The Tourney at Harrenhal
No event prior to the beginning of the story have as much influence on it. There are so many mysteries connected to the Tourney that it is hard to know where to begin.
First, we need to examine the personality of Rhaegar Targaryen.
He was, to be blunt, an utterly obsessive man with a single minded drive to accomplish whatever goal he had. He was bookish to a fault until he read something, we don't know what, that convinced him he had to be a warrior. As a warrior he excelled. But his single mindedness made him blind to everything else around him.
Arstan: But I am not certain it was in Rhaegar to be happy.
Daenerys: You make him sound so sour.
Arstan: Not sour, no, but... there was a melancholy to Prince Rhaegar, a sense...
Daenerys: Say it. A sense?
Arstan: ... of doom. He was born in grief, my queen, and that shadow hung over him all his days.
There are certain things that must be understood in order to understand what happened at the tourney and also afterward.
1) Rhaegar did not want to be king. He never once expressed any desire for the crown. he showed every sign of being willing to wait until his father died a natural death.
2) Rhaegar had complete faith and trust in Tywin Lannister. He made Gregor Clegane a knight solely because Tywin asked him to. Can there be little doubt that had Rhaegar ascended the throne that it would really have been Tywin who ruled?
3) Tywin wanted Rhaegar to marry his daughter Cersei.
4) Lyanna was going to be forcibly married to a man she disliked. This point needs to be emphasized - Lyanna was being railroaded into an unwilling marriage.
5) Aerys was truly mad. This point does need to be stressed. Rhaegar was fully aware of his father's madness.
6) Rhaegar had almost no contact whatsoever, as in none at all, with the Starks prior to the tourney.
7) Last and most important, Rhaegar was consumed by the prophecies of the Prince that was Promised and the Three Heads of the Dragon.
Let's make one thing clear. It is widely assumed, even by characters in the story, that it was Rhaegar who was responable for the tourney. The problem is that Rhaegar was far too single-minded for this. It is far more likely that Tywin was behind it. There is plenty of evidence that Tywin was trying to get Aerys off the throne and Rhaegar onto it. And it is doubtful that his motives were benevolent. As mentioned before, Rhaegar was in Tywin's pocket.
Bridge4 has made a video saying that maybe Aerys was not as paranoid as everyone assumes. After all, Tywin and Aerys had been the best of friends when they were young. Who else would know Tywin better than his closest friend. In addition, all the sources we have which proclaim Tywin the greatest Hand ever are admittedly pro-Lannister. His reputation as the best Hand doesn't really square with the intense hatred of the Lannisters which predates the events of the story. Also, Tywin was real quick to throw away Aerys' life when an opportunity arose at the siege of Duskendale.
Bridge4 has suggested that maybe Tywin had something to do with Aerys' madness and paranoia too. Possibly?
What is certain is that had Rhaegar ascended the throne Tywin would have been his Hand. And if that had happened it is doubtful Rhaegar's wife and children would have lived very long. This goes to the meaning of Dany's vision in the House of the Undying of a man with rubies on his chest dying. The visions associated with Daughter of Death all involve Daenerys' male relatives who all have to die for her to fulfill the prophecy.
So what conclusions can we make? Tywin was behind the tourney for the expressed purpose of bringing together the Lords of Westeros to depose Aerys and install Rhaegar. But when word got out that Aerys was going to attend Tywin chose to absent himself. Without Tywin there to keep Rhaegar on script Rhaegar reverted to his own concerns. This will be important later.
Now lets turn to Lyanna Stark, the other major player in this drama.
We don't know just how much Lyanna and Robert may have known one another before these events. They most certainly knew each other, but it is doubtful they had met more than a half-dozen times prior to the tourney. Far too limited to take Robert's overly repeated claims of loving her seriously. Limited though it was, Lyanna most definitely had a very accurate perception of Robert's personality. She was utterly unwilling to join with an abusive drunk. All due respect to Ned Stark, he really wasn't the best judge of character. Whether you accept the 'Southern Ambitions' theory which involves Rickard Stark trying to create an anti-Targaryen alliance is neither here nor there. What is indisputable is that Rickard wanted to join his house with that of House Baratheon. Lyanna's marriage to Robert was central to this. This almost certainly resulted in the greatest cacophony between the Stark daughter and her father. Rickard was not interested in compromise. His daughter was going to marry Robert and that was that.
It was in this state that the Starks arrived at Harrenhal. Lyanna was already in the mood for a scrap when she encountered the squires abusing Howland Reed. No doubt this provided her with just the sort of excuse she wanted. Her performance in the tourney as the Knight of the Laughing Tree was something she had wanted to do for a long time. Thus Rhaegar found her.
