If you’ve either read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or been watching HBO’s Game of Thrones closely since the beginning, you know the connection between the Stark children and their pet direwolves goes far beyond the usual owner/puppy scenario. Your dog may be your best friend but will it save you from assassins and help win battles for you? I thought not.
Though in recent seasons the TV series has lost sight of the direwolves— either bumping them off or forgetting they exist—a recent season 7 promo teased the return of Arya’s beloved direwolf, Nymeria. And if the show is following what Martin himself has said about the destiny of direwolves, this will be much more than a quick cameo.
Nymeria and Arya haven’t seen each other since Season 1 when Arya drove Nymeria away (for her own good).
In fact, Arya hasn’t seen a direwolf at all since Robb’s wolf Grey Wind was murdered, decapitated, and transplanted onto the late King in the North’s shoulders in Season 3. In the books, Arya’s connection to her wolf is much, much stronger. They stay in communication via dreams and skin-changing—a Stark family skill only Bran appears to have inherited in the show. Throughout Martin’s novels, news of a wolf pack (hundreds of them) led by Nymeria attacking Stark enemies deep in Frey territory circulate via rumor or the occasional Arya dream. Fans already suspected, thanks to Time’s behind-the-scenes set report, that both Nymeria and her pack would pop up this year. A feral she-wolf unleashed on the Freys? Who could that possibly remind us of?
Book readers have been waiting for this particular loose end to be tied up for a long time, but like the death of Hodor and the resurrection of Jon Snow, it looks to be a moment the show will get to before the books. As we know well by now, the HBO series has never been afraid to diverge from stories, or future plots, that Martin has devised. But despite the technical challenge of direwolves that have kept them offscreen in recent years, the show has dropped some hints lately that it has wolves on the brain. And based on what Martin has said in recent years, they may be too important to the story’s conclusion for the series to completely ignore them.
In a 2014 interview with Mashable, Martin teased Nymeria’s “important” role in the two final books to come. “You know, I don’t like to give things away,” he told the reporter with a grin. But making reference to Anton Chekhov’s famous statement, Martin added: “You don’t hang a giant wolf pack on the wall unless you intend to use it.”
He may have just been talking about the reunion between Arya and Nymeria that is being teased in “Stormborn.” But most fans believe Nymeria will have a larger role to play in the Great War to Come. Both Martin and the HBO series are awfully fond of the deus ex machina approach to resolving battles be they in the shape of Vale knights, Tywin Lannister, or Stannis Baratheon.
Martin likely lifted this trope from his oft-cited hero J.R.R. Tolkien, who never met a Giant Eagle rescue he didn’t like. So if Arya survives to the final Season 8 battle between the realms of men and White Walkers, and things start to look, well, dire for the Stark girl and her team, we shouldn’t be surprised if Nymeria and her pack, like Gandalf and the Rohirrim, arrive out of nowhere to save the day and turn the tide.
It would be a fitting destiny for Nymeria, too, given that Arya named her for a fiercely independent warrior princess of the Rhoyne who, according to legend, lead her people from Essos across the Narrow Sea to find a new home. So if this is Martin’s ultimate plan for Nymeria, will HBO decide to stick with it?
Book readers (and even some invested show watchers) have been increasingly frustrated by the way in which direwolves have been sidelined on Game of Thrones. When both Summer and Shaggydog unceremoniously dropped dead last season, one fan even launched a quixotic Change.org petition to protect the two remaining animals: Ghost and Nymeria. “We all love the direwolves,” it read. “We understand that the CGI budget is limited, but we would trade a thousand scenes of Danaerys’ overly-dramatic mary sue flaming nipples for one scene of direwolf badassery.”
Showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff seem at least somewhat aware of this direwolf-based discontent. In an older interview with Deadline, the pair joked: “Some of our initial anxieties about whether anybody will watch this show have dissipated. But others have sprung up to take their place. They are shaped like direwolves, and they hunt us in the night.”
