Game of Thrones is a fantastic show, and part of the reason for that is its complexity. The characters have rich backgrounds, the families have long histories, and the conflicts are the result of events that are never shown onscreen. It’s more interesting than simple Good Guy Versus Bad Guy fantasy, but it can sometimes be difficult to follow. Game of Thrones Explained is here to help. Whether you’re a viewer wanting more detail than is provided by character conversations, a fan of the books wanting to brush up on the story as you watch the show, or someone just trying to keep the names straight, this recurring column will explore families, events, locations, and characters. It may reveal information that hasn’t yet been discussed on the show, but it won’t spoil plot twists or secrets.
As Game of Thrones begins, Robert Baratheon is ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and Viserys Targaryen is an exile claiming his rightful throne was stolen. Most of the older characters were somehow involved in the war that led to Robert’s coronation seventeen years ago. But what was that war about, and how was it won?
The Targaryen family had ruled the Seven Kingdoms for nearly 300 years, though the dragons they used to conquer Westeros died out long ago. Targaryens had a history of mental instability, and this reached its peak in King Aerys II, the Mad King, whose eccentricity sometimes lapsed into cruelty and vindictiveness.
Aerys’s eldest son, Rhaegar, was a dashing and accomplished knight. However, he had shown interest in Lyanna Stark (sister to Ned), who was betrothed to marry Robert Baratheon. The Starks learned that Lyanna had apparently been kidnapped by Rhaegar, and Brandon Stark (Ned’s elder brother) rode to King’s Landing to challenge him. He was captured, and soon he and his father Lord Rickard Stark were brutally killed by the Mad King for their supposed treason.
Meanwhile, Ned and Robert were wards of Jon Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie. Jon would not let King Aerys execute the young men, so the houses of Arryn, Stark, and Baratheon rose up against the crown. Robert laid claim to the throne due to an ancient family tie between Baratheon and Targaryen. House Tully soon joined the rebels when Ned and Jon Arryn married the daughters of Lord Tully, Catelyn and Lysa; Catelyn had once been betrothed to Brandon Stark. Supporting the Targaryens were the Great Houses of Tyrell and Martell, while the Lannisters remained neutral. The smaller noble houses of the realm were equally divided.
As the conflict progressed, Robert earned a reputation as one of the great warriors of the age, and Ned was an effective commander. A series of major battles were fought, culminating in the Battle of the Trident (named for a great waterway in the Riverlands). There, Robert met Prince Rhaegar and slew him with a blow from his great warhammer, scattering the rubies on Rhaegar’s armor into the river. The rebel army routed the loyalists, and the way was open to the capital of King’s Landing.
Soon after, the Lannisters joined the rebel forces. Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard killed Aerys, forever earning the epithet of Kingslayer, and sat on the Iron Throne as Ned Stark entered the Keep. Gregor Clegane (the Mountain) and other Lannister men murdered Rhaegar’s wife and children. Only the Queen and her young son Viserys escaped, and the Queen soon died giving birth to her daughter Daenerys. The last Targaryens fled to the eastern continent.
After leaving King’s Landing, Ned Stark rode south to Dorne, where his sister Lyanna had been taken by Rhaegar. There, at the Tower of Joy, he and six companions faced three members of the Kingsguard, including the legendary knight Arthur Dayne. The seven Stark men killed the Kingsguard, though only Ned and his loyal bannerman Howland Reed survived. Lyanna died mysteriously soon after.
As Robert took the throne, it was necessary to reunite the houses that had so recently been feuding. He pardoned many former enemies, and the Tyrells and Martells pledged fealty to him. Because Lyanna was dead, and to ensure Lannister loyalty, Robert married Cersei Lannister. Jon Arryn became Hand of the King. Ned Stark returned to Winterfell and his young wife Catelyn, bringing a bastard son (Jon) of around the same age as his new heir Robb.
As Robert declined from a great warrior into a drunken reveler, his Rebellion retained a powerful hold on the memories of the people of Westeros. The Targaryens and their loyalists, however, would name the conflict the War of the Usurper. Now Ned is investigating the death (and perhaps murder) of Jon Arryn, the Targaryens have made Dothraki allies, and the peace between the Lannisters and Starks seems shaky.