Was Rhaegar in love? Possibly. Lyanna certainly loved him. After all, he was the true pop star of Westeros. As mentioned in the article on the Three Heads of the Dragon, Rhaegar was looking for a new mate. Ellia, always delicate, could never have another child after the birth of their son. It has been a subject of contention over whether Ellia was involved in Rhaegar's plans. I can't see it otherwise. Rhaegar was at heart a 'good man' and he doesn't strike me as the type who would be so crass as to treat his wife that way. Ellia was also from Dorne where co-habitation is not unusual. Ashara, who was friends with both, was also involved. The only real question was who he would choose. Lyanna was the perfect choice.
Here the importance of what happened with Ashara Dayne needs to be mentioned. Very like what happened between Rhaegar and Lyanna, Ned and Ashara fell for each other. In this case it was more open for neither was pledged to anyone and there is no reason to think that either family would oppose the match. Once again, people misunderstand this relationship. Whatever feelings Ned might have had for Ashara were as nothing to the love he had for his sister. In this relationship too the emotions appear to have been primarily on the lady's part.
The obvious attraction between them is what led to the next calamity. Brandon Stark, who had none of the reticence of his brother, was also more in the vein of Robert Baratheon in other ways. Brandon went to Ashara in the middle of the night. It would be an easy thing for him to impersonate Ned, for the two were very much alike, especially at night. This is the dishonor Baristan Selmy was thinking of. Only the next day did Ashara realize she had been deceived. Ned himself was far too honorable to claim credit for her de-flowering and she wasn't about to marry Brandon. So she left, before she could witness the tragic end of the tourney. This was either a disaster or the best thing that could ever happen. I guess it depends on your point-of-view.
Without either Tywin or Ashara around to stop him, Rhaegar could indulge his obsession. And so he crowned Lyanna Stark his Queen of Love and Beauty, sowing the ground for the catastrophe to come.
That being said, one should not assume that the two chose to run off immediately. It's doubtful that either thought their relationship would bloom straight away. It's more likely that for awhile the two simply sent letters to one another. It was only after his son was finally born that Rhaegar knew for certain his wife was no longer able to bear children. Lyanna barraged him with letters begging for help the whole time. She wanted him to save her from a marriage to a man she did not like.
Chances are Rickard guessed that Lyanna was planning to run away. It's not a difficult guess. That is why Rickard's solution was so drastic. We know for certain that Brandon was travelling to Riverrun to marry Catelyn. It is plainly stated in the text. What isn't is that it was going to be a double wedding. Rickard was going to have a secret wedding for his daughter so as to not give her a chance to escape it. That is why Lyanna was with Brandon as he travelled to Riverrun. That was also why Rickard wasn't with them. Ned and Robert join up with them on the road.
Unfortunately for Rickard's plans Lyanna figured out what was up. She arranged to run away from the group and meet up with Rhaegar near Harrenhal. The two then had their own secret wedding. I think I should point out here that how this happens in the show is not what is going to happen. Rhaegar is not going to annul his first marriage. Instead he will follow in the footsteps of Aegon the Conqueror and have two wives.
At this point we have to make a major assumption. Exactly how did Brandon find out about Rhaegar riding off with Lyanna? One of the most important facts omitted from the text is who exactly was it who told the tale that Rhaegar had kidnapped and raped Lyanna. The terminology is important for it was the belief in the assault upon his sister which led directly to Brandon's impulsive actions that led directly to his own death and that of his father.
Gemma has suggested that it was the Starks themselves who bandied around this story.
This seems to me patently ridiculous. The Starks know full well the difference between an abduction and an elopement. Nor is it likely that Rickard would have so tamely gone to Kings Landing while telling everyone such a slander. Brandon's reaction is far too genuine to be taken as anything other than an honest reaction to the news. Besides, he would never have acted so rashly if he knew what Lyanna had done. He probably wouldn't have gone to Kings Landing at all. He may have been reckless, but he wasn't a moron. He must have believed the story. Besides, if Rickard did know the truth why wouldn't he have simply allowed the marriage? If his purpose was to advance House Stark he could hardly have done better than the Crown Prince.
It has also been suggested that Pyter Baelish was to blame.
This is more credible. Littlefinger had a definite grudge against Brandon Stark. And the lie is the sort of sortie we have come to expect of Littlefinger. However, I have problems with it. For one, the timeline doesn't add up. The fight with Brandon took place months earlier and so did his expulsion from Riverrun. Unless Littlefinger spent months hanging around the Crossroads Inn, and bear in mind we are talking about a teenage boy, when did he come into contact with any of them? And why would Brandon listen to him in the first place.? Of all the people of Westeros, Brandon was the last person to trust anything Littlefinger said.
Now, it is possible that Littlefinger told Robert and Robert told Brandon. But we still have the time problem. In addition, we are told that Robert and Littlefinger never met prior to Robert's becoming king. The biggest objection I have though is that it is too neat. GRRM has already said, more than once, that there are no 'Saurons' in his story. Littlefinger engineering Robert's Rebellion smacks too much of the 'ultimate villain' trope. One of the things that makes Martin's story so good is its realism. One of the components of that realism is that there is no 'one chief' supervillain. There are many different actors who all have their own agendas.
