“Damn you, Ned Stark. You and Jon Arryn, I loved you both. What have you done to me? You were the one should have been king, you or Jon.”
In George R.R. Martin’s inaugural Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Game of Thrones, Robert Baratheon confides in Ned Stark that he knows he shouldn’t have become King. “You or Jon,” he says, speaking of the Warden of the North and the man they both served as wards in The Eyrie.
Unbeknownst to Robert at the time, Jon should have been King — but not Jon Arryn. As we all know at this point, Ned Stark’s bastard, Jon Snow, is in fact the person with the strongest claim to the Iron Throne in all of Westeros. Son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, the Seven Kingdoms are Jon’s birthright. However, Ned admitting this would have led to infanticide, as Robert intended to kill every Targaryen alive — including newborns.
Ned places himself at risk to protect his late sister’s child, and even shoulders an uncharacteristic sense of dishonor for years afterward in order to respect her dying wishes. What’s important about this is that Jon Snow would have done the same — in fact, he does the same in A Feast for Crows, swapping the still-alive Mance Rayder’s son with Gilly’s infant in order to protect the former from Melisandre, who would likely kill the child for its kingsblood. Although Jon isn’t Ned’s son, he’s the most like him out of all the Stark children. Arya has his dark hair, long face, and grey-blue eyes, but the rest of the Starks have the auburn hair typical of House Tully. One of the main reasons Catelyn Stark detests Jon is because he looks more like Ned than any of her sons. In A Game of Thrones, she thinks to herself:
“Whoever Jon’s mother had been, Ned must have loved her fiercely, for nothing Catelyn said would persuade him to send the boy away. It was the one thing she could never forgive him. She had come to love her husband with all her heart, but she had never found it in her to love Jon. She might have overlooked a dozen bastards for Ned’s sake, so long as they were out of sight. Jon was never out of sight, and as he grew, he looked more like Ned than any of the trueborn sons she bore him. Somehow that made it worse.”
Obviously Ned does love Jon’s mother fiercely, but not in a romantic way. It’s ironic that the things that make Catelyn hate Jon the most are paradoxically due to the fact that he isn’t Ned’s son. “The Starks were not like other men,” Catelyn says in A Game of Thrones. “Ned brought his bastard home with him, and called him “son” for all the north to see. That cut deep.” But Jon is his nephew, and he only calls him son to keep him alive in order to protect both Catelyn and Jon from a dangerous truth. In a way, that’s far more benevolent than endangering them with knowledge they don’t need to possess. “Some secrets are safer kept hidden,” Ned muses in A Game of Thrones. “Some secrets are too dangerous to share, even with those you love and trust.” And so, Ned exemplifies something he says to Arya after she pretends Nymeria runs away in the first book: “And even the lie was… not without honor.”
Ned is often teased for his honor, and his singular abandonment of it when he sired a bastard son. However, his honor is very much real, even when it’s known to nobody but himself. As Aragorn says in a different fantasy epic, “The deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.” And this is something that leads to one of the most important comparisons between Ned and Jon in the entire series — a comparison that comes full circle in the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. As Ned sits in the King’s Landing dungeons awaiting his execution in season 1, Lord Varys visits him and says:
“You are an honest and honorable man, Lord Eddard. Ofttimes I forget that. I have met so few of them in my life … When I see what honesty and honor have won you, I understand why.”
As punishment for his honor and honesty, Ned Stark is beheaded at the Sept of Baelor. However, his bastard son — or, more accurately, his nephew — is one of very few people in the world who actually shares these virtues. Throughout the series, Ned has educated his true-born sons on how to rule. “Know the men who follow you and let them know you,” he tells Robb in a Game of Thrones. “Don’t ask your men to die for a stranger.” At Castle Black, Jon becomes a hero to the Night’s Watch and the wildlings alike, and unites the northern houses to rally against the Army of the Dead and the Lannisters. Jon never receives this nugget of information from Ned, and yet he knows it inherently.
