One of the most wondrous things about Game of Thrones — both George R.R. Martin’s novels and the HBO television series — is that, as a fantasy epic, its world is decidedly unfantastic. More than anything, it’s a drama of cut-throat political scheming, and staying alive is as impressive a feat as anything from the realms of legend. The emergence of fantastic beasts like direwolves and dragons into the gritty, mundane world is greeted, not with wonder, but with suspicion and fear.
“It is known,” as the Dothraki bloodriders might say, that many of the major events depicted in Game of Thrones are inspired by real incidents from history. Did you know that the direwolf that is the sigil, or the emblem, of House Stark, and later the companion animals of the Stark children, also has a very real antecedent in the natural world? Let’s explore the facts and fictions behind Westeros’s legendary dog breed.
When the series begins, the direwolf is a symbol, historically associated with the iconography of House Stark. Their banners depict a grey wolf running across a white field. These gigantic canids are thought to live beyond the Wall, far north of the Stark compound at Winterfell, and even heard at times by rangers of the Night’s Watch. The Starks discover a dying female direwolf who had given birth to a litter of six direwolf puppies — four grey, one black, and one white — and these are apportioned to each of Ned Stark’s children. The direwolves’ names and owners are:
Though the direwolf puppies are small, in the first novel, Bran observes that their mother “was bigger than his pony, twice the size of the largest hound in his father’s kennel.” It gives an indication of the massive physical bulk of these creatures when fully mature. According to the novel, the whelps in this litter are the first living direwolves seen by human eyes in nearly two centuries. Like Daenerys Targaryen’s hatchling dragons, the return of these legendary monsters is both a cause for excitement and deep unease.
These fantastical canids have real-world parallels in the fossil record. Dire wolves were prehistoric megafauna that lived in North and South America before going extinct some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The first fossilized remains were discovered in Indiana, of all places, in 1854. The dire wolf‘s name is a transliteration from the latin “canis dirus,” which means “frightening,” “fearsome,” or “dreadful” dog, giving Game of Thrones‘ direwolves a particularly accurate species name.
The dire wolf lived up to its name; fossil evidence suggests that these were titanic canids, nearly 5 feet long, and weighing up to 240 pounds when fully grown. Not nearly as large as the direwolves of House Stark, but physically imposing beasts to be sure, with a bite estimated to be nearly 130 per cent stronger than modern grey wolves. That power helped them bring down their equally large prey, including horses, mammoths, and giant sloths.
In the Game of Thrones universe, mature direwolves are huge beasts. On television, the ones we see after the first season are given their titanic bulk through the magic of computer animation and CGI enhancements to actual canids. The first season’s direwolf puppies were portrayed by Northern Inuit Dogs. These are designer dogs first developed in a British breeding program that began in the 1980s.
Northern Inuit Dogs are the result of crosses between Alaskan Malamutes, German Shepherds, and Siberian Huskies, with the result being a domestic dog with a wolf-like appearance, but no actual wolf DNA. Ghost, the now-mature white-coated or albino direwolf who lives with Jon Snow at Castle Black, on the other hand, is not a dog at all. In seasons 5 and 6, Ghost is played by Quigley, a proper Arctic Wolf, whose scenes are shot on location in Canada.
The most noteworthy of the Northern Inuit Dogs to play direwolf puppies on the television show is Zunni, who played Sansa Stark’s direwolf Lady. By the time the character was slain in the first season of the show, Sansa actor Sophie Turner had grown so attached to her canine co-star that her family adopted the dog. The majestic beauty of the program’s Northern Inuit Dog actors, coupled with the ferocious loyalty of the direwolves in Game of Thrones has led to a major increase in adoptions of dogs with a lupine appearance.
While Zunni’s adoption is a story with a happy ending, it is only fair to point out the plight of dog breeds that gain this level of global popularity. Since the HBO series began airing in 2011, there has been a disturbing cycle of adoption and abandonment. Each year following Game of Thrones‘ debut — 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 — the hype machine for a new season is mirrored by yet another round of news reports on the shocking numbers of people impulse adopting and then abandoning breeds that resemble direwolves, ranging from Akitas to Huskies.
Are you a huge fan of Game of Thrones, and interested in finding direwolf puppies for sale or adoption? Ned Stark’s honorable nature in the books and on television clearly extended to his practical outlook on domestic animal care. Hesitant to allow his children to adopt the direwolf whelps, Ned cautions them, “You must train them…the gods help you if you neglect them, or brutalize them, or train them badly.”
Whatever breed of dog catches your eye, it’s well worth keeping in mind that all of these wolf-like breeds are large, physical, active dogs that require attention, affection, and training. For any dog adopted in haste and left to an uncertain future in a shelter or rescue, the night is dark and full of terrors.