As we steel ourselves for the six feature-length episodes of Game of Thrones Season Eight, the anticipation has reached a fevered pitch. There are so many loose threads, revelations and grisly deaths to sort through in that half-dozen episode span that you can safely assume every single episode will be packed to the brim with portents.
There’s likely no unresolved question more portentous, though, than the following: Who exactly is Azor Ahai, “The Prince That Was Promised”? This legend, which speaks of the rebirth of a mythical hero responsible for the first defeat of the White Walkers at the end of the Long Night— some 8,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones—could be central to who lives and dies in Season Eight. The identity of Azor Ahai might just be the most important single question in Game of Thrones.
Or… it could be more or less meaningless. We can’t look past the possibility that Melisandre and other proponents of the Azor Ahai legend have it all wrong. There may be no supernatural hero coming to stop The Night King and his army of White Walkers and dead men. They may conquer all of Westeros in a series of bloody tragedies. Or the armies of men—our human heroes, and a few dragons for good measure—might succeed in repelling them based solely on their own, human strengths. The entire Azor Ahai myth could simply be a diversion and commentary upon humanity’s desire for a savior to take responsibility out of their hands.
But with that said… we’re all still pretty much expecting to see Azor Ahai made flesh, right? The legend has been built up to such an extent that anything but a real answer to the question will be deeply unsatisfying to a lot of Game of Thrones fans. Which means we need to speculate on all of the remaining candidates who have a genuine chance to be revealed as Azor Ahai.
Be aware, there’s no way to discuss these theories without copious spoilers, so read on at your own peril.
When Game of Thrones began, it’s safe to say that there were a whole lot more potential candidates for the role of Azor Ahai. In fact, in terms of the overall roster of characters, the show is basically a skeleton crew of what it was at one point, with entire houses having been robbed of all their major characters—see ya, Tyrells. In George R.R. Martin’s books, perhaps, there are still some left-field options worthy of consideration, but on Game of Thrones the TV show, we would argue that there are really only five major options left: Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister and, believe it or not, Samwell Tarly. We’ll be diving into each of them below, to see how well they fit the prophecy and GoT’s fantasy conventions.
Well Stannis, you murdered your daughter, but at least you tried.
First, though, a word on some of the lesser candidates.
Theon Greyjoy: Theon has the benefit of having been treated as a “main character” throughout the entire series, even when he wasn’t particularly important to the plot. He would be a truly unexpected candidate for Azor Ahai, and is attempting to set out on (yet another) reclamation quest by rescuing his sister from his uncle Euron, but we’ve seen multiple “Theon’s redemption” storylines derail without his character developing or changing much—he remains something of a coward, even now. I’ve even seen theories attempting to argue that Yara Greyjoy could somehow be Azor Ahai, but I refuse to entertain the notion that someone who has been on screen as little as she has could possibly be that important to the end of the story. Ultimately, just rescuing his sister is already plenty of a quest for hapless Theon. “Defeating the army of the dead” is asking far too much.
Sansa/Arya Stark: There seems to be a desire among some theorists to engineer a way in which one of the two Stark women could be Azor Ahai, but these theories tend to revolve heavily around metaphor. They make huge leaps of logic, such as saying that Jon Snow as a warrior could “be Sansa’s Lightbringer”—a human version of Azor Ahai’s flaming sword, with Sansa still receiving the credit as a mastermind who directs Jon’s actions. These kinds of theories are grasping at straws in order to make the characters fit the mold of the prophecy. They don’t. The same goes for Jorah Mormont, who would be “using Dany as his Lightbringer.” Let’s discard such passive interpretations of the prophecy—they’re not going to happen.
The Hound: Sure, we like the character, but we haven’t seen anything yet to convince us that The Hound has an Azor Ahai-sized role to play in the conclusion of the story, nor does he seem to fit any of the prophecy’s most important points. Let’s just focus on making Cleganebowl happen this season, so we can finally satisfy that particular corner of the Internet.
Gendry: I mean… really. Gendry seems like a nice guy, and he may be the last Baratheon standing, but come on. Dude has been on screen for maybe an hour in the entire series to date. He’s not going to be revealed as the mythical hero of Westeros with six episodes left to go.
