What is up with those Stark kids and their direwolves? If you mostly know George R.R. Martin's strange and upsetting world of Westeros through the Game of Thrones TV show, you might remember that Bran used to be able to take over his wolf's body, before he became a chill, blazed out tree boy.
If you've read the books, though, you've figured out by now that all the baby Starks are wargs. Or at least, Bran, Jon, and Arya can all take their direwolves for a joyride. Robb and Rickon aren't point of view characters, and poor Sansa's wolf was killed before she had a real chance to warg it up, but Maester Martin has said that all the Stark kiddos have wolfy powers to some degree.
But what is a warg, or a "skinchanger"? Why can the Starks wolf around like that? What's up with those wildlings who can take over eagles, bears, and shadowcats? And, most importantly, when do we get to see somebody morph into a dragon?
The HBO show doesn't go into a ton of detail about warging — actually, are any of the wolves still on the show? Anybody seen Ghost recently?
So here's everything we know about the warg life from A Song of Ice and Fire:
A skinchanger or a beastling is someone with the ability to "slip" into the mind of an animal and control its actions. A warg can specifically do this for dogs and wolves (but I'm just going to go ahead and use "warg" as a broad term because it's a fun word).
The warg doesn't physically turn into the animal they're inhabiting, so it's not exactly like animorphs. Their human body remains intact, totally zonked out. Their consciousness is fully in the animal, though, and it can be rejected if the human and the animal don't have a close bond. And if person and wolf do have a close bond, sometimes the warging can happen unintentionally. Hence why Jon, Bran, and Arya all accidentally warg into their wolves while sleeping, and run around having "wolf dreams." We know that these are more than dreams, though, since they are able to interact with the world around them while "sleeping." While dreaming herself into her wolf, Nymeria, Arya manages to pulls her own mother's corpse out of the river.
If the warg and their animal are close enough buds, distance doesn't even matter. Arya is able to warg her way into Nymeria, who's in Westeros, while Arya herself is at assassin school over in Braavos. The friendlier the animal is to people the easy it is to warg into them, too. Dogs are pretty manageable, then wolves, then wildcards like birds, bears, and shadowcats. But the warg and the animal's personalities will start to meld if they spend too much time warging. Bran keeps hunting as Summer when he's hungry, but that doesn't help his human body stay alive.
There's also the danger that the warg or the animal will get killed while sharing a body. If the animal is killed, the warg can return to their human form, but they will be permanently messed up from experiencing the trauma of an animal's death. This happens to the wilding Varamyr Sixskins, who keeps six animals for his warging adventures. His eagle dies while he's inhabiting it, and drives him temporarily insane.
If it's the human body who dies, though, things get even weirder. The wildling Orell, original owner of the eagle, is killed while flying around in his bird's body. His human body is gone, but his consciousness lives on in the eagle, which is why he attacks Jon Snow on sight. At least, it lives on for a little while, until Orell and the eagle become one, and all memory of his humanity fades away. Varamyr attempts to go for a similar "second life" in one of his wolves, but only after trying to warg into another human's body. This goes very badly for both Varamyr and the poor wilding lady he tries to hijack, and she ends up dead and then undead as a wight.
After all, it is forbidden for wargs to take over other people, or to eat human meat, or to mate while in animal form. This is common knowledge beyond the Wall, where almost all the wargs live freely. But the Stark kids don't know any of this, so Bran regularly wargs into the Stark stable boy, Hodor (and if you've seen the show, you know that doesn't end so well for our friend Hodor).
As for why the Stark kids seem to be the only wargs south of the Wall... we don't quite know. Direwolves are mostly extinct in Westeros, so perhaps bonding with these mythic doggos unlocked the kids' hereditary warg powers. Maybe the encroaching White Walkers are stirring up extra magic in the North. Maybe Dany's dragons have just cranked up the magic levels to eleven all across the globe.
What we do know is that the Stark kids all have some sort of supernatural bond with their pets. For Bran, it seems to be part of his whole greenseer, magic tree boy prophecy kid deal. For Arya, it seems like her Faceless Men training is giving her more intense wolf dreams, as she clings onto some remnant of her true identity. For Sansa, it seems like life would be a lot better if she still had a wolf friend, and Robb might have avoided his fate if he'd kept Grey Wind with him at the Red Wedding. Who know what's up with Rickon and Shaggydog off in Skagos, honestly, but they're probably still hanging out?
And for Jon Snow, as we last saw him, bleeding out on the ground... warging into Ghost just might be the magic that saves his life. If we ever get to read The Winds of Winter, we'll see where warging takes the Stark kids next.