The direwolves are the most symbolic and telling aspect in ASOIAF. I’m not going to go over every facet of meaning. A lot has already been done by others. I am going to avoid the most commonly understood symbolism beyond mentioning it relative to my points. This post is intended to shed light on the deeper meanings that most people have missed.
We’ll begin with Grey Wind.
He was given his name because of his speed, but as has been pointed out it also stands for a broken oath. Right from the start we are given clues as to the foreshadowing of the fates of the Starks. But this is only the shallowest understanding. The words ‘grey wind’ evokes the storm. A gale that harbingers the hurricane. One can visualize the sailor ignoring the warning and drowning with his ship. Grey Wind is really the Cassandra of ASOIAF. For those who don’t know, Cassandra was the Trojan princess fated to always foretell the future, but to always be disbelieved. This is the function Grey Wind has in the story. He repeatedly warns Robb of danger, yet Robb consistently ignores him, even when his own mother tells him not to. Robb is a Stark, yet he never fully embraces this side of himself. He is a warg, yet he never makes use of it, or even recognize it.
Lady is easily overlooked, yet she is even more symbolic than Grey Wind.
Most people can grasp that Lady represents Sansa’s innocence. But, as Calluna in her video on Sansa comments on, Lady’s death also represents Sansa’s division from her family. Even though she retains the Stark name and even tries to continue behaving like one, in truth Sansa stops being a Stark when Lady dies. The fact that it is her own father who kills Lady is itself significant. The truth is Sansa is transforming more and more into another Cersei, although it is doubtful she will ever reach Cersei’s level of evil. The way she thinks, the way she acts; not only is it not the ‘Stark’ way, but it is less and less ‘lady-like’. The death of her wolf not only severs her connection to her family, it also severs that part of her that is decent and caring. This is not so easy to see because the show fundamentally changes her character, but book Sansa is much easier to believe to be in Littlefinger’s pocket. It is also noteworthy that Sansa is the only Stark child who exhibits no warging ability.
This leads me directly to Nymeria.
No wolf is more important, symbolically at least, as Nymeria. Not only does her name foreshadow Arya’s fate, which is frustrating to me as almost nobody else seems willing to recognize it. But it could quite easily foreshadow the future of Westeros itself.
Nymeria was the Rhoynar queen who led her 10,000 ships on an epic voyage to find a new home. Whether history will repeat itself we have yet to find out. However, the name and its history are even more relevant. Fewer than one in ten of her people were adult men. The rest were women and children. This fact directly influences the culture of Dorne today. Their more permissive attitudes toward sex and illegitimacy are a direct result of multiple women having to share men. This is very much going to mirror the future of Westeros, because when the war against the Others is over there are going to be a lot more women left than men. Arya is definitely following in her hero’s footsteps and it is high time the fan community recognize the fact.
What is more important from a story standpoint is Arya’s separation from Nymeria. Right from the beginning of the story Arya is forced to cast out her direwolf. The fact she is forced to make Nymeria leave is very significant. Even more so is that no matter how far apart they are they are still connected. This is in direct contrast with Sansa and Lady. Sansa is irreversibly separated from her wolf and, by extension, her family. By comparison, Arya can never be separated from her family. They are literally part of her dreams no matter where she goes. It is for this reason that Arya will never be a true faceless man because she can never be rid of her Stark self.
This is actually very ironic, a point which most people have missed. Despite the fact that we see Sansa as the ‘traditional’ one, behaving as expected of a lady and dreaming ‘traditional’ girl dreams, it is she who truly violates convention. Arya the tom-boy is actually the upholder of their society’s norms. She takes Jon’s side because she is in love with him. She doesn’t think twice about upholding his standing within their house. In the show at least she even upbraids Sansa for having very unladylike ambitions. And it is going to be a significant moment when Arya and Nymeria finally reconnect. The show, and this is one scene I really hate, totally butchers it. Contrary to the show’s version, the direwolves were never pets. They are and always have been important parts of the Stark family. They are permanently joined to their Stark masters. Unlike the show, Nymeria cannot and will not leave Arya. That scene was just a giant ’F-U’ by D&D towards the audience. A statement of ‘well, here’s your reunion scene. Enjoy it because we’re never showing the wolves again.’
Book Arya will team up with book Nymeria again. Their story is hardly finished. And the reunion between them could be even more significant if it happens when Arya is killed. As anyone who has read my previous posts know, I believe Arya is going to also be resurrected like Jon. The reasons why I will go into with Ghost.
Shaggydog is probably one of the best understood tropes regarding the direwolves, probably because it is the most obvious.
Unfortunately, people aren’t looking past the obvious. Yes, a ‘shaggy-dog tale’ is a storyline that goes nowhere, but his name means more than that. Aside from the movie industry trope, what is a shaggy dog? A feral one. Shaggy dog is a very frequently used term for a runaway pet that has turned wild. This is important not only as foreshadowing, but also to make a point. In the dvd extras Isaac Hempstead Wright narrates how the north deals with wargs. He has the line ‘whether it’s the man possessing the beast, or the beast possessing the man.’ I believe Rickon and Shaggy are meant by Martin to symbolize the dangers of magic. It is easy to see warging as an advantage, with no downside. But there are dangers. Rickon is meant, or was originally meant, to show this. It is mentioned in the book how Shaggy acts out Rickon’s aggression. But is it really Shaggy who is acting out, or is it Rickon? I am certain Rickon will meet a tragic end and when he does Shaggy is going to go berserk, requiring that he be put down. Whether Rickon has a ‘second life’ in Shaggy or not is meaningless. The result is the same.
Summer is probably the most tragic.
And yes, he will die much like he does in the show. The reason is, of course, symbolism. ‘The death of summer’ was once a common phrase used in writing to represent puberty. As Meera says in the show ‘you died in that cave.’ Just as with Sansa, the death of his direwolf represents Bran’s removal from the Stark family. He will cease to be a Stark. The name is also symbolic because Bran, like the butterfly, will transform into something greater. Just as with Nymeria though, Summer’s death will also symbolize something else; the triumph of winter. It foreshadows the conquest of the army of the dead over the living from which people can only flee. Only after Bran achieves his full potential will the tide be ended. Bran will bring back the summer. Ultimately, he is the savior of Westeros.
Finally we reach Ghost.
Though last on the list he is the most important and powerful to the story. Ghost is the only direwolf who is truly a character in his own right, separate from his owner. Thus, his name doesn’t just foreshadow Jon’s death and resurrection. It also represents his separation from Jon and also from life itself. It is significant that, like with Nymeria, Ghost spends a great deal of time separated from Jon. And as some people have begun to notice, Ghost possesses powers of his own. When Jon is resurrected he doesn’t suffer from the same effects as Beric. That’s because he experiences his ‘second life’ inside Ghost. The exact same thing will happen with Arya.
But even more, I suspect that there is something special about Ghost. He isn’t just a direwolf. He may even have the power to destroy the Others on his own. Ghost is a magical creature, just like the dragons. There are times when he seems to have the power to turn invisible. Almost... incorporeal. He is a fey creature.
This matters because when Jon and Dany finally get together it is Ghost who will be her savior. I have no doubt that Cersei is going to try to kill Dany somehow. Probably with the Mountain. And it is Ghost, with Nymeria’s help, who is going to save her. You see the circle closed. The wolves, Jon and Arya, will ride the dragons and the dragon, Dany, will be saved by wolves.