The connections between the Stark children and their wolves are enormously important in the novels. Just as important as Daenerys’s with her “children,” the ever-present dragons. Whenever Martin has written about one of the direwolves dying or running away, it represented one of the Stark children losing a bit of their own honorable Northern heritage. “These wolves are more than wolves, Robb,” Catelyn reminds her son in the books. “You must know that. I think perhaps the gods sent them to us. Your father’s gods, the old gods of the north. Five wolf pups, Robb, five for five Stark children.” (Robb helpfully reminds her there was a sixth for Jon.)
The clearest example of the heavy significance of a direwolf loss is Sansa’s pet Lady who she left behind in Season 1 to go off gallivanting with Joffrey and eventually lost for good when the she-wolf was executed at the order Cersei Lannister. Thematically, Sansa lost her pet not because Lady did anything wrong (it was Nymeria who attacked Joffrey) but because she lied and betrayed Arya and her family in order to behave the way the Queen wanted her to. Not the last time Sansa would follow Cersei’s bad example.
But just because Martin can dream it, doesn’t mean Weiss and Benioff can always achieve it—no matter how gargantuan their budget has gotten. The wolves were easy enough to pull off on-screen in Season 1 when they were puppies. . .
. . .but in the books they’re meant to be as large as small horses. Weiss explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2013 why growing the Stark pets presented a bigger logistical problem than super-sizing Daenerys’s dragons: “We did some testing and at a certain point they look unreal. We reached a nice balance with them. And frankly, no matter how much money you spend on CG wolves — and we’ve seen the best that’s out there, state of the art, and some of it looks great — it still doesn’t look move and feel like a real animal.” He’s not wrong.
“With dragons, you get some leeway,” Benioff added. “You can’t say, ‘Well, that doesn’t look like a real dragon.’” So this, alas, is why Jon keeps leaving Ghost behind when he needs him most like, say, during the Battle of the Bastards in Season 6.
“Obviously a big battle like that is no place for a direwolf,” that episode’s director, Miguel Sapochnik, joked last year. “They’re not gonna last very long — I mean look at what happened to Wun Wun, the last of the giants.” Of course, Robb’s direwolf Grey Wind did just fine in a number of early battles so Sapochnik was forced to admit “[Ghost] was in there in spades originally, but it’s also an incredibly time consuming and expensive character to bring to life. Ultimately we had to choose between Wun-Wun and the direwolf, so the dog bit the dust.” (The show’s wolf trainer, Andrew Simpson, expressed a similar sentiment.)
Weiss and Benioff are hardcore enough fans of the novels to have impressed Martin years ago, so there’s no doubt they understand the thematic significance the book direwolves have to play. But comments like the one above from Sapochnik–or director Jack Bender’s admission to Vanity Fair last year that his focus when filming Summer’s death in “The Door” was more technical than emotional–continues to trouble some die-hard book fans. Bender said of the heavier significance of Bran losing his wolf:
We had to deal with so many things creating that sequence in terms of
what the set would be, what we would see, what we wouldn’t see, what
would be off camera, what would be on camera. Most of the time, I
think, was spent on that as opposed to the emotional or mythological
ramifications. I’m sure David and Dan know, but we didn’t spend a lot
of time talking about it.
Summer’s vital role as Bran’s substitute legs in the books cannot be overstated. To lose her should have gutted the Stark kid. But her death was lost in Hodor’s larger tragedy, and Bran has yet to come to terms with any of it yet.
Nymeria’s re-emergence in “Dragonstone,” however, is a hopeful one. Given Arya’s decision to turn back from her vengeance mission to King’s Landing and instead go help her family at Winterfell, that reunion with Nymeria seems to signal a significant return to her Starkish roots, which was teased in her dramatic exit from the House of Black and White in Season 6. And Nymeria helped underline to Arya how far she’s come from her roots, even if Hot pIe couldn’t. The theme of wolves and packs are generally on the rise again in Season 7 as Sansa quoted the book version of Ned Stark in the trailer: “the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” The show version of the family patriarch expressed a similar sentiment when advising Arya to get along with her sister in Season 1: “We’ve come to a dangerous place, we cannot fight a war among ourselves.”
But, of course, civil war is exactly what Sansa has been waging with Jon. With Arya coming to realize the importance of her pack, can she convince her sister to do the same? And does all this talk of wolves mean we’ll see Nymeria again before the song of ice and fire is through?