Broken Bonds: The Secrets of Rhaegar’s Song

The unique spiritual bond between a mother and her sons, and the psychic damage to both when that bond is severed.

This is the central theme/motif of Rhaegar’s prophecy, perhaps of the series itself.

After all, what are the Others but a supernatural army of abandoned sons? Maybe they just have serious attachment issues.

In addition to establishing the above point, I believe I can strongly argue the following:

Rhaegar’s song (“Jenny’s song”) has a subtext that only women can perceive, concerning the loss of children–perhaps sons in particular.

The known line of Jenny’s song is actually a refrain, appearing multiple times.

This allows for some interesting speculations about the origins of certain characters.

Sansa is uniquely suited for the task of invoking prophecy against the Others if necessary.

This is is the second essay in the Composer of Prophecy series which closely examines Rhaegar’s involvement in the the prophecy of the promised prince and how he may have covertly ‘stored’ it in the song which is informally known as “Jenny’s song”.

Composer of Prophecy

  1. Rhaegar’s Song of Love and Doom
  2. Broken Bonds – The Secrets of His Song
    1. Something He Said
    2. Not the Men, of Course
    3. A Line Oft Repeated
    4. What About Jenny?
    5. Sansa the Harpist
  3. A Wolf Takes Flight

<Reddit discussion for this essay>

*   *   *

SOMETHING HE SAID


George R.R. MartinJenny’s song has only one known line: “High in the halls of the kings who are gone, Jenny would dance with her ghosts.”

However Martin was once asked about other verses in Jenny’s song, and here’s what he had to say:

“I did write a few verses, but they were cut. I wanted that particular song to be very haunting and evocative, and I don’t think I quite achieved that.”
GEORGE RR MARTIN, SO SPAKE MARTIN

I’ve highlighted the words haunting and evocative, because I think they are an example of accidentally revealing language on Martin’s part. I certainly can’t hinge any serious theory off of Martin’s word choice, but these idle comments can absolutely complement an otherwise compelling idea.

I bring this comment from GRRM up now because I will return to it a few times throughout this essay.

<table of contents>

*   *   *

NOT THE MEN, OF COURSE


So why do women and men seem to have different reactions to Rhaegar’s music?

A Male Blind Spot

It’s quite interesting that Rhaegar’s musical performances seem to make women readily weep, but never men. Jon Connington makes this explicit at one point:

At the welcoming feast, the prince had taken up his silver-stringed harp and played for them. A song of love and doom, Jon Connington recalled, and every woman in the hall was weeping when he put down the harp. Not the men, of course.
— THE GRIFFIN REBORN, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

I’ve argued that Rhaegar may likely be performing the same song (Jenny’s song) over and over at these performances, an idea that may be disputed. In any case, the idea of a gender-based reaction to his music seems to be well established.

The reasons for such a difference could be any of the following:

  • Men just aren’t listening to Rhaegar’s music.
  • Men glean the same meaning from the song as women, but just don’t care about it as much.
  • Men are failing to pick up on a subtext in the song that the women are indeed catching.

The first two could happen no matter the song or circumstance. What interests me is the third possibility: that men are incapable of seeing something in the song that the women are, a hidden subtext that exists between the words.

It seems to me that the best men can do is suspect the presence of hidden meaning:

“When you heard him play his high harp with the silver strings and sing of twilights and tears and the death of kings, you could not but feel that he was singing of himself and those he loved.”
— DAENERYS IV, A STORM OF SWORDS

Barristan Selmy was regularly in Rhaegar’s presence and heard his music often, but the best he could do was ‘feel’ that there was something else concealed in the words. And yet it seems that even women who barely know Rhaegar can be brought to tears by his song.

*   *   *

For Women Only

The next immediate question is “What sorts of issues would innately be something that women might notice or care about, which would elude most men?”

Since this is a subject clearly delineated by genders and gender roles, the most obvious answer would be something related to what women are uniquely capable of: birthing and raising of children and related issues.

