Exploring the connections between the Dead and A Song of Ice and Fire
Update: this article was originally written as a prediction (but, no, not a fan theory) as to the ending of the television show Game of Thrones. Because that is no longer so relevant (that show ended up a couple years ago), I’ve updated it to include that original theory, how accurate it was, and also some more ideas related to the connection between George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the Grateful Dead.
It has been a long-speculated concept the Grateful Dead’s music has influenced George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. He first sorta 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.
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?
My Original Speculation: “Please Don’t Murder Me”
From here until my next fourth-wall-breaking interruption, the content in here is what I included in my 2016 blog post predicting the fates of Cersei Lannister, Arya Stark, and what “Dire Wolf” might have to do with it.
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. (2022 note: she killed a lot more after that.) 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.”
2022 update: In 2018, I went to an event called Con of Thrones where I spoke about my interpretations of the Dead’s influence on GRRM. The rest of this article is a summary of that analysis, a lot of which was unique, but in places where it isn’t unique I include my sources.
I’m far from the first person to notice this connection. Bobby Weir? Weirwood? Yeah, there’s something there.
Mountains of the Moon
It’s a song AND it’s a place in Westeros. Easy enough.
A very Bran-esque song, including the lyrics “I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream. I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream. “
“Steal Your Face”
In addition to everything discussed about Arya Stark previously, it’s important to consider that her weapon of choice these days is the stolen face. In the song “He’s Gone,” the Dead reference stolen faces with the line:
Steal your face right off your head
But this is not the extent of that song. “Steal Your Face” is an album, a symbol, a mantra for the Grateful Dead. Is it to be considered a coincidence that this becomes a major theme in Game of Thrones as it proceeds?
And yes, “He’s Gone” might be about a thief who ran out, but do those words not say a lot about Arya Stark?
Terrapin Station Tells a Story of a Girl Standing in Fire, Leading Men to Lions and Death
This one is perhaps the most striking, and one that I don’t think I’ve seen discussed at length enough. You can watch a slideshow that a fellow fan made of it here:
But let’s consider why I find this so striking – the entire thing is a confused, meta-fiction of a tale, about stories revealed in fire and a storyteller who does not know the answer. Here is the crux of it:
While the storyteller speaks
a door within the fire creaks
suddenly flies open
and a girl is standing there
Eyes alight with glowing hair
all that fancy paints as fair
she takes her fan and throws it
in the lion’s den
“Which of you to gain me, tell
will risk uncertain pains of Hell?
I will not forgive you
if you will not take the chance”
A woman standing in fire, throwing her fan into the lion’s den. A soldier and a sailor fighting for her love.
Beyond the obvious links between these lyrics and everyone’s favorite Dragon Queen, there is an element of it that may remind one of Varys and his riddles. We do not know how the narrative within the song of Terrapin Station ends. Likewise, Varys posed a striking riddle in the second season that we never quite got an answer to, with similar characters to those who appear in Terrapin Station. You can see it in this trailer:
“Who lives, who dies,” Varys asks. His answer is not literal, but this: “power lies where men believe it resides.”
Finally, the Terrapin Station narrative reveals itself in a fire. Not only is this something that Daenarys does, but consider the Hound and others who have seen gods reveal themselves in fire.
Eyes of the World
A guy in the books. Also a very famous song.
Uncle John’s Band
And Who Are You, the Proud Lord Said…
Let’s consider two other important connections between Game of Thrones and the Grateful Dead: the music they have influenced and created.
The Ed Sheeran cameo was far from the first moment including a popular musician. Consider a few others:
- The Coldplay drummer was playing drums at the Red Wedding
- Sigur Ros played music at the Purple Wedding
- The Hold Steady sang “Bear and the Maiden Fair” during the closing credits of the episode where Jaime lost his hand.
- The National also delivered a closing credits song, recording “Rains of Castamere” for the official soundtrack and a closing credits scene.
- For a comprehensive list, see this one by The Daily Dot.
Of these, perhaps The National is the most important in drawing another thread between Game of Thrones and The Grateful Dead. Not only do they provide music for the Game of Thrones soundtrack, but they also recorded a few songs for the recent Day of the Dead record. In fact, the Dessner brothers of The National are avowed Deadheads and were key organizers of the Day of the Dead album.
Not convinced? Take a moment to listen to The National’s versions of first “Peggy-O” and then “The Rains of Castamere.” Upon listening to their cover of “Peggy-O” alongside their “Rains of Castamere,” it’s easy to believe that these are two strands of the same thread. Two songs within the same universe. (For those interested, I’ve created a Game of Thrones & Grateful Dead playlist on Spotify that includes these songs, among others).
And there there is John Mayer. How does he fit in, you ask? Two ways. First, decades later, Mayer has stepped into the void created by Jerry Garcia’s death. Mayer now sings the songs discussed above, which have had such a strong influence on Game of Thrones.
Second, Mayer is a fan of Ed Sheeran, declaring:
You’re seeing this shift back to real fundamentals in songwriting. Ed Sheeran is a huge part of that. He’s really, really serious about songwriting. Ed’s not a guy who goes, “What do you think?” Ed’s in his own thing and he’s a star athlete. He’s also a phenomenal guitar player. His right hand is a monster.
Sure, you can brush off John Mayer’s opinion. If you “hate” Sheeran, you probably “hate” Mayer too.
Sure, you can ignore Maisie Williams’s taste in music and her desire for a Sheeran cameo. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that, just maybe, that show you hold sacred does not stand in some world separate from Sheeran and Mayer. It’s a universe, a wheel, a flat circle. The Grateful Dead took inspiration from Irish folk music when crafting their version of Peggy-O, and George R. R. Martin took inspiration from their “Peggy-O” when writing words that would later be sung by Ed Sheeran. Who are you to decide that Sheeran isn’t worthy of singing a song on a show you like?
Ripple in still water….
Finally, let us consider “Ripple,” once again, the song that Martin said often guides his writing. And let us consider Sheeran’s moment, his singing bringing Arya happiness for the first time in ages.
As Jerry Garcia sang, and George R. R. Martin repeated, and Ed Sheeran manifested:
Let there be songs to fill the air