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Ghost’s Gaze: Direwolves, War, and Interspecies Relations in Game of Thrones

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“The Last of the Starks” episode of Game of Thrones begins with scenes of mourning the dead and a mass funeral following the Battle of Winterfell. Many lives, including the lives of animals, were injured and lost. At the funeral we see Ghost—Jon Snow’s mute direwolf—in the front row of the funeral pyre. We see the toll of war on Ghost. He has noticeable facial and body wounds. His white fur is stained with blood. Ghost’s right ear is bloodied and partially missing. While the funeral was mostly a human event, Ghost’s prominence in the front row was a reminder of the non-human experience of war and loss. His presence was fitting given his centrality in the storylines of Jon Snow, his role in the frontlines of battle, and the broader symbolic significance of direwolves as the sigil of House Stark.

The next scene with Ghost caused uproar among TV critics and the public. Roughly halfway through the episode, Jon Snow, preparing to fight another battle in the south, leaves Ghost behind without saying goodbye. In an interview with the show’s creators, Jennifer Vineyard noted how “a lot of fans were upset that Ghost didn’t get so much as a goodbye pet.” The Ringer’s Miles Surrey argued that Game of Thrones “botched Jon’s relationship with his direwolf.” Vox’s Aja Romano wrote about how “on social media, Ghost quickly became the subject of an outpouring of anger.” 11.8 million viewers watched this episode in its initial live broadcast, and it appeared that many were troubled by Jon’s seeming lack of affection and the episode’s lack of attention to Ghost. What might public reactions to Ghost—a silent, non-human character—mean for how we think about war?

I approach this question through the lens of Jacques Derrida’s comments about le regard insistant de l’animal [the insistent gaze of the animal] to open up space for thinking about non-human perspectives in war. The French philosopher, born to a Jewish family in Algiers, is a frequent target for critics of “postmodernism.” But even critics of Derrida might see some value in his thinking. For those interested in the world of Westeros, attention to his texts on non-human perspectives helps reveal central insights from Game of Thrones: our world is also a multispecies world; it is a world filled with war but also moments of interspecies responsibility and connection.

Derrida, Game of Thrones, and Non-Human Perspectives

In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida is interested in the “gaze of the animal.” In considering his cat gazing at his naked body, Derrida begins inquiring into the meaning of being looked at by animals. “The insistent gaze of the animal,” he writes, calls into question his human place in the world and foregrounds how an animal has a “point of view regarding me” (p. 11). “Nothing,” he claims, gives him “more food for thinking” than considering this animal’s point of view (p. 11).

While the chapters of George R.R. Martin’s novels are not dedicated to non-human points of view, non-human perspectives are nonetheless noticeable. Both Martin’s novels and the HBO series focus significantly, for example, on........

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