As I already pointed out in the introduction of this essay, sons separated from their mothers are clearly a major component of the plot: the Others are such lost children and so is Jon Snow. This leads me to believe the following:

The significance of the relationship between a son and mother is the hidden subtext in Rhaegar’s music.

And since I believe that Rhaegar only played “Jenny’s song” at most of his appearances, this could be restated as:

The significance of the relationship between a son and mother is the hidden subtext in Jenny’s song.

*   *   *

Westerosi Gender Roles and Expectations

The idea that men would be unable to understand the mother-son relationship and its significance might seem far-fetched. But that’s applying contemporary reasoning.

In Westerosi culture, it would be quite easy for most men (particularly the nobles with their schemes and games) to overlook the important spiritual bond between mothers and their sons.

In a way, this very thing is obliquely implied by a conversation between Brienne and Catelyn in A Clash of Kings:

“Knights die in battle,” Catelyn reminded her.

Brienne looked at her with those blue and beautiful eyes. “As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them.”

“Children are a battle of a different sort.” Catelyn started across the yard. “A battle without banners or warhorns, but no less fierce. Carrying a child, bringing it into the world . . . your mother will have told you of the pain . . .”

“I never knew my mother,” Brienne said. “My father had ladies . . . a different lady every year, but . . .”

“Those were no ladies,” Catelyn said. “As hard as birth can be, Brienne, what comes after is even harder. At times I feel as though I am being torn apart. Would that there were five of me, one for each child, so I might keep them all safe.”

“And who would keep you safe, my lady?”

Her smile was wan and tired. “Why, the men of my House. Or so my lady mother taught me. My lord father, my brother, my uncle, my husband, they will keep me safe . . . but while they are away from me, I suppose you must fill their place, Brienne.”
— CATELYN VI, A CLASH OF KINGS

As you can see here, Catelyn makes it clear that she protects her children fiercely… as any mother would. In a sense, what emerges is the notion that the mother protects the sons, so that they can in turn grow and one day protect their own wives and daughters.

The absolutely breathtaking bit here is when Brienne says “As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them.” If you are a believer that Lyanna died giving birth to Jon Snow the promised prince and that Rhaegar’s song was actually the prophecy of the promised prince, then Brienne was in fact entirely wrong.

The idea that Brienne was entirely wrong is interesting because she eschews a traditional female gender role, which could be a component in why she doesn’t know of any songs about the challenges of motherhood (such as the subtext in Rhaegar’s music). This is made explicit as well:

“You know nothing,” she agreed, sweeping from the cell. Brienne fell in beside her, silent. It is simpler for her, Catelyn thought with a pang of envy. She was like a man in that. For men the answer was always the same, and never farther away than the nearest sword. For a woman, a mother, the way was stonier and harder to know.
— CATELYN VI, A CLASH OF KINGS

*   *   *

Martin’s Evocative Song

As noted in the previous section, Martin declared that he wanted Jenny’s song to sound ‘evocative’:

“I did write a few verses, but they were cut. I wanted that particular song to be very haunting and evocative, and I don’t think I quite achieved that.”
GEORGE RR MARTIN, SO SPAKE MARTIN

Evocative generally means “to bring powerful images or memories to mind”. In this light, Martin’s statement seems flatly wrong, because he is a very vivid writer: he has no overt struggle with conveying imagery, taste, etc. both plainly and veiled in metaphor. People often laugh at his long descriptions.

This is obviously my opinion, but I feel that what Martin really means here is that he couldn’t find lines that worked for the imagery he wanted to convey. In particular what this reveals is that the imagery would have been easy, but the prose was not. The suggestion of so precise a relationship between the meaning and the text suggest Martin could not happily establish a subtext that he wanted.

And he is a master of subtext.

*   *   *

Summarizing this section:

Women perceive a subtext in Rhaegar’s music, one concerning the special relationship between a mother and her sons.

Traditional Westerosi gender roles prevent men from perceiving this subtext.

I suppose some readers might argue, “If the song has secret subtext that only women can understand, then how did Rhaegar write it?”

To which I respond, he had a woman (The Ghost of High Heart) telling him what to write essentially.

