/Dante and direwolves, or, I’m really bad at reading fantasy

Sansa Stark

Early in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark beheads a direwolf belonging to his daughter, Sansa, while camped at Castle Darry on the Kingsroad. It’s a sordid affair — a young prince gets bitten, lies are told, friendships are betrayed — but it’s a turning point in the reader’s understanding of the politics and social economies of Westeros.

In any case, I’ve read the scene twice and seen it on TV as many times, but the its most basic symbolism has always eluded me. Here’s Greg Tito from the Escapist:

After watching the final scene where Eddard Stark must take Lady’s life at the order of his friend and King, I considered the symbolism of the wolves for the Stark family. The sigil of House Stark is the direwolf, which is partly why Ned kept the beasts, but he and his girls are leaving the North to go to the dangerously unfamiliar intrigues of the capital city. The Starks will be out of their element. Sansa and Arya sought to bring their wolves with them, but at the conclusion of “The Kingsroad” both are gone – Lady executed and Nymeria chased away. The Starks cannot take the North with them to King’s Landing and the wolves can no longer provide protection like Summer did for Bran.

Before reading Tito’s analysis, I’d always read this scene in terms of the interpersonal drama between Ned and Robert Baratheon; of Sansa’s budding — and politically necessary — infatuation with Prince Joffrey;  of Arya Stark’s loathing of her sister; of the family politics between King and Queen, father and daughter. It’s a brilliant, dense, and supremely mournful scene, and it’s crucial to readers’ understanding of each of these characters.

But my reading is only one  level of what turns out to be — as Tito points out — an allegory. Dante — yes, Dante — provides a basic framework with which to read his allegorical works in a letter he wrote to Can Grande della Scalla: there is a literal layer; a symbolic layer (the one Tito points out); a moral layer; and an anagogical or religious layer.

I don’t want to get into too far into Dante’s poetics (especially since they only explicitly apply to the Comedia), but picking out symbolic meaning was a lesson that I’d hoped I had learned during my time studying his work. Apparently not. I don’t mean to discount Tito’s observations, but they aren’t exactly obtuse or obscure and most readers, I assume, could make them.

What’s particularly galling about my inability to pick up on the obvious symbolism in the scene at Castle Darry is that Martin practically begs his readers to pay attention throughout the early chapters — he’s already used the direwolf as a cipher for House Stark, and it’s a symbol we should be familiar with by now.

In one of the first scenes in the book, the Starks find a litter of direwolves nursing from their dead mother, an antler lodged in her throat, a dead stag nearby. Without getting into spoilers, a dead direwolf and stag — sigils of Houses Stark and Baratheon, respectively — is ominous at least.

Symbols are important to the people of Westeros — the second book, A Clash of Kings, opens with an extended meditation on omens —  and the Starks spend a considerable time trying to suss out their meaning. “The direwolf is the sigil of your House. You children were meant to have these pups, my lord,” Jon Snow explains to Ned Stark. Or consider Catelyn, explaining to her husband that his relationship to King Robert is fragile: “‘The King is a stranger to you.’ Catelyn remembered the direwolf dead in the snow, the broken antler lodged deep in her throat. She had to make him see.”

And in the same way that Jon suggests to his father the direwolves are an omen, Martin is telling his readers to be on the lookout. Catelyn has “to make him see;” but she has to make us see, as well.

Given all this, the meaning of Lady’s death and Nymeria’s exile should be obvious, but I missed it. That I never read these scenes in their symbolic context tells me two things: I’m more dense that I care to admit; and Martin is a master of sleight-of-hand. Cersei Lannister is so diabolical, so outsized in her cruelty, that readers focus on the literal instead of the symbolic.

It’s a deft move — and indicative, I think, of how subtle Martin’s subplots and diversions and red herrings and foreshadowing can be — and it’s empowering, as a reader, to catch him in the act. Would that I caught him more often.

In any case, for a more rushed, off-the-cuff look at A Game of Thrones so far, Brad Nicholson and I are doing a series of bookclub podcasts over on Electric Hydra.

Image via GuillaumeHP’s deviantart page

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4 responses to “/Dante and direwolves, or, I’m really bad at reading fantasy

  1. Can the fact that Arya’s direwolf runs away be seen as symbolic of how she runs away across the sea to Braavos? If that’s true I wonder what will happen to Sansa because of the fact that her direwolf’s dead.

  2. @R.S. I suppose, but her escape from King’s Landing happens a lot sooner and, I think, is a better analogue. Arya and Nymeria both have to escape Lannister wrath. By the time she makes it to Braavos, the Lannisters are pretty low on her priority list (especially since she’s been replaced by an imposter iirc.)

    • Thanks for answering. It’s been a while since I’ve read the series. They’re all in a box somewhere in storage right now with the majority of my books. I’ve been following the TEH book cast thing from memory. Keep up the good work.

  3. Pingback: Eddard Stark’s trial by combat and the moral economy

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