eve of season five’s premiere. Why? Because season five of Game of Thrones may have a lot to teach us about what is to come in Martin’s story. Yes, it may spoil some of what is to come in the books, but are you really going to stop watching? Half the fun will be picking through every in-between moment of the next ten episodes to see if we can learn something important about the ultimate climax and conclusion of Martin’s story.

With that in mind, we’re going to do a little refresher on some of the most interesting and logical Game of Thrones fan theories with the help of the YouTube channel Alt Shift X, who has gained notoriety by providing concise explanations of a wide range of topics. Their breakdowns of these popular theories with visual aids are exceptional, giving us a great place to start.

Before we begin, here’s your spoiler warning. What follows contains not just spoilers from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series (all of it, even chapters from the unreleased books), it also contains rampant speculation and wild theories that may well ruin future episodes and books. If you scroll past Walter White Walker, Lord of Spoilers, you do so at your own risk.

Tyrion is a Secret Targaryen

This is one of my personal favorite theories, mostly because it seems to come out of left field. Yet once you begin to really think it through, it is more sense than silly. One of the most prominent prophecies from the books is that “The Dragon has Three Heads,” meaning that each of Dany’s three dragons must have a rider. And these riders must have Targaryen blood if they are to truly be able to tame said dragons. At the moment, the only living Targaryen is Dany, but she may have both a secret nephew (we’ll get to that one next) and a secret brother (Tyrion).

Tyron being the secret offspring of The Mad King (Dany’s father) and Joanna Lannister (Tywin’s wife) would explain a number of things about his appearance and upbringing. Mostly it explains the cruel nature of Tywin toward his third child. What the show has done – and we’ll explore this more with the next theory – is lay down little hints that point toward a lot of fan theories. Many would say that show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss could just be messing with book readers, but I want to believe that they take the actual content of the show more seriously than that. So when Tywin’s line, “You’re no son of mine,” pops up as Tyrion is killing him, we shouldn’t just throw that away. Much of the smaller details in this show have meaning. And besides, we need three dragon riders. Right?

R + L = J

It has been four full seasons plus one offseason for the creators of the show and it wasn’t until very recently that they began talking about Jon Snow’s mother. In their conversation at Oxford Union last month, David Benioff told the story of their pitch meeting with George R.R. Martin. To make a long story short, their meeting concluded with Martin asking them who Jon Snow’s mother is. Upon answering, Benioff and Weiss sat quietly while Martin considered and after a few moments, they moved on and ultimately the show was born. Mark my words: Jon Snow’s parentage is very important.

The R+L=J theory becomes not only the most credible theory, but also the most useful for the purposes of the story. If Jon Snow has some greater level of importance in the “Song of Ice and Fire,” it could be that he is the link between the two great factions that personify Ice (Stark) and Fire (Targaryen). One thing we do know is that Rhaegar Targaryen was obsessed with the prophecies of Ice and Fire. Which could have something to do with why he was so into Lyanna Stark. It would also explain, if Rhaegar and Lyanna did have a child, why she would force Ned Stark to promise her to keep said child secret and safe. Perhaps Rhaegar and Lyanna knew that their child would be the centerpiece of the great battle between Ice and Fire.

Personally, I feel as if this theory is so painfully obvious in its accuracy. Every little bit of it checks out with the books and the show seems to continue to push the obsession with Jon Snow’s parentage forward. For example, there is a moment early in season five – look for it – when his parentage is mentioned in a conversation between two other characters. It’s confirmed that having a bastard just wasn’t Ned Stark’s style. He wasn’t the kind of man who would run around on his wife. He was, however, the kind of man to sacrifice his own public image to protect a promise he made to his sister.

All of this leads to the prophecy of Azor Ahai…

Azor Ahai is Coming

Only Jon and Dany.

One of the big questions that are presented between the lines of A Song of Ice and Fire — something we will ultimately need an answer for – is whether or not this vast, sweeping story has a hero. Everything we’ve learned about the way things happen in Westeros tells us that heroes are complete bullshit and that in the end, the most likely thing that will happen to the righteous is an unceremonious end. But that shouldn’t stop us from believing that there won’t be a winner when it all comes to an end. It’s hard to imagine that George R.R. Martin has spent the better part of two and a half decades building out this world full of prophecies and rich mysteries only to close it out with a whimper. If there’s no battle and no ultimate hero, what the hell was the point?