<table of contents>

*   *   *

A LINE OFT REPEATED


Harrenhal1“High in the halls of the kings who are gone, Jenny would dance with her ghosts.”
— EPILOGUE, A STORM OF SWORDS

Although this is the only line of Jenny’s song that is known, I believe it appears more than once throughout the song.

How on earth can I justify that idea with so little to go on?

  1. There are a noticeable number of situations in the books that conspicuously mirror the details in the line.
  2. A pattern emerges from the observations: one that supports the larger themes of the books and seems to occur naturally without excessive reader invention.
  3. These findings suggest deliberation on Martin’s part.

Consequently, I believe this is not just the first line of the entire song, it is a refrain and appears multiple times. I further believe that examining the pattern that emerges from these studies allows for very compelling and insightful hypotheses about future events.

Mirroring the Song

To begin identifying all of the various circumstances where the line from Jenny’s song has manifested requires that we take stock of the details provided in the song itself:

Halls of the kings who are gone. This suggests the castles and keeps of former kings, like ruins or castles of kings who have since fled or submitted to greater kings.

High in the halls. This would suggest atop towers or at least the highest floor in a relational sense: high places in the aforementioned keeps and castles.

Ghosts. This suggests the presence of ‘ghosts’, which could be literal, figurative or somewhere between those two points.

Notice that there is a plurality of halls, kings and ghosts. Sure, it could very well only mean one place, but it could also mean multiple places. I specifically believe in the latter case: there are multiple halls, kings and ghosts that fit the line from the song, and that each is important.

What about the mention of Jenny? Wouldn’t that be another important element to look for? This very well could be the case, but I would like to hold discussion of the connection between Jenny and my findings for a moment.

Here are those ‘situations’ that I’ve found match the line from Jenny’s song to an eerie degree. Some of the situations are less certain than others, I’ve used question marks indicate when there is some uncertainty.

LIKELY CANDIDATES

  • Ghost_of_High_Heart1The Ghost of High Heart / Summerhall — She was obviously at Summerhall for some time (the ‘Shadow of Summerhall’), and clearly was fond of Jenny. Being a ghost in name and in history (everyone thinks she died during the Tragedy of Summerhall), it makes perfect sense to consider her a qualifying ghost. Summerhall is clearly a former hall of kings.300px-Alannis_Harlaw_by_henning
  • Alannys Harlaw  / Pyke — Asha makes several comments about how Alannys seems more like a ghost than her mother. Indeed Alannys would wander the towers at Pyke during the night, calling out for her lost sons. She seems completely disconnected from the real world like a ghost.
  • 350px-Zippo514_LadyStoneheartLady Stoneheart / Oldstones — Stoneheart is quite literally undead, a revenant brought back to ‘life’ courtesy of Beric’s magic. Oldstones is a seat of former kings; indeed Catelyn herself specifically calls it a ‘hall of kings’ at one point.347px-Lady_joanna_by_wolverrain
  • Joanna Lannister / Sept of Baelor — Her ghost appears to visit Jaime in a dream in A Feast for Crows. However she insists it is not a dream, something Jaime subsequently agrees with. Interestingly, the “non-dream” happens at the Sept of Baelor, where the bones of the dead Targaryen kings are interred below.

POSSIBLE CANDIDATES

  • Ghost(s) in Winterfell?? / Winterfell Crypts — Between the missing swords, Theon’s musings, the spearwives and the bizarre dreams Ned and Jon have, it’s clear that the crypts of Winterfell are ‘portentous’ to say the least. The crypts are clearly a set of halls housing the remains of long dead kings. What’s novel here is that the highest level contains the tombs of the most recently dead Starks.
  • Ghost at the Eyrie?? / The Eyrie — Most notably, the Eyrie even has a “High Hall”. Although there is never any clear evidence of any ghost at the Eyrie, it’s rather odd that Marillion keeps playing songs about women losing their sons and other mournful songs. Even more odd is that Robert Arryn continues to hear the singing in his dreams after Marillion is killed.
  • Ghost in Harrenhal?? / Harrenhal — Harrenhal clearly has at least one high ‘hall’ that is unequivocally associated with ghosts, the Wailing Tower. Further we know that Arya liked to consider herself the ‘Ghost in Harrenhal’.

