Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4868
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...
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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 revolt against computers that resulted in the religious command: "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." Out of that chaos came not only the major structures I have detailed but three significant "service" organizations. To replace the computers, Mentats were developed, men trained to process information as a supercomputer might. All the major power brokers need a mentat to guide their machinations. But mentats remain men; hence, their loyalty must be secured. Again the Harkonnen mentat, Piter, and the Atreides mentat, Hawat, represent the spectrum of control. Hawat follows the Atreides because he loves them. Piter serves the Harkonnen because he fears them and yet hopes to satisfy his unspeakable lusts by increasing Harkonnen power. Both Hawat and Piter are also trained assassins.
The second "service" class is the Bene Gesserit, all women as the mentats are all male. Young Bene Gesserit, like young mentats, are sold to important men. But the B.G. are sold as concubines, wives, or (in rare cases) truth sayers who can instantly judge the truth of any statement. Bene Gesserit depend upon highly developed gestalt awareness, and their reading of minute signals enables them to exercise total psychological control. To their detractors, they are "witches," whose voices can shred a man or whose sexuality can reduce him to putty. They also have perfect control of their autonomic nervous systems, of their emotions, and of their musculatures. A successful politician needs both a mentat and a Bene Gesserit. The homosexual Baron Harkonnen has no Bene Gesserit.
The third class of specialists—which is not much developed in the novel—is medical. In a Borgia world of poison and intrigue, a man must be able to trust his doctor. The Suk Doctors are given imperial conditioning that makes their Hippocratic oaths unbreakable. The only Suk we meet is Yueh, the "oriental" Atreides physician whose conditioning has been broached by the Harkonnen. Yueh is eternally in love with his Bene Gesserit wife, and the Harkonnen have kidnapped her: wheels within wheels.
Each group of specialists is supposedly obsessed by its calling, but the thinking machine mentats have time to love and hate, and the Bene Gesserit are infinitely more than male-dominated willowy maids, fecund matrons, and wise crones. What, after all, can stand against the power of the bed, the delivery room, and the confessional?
Bene Gesserit power is such that they actually constitute a shadow government of the universe; for, unlike Imperium, Landsraat, CHOAM, Guild, and Mentat, the Bene Gesserit do more than play tactical realpolitik. They have a selfless purpose. In spite of their acknowledgment that what the human race really desires is a genetic diaspora (an orgy of uncontrolled gene mixing), the Bene Gesserit have for centuries been running a eugenics program. Their current power is developed not only by disciplines, but because they are guided by reverend mothers who have, through poison, joined the collective memory of all their female ancestors. The male memories, however, form a black hole in the collective unconscious from which they flee in terror. Their plan is to breed, selectively and amorally, for a male reverend mother who would possess complete racial memory, both male and female. Thus, Bene Gesserit wives and concubines are sterile or fecund according to the breeding chart; the preferred Bene Gesserit pattern is to continue important blood lines only in females whom they control.
As the reader of Herbert's other novels might expect, such "selfing" is not the way to produce an optimum. Progress will require the union of contraries far more complex than any chart can display. At the same time, the Bene Gesserit program is a necessary, though not sufficient, factor in the fate of humanity. Perhaps only a male reverend mother could have sufficient power to upset the many layers of entrophic structures that are winding down the genetic spring.
As fate would have it, the emperor's power game has chosen the same two families that the Bene Gesserit breeding program has been developing. And Jessica's violation of the program in producing a son, rather than a daughter, gives Duke Leto a reason to accept the emperor's gambit of Arrakis: he wishes to secure a permanent place of power for his son, Paul. Jessica's fears for Paul have led her to have him trained as both Bene Gesserit and mentat. Later, the desert and the Fremen add to Paul's combat training to make him a super-Sardaukar. (Selusa Secundus, the boot camp for Sardaukar, is a country club compared to Arrakis.) The self-serving mumbo-jumbo sowed by the Bene Gesserit's "missionaria protectiva" against future crisis has, under the pressures of Arrakis and with the help of spice, grown into a full-blown messiah myth. Thus Paul becomes everything: mentat, Bene Gesserit, reverend mother, duke, and "Mahdi" (the one who will lead us to paradise). With the added religious horsepower, one Freman Death Commando can eat a dozen Sardaukar before breakfast and exclaim, "Fie on this quiet life, I want work!"
Paul's "uncontrollable purpose" is to father the jihad necessary to remix the human gene pool. He can defeat all minor contrarieties, but each victory is precisely what is needed to insure his final defeat. Dune is remarkable in that all this macro-action bumps along in the margin as a very real human being struggles against real, incrementally deadly, tactical difficulties.
The central tale that orders and focuses the satisfying complexity of Herbert's secondary universe is the maturation of Paul Atreides: a skinny, fifteen-year-old boy evolves into the Emperor of the Universe. Paul is a "psifocus" (The Godmakers), a fulcrum upon which the macro-organism of sentience teeters in the imperative process of maintaining dynamic homeostasis. As in most of his fictions, Herbert's fundamental metaphor is the closed ecological system. Paul is typical of Herbert heroes in that he seeks to control forces which constitute him. Each episode in his growth illustrates a paradox: like a virus, Paul devours his family, his friends, his tutors, his testers, his enemies, and all the antagonistic symbioses which make the universe go around. But he is also like a vaccine: the universe absorbs Paul, readjusts its metabolism, and makes the disease a defense. Strategically Paul is more victim than victimizer, for his "terrible purpose" uses him more dispassionately than he spends his death commandoes. Yet he maintains his humanness, even at the cost of the jihad he abhors: he leaves the final metamorphosis to his son, Leto II, and dies a human being on the steps of Alia's temple (Children of Dune). Paul-messiah is, finally, only John the Baptist; for the human chrysalis triumphs, returning its water to the tribe. In a nutshell, Paul sacrifices his godness to the Atreides code; Leto II, as we shall presently note, is a god at the price of his humanness.
From a macro-perspective, Paul is like everything else: the river remains, each water molecule passes on to the sea. When a mentat ceases to function, the master buys a new one. When Jessica refuses to produce a daughter on command, Countess Fenring seduces Feyd-Rautha. When the Fremen reverend mother dies, her memory passes to Jessica. Always the evolving structure remains, passing from one dynamic equilibrium to another. (Perhaps Herbert's vision owes a debt to Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men.) Yet for the narrative to succeed in the face of fate, some freedom of significant action must remain, and Herbert risks that significance by equipping Paul with prescience.
A great deal might be said of Herbert's essay on the relationships between past, present, and future—between foreknowledge and free will—only to wind up in endless mazes wandering lost. Here, it must suffice to note three ways in which Herbert saves the freedom of entertainment without destroying the fixity of essay. The probing of a prescient mind into the future masks the probed areas from other prescient minds (Dune Messiah); the act of prescience involves the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: touching the future with one's mind alters those elements which are touched; and prescience thrusts upon the seer potential, rather than absolute, futures. Curiously, when Paul (Dune Messiah) succeeds in living his past memory of the future in the present, the effect—because the memory unfolds sequentially—is that of a relatively minor miracle: a blind man sees. And the reader is neither surprised nor shocked because Irulan's head-notes have given the reader a kind of prescience—the reader can share even greater prescience by reading the book a second time.
Paul is a human hero because he maintains a corner of self. His sister, Alia, is unhuman because she does not maintain such a corner—although Herbert allows her a tiny space to choose death (Children of Dune). Thus Herbert's definition of humanity demands a strong sense of self riding on species consciousness. Both Paul and Alia are eddying vortices that gather strength from resistance, break established channels, and spew the jihad and the religion of Dune in tidal wave across the universe. The vortex may grow to whirlpool, to maelstrom, to Kralizec typhoon. The wheeling focus may last perhaps 5,000 years (Leto II). Yet the clash of vortex and river can have but one conclusion: when resistance ends, the vortex fades and the river flows on to the sea, altered, but still the river.
The action of Dune, and to a lesser extent of the two other volumes, is punctuated by a series of incremental, ritual initiations. Each ritual serves to unify two or more contending forces in the person of the initiate, forming a complex unity which he carries into the next ritual: thesis, antithesis, synthesis; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And so on. We enter the series in mediasres; Paul has been trained in disparate disciplines: mentat (male) and Bene Gesserit (female). (Farad'n of Children of Dune is given only Bene Gesserit training.) Thus Paul's early training prepares him to be androgynous, for his mother pursues the Bene Gesserit goal: to breed a Tieresian Kwisatz Haderach who will have access to both male and female genetic memory. The eugenic effort has been going on for centuries, but the water of life has proven mortal to all would-be reverend mothers. Count Hasimir Fenring has come closest, but he (a male Bene Gesserit, though not a reverend mother) is a congenital eunuch, rather than an androgyne.
A second synthesis is that of animal and human. This thesis and antithesis is sited in Paul's two grandfathers: the Harkonnen-animal Baron, the Atreides-human Old Duke. For grandfather and father Atreides, the attempted synthesis has proven mortal. Likewise their adversaries, bull and Baron, are destroyed by the consequence of killing humans. Herbert plays a rich, touch-and-go game with the bull fight metaphor. The Atreides portrait of the Old Duke and the head of the bull that killed him reappear on the walls of the Harkonnen palace as we see the animal-Feyd play matador to a human-Atreides bull. Paul's ritual slaying of Feyd draws the bull fight to a close by distinguishing human from animal: unlike Feyd who kills his gladiator with the aid of a subconscious paralysis keyed by the word "Scum," Paul refuses to use the disabling Bene Gesserit implant. Alia has already disposed of the Baron, a bull no longer brave, though his memory spirit gains revenge by possessing her (Children of Dune).
Each of the rituals that led up to the slaying of Feyd draws power from two contradictory-complementary sets of psychological symbolisms. Freudian-sexual symbolism asserts the white pain of isolated individualism: its effect is to heighten tension. Jungian-archetypal symbolism soothes the individual consciousness by asserting the place of the one within the many: its effect is to relieve tension. When combined, the two sets of symbols can produce dynamic-stasis: a tightly coiled spring that resonates without vibration. The Bene Gesserit litany against fear enables the individual to join with his contrary and yet remain an individual. In each of Paul's ritual testings, overtones of Oedipal sexuality yield to Jungian sexual individuation: Baron Harkonnen has perverted this power into homosexuality; Count Fenring has escaped into asexuality. Both Count and Baron have enormous, but incomplete, power. Paul has more. Leto II has all. Of the four, only Paul maintains his humanity. Count and Baron fall below, Leto II passes beyond the human.
Here, it is only possible to assert, to exemplify, and then to pass on. The gom jabbar ritual testing of Paul, which opens Dune, is repeated in many keys and modes throughout the novel. The initial gom jabbar ritual certifies the triumph of Atreides human genes over Harkonnen animal genes, marks the first of several rituals that move Paul from boy to man, and establishes the Oedipal tension that spreads musk over Paul's crises. Herbert's touch, though fairly delicate, is obvious. The witch-mother places a death-phallus at Paul's neck, forces him to thrust his hand into a dark box. The hand is burned away through intense pain, and emerges, reborn. Later, that hand seizes the death-phallus hunter-seeker, which slips into Paul's bedroom, just in time to save another witch-mother, the Shadout Mapes. This time, Paul smashes the phallus, rather than merely escaping.
Meanwhile, Jessica—who has undergone the Bene Gesserit gom jabbar when the winds of puberty tortured her flesh—has herself been tested by the Shadout Mapes whose gom jabbar is a tooth taken from the vagina dentata of a maker's mouth. When Jessica and Paul are trapped in the 'thopter with two Harkonnen assassins, Jessica's sexuality loosens Paul's bonds, and Paul kicks the assassin through the heart. When Jessica and Paul share a tent buried beneath the sand, Jessica feels "reborn" as they emerge. When Jessica is buried in a sand slide, Paul fishes her out and pronounces the word that brings her back from bindu-suspension. Together they pull the fremkit, which gives them life in the desert, out by its umbilical strap.
Paul never quite escapes the tensions of sexuality, for he takes revenge on his mother, vicariously, in two ways: when he silences Gaius Helen Mohiam with threat of a death word and when he forces Irulan to marry him without ever entering his bed. Thus, he defeats the triple power of the Bene Gesserit. The maid is confined, the matron is made barren, and the crone is emasculated. Chani, his mate, has no formal claims upon him, and the attraction between them is much like that of brother and sister. When he finds his sister, Alia, flushed and naked from duelling with a lethal automated pel, it is she who is sent to a cold shower (Dune Messiah). The "pharaonic" marriage of brother and sister is achieved in Children of Dune when Leto II and Ghanima wed, though Leto's metamorphosis prevents it from being consummated.
The other side of the coin—the slaying of father—marches, symbolically, through the same rituals in which Paul moves from "female" threatened with penetration to male who penetrates. (The match with Feyd does the male-female role ambivalence very obviously in terms of death rape.) As the symbolic structure provides Paul with several mothers, so it also provides him with a number of fathers. Leto is the first to be supplanted. When Paul sees his father tired and afraid, some of Leto's "fatherness" dies. When, at the water banquet on Arrakis, Paul moves to fill his father's empty chair. Kynes steps in as father-protector. Liet-Kynes also plays Baptist to Paul's Messiah, just as Paul plays Baptist to Leto II's Messiah: both must die to make way for the savior.
