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The War that Started the “Game of Thrones”

Even if waiting for the next book makes you want to strangle him, you have to hand it to George R.R. Martin. He created a world that’s earned a place in pop culture few can rival. Game of Thrones was popular as a series of novels, but it’s become unbelievably popular as a television series. Each episode pulls in millions of viewers and upcoming story details are closely guarded.

It’s a fascinating world that can be confusing for newcomers or even current viewers. Vague snippets of dialogue hint at the events leading up to the start of the series. These may seem unimportant on their own, but make up the threads of the complex plot. In short, if you’re not paying attention, lots of the story flies right over your head. If you’re just starting out or are one of those confused by the elements of story that happened before the events in the show, my hope is that this primer should give you a good starting point. But don’t worry, any of the plot twists shown in the series won’t be spoiled here.

The history of the Game of Thrones universe goes back thousands of years. We’re not going to go that far. We’re only going to go back roughly 17 years before the series starts. That’s when a war, commonly known at “Robert’s Rebellion” or “The War of the Usurper,” was fought.

The Mad King’s Son

If you’ve watched the show, you’ve heard lots about Aerys Targaryen (aka the Mad King). Though he was really, really crazy and really, really cruel, he was not the impetus for the war. His son was. Prince Rhaegar Targaryen was Aerys’ eldest son and heir to the Iron Throne. He was married to Elia Martell. (The Martells were the ruling house in Dorne, the southern most kingdom of the Seven Kingdoms.) Rhaegar and Elia had two children. But that family apparently wasn’t enough for Rhaegar.

During a jousting tournament, it was customary for a knight to give his favor to a lady sitting the crowd. (You can see this tradition in the fifth episode of the first season when Ser Loras Tyrell gives a flower to Sansa Stark.) Rather than giving a flower to his wife, Rhaegar chose to give the flower to Lyanna Stark, the sister of Eddard (Ned) Stark. But the problem, besides the fact that Rhaegar was already married, was that Lyanna was already betrothed to Robert Baratheon. Shortly after Rhaegar displayed his affections for Lyanna, he allegedly abducted her and raped her.

Needless to say, the Starks and the Baratheons weren’t happy about this. Lyanna’s older brother, Brandon Stark, went to King’s Landing (the capital city) and demanded that Rhaegar return his sister and pay for his crimes. King Aerys had Brandon arrested for treason and called his father, Rickard Stark, to come to King’s Landing to answer for his son. This is when the Mad King showed everyone the extent of his cruelty and his love for a substance called wildfire, which can be seen in action in multiple episodes of the series. King Aerys executed both Starks in the throne room by burning them with the neon green flames.

The Beginning of the Revolt

Original art of the Battle of the Trident
by Andrew Hou

During that time, Jon Arryn, Lord of the Vale, had both Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon under his care. When King Aerys called for both of the young men to come to court, Jon Arryn raised his banners in revolt, thus starting the war in full force. Some houses, like the Tullys, joined the revolt, while others, like the Tyrells, remained loyal to the crown. Even others, like the Lannisters, sat on the sidelines watching and waiting so they were in a place to make the best move when the war ended. Lots of battles ensued, but the war finally came to an end at the “Battle of the Trident,” where Robert Baratheon killed Rhaegar Targaryen. Seeing that the rebels were going to win the war, the Lannisters got off the bench and sent their armies to take King’s Landing.

King Aerys had well and truly lost his last marbles by then and threatened to blow up the entire city with wildfire, but Jaime Lannister (a member of the Kingsguard and favorite son to house Lannister) killed Aerys before he could carry out his threat, earning Jaime the nickname of Kingslayer. When the Lannisters took control of the city, Rhaegar’s family (Elia Martell and her children) was murdered. But King Aerys’ pregnant wife and his younger son, Viserys, fled to Dragonstone (the Targaryen’s ancestral home.) While there, Daenerys Taragaryen was born. But the rebellion, in the form of Stannis Baratheon, was hot on the remaining Targaryen’s tails, and they were forced to flee across the sea to the free cities of Essos.

The End of the War

When it was all said and done, Lyanna Stark died, Robert Baratheon took the Iron Throne and married Cersei Lannister. Ned Stark became Lord of Winterfell. He returned from the war with a baby (Jon Snow) in tow, which caused some friction with his wife. Finally, friends of the Targaryens passed the remaining two children around the free cities to avoid capture or assassination.

About 17 years later is when the show begins.

So what do you think? Does this help clear up any questions you had? Does it make you feel less intimidated to dive into the show if you haven’t watched yet?

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