There of course may be more.

*   *   *

Pattern Recognition

We have several good specific matches (Alannys, Stoneheart and Joanna) and several vague ones (Winterfell, Harrenhal and the Eyrie). These are on top of the self-evident mention of the Ghost of High Heart and Summerhall.

We need to look at the data we have and see if a pattern emerges. Can we create a hypothesis to test against the other, uncertain entries?

I believe the answer is ‘Yes‘.

First, what do all three of the ‘good’, specific candidates have in common?

They are all mothers.

All of them are “dead” in one sense or another.

Perhaps this is too particular, but they are all mothers to POV characters, and their sons were separated from them at an early age.

For lack of a better word, I’d like to replace “dead” with cursed, in the sense that these mothers seem to remain in some sort of unhappy purgatory after the loss/separation of their children.

These observations allow me to form an initial hypothesis:

The line appears multiple times in the song.

It refers to mothers who are cursed after being separated from their children (sons in particular).

Specifically it refers to mothers who are somehow associated with the halls of former kings.

So with that idea in mind, could the other vague entries on the list actually be ‘nonliving’, cursed mothers as well? Can we think of prospective ghosts to fill in these blanks?

  • lyanna_stark_p3_details_by_reddera-d65iqweGhost of Winterfell. The best candidate here is Lyanna Stark, assuming you believe that she is mother to Jon Snow. It’s thematically consistent with everything I’ve just said. She is buried on the highest ‘hall’ of the Winterfell crypts, she has no sword so by Stark custom her ‘spirit’ might be free to roam, and so forth.Lysa_Tully
  • Ghost of the Eyrie. Lysa Tully makes the most sense here, as it is a perfect fit for the ‘requirements’ I just pitched. Further, it would make sense of all the bizarre things happening at the Eyrie after her death and how they seem to dwell on the relationship between a mother and her son.
  • Ghost of Harrenhal. This remains a mystery, since we know of no mother who might ‘haunt’ Harrenhal, concerned over a son she left behind. If such a thing existed it would have to be someone we don’t know or a person we didn’t know was once at Harrenhal.

In any case, the hypothesis concerning mothers and sons seems to hold, curiously well. Perhaps its not just a hypothesis, but the truth?

For any skeptics of the Lyanna and Lysa suggestions, I have written extensively in multiple essays about the existence of ghosts, plausible or otherwise in ASOIAF. You can read them if you desire additional context in support of ghosts, here and here.

Martin has additionally made the relationship between sons and mothers of explicit importance:

You would weep as well if you had a son and lost him, Sam almost said.
SAMWELL TARLY — SAMWELL III, A FEAST FOR CROWS

“A mother can’t leave her son, or else she’s cursed forever. Not a son.”
GILLY — JON II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

The hypothesis is interesting because it certainly corresponds with so many characters involved in the story: Theon, Jon, Jaime and Bran are all prominent sons who have ‘lost’ their mothers early in life under unfortunate circumstances.

Lastly, remember that Martin admitted that he wanted “Jenny’s song” to be haunting:

“I did write a few verses, but they were cut. I wanted that particular song to be very haunting and evocative, and I don’t think I quite achieved that.”
GEORGE RR MARTIN, SO SPAKE MARTIN

Was this a clever pun, a lyrical statement, or perhaps a subconscious slip of the tongue?

I find it odd because it would be one thing for the song’s in-world author to mention ‘dancing with ghosts’, but its another when our actual author Martin says he wanted the song to sound ‘haunting’: he’s conflating his role as the story’s author with the role of the song’s writer.

This is substantiated by other element’s of Martin’s statement: Martin cut the other verses he wrote out of dissatisfaction, and blamed himself for it. Couldn’t he have simply attributed any ‘bad verses’ to the song’s in-world author and moved on? Here he betrays an authorial overlap between himself and whoever wrote the song. In essence, this admission actually highlights the importance of Jenny’s song to the story.

Collectively, things just fits too well to simply be dismissed as a reader’s imaginings.