On Caladan, Paul has had the benefit of a number of surrogate fathers, most of whom die to give Paul skill and space. Duncan is the first to die, Hawat the last. Yueh is an interesting case in that he serves Paul doubly: by "killing" Leto and by saving Paul—shades of Hamlet and Claudius. Gurney is faced down by Paul as he is about to kill Jessica, and he (Dune Messiah) becomes Jessica's man in unspecified but suggestive fashion. Paul's training echoes of the education of King Arthur. Hawat makes Paul a mentat, Gurney makes him a musician, Duncan makes him a great swordsman, and Yueh gives him an Orange Catholic Bible. Since each father is something more than an allegorical figure, their gifts overlap, but the pattern is clear: specialists produce a poly-man.
On Arrakis, Paul finds two additional fathers: Liet-Kynes and Stilgar. Both are seduced by the Atreides honor, and although Kynes' sacrifice is the more obvious, Stilgar's is the more profound. Kynes dies for Paul, Stilgar lives for him. Kynes' daughter, Chani, becomes Paul's sister, then his lover, then his concubine. Stilgar offers to marry Paul's mother, fathers Paul by naming him Usul, offers himself to Paul's knife; but his greatest sacrifice is to remain himself, diminished beneath Paul's growing shadow. When Stilgar takes Paul's rejected ghanima, Harah, as wife, the sexual symbolism of dominance evidences their relationship. In a curious way, Jamis also fathers Paul into the Fremen tribe, and the cost to Paul's fathers is, here, explicit. Jamis loses his life, his water, his baliset, his wife, and his children—even his "coffee" service—to Paul. The souls of his fathers are but more grist for Paul's mill. If Baron Harkonnen is a carnivore, Paul is an omnivore, and his food seeks him.
The final confrontation scene draws all the power threads into a single knot and summarizes Paul's victory. By seizing the power to destroy the source of melange—and evidencing the will to do so—he has the Guild, the Imperium, CHOAM, the Landsraat, and the Bene Gesserit by the throat. But since he is unwilling to surrender his humanity, he remains vulnerable. He has promised Chani sons, and thereupon hang two more tales.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3050
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 highest forms of literary expression. From pre-classical times until well into the nineteenth century, the epic held its position as second to none (or on occasion second only to tragedy) in rankings of literary forms. In fact, its preeminence was so widely recognized that during the Renaissance, critics defined the epic as the ultimate creative achievement from whose rules all other genres depended….
It would be possible to define the science fiction novel as epic by listing two dozen or so literary conventions found in traditional epics; to do so, however, would remain unconvincing since these conventions exist on the surface. Indeed, one of the characteristics of a bad epic is its slavish dependence on superficial conventions at the expense of originality, genius, and achievement. Instead, it is more fruitful to concentrate on several essential elements of the epic and to suggest ways in which they provide structure and form to a particular science fiction novel, Frank Herbert's Dune.
The primary feature of the traditional epic was that it centered about the exploits of a hero—of a single man superior in talent and ability to common men. We think immediately of the central characters of major epics: Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Adam, and Christ. In each instance, the hero is elevated beyond common mortals by particular traits, conventionally either peculiarities surrounding his birth and lineage or unusual mental and physical strength. Just as the form itself was the highest manifestation of the poetic impulse, so the character it defined was superior to other men.
In Dune the hero, Paul Atreides, is introduced immediately, and in the first pages of the novel we discover that he is unusual. He is aristocratic, the son of a duke and a distant cousin of the Padishah emperor. Beyond that, he is the son of a Bene Gesserit; indeed, he is one of only two such in the entire novel, the second being his ostensible opponent in the final duel, the Count Fenring. This heritage is essential to the working out of the plot, since the Bene Gesserit are instructed to bear only daughters as a method of preserving the purity of the Sisterhood and of segregating essential bloodlines.
Paul's birth interferes with the breeding plans of the Sisterhood, but, more importantly, it defines him as a potential Kwisatz Haderach, the "one who can be many places at once." Through his father he inherits the honors and perquisites of royalty; through his mother, the genetic and psychic makeup that will allow him to pass the Reverend Mother Mohiam's Gom Jabbar—the ultimate test of humanity. Even the Reverend Mother herself, irritated though she is at Jessica's effrontery, acknowledges Paul's inherent superiority, admits that he withstands more pain than a woman could bear, and suspects that she wanted him to fail the test.
Paul's essential difference is underscored continually in his relationships with key characters: the Imperial Planetologist Kynes is shaken by Paul's seemingly impossible ability to fit into the Arrakeen way of life without previous instruction; the Fremen (especially their tribal leader, Stilgar) immediately see in him characteristics implicit in their messianic legends, amplified through his training in the "weirding ways" of the Lady Jessica; Fenring, the emperor's executioner, refuses to meet Paul in personal combat, defying the express order of the Padishah emperor and ignoring his own knowledge that he could in fact kill the younger man. In each instance Paul impresses those about him with his superiority, both in degree and in kind (to borrow a distinction from Northrop Frye). He is set apart in the opening pages of the novel and remains isolated until the end. Even in his final victory as he assumes the Imperial throne, he remains beyond the full understanding of even the most astute observers.
His actions, like those of the traditional epic hero, are of worldwide (in this instance, galaxy-wide) impact. In classical epic the hero performs actions which alter irrevocably the history of his world: Achilles compounds the insanity of the siege of Troy, leading to the death of many warriors; Aeneas founds the Roman Empire; Adam chooses to fall and initiates mortality. Through his actions on Arrakis, Paul alters the face of his universe. As a member of the ducal family, illegally deprived of his fief, Paul wages war against the evil Harkonnens and the unscrupulous emperor. He honors his oath of fealty to the emperor as long as the Imperium recognizes his rightful ducal claims. However, when Shaddam IV chooses to abet the Harkonnens (allowing Imperial troops to support Harkonnen treachery, thus aligning himself with Paul's enemies), Paul has no choice but to resist the Empire. Through the power of his Fremen forces, he topples the static, rather degenerate Shaddam IV and breathes new life into the Imperium.
As the Kwisatz Haderach, however, Paul initiates actions which vastly overshadow his political aspirations. He becomes a reluctant messiah, in whose name religious "jihad" will sweep the galaxy, forever diverting the direction of human history. As the "one who is in many places," he can foresee many cataclysmic events resulting from his actions, and he struggles to avert them.
A final characteristic of the epic hero is that he frequently is not positioned at the top of the power hierarchy. Achilles is a warrior, not a king. He owes allegiance to Agamemnon, whose decisions in part cause the conflict in the Iliad. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this division between rex (king) and dux (leader) became more pronounced. The interrelationships between the active, heroic warrior and the more passive, authoritarian ruler often blended with the heroic fable itself to lend the traditional (usually military) epics greater complexity in character development.
In Dune the same division between rex and dux exists—literally as well as figuratively. Paul Atreides is in fact the Duke of Arrakis; as such, he acknowledges his responsibilities to his direct overlord, the emperor. His initial skirmishes against the Harkonnens are merely to affirm his hereditary and legal (through Imperial decree) right to sovereignty on Dune. In a sense, he fights to reaffirm the legality and authority of the Empire. Only when it becomes obvious that the Empire itself is corrupt does Paul move against it—and then only as a Fremen battle-leader. In his final encounter with the emperor, Paul clearly differentiates between his roles as a duke and as a member of the imperial entourage. As a duke, Paul responds to the conventions and limitations of the Imperial court; as Muad'Dib, the Lisan al-Gaib of the Fremen, however, he acts according to different standards.
The second major element of traditional epics involved the world of the action itself. The epic was a narrative on a grand scale—worldwide in the case of the wanderings of Odysseus, cosmic in Paradise Lost. The epic presupposes a conviction on the part of the author that his words are of paramount importance, that the actions he describes are essential to the human race. Frequently the epic traces the destruction of old standards and the creation of new. In the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, there are physical upheaval and literal destruction; in Paradise Lost the conflict is primarily spiritual. In each work, however, the definition of meaning in the universe is altered. The epics attempt to create order out of the chaos that results whenever human society undergoes drastic changes.
In a science fiction novel, the author may investigate the complexity and upheaval which characterize modern society. In a society frequently convinced of the meaninglessness of life, the science fiction novel may posit an alternate universe in which there are coherence, meaning, order, and tradition. In Dune the setting is obviously far-flung; the immediate action encompasses three distant planets—Caladin, Arrakis, and Geidi Prime—and through the prescient visions of Muad'Dib, the rest of the galaxy as well. Frank Herbert has successfully limned new worlds beyond the familiar earth, peopled by strange beings (not all even remotely human) and quasi-mythical beasts. The sandworms of Arrakis, for example, take on the attributes of a Demiurge and become, in fact, the basis of a new mythology. Paul's battles engage the known galaxy, with ships from every planet orbiting Dune during the final confrontation, waiting to despoil the planet when the emperor succeeds in eliminating the Fremen rabble.
In addition, Dune reflects the turmoil and political chaos which have characterized the twentieth century. Man's weaponry has outstripped his moral development, and instruments of destruction are turned against his fellow beings. Into this seething society comes Paul Atreides, who through the force of his personality and his powers-beyond-human imposes order on disorder. He displaces the old levels of authority—the dissipated, treacherous emperor, the hired assassins, the depraved Harkonnens—and establishes a new hierarchy based on loyalty, trust, and competence. The former emperor is to be stripped of all power; in his place, Paul establishes a new, just order, bestowing titles and honors on his loyal supporters. What seems superficially to be blatant sharing of the spoils of victory is in fact an appropriate delegation of power to those who have throughout the novel fought for order, legality, justice, and honor. Paul's followers are placed in positions of authority, not merely because they are his followers but because they are the most capable administrators within the new order.
In an epic the hero frequently undergoes heroic journeys, not the least of which is a journey of enlightenment. In one of the earliest surviving epics, Gilgamesh journeys to the dwelling of Utnapishtim to discover the secret of immortality; Aeneas journeys to the underworld and there receives a vision of the future history of the nascent Roman Empire; and Adam journeys to the mount of revelation for a vision of the history of all mankind. Through such visions, the epic transcends the immediate concerns of readers and involves itself instead with the fate of nations and of worlds. In Dune this tradition is an essential part of the story. Paul undertakes a desperate journey for survival, descending into the underworld figuratively (he is considered dead by both his enemies and his friends throughout much of the novel) and literally (as Muad'Dib he dwells in the subterranean caves—sietches—of the Fremen). More importantly, and more relevantly in terms of the relationship between Dune and traditional epics, he undertakes an internal journey of revelation. Descending to the lowest point of the sietch, the dungeon of a captive sandworm, Paul imbibes a drop of the unchanged poison secreted by the dying sandworm and enters a death-like trance. On recovering days later (and narrowly escaping premature interment), through the mediation of the maker's poison Paul is able to see not only the past and the future but the Now. Like other epic characters before him, Paul emerges from his journey armed with vision and truth and with the power to create order, stability, and justice in a world of disorder, instability, and injustice.
In addition to the definition of the hero and of his milieu, a number of less important conventions have become associated with the epic, and most of them are integral parts of the plotting and structuring of Dune.
The traditional epic opens with either a propositio or an invocatio. Lacking a muse to invoke, Herbert provides a propositio, a brief opening statement of the purpose of the narrative in a headnote from the "Manual of Muad'Dib" by the Princess Irulan; it identifies the hero, the time of the narrative, and the location of Dune, the planet Arrakis.
From this point the novel moves directly into the action of the plot and in doing so fulfills a second epic demand—that the "fable" begin "in the middle of things." The first sentence of the novel indicates that events have already begun to move long before the reader is introduced to Paul Atreides. Even the structuring of the opening raises questions which can be answered only when the full background is known: "In the weeks before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul." Who are they? Why are they leaving? Where are they now, and where are they going? Where and what is Arrakis? Who is the old crone? the mother? the boy? Only as the reader becomes immersed in the complex history of vendetta and kanly, of treachery and intrigue between Harkonnen and Atreides, does he fully understand the answers to these questions. The novel does indeed begin "in the middle of things."
This convention leads to another. In classical epics background information is revealed most frequently by means of councils, which often are held in conjunction with a dinner. In Dune there are a number of epic councils, each with the specific purpose of revealing essential information and thus allowing the reader to understand convolutions in the plot. One of Duke Leto's first actions after arriving at Arrakis is to convene a war council with his lieutenants: Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho, the Mentat Hawat, and Paul. In addition to providing the reader with insights into the characters, the council provides necessary information on the history of Dune, on the Harkonnens and their tactics, and on the state of the galactic empire. Paul senses confusion in the minds of the men at the council, and for the first time he considers the possibility of defeat. Herbert suggests that the microcosm of the council parallels the macrocosm which is the empire. The epic council simultaneously defines the characters, the situation, and the status of the plot. Shortly thereafter, Herbert includes a prolonged banquet scene, which is both an additional revelation of background (particularly in terms of Dune and its inhabitants) and a definition of Paul's emerging powers. At the banquet the boy temporarily replaces his father; within hours Leto is dead, and Paul becomes in fact the ruling Duke of Arrakis.