Bran Stark: Bran is an unusual side-case. As the Three-Eyed Raven, he’s now implied to have near omniscient powers, and even the possible ability to interact with or change past events, but since becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, his involvement with the story has been very minor. Mostly, he’s just been sitting there looking sad and muttering to himself. Clearly, he’s going to have some kind of important role to play eventually, but it almost feels like the series’ writers (and Martin by extension on this one) wrote themselves into a corner by implying Bran to be too powerful. It’s as if they don’t know what to do with him that doesn’t involve him using his deus ex machina powers to save the day, so he’s just in a holding pattern. Certainly, he doesn’t need the burden of being “The Prince Who Was Promised” in addition to being the Three-Eyed Raven.
And now, on to the legitimate candidates.
First, we should jot down the basics of the Azor Ahai/Prince Who Was Promised prophecy, which come largely from Melisandre, and to a lesser extent from other characters:
— After a long summer, when the stars bleed [the red star/comet we’ve seen a few times] and the cold breath of darkness falls heavy on the world, Azor Ahai will be reborn.
The “red star”/comet frequently mentioned in the Azor Ahai prophecy.
— He shall be born again amidst smoke and salt.
— He shall wake dragons out of stone.
— He shall draw from the fire a burning sword, Lightbringer.
Also important is Azor Ahai’s mythic backstory, which I’ll just quote in full.
Darkness lay over the world and a hero, Azor Ahai, was chosen to fight against it. To fight the darkness, Azor Ahai needed to forge a hero’s sword. He labored for thirty days and thirty nights until it was done. However, when he went to temper it in water, the sword broke. He was not one to give up easily, so he started over.
The second time he took fifty days and fifty nights to make the sword, even better than the first. To temper it this time, he captured a lion and drove the sword into its heart, but once more the steel shattered.
The third time, with a heavy heart, for he knew beforehand what he must do to finish the blade, he worked for a hundred days and nights until it was finished. This time, he called for his wife, Nissa Nissa, and asked her to bare her breast. He drove his sword into her living heart, her soul combining with the steel of the sword, creating Lightbringer.
Now, we can discuss each individual candidate.
From the beginning, Jon has exemplified most of the Azor Ahai bonafides. He’s the most stereotypical hero left alive on Game of Thrones, something I once pointed out in this light-hearted piece matching GoT characters with their pro wrestling archetypes. Various aspects of the prophecy either fit him like a glove, or can be easily forced into position—the “salt and smoke” requirement, for instance, can be made to fit almost any character if you define salt as “tears,” etc.
Last season, we learned that Jon Snow’s auspicious true name is Aegon II Targaryen, and his parentage is the single most compelling argument that he would be Azor Ahai. As the child of Rhaegar Targaryen (fire) and Lyanna Stark (ice), he is the literal “song of ice and fire” referenced in the series title, and is perhaps the only Azor Ahai candidate who can make the claim to represent both ice and fire. It’s a strong claim toward declaring oneself the hero of the series.
Jon’s other qualifications are myriad: He’s literally been brought back from the dead, and thus clearly has the favor of R’hllor, the Lord of Light, the god most chiefly concerned with the identity and myth of Azor Ahai. Melisandre seems to believe him to be the real deal, even if she’s stepped back from trying to influence his actions and guide the coming conflict. Jon possesses a Valyrian steel sword, and has personally killed White Walkers. And as Aegon II Targaryen, he was literally a prince at birth. It all works.
On another level, sheer narrative convenience is perhaps the most powerful reason why Jon is the top contender to be Azor Ahai. He fits the profile most cleanly, is a well-liked, honorable and heroic character, and is in the right position to defend Westeros from the Night King. Indeed, he’s one of the few characters who’s been aware of the threat of the White Walkers for more than a season or two, and he’s been trying to rally the world against them since the very beginning. Enough time has been invested in his character for the title of Azor Ahai to make sense.
Of course, therein lies the rub. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the prophecy is automatically aware that Jon is the top contender for the title, which can’t help but make you wonder if Martin has set it all up as a diversion. Whether or not Jon is revealed as Azor Ahai may ultimately come down to just how bad HBO wants to surprise the viewer. Would they change the ending of Martin’s series to something other than the books, which have yet to be written? You have to believe they would, if they thought it would make for the highest TV ratings.
Still, in the end, Jon Snow/Aegon II Targaryen is the name you get when you apply Occam’s razor to this question. He remains the favorite for a reason.
