Frank Dune Herbert Criticism - Essay

David M. Miller (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dune," in Frank Herbert, Starmont House, 1985, pp. 15-26.

[Miller is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from his study of Herbert that was originally published in 1980, Miller examines Dune's complex structure, its literary devices, and its characters and themes.]

Most of Herbert's novels seem designed to be read once; hence, story lines are clear, there is little parallel action, genre markers are unequivocal, and proleptic clues are relatively obvious. Such is not the case with Dune, for Herbert's masterpiece is essentially a series of overlays. The first page tells us that we are entering a gothic novel: "Castle Caladan … the ancient pile of stone … bore the cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather." And sure enough, down a "vaulted passage" comes an "old woman," "a witch shadow—hair like matted spiderwebs … eyes like glittering jewels." But the gothic "half-light" is cast by a science-fiction "suspensor lamp." Paul is trained in weapons suitable to a young Lancelot, but he duels an automated opponent and wears a force shield. The "gom jabbar" is an ancient poisoned needle, but the device that tortures his hand is a technological marvel, quite literally a black-box. Sword-and-sorcery clues mix with gothic clues and science-fiction clues. Yet the background is as cleanly lighted as Hemingway's fiction. The "mysticism" of Hesse merges with the meticulous combats of C. S. Forester. The exposition required to establish the fictional world is ponderous, yet excitement and suspense seldom lag. Much of Dune is overtly didactic, yet the "lessons" arise from plot, character, and action. The satirical applications to our primary world are obvious, but only on reflection. Allegorical conflicts between reason and intuition, between masculine and feminine, between good and evil, between earth-rapers and ecologists, between individual desires and social imperatives, between morality and politics are at the service of character, plot, and action. All this is to say that Dune is a novel that invites the reader in, rather than a novel that intrudes upon the reader. In this sense, it is "escapist." If we must label it, "epic fantasy" is perhaps least misleading; but it is epic fantasy without a god, the tale of a hero who unwillingly devours his helpers, a conquering of time and place by a superman who is but the tool of genetic diaspora. We may more profitably acknowledge that Dune really fits none of our categories, although it has the markers of many.

The primary narrative voice never breaks from the dramatic present, never seems to know more than either the characters or the reader; hence, the tales unfold without a hitch because the narrator is as interested as are we in what will happen next. Paul may not survive the gom jabbar, may smother in the sand, may be killed by Jamis, may die in the melange trance, may be killed by Feyd-Rautha. But the head-notes to each section tip the hand. The opening paragraph tells us that the Harkonnens are ultimately symbiotic; the biographical head-note on Yueh tells us that he will successfully betray Duke Leto, and so on throughout the book. Clearly Paul is going to make it to the end or there would have been no head-notes.

An illuminating exception to this practice occurs as we return to the Harkonnen heir, Feyd-Rautha. Princess Irulan's headnote, rather than being narratively proleptic, is grandly sententious: "The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future." The chapter that follows is a "bull fight" with an Atreides' captive playing the bull to Feyd-Rautha's matador. The bull almost wins, would have won had Feyd played according to the Atreides Code. Yet the suspense yields to fate, for Herbert's primary narrative voice opens the chapter with: "On his seventeenth birthday, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen killed his one hundredth slavegladiator in the family games." Even when Herbert "slips," he maintains a basic strategy of providing the reader with an outline to be filled in by narrative detail. We neither know, nor much care, who Princess Irulan is until very late in the novel. Yet her function is important, for her head-notes allow Herbert to make the comments he wishes to make to guide understanding without disturbing his "companion" contract with the reader. Further, we "know" the actions happen, because Irulan tells us they have happened before we see them happening. When we at last discover that Irulan is Paul's wife of political convenience, barred from the bed and relegated to the study, the "historical" head-notes are welded tightly to the plot, a happy choice by Herbert for many reasons. Although Herbert sometimes manages a similar irony with the headnotes of volumes two and three (as when Harq al-Ada is discovered to be Fard'n), the later books are less careful in maintaining the proleptic displacements.

The proleptic dreams and increasingly frequent prescience of Paul serve, narratively, a similar function. The reader is told ahead of time what will happen so that, when the event occurs, it seems both "right" and real. And when Paul is overwhelmed by cellular fate, the loss of control is the more devastating in that the reader is also deprived of security. Thus, Herbert is able to make the events of the novel seem both inevitable and spontaneous.