A final tradition which deserves attention in the context of Dune is the use of funeral rites. In the world of Dune, death is ritualized; battle is conducted along rigidly traditional lines as a way of providing controlled outlets for individual aggression. Feyd-Rautha (the Harkonnen heir) counts on this awareness of undeviating ritual in his encounter with a slave-gladiator. After arranging for an undrugged gladiator to meet him in the arena, Feyd-Rautha treacherously inverts the rules of combat by using poison on the blade that is traditionally pure. After individual combat—interspersed with the exchanging of taunts and insults typical of epic combat—Feyd-Rautha kills his opponent, relying not only on the treacherously poisoned blade but also on hypnotically implanted key words which momentarily paralyze the slave's muscles. Despite his deceptive and dishonorable tactics, Feyd-Rautha finally responds to a sense of honor. The slave fought well, coming closer than planned to killing the Harkonnen heir, and so the slave is honored in death. His body is not mutilated; he is buried intact with his knife in his hand.
The Harkonnen's perverted attention to the ceremonial of death and of battle provides an effective counterpoint to Paul Atreides's reaction on killing his first opponent. The rites of battle in the Fremen sietch are carefully defined, down to the comments of the spectators and the ritual challenges. Paul is unaware of the rules of combat and unused to fighting without a shield, nor does he know that he must kill his opponent. He seeks to wound, to injure, to win by default. As a result, he rouses the anger of the spectators by seeming to toy with his adversary. Yet when the battle is finally over and Jamis is dead, Paul responds according to the ritual. He is named Usul, his sietch-name, secret among the tribe, and Muad'Dib, his Fremen name. He participates in the funeral rites for Jamis, listening to the formalized words intended to set the spirit of the newly dead to rest. He delays his own participation in the ceremony until urged by Stilgar, the leader, to speak. When he stands, he fully immerses himself in the ritual of death; he calls himself a friend of Jamis and sheds tears, "a gift to the shadow-world." Feyd-Rautha's superficial gesture of respect toward the dead earned him momentary approval by the mobs of Geidi Prime; Paul's intense and unself-conscious tribute to his opponent cemented the relationship between himself and the Fremen, allowing him to mold them into the most devastating troops in the Empire.
Throughout Dune the reader is exposed to devices which, originating as they do in epic traditions, elevate the worlds and characters of Dune, investing them with a grandeur and a significance surpassing a mere plot-summary. The reader leaves Dune at once enlightened and uplifted, having participated for a time in a world where heroism is still viable, where the actions of a single individual may in fact decide between order and disorder, tradition and chaos. The conventions of epic lend a dignity to the novel and to other science fiction novels that incorporate these conventions to a greater or lesser degree. In Dune, as in other science fiction novels, the author creates characters who provide modern man with paradigms of heroism and courage applicable to a technological society. In a post-heroic, anti-romantic, cynical world burdened with burgeoning technology and lagging moral development, the science fiction novel may, in fact, represent one of the last surviving strongholds of the true epic impulse. Here the writer can create a world in which human potential is investigated, stretched to its limits, and infinitely expanded. Dune, as an epic in the traditional sense of the term, falls legitimately into the category of an heir to the concerns, techniques, and impact of the traditional epic.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4264
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 fears and desires and to resolve their conflicts vicariously. Children, however, are not the only ones who can benefit from the therapeutic effects of fantasy. Like dreams, it addresses feelings that are too threatening to be confronted consciously, but unlike dreams it suggests solutions to the problems it examines. Furthermore, by providing readers with a safe outlet for the expression of repressed emotions, fantasy reduces the power of those emotions to govern their behavior.
The extraordinary popularity of Frank Herbert's Dune series can be attributed in part to the success with which he draws upon the power of repressed emotions by means of familiar fantasy motifs. The world of the Dune series contains standard figures from fairy tales—emperors and dukes, witches and man-eating monsters, swordsmen and superhuman heroes—but it combines them with enough advanced technology to make the story palatable to readers of science fiction. The emotional appeal of the books lies in their underlying themes—of Oedipal conflict, fear of sex, and fear of women—which address, in particular, the anxieties and aspirations of the adolescent males who still make up a large proportion of science fiction readership.
The four books of the series—Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune—differ widely in structure and focus, but all are shaped by the same fears and fantasies. The progress of the story is cyclic, in accordance with the theory of history that Herbert expounds in the novels. The first two books recount the rise and fall of Paul Atreides; the second two recount the rise and fall of his son, Leto II. The importance of fantasy themes in shaping the plot diminishes as the series progresses, partly as a result of the reader's increasing estrangement from the protagonist. At the beginning of Dune, Paul is only fifteen years old. Both his age and his situation—as an outcast unjustly deprived of his patrimony—invite the reader to identify with him. By the time of Dune Messiah, he is older and more powerful, but still subject to human weakness and vulnerability. His son Leto, however, is born a freak and becomes a monster. Endowed from birth with the memories of all of his ancestors, Leto neither thinks like a typical nine-year-old nor behaves like one. He brings about the deaths of his father and his aunt, marries his sister, and achieves superhuman strength, invulnerability, and longevity at the price of his own humanity. By the time of God Emperor of Dune, more than three thousand years later, he has evolved into a five-ton monstrosity that is more sandworm than human.
Accompanying the changes in the nature of the protagonists are equally sweeping changes in the focus of the novels. Dune is crammed with action and melodrama. As the series progresses, however, action increasingly gives way to the articulation of political, philosophical, and psychological theories until, finally, God Emperor of Dune is more sermon than story. To find unity and coherence in such a sprawling epic is no easy matter, especially when some of the characters appear to undergo dramatic personality shifts from one novel to the next. Only by examining the psychological themes underlying the story can one perceive the recurrent patterns in the action and the links between seemingly unrelated characters.
One of the most important of the buried themes of the Dune series is the theme of Oedipal conflict. Paul Atreides, the hero of Dune, has a distant relationship with his father, Duke Leto, but a very close one with his young and beautiful mother, Jessica. Jessica is so lovely and desirable that she overshadows every other woman in the book, including Paul's eventual mate, Chani, but Paul never consciously admits that he would like to have his mother to himself and that he resents her devotion to his father. When he hears that his father is dead, he finds himself unable to mourn and even becomes angry with his mother when he sees her crying. However, both incest taboos and his own guilt at having unconsciously willed his father's death prevent Paul from enjoying the possession of his mother. His feelings of guilt are incarnated in constant threats to Jessica's life—from sandstorms, sandworms, sandslides, rapists, Fremen, and even from Gurney Halleck, Paul's life-long friend and mentor. Furthermore, Paul himself comes to fear his mother, transforming his own desire for her into her desire to swallow him up, to control his life completely. Ultimately, Paul settles for acting out his Oedipal fantasies in surrogate form by usurping the throne of Emperor Shaddam IV, who closely resembles Paul's father, and by marrying the emperor's heir, Princess Irulan, who is a beautiful Bene Gesserit witch like Paul's mother.
The cruelty of Paul's treatment of Princess Irulan is difficult to explain except in the context of his Oedipal attachment to his mother. His renunciation of any physical relationship with Irulan no doubt reflects a transference of the incest taboo from his mother to her, but he appears also to transfer to Irulan the resentment which he felt toward Jessica for loving his father and for abandoning Paul by becoming pregnant again. Paul withholds love from Irulan as a way of symbolically punishing Jessica for her coldness to him.
Paul is not the only character in Dune who suffers from Oedipal conflicts: the novel teems with children who try to kill their parents and vice versa. Baron Harkonnen, the chief enemy of the Atreides, is almost poisoned by his nephew and adopted heir, Feyd-Rautha. The baron is later successfully dispatched by his own granddaughter, Alia, just as he is preparing to kill her. Princess Irulan suspects her father, the emperor, of making attempts on the lives of herself, her sisters, and her mother; his children spy on him constantly as a means of self-protection. The emperor likewise is rumored to have plotted the poisoning of his own father. The putative object of all these struggles is power rather than sex, yet the view of life as a deadly battle for supremacy between the generations is merely a generalized version of Oedipal conflict.
If Dune enacts the triumph of Oedipal fulfillment, Dune Messiah examines the guilt that results from acting out such fantasies. Like Oedipus himself, Paul atones for his incestuous and patricidal impulses with blindness, exile, and death. In Dune, he was able to overcome his attraction to his mother by symbolically splitting her character in two, so that he could love her nurturant side, represented by Chani, while rejecting her powerful, threatening side, represented by Irulan. In Dune Messiah, however, Paul finds that he is sexually attracted to his sister Alia. He can escape the possibility of being maneuvered into incest by the Bene Gesserit only by destroying himself.
In Children of Dune, Herbert again examines the Oedipal conflicts associated with coming of age. Like Paul in Dune Messiah, Leto II is in danger of being manipulated by the Bene Gesserit into committing incest with his own sister, Ghanima. Paul escaped the temptation of incest through his love for his Fremen mate, Chani, but Leto rejects a similar relationship with another Fremen woman, Sabiha. Instead, he renounces sexuality entirely in exchange for the power, invulnerability, and near-immortality that he gains when he dons his suit of sandtrout. Leto subsequently leads his father to certain death and marries his sister, but he suffers no guilt for his actions because he reaps no rewards from them. His marriage to Ghanima is a marriage in name only.
Throughout the series, Herbert's portrayal of sexuality steadily darkens. In Dune, many of the villains are associated with self-indulgent, aberrant, or sadistic sexuality, while the sexuality of the heroes is characterized by restraint, tenderness, and affection. Underlying Herbert's distinction between good and bad sexuality, however, is the more sinister assumption that sexuality of any kind is a dangerous source of vulnerability. Duke Leto's enemies attack him through Jessica in Dune, just as Paul's enemies attack him through Chani in Dune Messiah and Leto II's enemies attack him through Hwi Noree in God Emperor of Dune. Conversely, chastity is seen as a source of strength. The greatest threat to Paul's life in Dune comes from Count Fenring, whose main advantage appears to be that he is a genetic eunuch. Likewise, in Children of Dune, Leto II acquires superhuman strength when he surrenders his sexuality.
Of course, sexuality can be a weapon as well as a source of weakness. It is part of the arsenal of the Bene Gesserit, although Jessica uses it sparingly. She refuses to use her sexual power to manipulate her duke, but she does not hesitate to use it to foil would-be rapists. The perversions of sexual power, however, are explored most thoroughly in the characters of Baron Harkonnen and Alia. The baron uses the sexuality of others to trap and enslave them. He forces Dr. Yueh to become a traitor by threatening to torture Yueh's wife, Wanna, and he controls his Mentat assassin, Piter de Vries, through Piter's desire to possess Jessica. Feyd-Rautha tries to use his uncle's own methods against him by planting a poisoned needle in the thigh of one of the baron's catamites; but his assassination attempt fails, and he is punished by being forced to slaughter his own harem. Because Baron Harkonnen uses sex as a means to power, it is fitting that he himself should unwittingly be used by the Bene Gesserit in their breeding schemes, the results of which lead to his own destruction.
It is Alia, the baron's granddaughter, who kills him, but in Children of Dune he has his revenge on her by turning her into a duplicate of himself. He takes over her personality and persuades her to betray her love for her husband, Duncan Idaho, by sleeping with other men—using sex to maintain political power. Like the baron, Alia soon loses all traces of humanity, even plotting to murder her mother, her brother, and her nephew Leto. The perversion of sexuality, Herbert suggests, is the first step toward the perversion of all human feeling.
Leto's renunciation of sexuality in Children of Dune is merely the logical outcome of the increasingly negative view of sexuality that Herbert presents. Paradoxically, Leto's intimate knowledge of sexuality appears partly responsible for his revulsion against it. Both he and Ghanima are exposed, from birth, to the sum of the experiences of all their ancestors. The supposedly traumatic experience of witnessing parental intercourse has become for them an unavoidable commonplace. Their precocious sexual knowledge disturbs and embarrasses everyone around them—a fact that they frequently use to their advantage—but it leaves them unmoved. When Leto, under the influence of a spice trance, experiences the sexual relationship with Sabiha that forms one of his possible futures, he regards it only as a dangerous temptation. He later reminds his cousin Farad'n that the latter's sexual relationship with Ghanima will always leave his back exposed. Leto himself retreats into a life of asexual immortality, avoiding the traumas of puberty by returning to the peaceful and seemingly omnipotent life of infancy. He forces the entire empire to join him in his return to the womb by imposing a universal peace that is to last for four thousand years. He wishes to turn all humans into creatures who rely on their instincts instead of their minds—in short, into babies.
In God Emperor of Dune, Leto's goals are realized. His Fish Speakers, an army composed entirely of women, patrol his empire, acting as symbolic mothers to a population reduced to infantile dependence and awed subjection. They are often mothers in the literal as well as in the figurative sense, both because they freely engage in sex without using contraceptives and because they "often submit to a form of rape at first only to convert this into a deep and binding mutual dependence. The children of the Fish Speakers are totally female-dominated. Like the Bene Gesserit, the Fish Speakers are powerful and dangerous women who control men with a combination of seduction and force. But unlike the Bene Gesserit, the Fish Speakers are themselves under the control of a man, Leto II.