Paste Azor Ahai betting odds on Jon Snow: 2-1
The only other truly blue-chip prospect for the title of Azor Ahai is Daenerys. She’s benefitted from Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, in the sense that she and Jon are the only two top-tier protagonists left on the show, fighting for the side of “good.” Both lead an army. Both have legitimate claims to the throne, even if Jon doesn’t want the throne. The secondary contenders for the title of Azor Ahai have a tendency to be sworn to their service. From a purely matchmaking perspective, it makes all the sense in the world that they’re now hooking up, even if Dany is Jon’s… aunt.
It certainly isn’t hard to make a case for Dany as Azor Ahai, just in terms of fulfilling the prophecy. She’s the one character who can say she literally woke stone dragons, rather than doing so metaphorically. She was born at Dragonstone, which is the connection to “salt and smoke.” She’s sacrificed plenty, has a pair of dragons and is literally immune to fire damage, like an RPG character. She seems to be anointed by a supernatural force beyond the understanding of Westeros, and everywhere she goes, she makes believers out of the commoners.
And yet… the thing about Dany being Azor Ahai is that she really doesn’t need the title, in order to be a major player in this story. In fact, she’s already burdened with an abundance of flowery descriptors, to the point that it was played as a joke last season when she was described as “Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the mother of dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.” Are you really going to add “and The Princess That Was Promised” on top of that? Narratively, it seems like it would be a waste to imbue Dany with yet more significance when there are still other possibilities. Her character just doesn’t need it.
With that said, the series has gone out of its way to make us aware of the possibility, never more prominently than when Melisandre and Missandei inform the audience that the noun for “Prince” has no definite gender in High Valyrian. In our heart of hearts, it still feels like a misdirection, but if HBO wanted to give Dany yet another superlative, they’d find it very easy to do so by making her Azor Ahai.
As such, she’s the second most likely bearer of the title.
Paste Azor Ahai betting odds on Daenerys Targaryen: 3-1
If Jaime is Azor Ahai, it would be the most satisfying outcome, and he’s my personal favorite option to wear the mantle. He falls neatly between the major protagonists (Jon and Dany) and the left-field candidates (Sam) in terms of exposure and importance to the story, and has received arguably more characterization and personal growth since the beginning of the series than any other character. However, he simultaneously highlights how a character’s chances to be Azor Ahai can fluctuate wildly in the course of a single season. At the beginning of Season Seven, I would argue that Jaime almost seemed like a lock for the gig. Now, he’s suddenly a much more questionable candidate.
To begin with, Jaime’s candidacy depends upon whether you believe Targaryen blood is an important qualifier for being Azor Ahai. This is a qualifier stated by a minor character in Martin’s novels, but the “Targaryen blood” qualifier has never been specifically implied on Game of Thrones. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t theories that both Jaime and Cersei Lannister are secretly the children of The Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen, though it’s difficult to lend any particular credence to them. Both look like stereotypical Lannisters, and are favored by their fiercely pro-Lannister father, Tywin. Their children likewise are golden-haired Lannisters, through and through. So let’s just assume that being of Targaryen blood isn’t a necessity to be Azor Ahai, as far as the TV series is concerned.
In that case, Jaime has one of the most compelling paths to fulfilling the Azor Ahai prophecy, and especially fitting into the “forging of the sword” portion of the myth. We go into this in much, much greater detail in a previous feature that focused solely on the possibility of Jaime as Azor Ahai, and I recommend you read that piece in full. But in short: Jaime has attempted to shed his persona of “The Kingslayer” on two notable occasions in the past, which metaphorically link beautifully to the first two attempts to forge the mythical sword Lightbringer. The first is when he opens himself up to Brienne in the baths, asking her to call him Jaime. The second is when he defies his father by freeing Tyrion, which leads directly to Tywin’s death. And the prophesied third (and final) rebirth would see Jaime finally slaying his lover Cersei in recognition of how power has driven her mad—a fitting replay of his previous kingslaying, cementing Jaime as the true protector of the realm and the common folk. In our previous theory, the idea is bandied about that Jaime’s missing hand would then be replaced by a flaming one—something that appears to be foreshadowed by this scene with Jojen, who has a vision of a flaming hand and claims it represents “the end.”
It’s a theory that seems to fit perfectly. It’s a satisfying end to Jaime’s series-long arc, and it doesn’t lump more superlatives on characters such as Jon and Dany, who are already up to their ears in them. However, the Jamie-as-Azor-Ahai theory took some serious lumps in Season Seven.