This effect is reinforced by obvious, almost mechanical, parallels in adversary relationships. Turn the Atreides upside down and you have the Harkonnens. Chapter one establishes Paul, Hawat, and Leto; chapter two sets up Feyd-Rautha, Piter, and Baron Harkonnen: matter for a conventional melodrama. Whatever the Harkonnens have done, the Atreides will do the opposite: animals versus humans. But when we learn that Jessica is half-Harkonnen and that the Old Duke and the bull that killed him are tightly linked in the Atreides code, the black-and-white dichotomy of melodrama yields to the complexity of something like yin-yang.

These brief examples are characteristic of the dynamic tensions of the whole book: Herbert uses many of the conventions of entertainment fiction, but he is not, in this case, used by them. The result is neither strange nor familiar. I think my grandchildren will like Dune.


Much of the complexity and depth of Herbert's secondary universe in the Dune series derives from an elaborate system of power structures, hence, a good question with which to begin is "Who's in charge?" Ultimately the answer is "No one," but several organizations think that they control both tactical and strategic flow. One may think of the power structures as a system of overlays, each level of which believes that it is using all the others.

Dune's universe is—on the overt, "official," level—feudal. All planets belong to the emperor. But, just as in Earth's history, problems of logistics, transport, and communication modified the theoretical power of a feudal king, so is the emperor's power modified. Various "cousins" (real and honorary) of the emperor are granted planets in fief, which in fact often become hereditary possessions. Such Dukes and Barons are, in day-to-day matters, absolute monarchs. Collectively, their power is greater than the emperor's, and so the emperor's primary political duty is to foment rivalries among the nobility to prevent a serious challenge to the throne. Any partial challenge can be fought off by the emperor's Praetorian Guard, the Sardaukar.

But the efficiency of the emperor's private army encourages the very alliances he fears. The official structure of alliance among the nobility is the "Landsraat," a parliament of Houses Major and Houses Minor. The ultimate fear of any noble is that the emperor will isolate him from the herd and loose the Sardaukar upon him. Yet any noble alliance is destroyed by internal jealousy and rivalry. Vacancies in the nobility are filled by clever, ruthless men who amass wealth and establish new houses. The Atreides and the Harkonnen are again exemplary: the Atreides are an ancient house, actually related to the emperor; the Harkonnen are middle-class interlopers. The enmity between the two houses is partially one of class, though a Harkonnen ancestor has been banished by an Atreides ancestor for cowardice. The Harkonnen envy the noble Atreides; the Atreides disdain the merchant Harkonnen. It's the old game of rock, scissors, and paper.

The framing action of Dune is set in motion by a major, Imperial, political ploy. The Harkonnen are getting too rich as slave-masters of Arrakis. Leto Atreides is valorous, generous, loyal—a man so honorable that his men follow him out of love. Both houses pose a threat to the emperor, but the Atreides' threat is the greater, for the emperor is without a son. Duke Leto is obvious emperor material, and he has an heir. In one stroke the emperor hopes to dislodge the bloated spider and destroy the shining hero. Nice move. The perfect ploy is to eliminate the Atreides by appealing to their code of honor. And the "Old Duke" has provided an exemplum: as the bull to Paul's grandfather, so is Baron Harkonnen to Paul's father. In both cases, the virtues of the Atreides can destroy them.

The feudal power structure, however, is somewhat anachronistic, for power no longer flows inevitably to the brave, the good, or the kin. As in the late Renaissance, money, not land, has become the bottom line. Thus the economic arena is where the real battles are settled, and that arena is manifested in a huge, interplanetary corporation. CHOAM (Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles) provides the board-room for wheeling and dealing. Everyone, including the emperor, competes for director chairs and voting stock. It is the emperor's task to play the same divide and conquer game in CHOAM that he plays in the Landsraat.

The size of the Imperium, however, has spawned a group of specialists who comprise yet another layer of power. Transport from solar system to solar system is necessary, or the whole, elaborate structure will collapse. And all inter-system transport is in the hands of the Space Guild. Nothing and no one moves between star-systems except in Guild vessels. Thus the Guild would seem to hold the trump card, ultimate power over all the contending factions. But the Guild's ability to move ships faster than light depends on prescience, for they must know where they are going before they get there, and only knowledge of the future makes faster-than-light movement safe. Guild navigators gain prescience by taking large doses of an addictive drug, melange (spice), and spice comes only from the planet Arrakis, Dune.