Throughout the Dune series, fear of sexuality is accompanied by fear of women, yet the most frightening women are seen not in their roles as wives or lovers but as mothers. To children, of course, mothers often seem to be powerful and threatening. The witches in fairy tales, according to Jung, are one representation of the child's image of the Terrible Mother who wishes to swallow or destroy the child. Most of the major female antagonists of Paul and Leto II are witches or mothers or both. The actual mothers—Jessica, mother of Paul, and Wensicia, mother of Farad'n—cause trouble through their efforts to control or manipulate their sons. For the sons to achieve independence, their mothers must be removed, either by banishment, as in Wensicia's case, or by voluntary exile, as in Jessica's. Because Paul never fully acknowledges his mother's threat to himself, he never exorcises her power. She returns, in Children of Dune, to threaten her grandson Leto just as she threatened Paul.
The most sinister aspects of the Terrible Mother figure are associated with those characters who are mothers in name only. One such character is Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, a proctor of the Bene Gesserit order and Jessica's surrogate mother. She subjects Paul to a test of character that almost kills him. He is forced to put his hand into a dark box which causes so much pain that he thinks his hand has been burnt away entirely. The box, which the Reverend Mother removes from and returns to a fold of her gown, can be seen as a vagina dentata and the test itself as an image of castration anxiety. The Reverend Mother admits that she wanted Paul to fail the test; and throughout Dune Messiah she continues to plot his death, for which she is finally executed by Alia.
In Children of Dune, Alia herself takes on the role of the Terrible Mother. Although she has no children, Alia is called "the Womb of Heaven." She is both a Reverend Mother and the surrogate mother of Leto and Ghanima. However, like Reverend Mother Mohiam, her real purpose is not to protect the children but to destroy them. For this, Leto forces her to commit suicide. The only witch who is not a mother—either in name or in fact—is Irulan. Consequently, she has no real power. It is her desire to become a mother that leads her to plot against Paul; but because she fails and repents, she is allowed to live.
Those women in the Dune series who are neither witches nor mothers are generally powerless. Despite their vaunted fierceness, the Fremen women are mere possessions of men. They can be won in battle and collected in polygynous marriages. In general, they stay at home, cook, look after children, and do as they are told. Chani is a typical Fremen woman and, as such, her character is one of the weak spots of Dune and Dune Messiah. She is interesting not for anything she does but only for what she means to Paul. Because the powerful women in the series are so threatening, it is not surprising that Paul can be comfortable only with a nonentity. Chani's death in childbirth prevents her from attaining any of the frightening power that accompanies motherhood, but her attempt to take over Ghanima's personality in Children of Dune hints at what she might have become had she lived.
Hwi Noree, in God Emperor of Dune, represents for Leto II what Chani represented for Paul: a woman who is intelligent and loving but in no way threatening. However, like Chani, she is used as a weapon against the man she loves, and she dies as a result of a conspiracy directed against him. Hwi and Chani represent a dream of compatibility and mutuality, but it is a dream that is doomed from the start. Siona, Leto's self-chosen assassin, may at first appear to be an exception to the rule that a woman must be either a witch or a mother to be powerful. She is not a member of the Bene Gesserit nor is she a mother, yet throughout God Emperor of Dune, Leto tolerates her rebellion precisely because of her potential motherhood, in the hope that she will pass on to her offspring her genetic trait of invisibility in prescient visions.
Most of the major enemies of Paul and Leto that are not female are feminized in some way. Baron Harkonnen's masculinity is compromised both by his immense girth, which gives him a roundness usually considered feminine, and by his homosexuality. His nephew Feyd-Rautha is, however reluctantly, an object of the baron's sexual attentions, and the baron's Mentat assassin, Piter de Vries, is repeatedly described as effeminate. Scytale, the Tleilaxu Face Dancer who conspires against Paul in Dune Messiah, actually adopts female form to further his plot. What all four of these characters have in common with the Bene Gesserit is a commitment to deviousness and trickery. Throughout the series, Herbert associates directness, honesty, and integrity with masculinity and deceit and treachery with femininity. The Fremen (whose very name suggests that they are free men) and the Atreides males espouse the former mode of behavior, while the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Tleilaxu, and the Ixians adopt the latter. Each side chooses weapons appropriate to its methods. The masculine camp favors a phallic blade, whereas the feminine camp prefers poison, drugs, or mind control.
Jessica and Paul are pivotal figures in the battle of masculinity against femininity. Both have Bene Gesserit training, but both are on the side of the Atreides. Jessica thinks that she can use her deviousness to help the Atreides; however, Paul knows that to remain true to his heritage he must reject trickery. The final split between them occurs when Paul ignores Jessica's suggestion that he use poison or hypnosis against Feyd-Rautha. Feyd-Rautha himself has no such scruples, having made frequent use of each in his gladiatorial combats. Paul's rejection of these methods is meant to be a clear sign of his moral superiority to both his enemy and his mother.
In the later books of the series, the line between integrity and treachery is increasingly blurred. In Dune Messiah, Paul's very integrity is the tool that his enemies use against him. His sister Alia, like her mother, never adopts the masculine code of behavior. Thus, in Children of Dune, she and Jessica both become pawns of the feminine forces that seek to destroy the Atreides. Increasingly, as the series progresses, the avatars of masculine honesty—Stilgar, Duncan Idaho, Farad'n, Moneo—are duped, manipulated, or destroyed by the very Atreides that they serve. Leto II boasts of his own treachery, although his betrayal of laws and of individuals is necessitated by his efforts to preserve all of humanity. Siona's betrayal of Leto is likewise motivated by humanitarian impulses. As pragmatism replaces idealism in the political philosophy that Herbert embodies in his rulers, the masculine code of honor becomes increasingly anachronistic.
Nevertheless, a preference for the masculine over the feminine plays a key role in Herbert's depiction of the world of the Dune series. On Arrakis, destructive things are seen as feminine, and beneficial things are seen as masculine. The sandworms, for instance, appear to be utterly sexless but are always referred to in masculine terms, as "Old Man of the Desert" or "Old Father Eternity." They are essentially phallic in shape and riding one is the Fremen test of manhood. Although they can be dangerous to the unwary, they benefit the Fremen by providing transportation and the all-important longevity spice, melange. On the other hand, the deadly sandstorms on Arrakis are seen as feminine. They range in intensity from a "mother storm," which can kill an unprotected human, to a "great-great-great-grandmother storm," such as the one that accompanies Paul's attack on the emperor at the end of Dune. The Fremen worship a masculine god—Shai-Hulud, the deified sandworm—but they believe in a female death-spirit called Coan-Teen. Herbert's one inconsistency in assigning sexes to objects is that he has Stilgar speak of "the father sun" in Dune. As Herbert undoubtedly realized later, on Arrakis the sun is man's enemy. In Children of Dune, he corrects his mistake by having Duncan Idaho refer to the "Woman-Sun."
The planet of Arrakis itself fits the image of the Terrible Mother, not only in that it denies its "children" the moisture that they need to survive, but also in that it actively tries to destroy them. Paul's conflicts with the planet mirror his conflicts with his own mother. The first stage is defensive: he must avoid his mother's efforts to control him and the planet's attempts to swallow him by means of sandstorms, sandworms, and sandslides. The second stage is aggressive, involving a symbolic rape, first of his mother, then of the planet. The former occurs when he drinks the Water of Life and forces his mother to accompany him to the masculine "place within," where she is terrified by her strangely sexual vision of "a region where a wind blew and sparks glared, where rings of light expanded and contracted, where rows of tumescent white shapes flowed over and under and around the lights, driven by darkness and a wind out of nowhere." The latter occurs when Paul blasts a hole in the Shield Wall and rides sandworms through it. The final stage is expiatory. In Dune Messiah, Paul atones for his aggressive and incestuous impulses by submitting to blinding, a symbolic form of castration. He then wanders into the desert seeking to be swallowed by a sandstorm or a sandworm, thus completing the Oedipal cycle of self-assertion, guilt, and self-destruction.
As the Oedipus myth helps to shape Paul's story, so the myth of the Dying God, in two of its best-known versions, gives form to Leto's. In God Emperor of Dune, Leto takes on the role of a god who chooses to die a painful death in order to save his people. That Herbert is thus alluding to Jesus is made explicit by such details as the appearance of communion wafers at Leto's ritual of Siaynoq and by the identification of Nayla with Judas. A less obvious but no less important allusion, however, is to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Like Dionysus, Leto II is the offspring of a "divine" father and a mortal mother who dies at his birth. Leto becomes a god, like his father, and surrounds himself with a band of fanatical female followers who, like the maenads of Dionysus, are ready to kill their own children or rip enemies apart with their bare hands at a word from their god. Finally, like Dionysus, Leto is himself torn apart by his enemies.
Herbert identifies Leto II with Dionysus because to the Greeks Dionysus represented the awesome powers of the irrational which, if suppressed, would invariably break out in violence and madness. One of the themes of the Dune series is the need to accommodate the irrational within everyday life, applying the same laws of balance to the human mind as to politics or ecology. Just as humans cannot tame the deserts of Arrakis without losing the source of melange, or control an empire without creating opposition, so they cannot suppress the irrational—as Alia tries to do—without sinking into madness and murder. Leto and Ghanima cannot overcome their clamorous inner lives, but they can learn to accept them and live with them. Ideally, fantasy helps its readers to do the same.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2442
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 of history may also force, or at least tempt, one into extrapolating backward as well as forward. In the single novel Dune, which is the cornerstone of that series, Herbert creates both an interplanetary empire and planetary societies which, no matter how bizarrely changed at times, derive from past or present cultures which we know in our own world. The breadth of Herbert's knowledge of both Western and non-Western societies enables him to combine them in his societies to create a freshness which fascinates the reader, like some dream in which our common world has undergone Prospero's sea changes.
It is the women of Dune who suffer most from this past-as-future effect, but not them alone. The Padishah Empire in Dune seems almost medieval in its reliance on political intrigue, marriages of state, and force majeur as its instruments of power, although the existence of male-led Houses Major and Minor, and the rather ineffectual Landsraad, might be seen as the beginnings of a pre-Magna Carta parliament. The Sardaukar, or male soldier-fanatics of the emperor, have the flavor of samaurai or jannisaries. They show the kind of reflex loyalty drummed into Japanese school children before World War II, who, according to the Japanese novelist Keno Oé, when asked, "What would you do if the Emperor asked for your life?" were trained to respond, "I would rip open my belly and die."
The glue which holds the Padishah Empire together on an interplanetary level is the Space Guild, once again a male preserve, and one of the few forces which must be wooed rather than pressured into functioning for the whole. However, the guild's dependence on melange makes its members cooperative in matters concerning Arrakis or Dune. Melange is needed for guild navigators to "see" in an unspecified way, through time nexuses which enable faster-than-light flight, without which this human-settled galactic empire could not function or cohere. The spice-addicted navigators also gain a limited prescience through the melange.
One of the few provinces left in Herbert's world in which women can operate is religion. In the Western world, women have always exerted official or unofficial power in the area of religion. Women have been involved in the making or breaking of many male preachers; they have themselves become religious leaders gathering large followings, as in the case of Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers, Aimee Semple McPherson, or Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky; and in some cases they have wielded power more indirectly. (For example, the nun, Sister Pascalina, called "La Popessa," was a power behind Pope Pius XII.) Thus, in the light of Western history, religion is the most natural and traditional method for women in a world like that of Dune to gain and wield power. Herbert's Bene Gesserit, without Blavatsky's "Ancient Masters of Tibet," developed the techniques of modern psychology into trance states which allow them limited future visions, command by voice control alone, and enough other arcane powers to have acquired the general title of witch, among even the agnostic ruling classes for whom religion is simply a means to pacify the peasantry. Herbert himself describes the Bene Gesserit as a group "who privately denied they were a religious order, but who operated behind an almost impenetrable screen of ritual mysticism, and whose training, whose symbolism, organization and internal teaching methods were almost wholly religious…." With this information from the author, one wonders how many of the women trained in this manner could any longer distinguish religion from political action and from their centuries-long plan of human eugenics.
An irony, although perhaps a necessary one, in the Bene Gesserit's secret breeding plan is that they are aiming at a male as the end product. This male, the Kwisatz Haderach, would have the potential of vision forward and backward in time, and a way of sensing crucial departure or splitting-off points in humanity's path, thus enabling him possibly to control the path of social and political evolution for the entire human race, not in the manner of, but with at least the effectiveness of, Asimov's psychohistorians in the Foundation series. This would be a prescience greater than that achieved by either Space Guild navigators or the Bene Gesserit themselves. The Bene Gesserit sisterhood seems confident that, through their unseen conditioning, they can control and direct such a seer. This hope, for a male with the powers they expect, seems, in fact, a rather foolishly optimistic wish and, in a way, an unconscious admission, especially considering Paul's career, that they have not really grasped what powers this male Bene Gesserit would have.