*   *   *

About the Ghost of High Heart

The Ghost of High Heart may be a ‘ghost’, but there is no evidence that she ever had children at all. This seems like it invalidates the hypothesis.

I have previously argued that “Jenny’s song” served two purposes; one was to record the Ghost’s prophecies, and the other was to slake the Ghost’s desire to commemorate Jenny.

I think in this case we have an example of the layered nature of the song: The Ghost of High Heart and Summerhall fit because it was Rhaegar shoehorning her into a song which really encapsulated her prophecies. In other words, she fits with the actual text of the song (the lyrics) because the song was written for the Ghost, but she does not fit with the subtext concerning the prophecy.

*   *   *

So to summarize this section:

There are many ‘ghosts’ that appear to have prominent associations with halls of kings who are gone.

There are so many occurrences matching the words of Jenny’s song it suggests that the words are possibly a refrain.

These occurrences are also neatly consistent with themes and/or motifs that are pervasive in the books: the relationship between mothers and sons and the spiritual damage inflicted by a tear in that bond.

It therefore seems unlikely that this is a wishful interpretation of the song.

<table of contents>

*   *   *

WHAT ABOUT JENNY?


So I left two ominous gaps in the previous section… Jenny of Oldstones herself and Harrenhal. Where do they fit in the prophecy?

To be honest I’m not sure, but I have a fun theory that Jenny was not at Summerhall during the tragedy. I think its entirely possible that she was at Harrenhal nursing a newborn son when the tragedy happened. She committed suicide after arranging for someone to take her child somewhere safe from vengeful Targaryen pursuit: north of the Wall. That son would grow to be Mance Rayder.

You can read about this idea in my essay The Red Sun Rises, The Glass Candle Burns: The Lost Targaryen Prince.

<table of contents>

*   *   *

SANSA THE HARPIST


Sansa_Stark_by_Natascha_Röösli,_Fantasy_Flight_Games©Note: The landing gear are up at this point, valmorphanization is complete. While I like the ideas in this section, I’m not sure it will convince anyone.

I have written a few essays recently that raised as many questions as they answered. One of which suggested that Rhaegar’s Harp was in Winterfell and would be the tool needed to communicate with the Others.

One big criticism was “How was Jon going to use the harp? There is no evidence he knows how to?”

Well, it’s possible that Mance might play it for him.

However, I like another wild speculation more:

Jon and Sansa visit the Others together, and she plays the harp to pacify them.

Sansa has a life history that makes this thematically compelling.

*   *   *

The Dog that saved Sansa

First of all, let me point something out: Sansa was right where Littlefinger was wrong.

At a low point in Sansa’s life, she ruminates:

Sansa stared hard at his ugly face, remembering how he had thrown down her father for Ser Ilyn to behead, wishing she could hurt him, wishing that some hero would throw him down and cut off his head. But a voice inside her whispered, There are no heroes, and she remembered what Lord Petyr had said to her, here in this very hall. “Life is not a song, sweetling,” he’d told her. “You may learn that one day to your sorrow.” In life, the monsters win, she told herself, and now it was the Hound’s voice she heard, a cold rasp, metal on stone. “Save yourself some pain, girl, and give him what he wants.”
— SANSA V, A GAME OF THRONES

Sansa appears to be convinced that ‘life is not a song’.

However, Sansa later absolutely proved this statement false when a song seems to have saved her life:

Her throat was dry and tight with fear, and every song she had ever known had fled from her mind. Please don’t kill me, she wanted to scream, please don’t. She could feel him twisting the point, pushing it into her throat, and she almost closed her eyes again, but then she remembered. It was not the song of Florian and Jonquil, but it was a song. Her voice sounded small and thin and tremulous in her ears.

Gentle Mother, font of mercy,
save our sons from war, we pray,
stay the swords and stay the arrows,
let them know a better day.
Gentle Mother, strength of women,
help our daughters through this fray,
soothe the wrath and tame the fury,
teach us all a kinder way.

