Exploring the connections between the Grateful Dead and A Song of Ice and Fire
It’s no secret that the Grateful Dead’s music has influenced George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. He first acknowledged it during a 2014 interview with 927 Plus, including indirectly admitting that the spiritual Weirwoods in the world of Westeros are named after Bobby Weir. (update: it’s worth noting that he didn’t confirm it quite as much as the conversation goes – there will be more about this in the future.)
A number of listicles, various reddit threads, and blog posts have been written about connections between Martin’s books and the Dead’s songs, including the Weirwoods, The Mountains of the Moon, and Gerold “Darkstar” Dayne.
And of course, the wolf. Yes, the Grateful Dead has a song called “Dire Wolf,” the same beast that serves as the Stark sigil. We know that connection. But is this where the connection ends? Or is there something more linking the Grateful Dead song and the Starks of Winterfell?
“Please Don’t Murder Me”
Listening to the song “Dire Wolf” while contemplating the Stark family, the lyrics initially don’t seem very relevant to Ned Stark and his offspring. While the setting seems Winterfell-esque—the winter was so hard and cold, froze ten feet neath the ground—it’s hard to view the Starks as resembling the wolves of the song, as the song consists of the narrator repeatedly pleading “don’t murder me” to the dire wolf.
Murder is not a crime committed by the honorable Starks. They execute. They kill in war. But they do not murder. Ned, Robb, and Jon Snow each execute criminals and kill enemies in battle. Rickon, Bran, and Sansa never kill at all (at least, not yet).
And then there is Arya.
By the end of the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, and the fifth season of the television show, Arya has killed at least seven people, maybe more, in addition to the three she ordered Jaqen H’ghar to kill. Unlike the other Stark killings, justified by execution or war, Arya’s killings blur the line. When Ned beheads a Night’s Watch deserter, he does it as a duty. When Arya kills a Night’s Watch deserter in Braavos in the novels—or Kingsguard Meryn Trant in the show—she does so with passion and without authority. Her killings are motivated by self-defense, passion, desperation, or revenge.
Why does all of this matter, and what does it have to do with the Grateful Dead? It matters because, unlike the rest of her family, Arya murders. And that is the refrain of “Dire Wolf”:
“Don’t murder me. I beg you, please don’t murder me. Please don’t murder me.”
That is not the only way in which Arya Stark’s story resembles the Dire Wolf of the Dead.
“The Wolves Are Running Round”
Let’s consider the other wolves mentioned in this song. In the first verse, we hear that “In the timbers of Fennario, the wolves are running round.” Now, aside from when the dire wolf pups are growing up at the very beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, there is only one other case in which wolves run around: in the Riverlands, lead by Nymeria, Arya’s wolf.
The wolves begin as pets but become something deeper, companions with strong bonds between human and animal. They become a piece of the human, connected spiritually and magically through a deep, metaphysical, symbiotic relationship.
Arya’s relationship with her wolf is unique. She and Nymeria become separated early in the narrative, almost immediately, after Nymeria attacks the cruel Prince Joffrey and runs into the woods. Nymeria soon becomes feral, leading the aforementioned pack of Westerosi wolves against both animal and man through the Riverlands. Arya dreams of her wolf, the connection remaining, growing stronger even as the are separated by land and sea.
Not only does their mental connection remain even when physically separated, but the behavior of wolf and human mirror one another: they both become increasingly wild, feral, and dangerous.
One more point worth noting about the dire wolf of these two narratives: the real dire wolf, extinct ten thousands years ago, was about the same size as today’s grey wolf, only slightly heavier. Not the “six hundred pounds of sin” beast described in the Grateful Dead song, and not a beast the size of a horse as in A Song of Ice and Fire. It appears that the only dire wolves that are this massive and dangerous are those in this classic rock song and those in Westeros.
But where are these wolves? Fennario?
What, and Where, is the Grateful Dead’s Fennario?
The answer to this is elusive. This land is mythical and unclear, with beginnings far earlier than the Grateful Dead – and also appearing additionally in the song “Peggy-O,” a traditional folk song sung by not only the Dead but also Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Zac Brown Band and many more.
We only know two things for certain about the Fennario of this song:
- It’s winter.
- There are wolves.
The first impression of Fennario would be that it’s a place with terrible winters. If on Earth, it would the Yukon or Siberia, cold and barren. If interpreting these lyrics to describe Westeros, one would think Fennario is north of the Wall, certainly nowhere south of Winterfell.
Unless… if Fennario is an inspiration for Westeros —and if the song describes a scene late in the Narrative of Ice and Fire—then Fennario can be anywhere on the continent, as winter is coming and as the story gets later, winter is here.
The Dead’s Influence on George R. R. Martin
I would like to make my argument clear, before it reaches its next stage: I believe that Martin took inspiration from song “Dire Wolf” for the narrative of Arya Stark.
- The Dire Wolf of the song is both Arya Stark and her wolf, Nymeria
- The wolves running round are Nymeria’s pack of wolves
- Fennario is Westeros. In particular, it is the winter-beset Riverlands where Nymeria runs wild.
But I don’t think it ends there. The song is not just about a wild beast rampaging through the winter. It’s from the perspective of a narrator, scared and alone, awoken by a wolf at the window. The narrator, having no choice but to let the animal in, invites the wolf to a game as an effort to avoid death.
This is when I am taking this one step further. The first several verses—and the repeated refrain—describe Arya Stark and her wolf Nymeria, as Martin took inspiration from this song to create these characters.
My suggestion is that the song’s verses and refrain are from the perspective of one of the “perspective characters” in A Song of Ice and Fire.
“I got my cards, we sat down for a game.”
The question here is, if this is the narrative of Arya Stark, then who is the narrator? Arya has killed many people – both in the books and the show – by the end of the fifth book and fifth season. And she will kill many more.
She has many names remaining on her list. But in both the novels and the televison show, there is only one central character who is on Arya’s list yet remains alive and at large: Queen Cersei Lannister.
“I cut my deck to the Queen of Spades, but the cards were all the same.”
“The Dire Wolf Collects His Dues”
In the final verse of the song, we learn that the narrator indeed lost the game of cards – seeing that every card represented death – and that the Dire Wolf collected his dues “while the boys sing ’round the fire.”
And from whom does the wolf collect his dues? From she who owes him. Collecting dues is one side of the coin. The other is that someone is paying a debt.
A Lannister always pays her debts.
Again, this song was written in the late ’60s, decades before A Game of Thrones. The song is not about A Game of Thrones. But if the Weirwoods are named for Bobby Weir, and Darkstar named for “Dark Star”, and the Mountains of the Moon named for “Mountains of the Moon,” and if Martin admits that “Ripple” sums up the narrative pretty well, then why shouldn’t Arya Stark’s journey be partially inspired by the Dead’s Dire Wolf? Why shouldn’t one of the final showdowns be a pulled from the lyrics of Robert Hunter?
Only time will tell. But it doesn’t seem out of the question that in the final act of Ice and Fire, Arya Stark will come for Cersei Lannister in the winter night and murder her, just as the Dire Wolf came for the singer, ignoring his pleas in “the black and bloody mire.”
As Cersei herself said: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”