It is, in Herbert's male-dominated society, a condition of the Bene Gesserit's survival and acquisition of power that their order remain closed to the scrutiny of male authority and operate behind the scenes as advisors, information gatherers, and preparers of the way for Kwisatz Haderach. They are seen publicly only in their religious guise, as supporters of the male status quo who help to keep the masses more easily controllable. As with any powerful religious group, however, it is straining one's imagination to believe that the civil authorities do not continuously attempt to track the machinations of the order.
In line with their eugenics plan and the society in which they operate, the Bene Gesserit carefully condition young women, such as Lady Jessica, as vehicles in their secret breeding plan. These women are then sold as concubines, but only to those men or houses whose own bloodlines match the secret breeding plan. The women, always physically attractive, are sought after avidly, because they have been conditioned as perfect concubines and companions, seeming to bend to their lord's every wish, but conditioned secretly to obey the Bene Gesserit without question. Despite the larger plans of the order, this method of operation amounts to an acquiescence in the dominant male value system to the point of approving a kind of female servitude similar to that of topflight geishas or courtesans.
To sum up, the Bene Gesserit accept the traditional role of women as property despite their grand breeding plan, and accept the relegation of women's power to the traditional hidden kind of influence in which they must remain as shadowy (though specially trained) counselors at best. Even the eugenics plan, which might seem to give them a large say in the human future, is traditional, in that it uses and accepts the traditional role of women primarily as breeders, and aims not at the development of a superior female as its end, but at the development of a superior male. Who's fooling whom?
Lady Jessica, who comes to Duke Leto from the Bene Gesserit school on Wallach, is sold by the order as a concubine, as a part of the Bene Gesserit's secret breeding plan. She is also the most powerfully drawn of any of the female characters in this cornerstone book. Although raised in and conditioned to obedience first to the order, Jessica soon turns rebel. Acting as an even more traditional woman than the Bene Gesserit had anticipated, Jessica breaks their conditioning by falling in love with Duke Leto. She rejects his offer of marriage in order to allow him to remain free for state marriages if necessary, confident in her own natural and Bene Gesserit abilities to insure her a consant place in his life. A more important defiance is her bearing the son Leto desires when the breeding plan calls for her to bear a daughter, the choice in this future being hers through Bene Gesserit techniques. Jessica, a natural daughter of Baron Harkonnen, carries genes whose importance have been known for two thousand years, and Leto's bloodline has been watched for over a thousand years. Jessica was to produce a daughter who would marry Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, a nephew of the baron, with a high probability that that union would produce the Kwisatz Haderach.
When Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam comes to test Paul's "humanness," as is apparently done in all Bene Gesserit breedings, her anger at Jessica's disobedience makes her conceal in her report the fact that Paul survives more pain under the threat of the gom jabbar (a needle tipped with metacyanide) than has any other human, a fact which should have alerted her to his potential as a possible Kwisatz Haderach. What seems less explicable, given that Jessica has already disobeyed the breeding instructions, is Jessica's willingness to risk Paul's life in this test. Perhaps the answer must be sought in her Bene Gesserit conditioning, which may be more cracked than broken.
A second defiance of the orders' rules is Jessica's training of Paul in the various mental techniques of the order, such as command voice. These techniques are secret to the order and have never before been taught to a male. This training, along with mentat (or human computer) training, and the ordinary arms training of the aristocrat help Paul to survive long enough to tap his deeper powers.
After Duke Leto's betrayal and death on Arrakis, Lady Jessica flees into the desert with Paul, aided by the traitor Suk doctor (another case where conditioning is broken by love) and planetary ecologist Liet Kynes. Jessica is the leader until after the first night, when Paul comes to a kind of rebirth from the still tent. Thereafter, the formidable Jessica follows, literally, in his foot-steps. When Jessica tastes the Water of Life (and of death) in the sietch, she returns to another traditional role, that of reverend mother in the Fremen religion, following a prophecy planted, as on many worlds, by the Missionaria Protectiva of her own Bene Gesserit order. Jessica accepts this role and invites the dangers of the sandworm-derived water, not primarily for her own benefit, but in order to consolidate Paul's position among the Fremen and in the protection of the order's religious legends. This very traditional move by a mother to protect the son she now follows as her duke becomes even more interesting when we realize that she does it knowing she endangers not only herself, but also her unborn girl child. To the extent that she endangers Alia in order to promote Paul's well-being, Jessica is acting out the values of the male-dominated society in which she lives. That Alia profits in some ways from this risk does not change the motivation.
Alia, after exposure to the Water of Life, can communicate with her brother Paul even from the womb. Instead of being honored, as Paul is when the same water brings him to full consciousness of his powers, she is feared among the Fremen, having stature basically through Paul and Jessica, now a Fremen reverend mother. The reaction of the Bene Gesserit to Alia's birth and powers is to name her a "monster" whom they reject and would prefer to have killed. This is the classic attitude which one too often sees in the real world, where women of intelligence and talent often find themselves attacked more viciously by members of their own sex than by men. In this first book, Alia supports Paul and is accepted rather fearfully by the Fremen because of him. In the case of both the Fremen and the Bene Gesserit, what is outside their experience is feared and at times hated. The relatively primitive Fremen seem less to blame for this than the highly educated, master-planning Bene Gesserit.
That Fremen society is male-dominated is demonstrated early and powerfully. When Paul kills Jamis, he finds that Jamis' wife and children are his by conquest, although she is relieved when he gives up his claim. Women may fight alongside men at times in Fremen culture, but there is no question of equality, except, perhaps, for Jessica in the traditionally female role of reverend mother. Chani, Paul's Fremen concubine, is a woman of great gentleness and fierce passions when the well-being of her man is at stake. She strikes the reader as the kind of frontier woman who loaded guns during an Indian attack, and when her men were dead or wounded put a gun in each window and continued fighting. But Herbert gives the reader little enough to back up this characterization except Paul's attitudes, for she is bound by the Fremen codes to be in the shadow of her man, and Usul, the desert mouse (the Fremen's name for Paul), casts a long shadow. Paul's greatest tribute to Chani is his attitude toward Princess Irulan.
As a part of his peace and consolidation-of-power agreement after his Fedaykin, or death commands, tear apart the proud Sardaukar with the help of sandworms and the family atomics, Paul agrees to marry Princess Irulan, vowing that theirs will be a "white marriage." Princess Irulan, a Bene Gesserit adept, accepts this without protest. Staying near the seat of power, linked however tenuously with the man whose Fedaykin will sweep the galaxy no matter how he tries to avoid it, is enough for her in this first book. The princess becomes, in fact, a major historian of and apologist for Paul's actions, while Chani remains the center of his emotional life. (Give a woman a hobby and keep her out of trouble. Perhaps.)
In summary, all the important women of Dune act within the traditional areas of female activity. Whether in the empire, on Caladan, or on Arrakis, they must operate within male-dominated societies. They express themselves as wives, mothers, sisters, and literary women, but always define themselves by male standards. If the Fremen women sometimes fight beside their men, they are also property which can be lost in a duel; if the Bene Gesserit control an ambitious, centuries-old eugenics program, they see their end result in a male form; if Jessica defies her order, she does it for her man, and if she is strong enough to lead the escape from disaster, she then turns to follow in her teenaged son's footsteps. Thus, in the novel Dune, the single best book of the series, one finds a male-dominated society where even the most ambitious females' responses are traditional in means and in effect.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1823
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 because of their impact on the genre but also because of their enormous scope of vision and the consistency with which these visions are embodied in the narratives. It is this epic scope that is in large part responsible for the influence of these works. As with J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring Trilogy in fantasy fiction, the Foundation and Dune series are the works against which other treatments of large themes in science fiction are and will be judged. The decay and renaissance of empire on a galactic scale, secret societies that attempt to influence the course of history, and the related element of predicting the future are among the epic themes these series share. The opposition of free will and determinism, the interrelations of knowledge and action, and the confluence of powerful forces at particular points over the course of history are other motifs common to both sets of novels.
Similarities between Asimov's and Herbert's epics extend as well to the use of specific devices. For example, each uses the conceit of quotations from "authoritative" texts to introduce chapters. Asimov's use of this device partially reduces the load of descriptive baggage to be carried by the body of the narrative. Excerpting a paragraph on Terminus from the Encyclopedia Galactica, for example, enables Asimov to jump from Trantor to Terminus without explanatory digressions. Curiously, Herbert does not always utilize this device for the same purpose. His excerpts are generally related to the narrative, but much exposition is provided in conversation. For example, an excerpt from Stilgar's preface to "Muad'Dib, the Man" by Princess Irulan tells in general terms of Paul learning the desert ways of Arrakis, and the Fremen woman Harah gives Paul a detailed description of the technology of dew collectors in the narrative that follows.
These different uses of the same device indicate variances in the authors' implicit views of history. In both cases, actions taking place in the far-distant future, relative to our own time, are presented as completed historical events seen from the perspective of a still more distant future. However, while there is little irony or ambiguity in the references from Asimov's Encyclopedia Galactica, Herbert's numerous "sources" are often only obliquely related to the narrative and at times seem to contradict it. A selection from "A Child's History of Muad'Dib" informs the reader that "A million deaths were not enough for Yueh!" Yet the narrative demonstrates that the traitor, Dr. Yueh, is a far more complex and much less treacherous character than the villain that subsequent history will portray. Asimov's recorded history, insofar as it is presented, is definitive. Herbert's is uncertain because of a greater interest in convincingly indicating the complexity and multivalence of being.
Neither author's works involve either apocalypse or total destruction of humanity, as does Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men or Doris Lessing's Shikasta, for example. Rather, both works envision humanity's future as a more technologically developed, far more cosmographically extensive version of the present or past. The fundamental assumption seems to be that political maneuvering, the need to control material resources, and friendship or mating bonds will be fundamentally the same in the future as they are now.
Asimov describes a situation similar to the decline and fall of the Roman empire and the advent of the Middle Ages. Parallels between contemporary Western civilization and Imperial Rome are raised, and Asimov capitalizes on the subliminal appeal of this comparison. Hari Seldon, the pioneer of psychohistory and founder of the First and Second Foundations, is St. Benedict and Cassiodorus combined. He sets up the social institutions that preserve the knowledge and organizational structure essential to constructing a new galactic civilization, just as the monasteries and ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic church preserved learning and an international communications network in the West after the fall of Rome. Asimov's recent interest, in Foundation's Edge, in the Sack of Trantor and the subsequent lifestyles on that capital planet of the old Galactic Empire is parallel to the interest of contemporary historians in the Early Middle Ages. The Foundation series appeals to contemporary readers because it bridges the interregnum between the fall of one empire and the rise of another. It presents a vision of coping through a period of chaos with the assurance that a new civilized order will eventually arise.
The Dune vision is less like Gibbon's view of the fall of Rome and more like that of St. Augustine, who viewed Imperial Rome as an evil that deserved to be humbled. The Dune series concentrates not on the fall, but on the rise of a new consciousness and a new leader who is to destroy the old order and cleanse the galaxy of corruption. This mystical upheaval is less subject to analysis and control than are the events in Asimov's future history. The central characters, such as Paul Muad'Dib, are gifted with prescience, but even they find, as Yota says, that "the future is always changing." Asimov's Mule is an amazing exception, not the rule, in Seldon's science of psychohistory, and the Second Foundation is established in anticipation of such an exception. The First Foundation presides over the illusion that the future is predetermined; the Second Foundation is meant to deal with the reality that it is not. Herbert raises the spectre of an inspired religious uprising or of the type of zeitgeist that characterized Nazi Germany, not that of the glacial doom of governmental entropy.
The functions served by the First and Second Foundations in the Asimov series—guiding the evolution of galactic civilization towards predetermined political and social ends—are served in Herbert's galaxy by the Bene Gesserit order, the Spacing Guild, and more opaque organizations such as the Bene Tleilax and whoever trains the Mentats. Of these, the Bene Gesserit order most closely resembles the Foundations, particularly in the extensive nature of their plan. Their genetic breeding program—an attempt to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, the male Bene Gesserit who will possess the characteristics of a messiah—extends over centuries. Both Second Foundationers and Bene Gesserit sisters exhibit extraordinary mental control, extreme perceptiveness to body language and psychic vibrations that is comparable to telepathy, and a complementary ability to influence the thoughts and actions of others. These enhanced abilities may not be fundamentally different from those humans have today. The advances leading to Asimov's "mentalics" seem to be quantitative, rather than qualitative, and are consonant with technological advances assumed by both authors. Herbert's use of such terms as "prana-bindu" implies disciplines of self-control developed by Eastern mystics long before the twentieth century.
Astrology provides a useful model for distinguishing between the natures of the psychic abilities developed through technical progress in the two series. Saturn symbolizes the restrictions of Earth-boundness and egocentricity. It indicates humanity's present position spatially and psychotechnically. The trans-Saturnian planets—Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto—indicate differing evolutions of collective, trans-personal energies. The energies and directions indicated in the Foundation series are Uranian, those indicated in the Dune series are Neptunian. Uranus symbolizes intellectual brilliance, logic so lightning-swift it appears to be intuition, though in fact it is not. Asimov's Foundations are reservoirs of intellectual genius. Their members' powers duplicate those of the psychic only to the extent that psychic powers are attainable through a supreme refinement of reason. There is no hint of true mysticism in this galaxy. Of course, in Foundations's Edge Trevize and Pelorat discover Gaia, a planet on which a collective consciousness embraces all people, animals, plants, and even minerals in a unity of awareness. However, Asimov is not able to depict this evolution of consciousness convincingly. Planet-wide telepathy is mentioned but is not an experience shown to the reader. While Asimov points to Neptunian consciousness, he does not provide any actual taste of it.