The one I think is most likely is none other than Robert Baratheon.
His behavior afterward, his exaggerated hatred of Targaryens, his over expressed 'love' all bespeak of a guilty conscience. Everything about Robert's reactions show a jealous man outraged at being rejected. Robert was the kind of man used to having his way with women. All due respect to Mark Addy, the Robert Baratheon of the books is far more impressive, being a full 6 1/2 ft. tall. Taller than Brienne. He was not a man who took rejection lightly.
The most likely scenario was that when they noticed Lyanna missing the boys went out to find her. It was during his search that Robert came across Rhaegar and Lyanna in the act of getting married. Doubtless threats and screaming followed. Only the intervention of Arthur Dayne and the other Kingsguards prevented violence. But once the wedding party vanished south Robert murdered the Septum who had performed the marriage and went to Brandon to tell him his story. Robert, who was totally trusted by the Starks and had no reputation as a liar, was utterly credible to Brandon. Besides, Brandon had to have remembered what had happened at the tourney. Brandon sent Robert and Ned back to the Vale, to ensure they were safely out of the way, and went to Kings Landing to inflict retribution on Rhaegar.
It was to Brandon's misfortune that Rhaegar wasn't there. If he had been the truth would have come out. Where was Rhaegar? It is apparent that Rhaegar and his lady went straight from Harrenhal to the Tower of Joy. Why? To understand the answer we must first remember that Rhaegar's chief worry was not Robert Baratheon, but his father Aerys. Aerys, in his paranoid state, would undoubtedly have interpreted Rhaegar's actions as a threat. The relationship between the two was already strained. If Brandon had gone to Kings Landing and humbly appealed to Aerys he likely would have received a sympathetic hearing. Yet it seems clear that Robert said to Brandon the one thing he knew would enrage him. People have a tendency to underestimate Robert. Brute though he was he did have a brain.
How is it that Rhaegar did not hear about Robert's Rebellion until after Gerald Hightower went to fetch him? Rhaegar and Lyanna cut themselves off on purpose. A point needs to be made about the maps of Westeros. It needs to be remembered that the people of this world do not have modern satellite technology to generate precise maps. Most locations are approximate. Only the most populous locations can reasonably be considered as accurate. The Tower of Joy may appear close to the Princes's Pass, but it is actually miles away across rough terrain and not visible from the road. We have no idea who built it or for what purpose, but it is doubtful it was ever intended for defense.
The couple did not want anyone to find them because they did not want their families interfering. Lyanna almost certainly sent at least one message to her father. But by that point Rickard had already left for Kings Landing. It is doubtful Rhaegar and Lyanna had even reached the Tower by the time Rickard got to Kings Landing. He was travelling by the Kings Road. They were not.
Probable Location of
Rhaegar & Lyanna's Wedding
Tower of Joy
By the time Ned finally got back to Winterfell the war was already on. His brother Benjen was probably in cahoots with Lyanna. There is strong evidence that he had been helping Lyanna from the start. He likely intercepted any messages Lyanna sent. Whatever Lyanna said was too late by then. So Benjen disposed of them before Ned could see them. Guilt over his part in the tragedy is what drove him to join the Nights Watch.
That isn't the end of this tragedy. Ashara, upon returning to Starfall found herself with child. She kept this secret because, as mentioned, she did not want to marry Brandon. When word reached her that Brandon was dead it is entirely possible she entertained thoughts that Ned might be willing to lie and claim the baby as his. But when she sees him again he is already married to Catelyn Tully. Ashara told him where to find Lyanna, but she probably wasn't expecting him to return. When he did he had a baby with him. I am guessing we will never know how she reacted when he asked her to adopt the baby. But I think we can guess. When she finally calmed down she made her choice. Ashara Dayne 'died' and Quaithe was born.
I think it necessary to add one final point. In Deep Geek insists that Ashara ran away with Howland Reed and is the mother of Jojen and Meera. Needless to say... no. The evidence he uses to justify this view is the fact that Howland knows a lot about Ashara's behavior at the tourney. That Howland might have fallen for Ashara is easily believed. But it is doubtful Ashara was even aware of his existence. The fact is an Ashara/Howland pairing serves no purpose to the story. There is no reason for it to be secret for one thing. For another, their children would have known, yet they make no mention of it. Why does Howland pay so much attention to Ashara at Harrenhal?
The answer is simple: Jojen and Meera have to relay important information to Bran and, more importantly, to us, the reader. There are two ways that such information may be given to the reader/audience. One is for it to be common knowledge. But then the problem becomes explaining why the audience doesn't learn of it immediately. The other is for the main character to encounter a person who knows it. There are many ways this is done in books and tv shows. Most don't work well. Finding some random person who just happens to know the needed info stretches credibility. Much better the character run into someone who is intimately connected to the events. Next best is for it to be their child. It is doubtful Jojen and Meera's mother has any role in the story at all.