However, perhaps the most explicit case of Ned advising his sons on something innately known to Jon is when Ned speaks to Bran right at the beginning of the series. “The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks,” he says, “and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”
In A Dance With Dragons, Jon is faced with executing Janos Slynt, one of the men who played a part in the events that led up to Ned’s execution. Without so much as flinching, Jon looks at his friend Eddison Tollett and says, “Edd, fetch me a block,” before delivering the final executioner’s blow. This highlights one of the most important aspects of Jon’s character. “A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is,” Ned tells Bran, continuing his explanation of why he who passes the sentence must swing the sword. And it’s because Jon knows it’s essential to carry out his own sentences that he can understand how delicate and definitive matters of death are. He has always been as fit for rule as Ned was, and yet neither Stark ever so much as dreamt of ruling, let alone desired it. This is the main way in which Jon mirrors Ned, and it’s something that Varys sees in Jon that nobody else does.
“He doesn’t want to rule,” Tyrion tells Varys after the latter suggests they rethink their decision to place Dany on the Iron Throne. “Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who doesn’t want to rule?” Varys responds. After witnessing what happens to honorable men like Ned Stark, and fearing a similar fate for Jon Snow, Varys finally sees that Westeros is doomed to face tyrant after tyrant until someone else enters the fray.
But Jon truly doesn’t want the Throne. Despite his superior claim, he continuously pledges his allegiance to Daenerys. However, Jon didn’t want to be Lord Commander either. He didn’t want to be King in the North, or Lord of Winterfell, and perhaps that boils down to the fact that, like Ned, he never considered he’d amount to anything in the first place. In A Game of Thrones, the following passage conveys Jon’s thoughts:
“Tyrion Lannister had claimed that most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it, but Jon was done with denials. He was who he was; Jon Snow, bastard and oathbreaker, motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life — however long that might be — he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”
However, Jon doesn’t even know his true name when he says this. Rather than being shunned for his status as Ned Stark’s bastard, his true name would assert his claim to the Iron Throne, finally affording rule of the Seven Kingdoms to someone honorable and just. In season 8, Jon is no longer a bastard. He’s anything but an oathbreaker. He wasn’t raised by his mother, but she loved him dearly enough to have her brother protect him at all costs. He has many friends, all of whom support him unconditionally, and he is far from damned as Game of Thrones approaches its long-awaited denouement. Jon Snow, like Ned, is a person perfectly fit to rule who simply doesn’t want to. But given the events of episode 5, perhaps he needs to set what he wants aside in order to pursue the greater good — something Ned does when he breaks Catelyn’s heart and ensures Jon is raised by a stepmother who hates him in order to keep a secret to honor his sister’s dying wish.
After Daenerys’ mindless slaughter of innocents at King’s Landing, it’s quite clear that Jon has finally become sufficiently disillusioned to no longer support his Queen. Although he loves her, and although his honor prevents him from overriding the claim of a Queen he already swore fealty to, Starks often place virtue over personal safety. After witnessing the atrocities committed at King’s Landing, Jon will inevitably take a page out of Ned’s book — a man who resigns his post as Hand of the King in order to protest against the assassination of Daenerys’ unborn child, who raises his sister’s son as his own bastard, who tells Cersei that he knows about her and Jaime not as a means of threatening her, but as a way to warn her that she can still escape if she leaves promptly. A man who dies from doing one too many honorable things at great personal risk. Except maybe in this case, Jon won’t die — maybe for once, honor will prevail.
Ever since Game of Thrones started, Starks have protected the weak and defended the innocent. That’s why Lord Varys is willing to die in support of Jon’s claim. “I hope I’m wrong,” he tells Tyrion as he faces Drogon and draws breath. Unfortunately, as always, The Spider is right. Perhaps he knows that his death sentence will be a second chance for him, an opportunity to believe in a Stark and encourage them to risk treason for the good of the Realm.
In A Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister says, “You have more of the north in you than your brothers.” In Jon, Ice and Fire meet, and perhaps that’s the reason he’s the Stark who looks and acts most like Ned: because he was never his son in the first place.