Dune, however, explores the mystical communion with the collective, with the planet Arrakis, with Paul Muad'Dib's entire ancestry. The Neptunian immersion of the individual consciousness in a greater sea of knowing, through use of decidedly Neptunian psychotropic substances, sets Herbert's visionaries apart from Asimov's analytical geniuses, just as Paul Muad'Dib is set apart from Thufir Hawat and other Mentats. In fact, the central psychotropic substance, mélange (a word meaning "mixture"), reveals a mode of knowing complementary to but opposite from that critical mental faculty refined by Foundationers. In Children of Dune, one of Paul's twin children becomes a Great Worm, or Shai-hulud, in a mystical participation with the planet that has affinities with the shamanic ecstasies of primitive hunting cultures.
Narratives that take place in the future can be prophetic in intent (that is, they can actually try to predict the future), can use futuristic technologies to provide an otherwise contemporary plot with exotic props, or can treat the "future" as a metaphor for the present by combining the two former alternatives to demonstrate the probable future that a continuation of current trends would create. Both Asimov's and Herbert's futures are of this last variety. Both optimistically project humanity far into the future and far out into the Galaxy, but with the reservation that humanity's weaknesses—greed, egomania, shortsightedness—will also continue and will gain the potential to play havoc on a grander scale. Both authors envision the emergence of small, elite groups that will develop superior methods of counteracting the potential evil that technological advances will allow human weakness to propagate, groups that will assume the responsibility of guiding humanity towards its best ultimate goal, whatever that may be.
Asimov seems to indicate that this highest goal is in accord with the goals of the Illuminati or the Philosophes of the eighteenth century, who wished to see the actions of humanity synchronized with the indices of an as yet imperfectly understood but benevolent reason. Herbert, writing in the mass movement dominated sixties and the self-awareness oriented seventies, seems to indicate that this goal is to combine human consciousness with the primal, Earth-related unconscious represented by the Great Worm. Perhaps these two authors are, like Tolkien, interested primarily in "a cracking good story." However, they have also provided long-range, optimistic visions quite in accord with the Age of Aquarius. Though their elites themselves are hardly free from human frailties, these visions of the future permit their transcendance. Advanced technology, whether physical or psychical, is neither villain nor hero. As ever, it is merely a vehicle for the extension of currently constituted humanity into broader ranges of activity.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8288
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, and the story of Lawrence of Arabia, who made himself one with the Arabs. It grew, Herbert has said, out of the image of a planet covered by desert sand, and from his wish to write an analysis of humanity's need for a messiah or superhero. Its origins were thus both imaginative and intellectual, and in the bonding of the two lies much of its strength. It has been argued that Dune was also written as a reply to Asimov's Foundation trilogy, out of Herbert's dislike for impositions of science on history: thus Herbert replaces Seldon's mathematics with Paul Muad'Dib's wild unconscious, and order and civilization are put together with anarchy and primitive nature. Certainly it can be said that Dune might not have been written had the example of Asimov's epic not been there.
The desert planet Arrakis or Dune has beneath its surface great deposits of the spice melange, which is mined for export to other planets of an empire. The natives of the planet (though in fact they were originally exiles from another) are the Fremen, an Arab-like people in appearance and customs, whose primary concern is the conservation of water and whose strengths lie in their patience, in their fanatical loyalty and in their powers of concealment. The last is particularly important, for unknown to the rulers of the planet and the empire at large, the Fremen are busy covering parts of the desert with self-sustaining plants that will eventually make an atmosphere suitable for vegetation. The Fremen are also, however, waiting for a messiah to lead them from the wilderness on a jihad, or holy war.
To Arrakis from the tropical world of Caladan comes the newly-appointed overlord Duke Leto, with his son Paul. Leto plans a more humane treatment of the disadvantaged people of the planet than was the case under his predecessor, the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. But the machinations of Harkonnen, helped by disguised troops of the Emperor, bring about the death of Leto, the flight of Paul and his mother Jessica, and the re-establishment of Harkonnen rule. Paul and Jessica, the circumstances of whose escape have convinced the Baron that they are dead, travel across the dangerous desert and meet with the Fremen; after a number of trials the Fremen accept them. Paul himself has considerable mental powers, including the power of foresight, and indeed he gradually becomes to the Fremen more evidently the Kwisatz Haderach, the promised messiah. Under his guidance the Fremen carry out guerilla activities all over the planet which finally leave them in virtual control apart from the central city of Arrakeen. Their control over the spice of the planet leads the Emperor to intervene personally, but he and the Harkonnens are over-thrown in a surprise attack by the Fremen, and the Baron is killed. It turns out that much depends on the nature of the spice, which, apart from being a trance-inducing drug, is indispensable to the men of the Guild who steer the space-ships about the Imperium: with it, they can find direction from an inner mental knowledge of the spatial configurations about them; without it, they are blind, and there can be no more interstellar travel. Because the very existence of his empire depends on the ability to travel through it, the Emperor is subservient to the Guildsmen. Through exercise of his power Paul ensures the confinement of the Emperor to his former prison planet, and new dominance for the Fremen. By the end of the book the Fremen are poised on the edge of an interstellar war of conquest that Paul does not want but which he knows he cannot stop.
The world of the planet Dune, so far as landscape goes, is much simpler than that of the earth in Aldiss's Hothouse. There are no plants, save those that the Fremen grow artificially; there are few animals, save the usually concealed giant sandworms that guard the spice, and the desert mouse after which Paul is named, 'Muad'Dib'. The whole planet is covered with sand and rock. The land in Aldiss's book is covered by a single banyan tree over one hemisphere: but within that vegetable environment we are introduced to a host of creatures; and we are taken to the sea, where the plants and animals are again different, and beyond the terminator, where they live an entirely different mode of life. Dune, it would appear, deals with a barren planet; Hothouse with one distinct in its endless fertility and metamorphoses. There is little sense that being is plastic on Dune, small reference to a long history of evolution. Here we are dealing rather with man in a landscape than with man as one animal among others. Here too man has to be protected from his environment, in still-suits that retain every drop of the body's moisture; in Hothouse man goes naked, long since adapted to the destructive solar radiation that now blasts the earth, fighting his environment with only his wits. Dune seems a bleaker, simpler, much more arid world. Yet its aridity is in part only of the surface. Beneath the sand lie the rich deposits of the spice on which the whole fabric of the empire depends. The duality of aridity and richness here is almost metaphoric.
And the motif of concealment is central to Dune and its manner. It is there in the Fremen, whose nature and plans remain till too late hidden from the Imperium. It is there in the concealed evidence of Paul Muad'Dib and his mother. It is there in the way in which much of the behaviour in the book is political or polite, one line of behaviour concealing another purpose, manners putting a gloss on hatreds, accusations, threats, love, loyalty, forgiveness. It is there in Paul's hidden powers and nature, which only gradually become revealed to himself as the book proceeds. And it is there in the concealed motives of the Emperor and in the unknown value of the spice to the Guildsmen: throughout the book until the end we do not know the natures of some of the central figures. There are concealments in Hothouse: the oystermaw that makes itself seem part of the bark of a tree, the killerwillow beneath the sand, the 'greenguts' or vegetable stomach that appears to be a little copse; but these are local, not involving the whole narrative, and they are local in time too, in that the concealment lasts simply until the next meal. In Dune, concealment is of the essence, and is bound up with waiting over long periods of time.
Indeed Dune is much more concerned with the future than Hothouse. Hothouse considers the present only, the immediate action of survival against hostile plants or beasts. Where it looks along time it looks to the past, in describing how the various biological freaks described in the book have evolved from their original, and in giving the past history of mankind. Its narrative does not directly look to the future: Gren is simply wandering without an aim, and we have no way of predicting or anticipating what event may happen for him next. At the end there is some account of the future development of the earth, but even this is left in doubt with the uncertainty over when it will happen and the dominant impression behind us of so implacable a force of life as to make its destruction seem theoretic. In Dune on the other hand the future is always before us: the future of the Fremen, of Paul Muad'Dib the Messiah; and people are waiting till the time is right for them—the Baron to destroy Duke Leto, Paul till he gains his powers, the Fremen till they gain their messiah. At all times we are made aware that Paul has hidden power, and are looking forward to see what will come of him and it.
There is much greater passivity in Hothouse, where events are taken as they come. People are able to fight against the predators, true: but they do not try to alter their environment to their advantage—for example, by burning large areas of the banyan, as Gren plans to burn a way through the hostile trees of Nomansland using a piece of mica or glass they simply adapt to existing conditions. Nor do they come together into any larger social units than about twenty individuals, which means that they are without the manpower and diversity of skills which would permit full social organization. Things are different in Dune, where the central activity is the harnessing of a planet for human ends, and the primary emphasis is on social relations, and, in the case of the Fremen, the construction of a larger social fabric from individual 'sietches' or tribes which in themselves are many times larger than the groups in Hothouse. In Dune the Fremen have long learned how to harness the gigantic devouring sandworms to their own purposes: they are able to ride them, and use them as a means of transport over the desert; the picture of a sandworm used till it is exhausted is a striking one of nature's subservience to man in this book. This is not to say that nature is not powerful and to be respected, in the form of the desert: but like the sandworms, it can be tamed and utilised. In Dune man struggles with the environment not merely to live but to get more from it. Of course to some extent this point emerges from the fact that the environment in Aldiss's book is much more specifically antagonistic to all other forms of life: everything is crowded together, thanks to the burst of life produced by the sun, and therefore everything is ravenously ready to eat everything else. The sandworms of Dune with their readiness to devour even a mobile spice-gathering factory, are the only equivalent, and their primary 'motivation' is protection of the spice.
Many of these differences spring from the fact that where Hothouse could be said to concern itself with body, the medium of Dune is mind. The whole of the novel, typically of Herbert's fiction, is bent on finding things out. The same motive operates in Asimov's Foundation series, but in Herbert the concern is more with finding out what one is than with where something is—with what is one's true being rather than with becoming. Paul has to find out if he is a Kwisatz Haderach, and this he does only through the development of his mind throughout the book. He and his nature have been trained in the 'Bene Gesserit' school of teaching, which is directed to the control of one's own emotions, to perceiving the hidden motives of others, and to controlling others through voice intonation. The powers of a Kwisatz Haderach are mental powers—primarily the ability to see the course of events in the future. The Fremen are concerned to find out if Paul is their messiah. The Baron Harkonnen, early on, is bent of finding Paul's location; the Baron is also preoccupied with the Emperor's motives and objectives. A Mentat, or brilliant practical mind, helps Leto and the Baron with their plans. There are other motives governing the action; but these recur. In Hothouse the primary concern is physical, ensuring one's physical survival, or experiencing one's physical destruction. A particular vividness accompanies those passages describing the impact of one body on another: it is as though things cannot exist on their own, but only as they collide with others; there is, as we have said, a relationship in antagonism. But what might be physical in Dune has often become an extension of the mental. This, for instance, is a section of a conversation between the Baron and the imperial envoy Count Fenring, who has arrived on the Harkonnen home planet: Fenring has been demanding that the Baron destroy Thufir Hawat, his Mentat, who used to be Mentat to Duke Leto—
'But he's useful!'
'And he knows too many things no living man should know.'
'You said the Emperor doesn't fear exposure.'
'Don't play games with me, Baron!'
'When I see such an order above the Imperial seal I'll obey it,' the Baron said. 'But I'll not submit to your whim.'
'You think it whim?'
'What else can it be? The Emperor has obligations to me, too, Fenring. I rid him of the troublesome Duke.'
'With the help of a few Sardaukar' [élite imperial soldiers]
'Where else would the Emperor have found a House to provide the disguising uniforms to hide his hand in this matter?'
'He has asked himself the same question, Baron, but with a slightly different emphasis.'
The Baron studied Fenring, noting the stiffness of jaw muscles, the careful control. 'Ah-h-h, now,' the Baron said. 'I hope the Emperor doesn't believe he can move against me in total secrecy.'
'He hopes it won't become necessary.'
When we come to the sword-fight between the Baron's son Feyd-Rautha and Paul Muad'Dib the weapons are only a concretion of what has been going on in much of the book, a series of intellectual duels. During Paul's fight with Feyd-Rautha the latter wounds him with a drugged sword which Paul is able to control using his mind to realign the metabolism of his own body. Then
Again Feyd-Rautha leaped, stabbing.
Paul, the smile frozen on his face, feinted with slowness as though inhibited by the drug and at the last instant dodged to meet the downflashing arm on the crysknife's point.
Feyd-Rautha ducked sideways and was out and away, his blade shifted to his left hand, and the measure of him that only a slight paleness of jaw betrayed the acid pain where Paul had cut him.
Let him know his own moment of doubt. Paul thought. Let him suspect poison.
'Treachery!' Feyd-Rautha shouted. 'He's poisoned me! I do feel poison in my arm!'