At the time of our previous essay on the subject, it was assumed that Jaime would return to King’s Landing, see the destruction (via wildfire) of the Sept of Baelor and be completely horrified by Cersei’s actions. Those actions are, after all, essentially exactly what the Mad King was attempting to do when Jaime plunged a sword through his back to protect the city. But Jaime, although shaken, doesn’t denounce Cersei. In fact, he actually ends up back in her bed, apparently impregnating her again despite the destruction of the Sept, the death of countless innocents, and the suicide of his son, Tommen. Jaime’s love has let Cersei get away with mass slaughter, and even in his conversation with Olenna Tyrell after sacking Highgarden, Jaime defends her.
By the end of the season, when Cersei is plotting behind his back and accusing him of undermining her by meeting with Tyrion for parley, Jaime still doesn’t conclude that she needs to be stopped. He comes seconds away from Cersei ordering his death via zombie Gregor Clegane, before leaving to ride north and fight the army of the dead, as he pledged. And as he rides away from King’s Landing, he’s seemingly also riding away from his destiny as Azor Ahai. His business with Cersei is still unfinished, and it feels like the moment for Jaime to fulfill the prophecy came and went. It’s disappointing.
At this point, it will take some storyline maneuvering to even get Jaime and Cersei into the same room again, and it raises the question of how he could ever complete the Azor Ahai prophecy in time to help against the White Walkers. We’re still rooting for it to happen somehow, but he’s no longer a frontrunner.
Paste Azor Ahai betting odds on Jaime Lannister: 5-1
Throughout pretty much the entire run of Game of Thrones, Tyrion has hovered on the outside as a legitimate (but still unlikely) Azor Ahai candidate. Although we’ve seen him be a drunken lecher, an occasionally self-centered jerk, and a social pariah, he’s one of the series few genuinely empathetic figures. He displays a desire to serve “the realm,” in much the same sense as Varys, and has sacrificed bits of himself on several occasions to help others. Now, he’s thrown in his lot with Daenerys, recognizing her as the best option for a just, effective ruler on the Iron Throne. And ultimately, the fact that Tyrion believes in Dany is one of our strongest pieces of evidence that we should as well.
Whether he could fit the bill as Azor Ahai is another matter. Once again, it depends on whether we think “Targaryen blood” is an important qualifier. In this case, there are decently plausible theories out there that Tyrion is secretly the son of The Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen, and that his mother Joanna conceived him while visiting the capital. It would explain a portion of Tywin’s hatred for Tyrion, as well as Tyrion’s persistent boyhood “dreams of dragons” that all Targaryens seem to have, but it doesn’t necessarily imply his identity as Azor Ahai.
Throughout the series, Tyrion has occasionally manifested other hints of a hidden power. He’s one of the few characters who seems to have been accepted on some level by Dany’s dragons, other than Dany herself. He’s sacrificed himself both physically (in the battle of Blackwater) and emotionally (via his betrayal/the death of Shae), which could easily link up to the “sword-forging” narrative of Azor Ahai. Like Dany, he could theoretically use a dragon as his “Lightbringer.” Viserion now has a rider in the form of The Night King, so it seems Rhaegal is probably in need of one as well—although doesn’t Jon Snow (the son of Rhaegar, Rhaegal’s namesake) make more sense than Tyrion?
On a storytelling level, you can see why Tyrion would be an attractive choice for Azor Ahai. The idea that the “smallest” person in this story becomes its biggest hero does seem like the sort of sentiment that might appeal to George R.R. Martin, and the same goes doubly for the likes of HBO, which would probably love a way to twist a character like Tyrion into the role of unexpected savior.
But it just doesn’t feel right. Tyrion’s story has rarely implied that the value of his character lies in directly confronting the enemy. He’s been forced to on various occasions, and it generally doesn’t turn out well for him. It feels like it would be difficult to accept the fan-service quotient of Tyrion Lannister becoming a conquering victor in battle. Yes, his role as Azor Ahai could be significantly more metaphorical—he could lead the allied forces to victory over The Night King and the White Walkers via strategy, or even parley, which seems more likely. But does it not feel about 10 times more reasonable that he’d be doing the same thing in service to Jon or Dany—the characters who best fit the mold of Azor Ahai? In the end, it feels like Tyrion is where he needs to be, as the Hand of the Queen (or King).
