As I am rereading the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (as it exists so far), I am spending a lot more time wondering about some of the symbolism in the series. And it seems to me that the direwolves are literally and figuratively the symbols of the Starks, and each individual wolf is a reflection of its owner.
First, it seems pretty obvious that the dead direwolf and the six cub is a foreshadowing of the death of Ned and/or Catelyn, leaving six orphaned pups – two girls, three boys, and the outcast boy. Each pup then takes on some of the characteristics of the child that adopted it, and vice versa.
Rickon and Shaggydog: As Rickon gets older, he gets more wild and uncontrollable, and so does Shaggydog. Rickon seems to clash with his siblings and lash out at their servants, and as a result Shaggydog has bitten people and fought with the other direwolves. When Rickon gets upset, Shaggydog starts to growl. Rickon refuses to cut his hair, which is becoming a mess, and so in that way he and Shaggydog are both becoming messy, tangled and dirty and otherwise unmanageable in appearance as well as emotionally.
Arya and Nymeria: Arya clearly has no interest in being conventional, and so she chooses for her direwolf a name from history that evokes a strong independent woman. Nymeria was a powerful warrior and ruler who fled her native land of Rhoyne with thousands of her people to settle in Dorne. And like Nymeria, Arya has fled her homeland to settle elsewhere. Although they were separated in the first book, Arya and Nymeria clearly still have a strong connection. By the second book we begin to hear stories of a large she-wolf who leads a pack of smaller wolves in the Riverlands near the God’s Eye. Arya has dreams in which she is a wolf (clearly seeing through Nymeria’s eyes) and attacks some of the Bloody Mummers. She also dreams of finding a familiar body in the river – her mother’s – and drags it to shore. These dreams of her direwolf leading a huge pack of wolves, unafraid of men, continue through books four and five.
Bran and Summer: the relationship between Bran and Summer is probably the most developed in the books, with the possible exception of Jon Snow and Ghost. I’m not quite sure what the significance of Summer’s name is, but I think it’s significant somehow, possibly related to Bran’s life as it was before his fall and before the family is split up and generally devastated. Even before he is named Summer develops a strong bond with Bran, notably when he protects him from the assassin as Bran lies unconscious. Summer also protects Bran from the wildlings when they find him alone in the forest later in the first book. In the second book, Bran is asleep, warging inside Summer in his dreams, and he tries to escape the Godswood when the Ironborn attack Winterfell. By book 3 Bran is able to warg into Summer at will, and he eventually has dreams/visions of the death of Robb and Grey Wind.
Sansa and Lady: I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Sansa’s wolf is the smallest and the most gentle. Sansa is in many ways the most un-Stark-like of all of the Stark children (in appearance, dress, and attitude), and so losing that connection to her siblings through her direwolf seems to continue the pattern of Sansa being less like a Stark. And in many ways, losing her wolf seems to be the first time that Sansa begins to realize that the world is not the idealized place she imagines it to be. And since she blames Arya (and her father, to some extent) for Lady’s death, it further alienates her from her family.
Robb and Grey Wind: Almost from the beginning Grey Wind and Robb have a close association. Since Robb is not a POV character at any point we don’t know for sure whether or not he has wolf dreams or does any warging into Grey Wind. But it is clear that there is some sort of connection between the two. Grey Wind attacks the Greatjon Umber when the latter draws steel on Robb in Winterfell, and he does it in such a way that Lord Umber is not killed but clearly won’t be a threat anymore. Grey Wind also follows Robb into battle and his ability to kill men and horses clearly contributes to Robb’s “legend”, as it were. Soon Robb is known as The Young Wolf, and many stories are associated with him and his wolf. And Grey Wind clearly senses danger even when Robb does not, as he reacts to the Freys at the Twins when Robb and his forces arrive for the wedding of his uncle, Edmure Tully. I also seem to remember him acting badly towards Jeyne Westerling’s mother, who we later find out had also betrayed the Starks. So perhaps Robb’s link to Grey Wind was not as strong as the links between the other Stark children and their wolves.
Jon Snow and Ghost: like Jon Snow, the bastard who is forced to sit apart from the other Stark children, Ghost is the runt of the litter and an albino, so he is treated differently. But unlike the other pups, Ghost already has his eyes open when they are found. And although he is quite silent, he is very intelligent and even intuitive. In Book 2 it is Ghost who leads Jon to the hidden cache of dragonglass. And Ghost seems to be intelligent enough to find his way back to Castle Black even after he and Jon are separated. Jon begins to learn about wargs from the wildlings around the same time be starts to dream about being inside Ghost, and he seems to understand that he may himself have some sort of warg abilities. Like Grey Wind, Ghost seems to predict that danger is coming when he begins acting badly around some of the Night’s Watch. So when Jon is betrayed we don’t know what happens to Ghost.
So in summary, it seems that the direwolves are obviously supernatural in some way, and perhaps the early observation by Jon Snow that the children were meant to have these wolves was absolutely spot-on. Considering GRRM’s love of wolves in real life, I can understand his focus on the direwolves in his novels. I have to admit I love the wolves WAY more than the dragons in these stories. But I might be a little biased. They are a little more doglike. They are certainly a little cuddlier than dragons.