Paul dropped his cloak of silence, said: 'Only a little acid to counter the soporific on the Emperor's blade.'
Feyd-Rautha matched Paul's cold smile, lifted blade in left hand for a mock salute. His eyes glared rage behind the knife.
Paul shifted his crysknife to his left hand, matching his opponent. Again, they circled, probing.
Feyd-Rautha began closing the space between them, edging in, knife held high, anger showing itself in squint of eye and set of jaw. He feinted right and under, and they were pressed against each other, knife hands gripped, straining.
Paul, cautious of Feyd-Rautha's right hip where he suspected a poison flip-dart, forced the turn to the right. He almost failed to see the needle point flick out beneath the belt line. A shift and a giving in Feyd-Rautha's motion warned him. The tiny point missed Paul's flesh by the barest fraction.
On the left hip!
Treachery within treachery within treachery, Paul reminded himself.
The conversation between the Baron and Count Fenring is like sword-play, a continual probing. (Much of the book involves the search for weaknesses or strengths, from the veiled hostility of Paul's father's dinner-guests at his first arrival on Arrakis to the continual inquiry into Paul's nature, both by the Fremen and by himself.) First the Baron seems dominant and elusive, calling out the apparent outburst from Fenring of '"Don't play games with me, Baron!",' and refusing to submit; but then Fenring shifts the command away from himself ('"You think it whim!"') to the Emperor, so that he flights now with a greater shield ('force-shields' are used in physical contexts), and can speak with much more penetrating indirectness. '"He has asked himself the same question … but with a slightly different emphasis"'; '"He hopes it won't become necessary."'
The fight between Paul and Feyd-Rautha is much more a contest of intellects than of physical powers, in which 'the cutting edge is the mind.' Paul pretends to be slow, then shifts to sudden speed, catching his opponent off-balance; but his conviction that Feyd-Rautha has the poison dart on his right hip almost undoes him. The very existence of a poison dart and trickery emphasises that the contest with sword and knife is itself only part of what is going on. The same is true of Feyd-Rautha's earlier fight with the gladiator. The account is scattered with italicised thoughts of Feyd-Rautha as he tries to assess whether or not the gladiator has been programmed by the possible treachery of the Baron's Mentat to slay him: usually the gladiators Feyd fights are slightly drugged, but this one has been left undrugged to make the contest seem more spectacular. The fight turns finally not on physical ability but on a word. Feyd-Rautha, in fact, is in danger of being killed by his opponent and has to resort to 'a key word [that] had been drummed into the man's unconscious to immobilize his muscles at a critical instant; that word, appropriately enough, is '"Scum!",' and its utterance gives Feyd a moment to scratch the man with his poisoned sword. In his own fight with Feyd-Rautha, Paul has been given a word ('Uroshnor') which will similarly immobilize his opponent, but he refuses to use it: yet it can be said that here again, whatever Paul does, words win the struggle; for when most tempted to use the word he says out loud, '"I will not say it!",' and this itself catches Feyd 'in the merest fraction of hesitation which 'was enough for Paul' to find the weakness of balance in one of his opponent's leg muscles. Such 'outwittings' operate in every struggle in the book.
The concern with mind, both conscious and unconscious, and its development is to be found throughout Herbert's work. In Dune it is given some local explanation in an oblique reference to the abolition of mechanical minds or computers under a movement known as the Butlerian Jihad; thereafter the unaided human mind had become super-developed. There is a physical world in Dune—the desert, the worms, the spice, the human body—and this among other things marks the book off from Asimov's Foundation series: but it is a physical world largely harnessed to the purposes of intelligence; even the wild desert operates as a colossal spice farm, if the worms have to be avoided. (In the Lynch film of Dune, by contrast, there is great emphasis on the heavily or the disgustingly physical.) The very first episode of the book portrays the dominance of mind over body. The old Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit school has come to Paul's home on Caladan to try to find out whether he may be the Kwisatz Haderach, and her central test of him involves his putting his hand in a box which exactly simulates the pains caused by slow incineration of the hand: he surmounts the pain, keeps his hand voluntarily in the box longer than anyone else has done before. Nothing escapes the governance of mind. A Kwisatz Haderach is the potential product of generations of careful breeding and genetic control: Paul is no random gift of nature, but nature bent to serve the purposes of man (though he has come earlier than the Bene Gesserit planned). When he meets the Fremen, they have been prepared, though they do not know it, by Bene Gesserit missionaries, to believe in the myth of a messiah who will lead them from the wilderness, and hence prepared to accept him eventually as their leader. Arrakis is itself a place for asceticism, for denial of the body. It is those who depend on the body and the physical alone who are finally weak—the Guildsmen, who have become addicted to the spice.
The book is full of formality and rules, organizing and containing the physical: the conduct of a fight or a meal is beset with tales and traditions; the life of the Fremen is shot through with rituals and codes which govern every action, from the distillation of water from a corpse to the initiation ceremony of riding a sandworm. And nearly everyone is in one way or another highly trained, whether as a fighter, such as the Duke Leto's officers Gurney Halleck or Duncan Idaho, or Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen; or as a Mentat or counsellor-cum-security guard, such as the Baron's Piter or the Count's Thufir Hawat; or as a Bene Gesserit such as Paul or his mother; or as a Fremen with their high social awareness and reverence for water; or even as a Sardaukar, one of the terrible Imperial soldiers who have been hardened on the prison planet of Salusa Secundus. No one is undisciplined in the novel and few let their passions get the better of them: Paul decides when to grieve over his father's death, Halleck fights down his rage against Rabban. Those who fail do so by miscalculating—the Baron, for instance, through ignorance of the true value of the spice to the Guildsmen, and through underestimating the potential of the Fremen. The Baron survives a murder directed at his more passional side: a boy with whom he is enjoying himself in private has had a poison dart implanted in his thigh, but the Baron notices it. Similarly Feyd-Rautha wins and loses his fights through relative skill, not feelings: as Gurney Halleck, who trains Paul, tells him, '"What has mood to do with it?'" The attempt by Dr Yueh to use his master Count Leto to kill the Baron out of revenge for the Baron's slaying of Yueh's wife fails. It is miscalculation and ignorance of the truth that destroys Count Leto: he is betrayed by his servant Yueh and is in ignorance of the true motives of the Baron and the Emperor. Quite simply Dune can be said to be about mind: at its centre is the development of mental powers in Paul.
Mental development is mirrored in the narrative itself. We start with a narrow purview, and only as the book goes on are connections made. This imitates the expansion of mind in Paul. At first we see only the narrow sphere of Paul's life at home. Then, on Arrakis, he takes his place at table to represent his family to the people of that world. Then, exiled, he goes out to the people of Arrakis, the Fremen, all the time finding out more about himself, his powers and his origins until all comes together with his meeting with the Emperor at the end. In the same way we only gradually become aware of the larger pattern. (The process recalls that in Asimov's Foundation series, but there is one distinctive difference: Asimov always gives us the impression, however illusory, that we know where we are; Herbert makes us feel uncertain throughout.) The piece left missing till the end is the Guildsmen and their crucial position in regard to the spice. We know that Leto has been given the fief of Arrakis in place of the Harkonnen family: we come to realize that this is so that Leto, who is favoured among a faction hostile to the Emperor, will be in a place where he can be destroyed, apparently by the Harkonnens alone, without too many questions being asked; we come to see what being a Kwisatz Haderach means, and only the Fremen have been prepared with appropriate mythology to accept Paul. Our minds are thus opened out like those of the central figures. Everyone is trying to find something out, to conquer more territory with mind. And the whole book is draped with a mind that knows its end long before we do: the mind of the Princess Irulan, authoress of the 'Manual of Muad'Dib', quotations from which prefix many of the chapters in the book. It is between the knowledge of her mind and ours that the whole book moves. The first chapter has as epigraph:
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is for ever his place.
What is 'Bene Gesserit', what 'Muad'Dib', why the stress on balances, why the importance attached to the child we are to meet on the first page as mere Paul? We are to move throughout the book to the mental awareness of this passage, even to awareness of the writer: and the narrative may be defined precisely as the gap between one level of insight and another; throughout we move between ignorance and knowledge, the knowledge of the epigraph playing against the ignorance in the material until the gap is closed. Actually we the readers have to work very hard as in all Herbert's fiction to make the links, which are often hidden in the narrative or understandable only with considerable effort; and in this way Herbert forces our minds into something like the greater awareness he portrays in his characters.
To a great extent the mass of thinking that goes on in the book is conditioned by the fact that people are in varying degrees isolated from one another. Leto, surrounded by potential enemies, is perpetually on his guard, as his son must be too. In Hothouse everything acts: one is struck, and then strikes back; there is little anticipation. In Dune one guards perpetually against being struck in the first place: hence the need for Mentat watchdogs, for anticipation and suspicion. There is a traitor in Leto's household: Thufir Hawat, Yueh, even the Lady Jessica, are suspected. The Baron has to guard against his own offspring. Paul has a private mental world that isolates him from his mother. The Fremen of Dune keep themselves to themselves, their fastidious isolation symbolised in their still-suits, which insulate them from the desert, conceal all but the eyes, and preserve the body's moisture from loss. The Guildsmen are never seen, and their interests are for long unfathomable. Each moves forward on a separate thought-path. Gurney Halleck, Paul's old soldier fighting instructor, has long suspected Jessica of engineering Leto's downfall: when he meets with Paul after being ambushed and learns that Jessica is with the Fremen too,
The she-witch alive! Gurney thought. The one I swore vengeance against, alive! And it's obvious Duke Paul doesn't know what manner of creature gave him birth. The evil one! Betrayed his own father to the Harkonnens!
Paul pressed past him, jumped up to the ledge. He glanced back, noted that the wounded and dead had been removed, and he thought bitterly that here was another chapter in the legend of Paul Muad'Dib. I didn't even draw my knife, but it'll be said of this day that I slew twenty Saurdaukar by my own hand.
Gurney followed with Stilgar, stepping on ground that he did not even feel. The cavern with its yellow light of glow-globes was forced out of his thoughts by rage. The she-witch alive while those she betrayed are bones in lonesome graves. I must contrive it that Paul learns the truth about her before I slay her.
The illusion of conversation increases the sense of separate minds here. The separateness of the characters is heightened by the narrative mode. Each chapter is an isolated episode, cut off from the next not only by a reflective or Olympian epigraph but also by sudden switches to the actions of quite separate characters. We shift back and forth between the Baron's doings and those of Count Leto, and later between those of the Fremen and of the Baron; and within the life with the Fremen we move between Paul's life and that of his mother. In Hothouse, by contrast, the chapters are often arbitrary-seeming, mere periods in a continuous action: we are with Gren and his limited perspective for most of the time. But for all the isolation of the minds in Dune such isolation is not desirable to them. The characters wish to make connections, to find out who is a spy and who not, whether Paul is Kwisatz Haderach, what are the real plans of the Emperor. As the book proceeds the minds come together in the sense that they come to understanding, even, in some cases, by actually merging. And as they do, the world turns from being only a battleground of isolated egos, to a place of shared and even communal interests. Gurney finds out the truth about Jessica and is reconciled. Paul's own mother was a Harkonnen, and the Baron is his grandfather, even if he must die. Paul himself is the product of the best blood-lines of the galaxy. The secret interest of the Guild in the spice stands revealed, and hereafter they must cooperate with others to obtain it. Paul, meanwhile, comes together with the imperial house by marrying the Princess Irulan. Yet still there is the mental isolation of Paul, locked in his own high destiny and in the intermittent vision of the future afforded him by his unique and estranging power.
No description in Dune is left to stand by itself like those in Hothouse: always a mind enters to try to mould it. For instance, the following description might seem at first largely unfiltered, 'for itself':
Again there came the clatter of boxes being unloaded in the entry. Jessica sighed.
Against a carton to her right stood the painting of the Duke's father. Wrapping twine hung from it like a frayed decoration. A piece of twine was still clutched in Jessica's left hand. Beside the painting lay a black bull's head mounted on a polished board. The head was a dark island in a sea of wadded paper. Its plaque lay flat on the floor, and the bull's shiny muzzle pointed at the ceiling as though the beast were ready to bellow a challenge into this echoing room.
We can say that some of this portrays Jessica's feelings of desolation. The 'like a frayed decoration' seems to refer to something of her emotions, as does the forgotten piece of twine, the bull's head ('divorced' from the body), lying flat on the floor, the epitome of passion amid emptiness. But straightway we find that the scene means something quite different to Jessica; and if we thought that the description was there only to give a striking picture, we see its every detail being rendered meaningful:
Jessica wondered what compulsion had brought her to uncover those two things first—the head and the painting. She knew there was something symbolic in the action. Not since the day when the Duke's buyers had taken her from the school had she felt this frightened and unsure of herself.
The head and the picture.
They heightened her feelings of confusion.
Every action is seen as part of a meaningful design. It is as though the world were choked full of interconnections, the least thing being of importance. As Paul later comes to see it: 'the most minute action—the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand—moved a gigantic lever across the known universe.'