Not to be overlooked is the fact that slowly and subtly, Tyrion’s importance to the story seems to have waned over time. Back in Season Four or so of Game of Thrones, he was a major viewpoint character who dominated an entire arc of his own. But since joining up with Dany, he’s seen himself slowly relegated from “main” character to something of an ancillary ensemble member, in the same tier as, say, Varys. This has happened to a number of characters drawn into Dany’s gravitational pull, as GoT has transitioned into becoming focused increasingly around its three surviving powerhouses: Dany, Jon and Cersei.
Paste Azor Ahai betting odds on Tyrion Lannister: 8-1
The idea of good old Sam as Azor Ahai, savior of Westeros, is one that has sprung up recently in the dens of Game of Thrones theorists, and it’s plausible enough to at least briefly entertain, if not reasonably endorse.
Suffice it to say, this is the ultimate in all possible “the legendary hero will be who you least expect!” theories—everything I said about Tyrion the underdog Azor Ahai candidate goes doubly for Sam.
The heart of the theory is its assumption the Sam is also secretly a Targaryen—specifically, the first son of Rhaegar Targaryen and his original wife, Elia Martell of Dorne. That would mean his true name is Aegon Targaryen—the exact same as Jon Snow’s true name, because Lyanna Stark also wanted to name her baby “Aegon” after the supposed death of Rhaegar’s first child. The theory, then, is that the first Aegon was not killed by Gregor Clegane when he killed Elia and her daughter, but was instead spirited away by Varys, to live out his life among the Tarlys as an adoptive son and later be considered for the throne. This would, in effect, make him like a show version of the character “Young Griff” in the Song of Ice and Fire novels, who claims to be Aegon Targaryen. The further assumption would be that it eventually became clear to both Varys and Randyll Tarly that Sam was not the kingly sort, so he was then sent away to The Wall in disgust, to join the Night’s Watch.
It’s a pretty zany theory, and one that would make Sam the half-brother of Jon, and the nephew of the dearly departed Oberyn, among other things. That said, there are some interesting coincidences that help Sam fit the Azor Ahai prophecy. For example, if he’s a Targaryen, he has the same connection to “salt and smoke” that Daenerys does, in the form of Dragonstone. He may not have woken any literal stone dragons, but he is on his way to the North right now in Game of Thrones to tell Jon about his parentage—which would equate to “waking a dragon” by revealing his Targaryen ancestry. Add to that his other bona fides—such as the fact that he has a Valyrian steel sword and was the first person on the show to actually kill a White Walker—and he starts looking like a not-that-crazy candidate for the title of Azor Ahai.
Of course, were he to be revealed as Azor Ahai, it stands to reason that Sam wouldn’t be driving away the White Walkers with martial power. This guy is never going to become a great warrior, though perhaps Azor Ahai was never supposed to be a warrior at all? Is there room for Azor Ahai, the great sage and reader of books?
We’re really not buying it. Despite having a fair amount of screen time, Sam has never been a “main” character on Game of Thrones, at least when compared to the likes of Jon. It would be odd for the ultimate hero of the story to be someone who has always existed on the fringes of it until Season Eight. Likewise, it isn’t too hard to point out that Sam really, really doesn’t look like the child of princely, white-haired Rhaegar Targaryen and an exotic Dornish beauty, Elia Martell. Is the child of those two really going to look like… Sam? Does he look more like a lost prince, or more like a guy who grew up eating from loaded tables in the heart of the fertile Reach, because he was the son of the local lord? I’m going with the latter.
Last but not least is the matter of the sacrifices that Azor Ahai is supposed to have made. There’s one main love in Sam’s life: Gilly. And even if the realm were at stake, can you really see Sam ever sacrificing Gilly, or little baby Sam, in any circumstance? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
So in the end, it’s fun to think about, but c’mon: Azor Ahai isn’t going to be Sam. Or if it is, we’ll be suitably cowed.
Paste Azor Ahai betting odds on Samwell Tarly: 10-1
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait for Game of Thrones Season Eight to unspool for an answer to this question, although we’re not for a moment forgetting the possibility that the answer could somehow turn out to be none of the above. There’s a non-zero possibility that the show ultimately doesn’t have an Azor Ahai figure that factors into its conclusion. It’s a possibility that “Azor Ahai” could represent multiple people, such as Jon, Dany and Tyrion figuratively forming the so-called “three heads” of the dragon.
In the end, anything is possible. But our golden dragons are still on Jon.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.