In summarizing the power structures, I have described a closed ecology, in unstable equilibrium. The Imperium depends upon the Landsraat, the Landsraat upon the Imperium. Both draw economic power from CHOAM. CHOAM cannot function without the Space Guild, but the Space Guild is dependent upon spice. Since spice comes only from his majesty's desert planet, the emperor remains in charge but only by playing Machiavelli on a tightrope. Everyone conspires to keep the system in balance and at the same time tries to destroy the system by surpassing everyone else. Clearly spice is the key, not only because it enables the transportation necessary to permit power, but because it is a genuine geriatric. Thus it preserves both the system and the individual. The recipe is one designed to produce endless conflict, from bickering to double dealing to "Kanly" (ritualized feud) to guerilla war. But no one can afford full-scale war because real war would cut off the supply of spice.

The particular shuffle of reality that has produced the current situation is the Butlerian Jihad, a...

(The entire section is 4868 words.)

Michael R. Collings (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Epic of Dune: Epic Traditions in Modern Science Fiction," in Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by William Coyle, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 131-39.

[Collings is an American educator, poet, and critic who has written extensively on science fiction and fantasy literature. In the following excerpt from an essay that was originally presented at the Second International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film at Florida Atlantic University in 1981, he examines Dune's epic characteristics.]

Traditionally, the epic has been considered among the...

(The entire section is 3050 words.)

Susan McLean (essay date Summer 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Psychological Approach to Fantasy in the Dune Series," in Extrapolation, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 150-58.

[McLean is an American author of children's books. In the essay below, she explores the oedipal theme in Herbert's Dune series.]

Fantasy literature has long suffered from the stigma of childishness and escapism. Only recently have psychologists begun to propose that it actually serves important psychological functions. In The Uses of Enchantment, for instance, Bruno Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales help children to understand and accept their own feelings. Through fairy tales children are able to confront their innermost...

(The entire section is 4264 words.)

Jack Hand (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Traditionalism of Women's Roles in Frank Herbert's Dune," in Extrapolation, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 24-8.

[In the following essay, Hand explores Dune's depiction of a male-dominated future society in which women act within traditional feminine roles.]

It is no surprise to anyone who has read Dune or its sequels that the universe Frank Herbert posits is maledominated. A majority of science fiction writers seem to mine the human past in order to find patterns through which to express their hopes and fears for the human future. One may be condemned to repeat past mistakes through a lack of knowledge of history; but a knowledge...

(The entire section is 2442 words.)

Don Riggs (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Future and 'Progress' in Foundation and Dune," in Spectrum of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Donald Palumbo, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 113-17.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at the Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Beaumont, Texas, in 1985, Riggs compares Herbert's vision of humanity's future in Dune with Isaac Asimov's vision in his Foundation trilogy (1951–53).]

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and Frank Herbert's Dune series are two monuments of American science fiction, not only...

(The entire section is 1823 words.)

C. N. Manlove (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)," in Science Fiction: Ten Explorations, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1986, pp. 79-99.

[Manlove is a Scottish educator and critic who has authored several books on science fiction and fantasy. In the following excerpt, he compares Dune to Brian Aldiss's Hothouse (1962) and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (1951–53), arguing that the principal medium of Dune is the mind since "the whole of the novel … is bent on finding things out."]

Frank Herbert's Dune is frequently viewed as a science-fiction masterpiece. It is in some ways a mixture of the mode of the Koran, the rise of a messiah,...

(The entire section is 8288 words.)

Juan A. Prieto-Pablos (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ambivalent Hero of Contemporary Fantasy and Science Fiction," in Extrapolation, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 64-80.

[In the following excerpt, Prieto-Pablos examines the development of the ambivalent hero in Herbert's Dune, contending that it is a reflection of contemporary American culture.]

The voices of glorification of America's destiny have never been silent in North American science fiction, especially after the victorious end of World War II. For a large number of writers, this victory signified the beginning of a new era of optimism. Donald Wollheim's title for his study of modern science fiction, The Universe Makers, is...

(The entire section is 4553 words.)