She had forgotten the other verses. When her voice trailed off, she feared he might kill her, but after a moment the Hound took the blade from her throat, never speaking.
— SANSA V, A CLASH OF KINGS

So in a way, this encounter with the Hound proved that a song could be indeed quite powerful, powerful enough to stay a blade and save a life.

Further, in another instance of men not understanding Rhaegar’s music, if Jenny’s song is indeed a telling of prophecy then life is a song – quite literally. Maybe not a happy song, but a song nonetheless.

What’s most striking about all of this is that Sansa has been shown to have calmed a lost (broken) man with her voice and a song. She made him see his humanity when he could not.

*   *   *

The Right Stuff

In addition to being one of the only people who thematically has the right belief in songs and faith in heroes, Sansa also possesses the right qualities to sing Rhaegar’s song and use the harp.

Arya makes a curious note of this, specifically in reference to Jenny’s song!

So the singer played for her, so soft and sad that Arya only heard snatches of the words, though the tune was half-familiar. Sansa would know it, I bet. Her sister had known all the songs, and she could even play a little, and sing so sweetly. All I could ever do was shout the words.
— ARYA IV, A STORM OF SWORDS

Additionally, Sansa had been taking high harp lessons which in King’s Landing, after the Tyrells took her under their wing.

There is a bit as well where Catelyn expresses remorse over Sansa’s missed opportunity to train on the harp:

“There was always a singer at Evenfall Hall when I was a girl,” Brienne said quietly. “I learned all the songs by heart.”

“Sansa did the same, though few singers ever cared to make the long journey north to Winterfell.” I told her there would be singers at the king’s court, though. I told her she would hear music of all sorts, that her father could find some master to help her learn the high harp. Oh, gods forgive me . . .
— CATELYN VI, A CLASH OF KINGS

I can’t put my finger on it, but it just seems like Sansa’s specific affinity for songs, and the explicit references to her musical ability and to her knowledge of Jenny’s song, suggest it may be something of future importance.

10 thoughts on “Broken Bonds: The Secrets of Rhaegar’s Song

  1. Ben Moegan

    Genius absolute genius. by far my favorite asoiaf essay writer and amazing analysis. Each are timeless and each better then the last!!!

    Reply
  2. Riusma

    As far as I know, the term “haunting” has been used by GRRM for description of Ashara’s eyes (AGOT, Catelyn II) and for the description of the song The Dance of the Dragons (ASOS, Tyrion VIII) which speaks about two lovers and the Doom, and is also thematically linked with Jenny’s song by Sansa (AFFC, Sansa I). I’ve speculated that Jenny’s song has been composed by Rhaegar with The Dance of Dragons as a base. 🙂

    Reply
    1. RANewton

      “The Dance of the Dragons (ASOS, Tyrion VIII) which speaks about two lovers and the Doom”

      where are you getting that descriptions of the song? A quick look at the wiki and my own memory serves to say it’s about the actual Dance of Dragons that happened. As in the Targ civil war 170 years before the books.

      Reply
  3. Benandate

    Excellent essay. I believe you are mistaken about the identity of the Ghost of Winterfell. If there is one, you would expect it would be Ned Stark’s mother, who – leaping here – is the woman Bran sees before the heart tree, praying for a son to avenge her.

    Reply
  4. Benandate

    I got it.
    Lyarra Stark, mother of Brandon, Ned, Lyanna, Benjen, prays for a son to avenge her. Thank you for pointing out the connection here: Winterfell, the Eyrie, and Harrenhal.

    Why would Lyarra Stark need vengeance? We can’t be sure, but if we think about Ned’s early life we know of only a few events. Recall that Jon Arryn’s suggestion to send Sweetrobin away as a ward? Lysa – more or less – murdered Jon over this suggestion. The Eyrie is where Ned Stark was fostered. Brandon was also raised away from Winterfell. Does the grieving woman miss her sons?

    Reply
  5. The Shameful Narcissist

    I cannot tell you how overjoyed I am to have stumbled upon your blog from that reddit post. This is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Reading your theories, speculations, and analyses literally gives me chills. Now to tear through the rest of this blog. You have made my work day that much more exciting.

    Reply
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