While the Game of Thrones TV show is pretty terrible when it comes to female representation, the books for A Song of Ice and Fire do a much better job. However, it still falls prey to some horrible tropes. At the beginning of the series, we learn that Robert Baratheon became king of the Seven Kingdoms after leading a revolt against the previous king. He did this because he believed Prince Rhaegar Targaryen kidnapped Lyanna Stark, the woman Robert loved. In the end, Lyanna passed away, and her fridging fueled Robert’s internal pain for the next fifteen some years until his own death.
Massive spoilers for Game of Thrones and a trigger warning for rape below.
When the series starts, we learn that Lyanna’s brother, Ned Stark, who is also Robert’s best friend, has a bastard son named Jon Snow. We know that Ned Stark is someone who holds honor in the highest regard, and that he is not the kind of person to forsake his marriage vows. As such, cheating on his wife and producing a bastard child is horrifically out of character for him. Furthermore, we also know that Lyanna died sometime around Jon’s birth, and that before she died, she had Ned make a promise to her. Right after that, Ned took Jon to Winterfell to raise him with his trueborn children.
One popular fan theory, often referred to as R+L=J, is that Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark are Jon Snow’s real parents, and that Ned lied about Jon’s true parentage to protect him from Robert’s wrath—Robert allowed the murder of Rhaegar’s other children to go unpunished after usurping the throne, because they were “dragonspawn”. This is a theory I’m inclined to believe, given that there’s plenty in the books to indicate that it’s true. At this point in time, it’s practically canon already. Barring that, it simply makes sense, and it explains many of Ned’s actions and thoughts. It would also explain the circumstances of Lyanna’s death. She more than likely died during childbirth. She was also surrounded by kingsguardmen—knights sworn to protect royalty—when she passed.
Though Robert Baratheon claims that Lyanna was the love of his life and that Rhaegar kidnapped and raped her to death, other accounts of Rhaegar contradict that. Barristan Selmy, one of the kingsguard who knew Rhaegar personally, tells us this:
Prince Rhaegar loved his Lady Lyanna and thousands died for it.
If we go by what Barristan tells us, and the implication that Lyanna loved Rhaegar back, it puts a different spin on an otherwise overused trope. Much like Snape’s love for Lily, or even Bruce Wayne’s for Rachel Dawes, Robert’s love for Lyanna was unrequited. Unfortunately, even in these instances, the female characters are still fridged to fuel a male character’s internal pain. But even worse, despite not returning the male character’s love, the narrative often likes to portray said male character as sympathetic because the love was unrequited. It is eventually revealed in Harry Potter that Snape did everything he did because he loved Lily. What is so wrong about this is that Snape is still a horrible person. He spent years abusing Lily’s son, because Harry looked like James Potter. His “love” for Lily is tantamount to stalking. And it was his own actions—he called Lily a “mudblood” and actively supported a man who wanted to murder people like her—that drove Lily away from him.
Though Bruce Wayne is hardly like Snape, at the end of the day, Rachel still chose Harvey Dent over him. Despite both Lily’s and Rachel’s choices, their deaths are ultimately more important than their own agency. Their choices are used to further both Snape’s and Bruce’s pain. So not only do these narratives fridge female characters, they further strip them of their agency by also making their deaths more important than what kind of people they were when they were alive. Their deaths are important, because male characters are mourning them—and it doesn’t matter that
the female characters didn’t even want a relationship with those male characters to begin with.
What I find interesting about Robert and Lyanna’s plight is that, unlike Snape and Bruce, Robert is not presented in a sympathetic light. He is shown to be a horrible king—he’s driven the realm into debt, doesn’t attend council meetings, actively belittles his subordinates, doesn’t care about the murder of children, and he objectifies women, among many other things—and it’s even implied that he didn’t even know Lyanna all that well. Despite ruling the Seven Kingdoms and having everything, Robert is unhappy because Lyanna wouldn’t be with him. He constantly reminds Ned and the audience that he loved Lyanna, but it’s implied that what he loved was an idealized version of Lyanna who never existed. Ned tells him:
You never knew Lyanna as I did, Robert. You saw her beauty, but not the iron underneath.
Though Lyanna’s fridging is what set Robert on the warpath and allowed him to become king, it is neat to see a different take on this trope. While I don’t like that her character died to fuel Robert’s pain, Robert’s unsympathetic nature allows her character to retain some of her agency. She chose Rhaegar over him. As a result, Robert, who was very entitled and jealous, told himself that Lyanna couldn’t possibly have willingly gone with Rhaegar. He asserted himself onto Lyanna’s memory and refused to acknowledge her own desires.
If it turns out that this fan theory is true and that Lyanna loved Rhaegar and not Robert, it will only further demonize Robert’s character—he started a war and killed children because a woman dared not love him—while giving Lyanna more agency. So at the very least, the R+L=J theory gives this trope a slightly different spin that makes it a little more bearable.