Let’s assume that there’s a point and a hero. That hero is most likely, as the video explains, the Prince That Was Promised or Azor Ahai (whatever you want to call him). This is the person that will become the savior of humanity in the great battle between the forces of Light and Dark. This is the person who will bring balance to the song of Ice and Fire.

The theory presented above targets Dany and Jon, both of whom make perfect sense as the great savior. It would also make sense if Jon and Dany are eventually united and it is their offspring (a painfully literal personification of Ice and Fire) were to be Azor Ahai. Because maybe we haven’t met this savior yet. Then again, we don’t even need to go that far. Jon Snow is already (probably) the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. He is born of Ice and Fire. It’s entirely possible that Dany’s role was simply to be the Mother of Dragons and bring them to Westeros, where Jon Snow will heroically command them (with his fancy Stark warg powers) in a battle against The Others.

What we know for sure is that Jon and Dany are special characters. They are among Martin’s favorites (he has called them, along with Arya and Tyrion, his “children”) and are likely key players in the ultimate climax of the story. So the theories line up with what we expect. Expectations can be as harsh as Winter, however, and all of this could be wrong. Martin (and by proxy, the show) love to play around with those expectations, but that doesn’t exactly mean that they’ll be throwing the audience for every loop that comes along.

The strongest sign that I can think of that these theories are headed in the right direction is a sheer accounting of time. As in, the story is almost over. Martin is at least two thirds of the way through the story he’s telling with the books. He’s published 4,273 pages of story in the first 5 books and even if the last two clock in at 1,000 pages each, that’s still about 2/3 of the total story already out there. To come this far with prophecies and grand themes of a battle between light and dark only to do an about-face right at the end would be tragic. These two characters are going to have something to say about this Song of Ice and Fire.

What will season five have to teach us about these theories? That’s a big question. With the show entering the first third of its final act, it could very well push a number of these popular theories forward. I know that I will personally be most interested in what the show chooses to include. Mentions of Jon Snow’s mother, hints that Tyrion has a special role to play, anything further about The Night’s King and the prophecies of both The Others and the Lord of Light. As the show rolls on, efficiency is the name of the game. Which means that every little thing that gets placed on-screen will be placed there for a reason. That’s the big change that book readers will go through as the show moves forward: it’s not about what has been left out, it’s about what is being put in.

And you know what’s being put in? A lot about Jon and Dany being groomed for big things. Mark my words.

Littlefinger’s Plan

With all this talk of prophecies and ancient wars between Light and Darkness, who else could throw things off in true Game of Thrones fashion? Both Littlefinger and Varys are candidates to throw things off in a big way. As we’ve learned over the past few seasons of the show, they’ve been doing gnarly work behind the scenes since the beginning. Particularly in the case of Littlefinger, his creation of chaos with his involvement in the deaths of Jon Arryn and King Joffrey has caused a bunch of the great houses of Westeros to scurry about fighting each other.

Here’s the problem with Littlefinger’s game. Yes, he plays his part very well and at times he seems to be several steps ahead of everyone else (especially the Lannisters), but everything he’s doing seems somewhat small when considered in context with all of the huge things we talked about above. If there is a great battle between magical and other-worldly forces of Light and Darkness, Littlefinger’s (albeit impressive) power grabs around the Seven Kingdoms may not amount to much in the end. What we’re likely to learn in the next season or two is that he’s playing a game with much smaller stakes. He may have some clever plans for Sansa that relate to The North (and hopefully at least one Stark getting revenge on the Boltons and/or the Freys), but how is a guy whose primary weapon is “keeping his enemies guessing” going to defeat an army of ice zombies?

Sadly, I don’t think Littlefinger is as big a player as he fancies himself to be. But he will be fun to watch and I can’t help but hope that his scheming face gets more screen time now that everyone else we love is dead.

If there’s one piece of wisdom I’d like to impart upon fans of Game of Thrones as we move through season five (especially those of you who have read the books), it’s that we should keep our eyes and ears open. The uncharted territory we enter will be rich with clues and corroboration. Even if the fifth season sticks to covering the events of the fourth and fifth books (which is very likely) and doesn’t provide any overt spoilers for future books, there will be plenty of hints. We must continue to operate with the knowledge that the show’s writers know how this is all going to end. And they only have 30 more hours to get there, so every little detail will be hand-picked and very important. If there’s any season that will deliver for the conspiracy crowd, it’s going to be this one.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)