The primacy of mind in Dune is seen in the very fact that Paul overcomes the Baron and the Emperor. For he has an ideal, some belief larger than himself to fight for: they are concerned only to keep hold of the power and the physical objects they possess. The Guildsmen depend on the spice, and the Emperor on the Guildsmen. Paul, however, has before him the vision of the new world the Fremen might make out of Arrakis: he fights for them as much as to regain his rights. Loyalty to a larger group is characteristic of those who are to overcome: the Baron and the Emperor, with their shifting alliances and manipulations, are simply out for themselves. What is involved in Paul's nature and in his relation to the Fremen is heightened by the presence of his mother, who right from the start when she yields the young Paul to the terrible test of the gomjabbar of the old Reverend Mother, has been able to put aside her maternal feelings for the larger good. So she does continually when she wants to protect her son against the challenge of the Fremen Jamis, or the trial of riding the sandworm. The Fremen are capable of this negation of self for the greater good, as each makes over the water of his body for the use of the tribe, or sietch. When Paul slays Jamis, Harah, Jamis's wife, at once transfers her allegiance to Paul as she is expected to do by the tribe. And to the Fremen themselves Paul is himself in part an idea, the living realization of the messiah they have been promised in the mythology long instilled into them by Bene Gesserit missionaries. This idea creates fanatical zeal in them. Many of the epigraphs in the book insist on the moral and intellectual nature of Paul's experience and outlook: 'Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent';… 'My father once told me that respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality';… 'You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion. This power struggle permeates the training, educating and disciplining of the orthodox community. Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their role, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic';… 'How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.'
The intellectual world in which Paul moves is seen as eventually dynamic and mobile. As an ideal of course, it is necessarily so, since an ideal is in quest of realization. But it is not just the objective of the ideas that is at issue here, but the nature of the ideas themselves. As Paul sees it, an idea is dead as soon as it has met realization, for then it is stagnant. (Here for many is the greatest difference between Dune and Asimov's Foundation trilogy.) As a Bene Gesserit proverb puts it, '"Any road followed to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test it's a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain".' Elsewhere, 'it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move towards death.' Paul recognizes that on the paradise world of Caladan where he and his family lived before Arrakis, there was no striving for perfection when perfection was all around, 'And the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life—we went soft, we lost our edge.' The opponents of Paul and the Fremen are essentially stagnant. They wish to keep what they have, they have no wish to chart new areas of experience. They are symbolized at the beginning of the book in the aged Reverend Mother whose tests of the young Paul are overcome. The old are surpassed by the young. Through ninety generations Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers have sought by genetic engineering to produce a Kwisatz Haderach who will be Emperor: when he comes in Paul, one generation early, they do not know it; and when they do, he refuses to do their bidding. The Emperor wishes to keep his throne, the Guildsmen to keep their spice, the Baron Harkonnen his power. All are trying to preserve something static, and all therefore lose it. At the end they are symbolically reduced to immobility in the destruction of the recumbent battle-fleet, the noses of its rockets shot off by Fremen fire. Like one, like all: 'The Guild navigators [had] … chosen always the clear, safe course that leads ever downward into stagnation.'
But Paul represents a new idea. Unlike his antagonists, he himself is new to all he meets: among the high society of Arrakeen, with the Fremen, and with the remnants of the Emperor's court at the end, he is the unknown of unexpected power; and in this he is quite unlike the Baron or Count Fenring or the Emperor, whose personalities, if not their ultimate motives, are known and familiar. But Paul is unknown even to himself, is continually encountering new powers in himself throughout the narrative, seeing how far and how wide his prescience will go, finding out his capacity to assimilate all humanity in himself. He grows. Compared to him, the Baron's son Feyd-Rautha is a perpetual savage adolescent; and the Baron himself is capable of only a narrow range of set responses. But Paul we feel changing throughout, from boy to youth to man, from uncertain grasp of the world to a greater inner strength. And he grows because he takes risks: he gains because he lives on the edge of loss. Throughout the book he courts danger to live and develop: he takes the ornithopter into the sandstorm to escape the Harkonnen Sardaukar, he crosses the desert with his mother under the threat of sandworms, he accepts the knife-fight with Jamis and later with Feyd-Rautha, he dares to cause himself near-death by killing the Fremen sandworm, he passes the initiation test of riding on a worm. And he moves too throughout the novel in the literal sense of travelling about Arrakis, as a nomad with the Fremen, where the others are stuck in their cities. But his journey is also directional: in coming from Caladan to Arrakeen, and from Arrakeen to the Fremen, he removes his distance from the truth. It is with the Fremen that he finds himself as he could not otherwise have done: finds himself only where he has lost himself and much of his past identity as an Atreides of the royal line. In taking away the distance between himself and the Fremen, in stripping himself of the comforts of urban life for their wilderness economy, he has opened himself to the truth: his journey towards them is a journey into the interior, to that trance of mystic vision where he finally perceives his mental power. The whole planet with its barren aspect concealing hidden riches and strengths is itself an image of the unconscious mind into which Paul journeys, 'I have seen this place in a dream,' he says. The motif is one of insight, of seeing to the concealed, from a lost haversack beneath the sand to submerged mental powers. He, thanks to the indoctrination of myth, is already a part of the minds of the Fremen: they, though he finds it out only when he meets them, provide the key to his own mind. It is among the Fremen, too, that Paul discovers the secret needs of the Guildsmen and the Emperor as the Baron could not: he has put himself where the spice is, and thus is directly in contact with the truth.
The continual movement has its price. Paul realizes that when he has helped the Fremen to gain Arrakis they will want to go on a jihad or holy war across the other planets of the empire, and that he will be unable, despite his wish, to stop them. Paul's object, even if it is defeated, must be the maintenance of a delicate balance between extremes. Balance is a word central to the first sentence of the book, 'A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.' In himself Paul is a combination of opposites. 'He was warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, the fox and the innocent, chivalrous, ruthless, less than a god, more than a man,' which may explain why as a person his character is often elusive. He sees that while life is divided into 'Givers' and 'Takers', he himself joins both, '"I'm at the fulcrum … I cannot give without taking and I cannot take without…." When he drinks of the Fremen Water of Life he is 'both dead and alive.' He 'felt himself at the centre, at the pivot where the whole structure turned.' Such balancing of the opposites ensures that Paul will never slip into stasis: he will not settle for one side or the other. Reality is said here to be dialectical, each side of an extreme needing the other in order to be. 'To attempt an understanding of Muad'Dib without understanding his mortal enemies the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.'
Dune then is pervaded by mind: but why? It is here that we enter on the paradoxes by which Herbert's work moves. He, it must be said, is most happy when writing his books in such an intellectual mode. But there is mind and mind: there is the conscious mind, and there is the unconscious. And for all the stress on control and intellectual grip—on what Herbert called 'hyperconsciousness'—in the book, it is arguable that what it is there for is to beget out of its very certainties and supposed grasp on experience an indeterminacy over which it has no power. No long-term scheme or attempt to alter the world works in the book. The plan of the Bene Gesserit to create a Kwisatz Haderach out of the union of Atreides and Harkonnens is thwarted when Duke Leto persuades Jessica to bear a son to him instead of the projected daughter. Leto's plan to kill the Baron goes awry. The Baron's scheme to make an élite force out of the Fremen is destroyed when they make war on him. The attempted use by Jessica of the Fremen to serve Atreides purposes puts herself and Paul at the mercy of forces they cannot control. The planned transformation of Dune through the spread of vegetation is in later works to be seen to destroy the worms and the spice with the desert. The 'plans' that work are those that go with the grain of reality, and do not try to manipulate it at a distance: and in particular those which are momently conceived momently executed, such as the parries and thrusts during conversations or combat. Leto II sees 'how dangerous it was to be right in this universe' and that what is needed for survival is 'an understanding of the limitations in every moment.'
Herbert drives us to an awareness that beneath the individual consciousnesses and desires of his characters lies a deeper and unconscious prompting over which they have no control. The book continually widens perspective. It does this through context in the journey of Paul from city to open desert (and eventually to spreading over all planets on the jihad). At first the force driving the characters seems merely that of factional struggle, whether with the Bene Gesserit trying to create an all-seeing Kwisatz Haderach or with the Harkonnens or the Atreides. Later we find out how spice is the key to the behaviour of many of the factions, right up to the Guildsmen and the Emperor himself. But what seemed to be a mere struggle over a treasure is also turning into something else, as we begin to see the hint of deeper motives behind. Similarly the motives of the Fremen extend outwards to further and further levels. At first they seem bent only on self-preservation and on gradual and concealed transformation of the planet; and then they acquire in Paul a leader under whom they can overthrow the Harkonnen tyranny. But their underlying drive through their messiah is seen to be jihad, a wild religious war across the universe, an expansive surge of conquest and colonisation. Yet there is a further purpose too. Behind the desire for jihad, behind the actions of all the characters, lies a deep historical prompting against stasis, a collective pressure of all men to liberate the damned-up forces of life, like a spice-blow. Dune portrays what Herbert has called a nexus, a focus for all these forces and a point at which they become not only concentrated but transformed. The ultimate force of mind behind the book is racial rather than individual. (Herbert was an adherent of Jungian psychology.)
[Paul] found that he no longer could hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or even the Harkonnens. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this—the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.
Having a Kwisatz Haderach, an all-seer in the book is symbolic of the all-seeing that is needed by the reader. For Paul such insight does not give but takes away power: it occurs on the unconscious plane and perceives unconscious drives it cannot halt and only hope to steer; he realizes, 'I am a prey to the imperfect vision, to the race consciousness and its terrible purpose.'
Thus arguably Herbert produces so dominant an impression of the conscious powers of the mind in the book to create the opposite effect of the strength of powers beyond its control or purview. In this view the 'intellectual' emphasis of the book is there to exhaust our love for it, to turn us against it as, unconsciously, the human race turns against stasis throughout the book. (In an analogous process Herbert has said that he made Paul a hero precisely to show us the emptiness of hero-worship in later books.) In such a case we are dealing with no volte-face but with a steady process of erosion or undermining of that which seems to be being built up. (Erosion, we may add, is of the nature of the desert medium.) The reader will say, rightly, that most of the book concerns itself with Paul as hero and brilliant mind, and with his immediate personal objectives, and that there is scant reference to the jihad, to his powerlessness and to the unconscious urges (putatively) behind the narrative. But the book's medium is concealment, and Herbert operates through paradox: what looms most large has its opposite behind it. If we are surprised when we find Paul powerless or inhuman, we have not seen far enough. If we think a few references near the close of the narrative insufficient to alter our opinion of Paul we forget Paul's own awareness of the enormous potential of the tiniest movements; and we forget too the symbolism of the Fremen, whom the Baron for long thought too pitiful and peripheral to take into consideration. And if we think to settle even with this awareness we are again mistaken: Paul is hero as much as he is not, and all is double-edged; so too here stasis is as necessary as flux, conscious as unconscious, for each is part of a living dialectic that cannot be caught in any formula.
All is planned; and yet everything is unplanned. In a later book Paul's son Leto is to create indeterminacy out of history precisely through thousands of years of rigid control. Everything is a mixture: it is not surprising that Herbert called the spice of Dune melange. Seen thus the very fabric and mode of working of his book is an image of historical forces at work, the 'overwhelming impression' bringing forward its reversal, the control of mind liberating anarchy; 'One cannot have a single thing without its opposite.' As Herbert hoped, his work thus works as a metaphor at many levels: but this last level would make it revolutionary as a literary form, in oversetting the assumptions and certainties that the reader has been allowed, even encouraged, to build up during the narrative; 'Every system and every interpretation becomes false in the light of a more complete system.' In such a way the reader could be said to participate in the very life that the book portrays, the turning of a revolutionary cycle whereby he is forced to overthrow his own static modes of thought—and yet not even be allowed to rest easy in any anarchic revolutionary fervour, but be forced to live through Herbert's work at the level of the indeterminate. (And certainly Herbert in succeeding Dune novels gives less and less away concerning historical process or even what is happening.) If we can see Dune in this way, we can see it as a work of considerable, if unusual, literary power and stature.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4553
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 illustrative of this mood. His view of the future awaiting human-kind was certainly not unique:
Atomic power—how many times had stories shown what a world of wonders and prosperity would be humanity's if we could tap the infinite power of the atom…. We could rebuild the world and with such power end poverty, make the world Utopia, and finally climb to the stars…. Transmutation of the elements would be open to us.
The use of this energy for military purposes was a marginal issue if compared with all the positive advantages of its use with other more edifying ends; and, in any case, it showed the power America had in its hands. The almost immediate emergence of the cold war did in fact cause similar optimistic responses, in that it emphasized the idea of a wealthy and powerful country that stood as the leader of all the free nations against any kind of evil.
It is this optimistic view that underlies much of the fantasy and science fiction of the last decades, in spite of the grim appearances it sometimes has presented, and that eventually contributes to expanding the limits of action by sending the science fiction heroes out to the most distant planets to fight for their most unrenounceable values. These galactic heroes have adopted different forms of behavior, though, ranking up from the all-action type, partly evolved from prewar pulp fiction and partly resulting from certain ideological stances (such as can be found in R. A. Heinlein's controversial Starship Troopers  or in Gordon Dickson's Dorsai series), to the more meditative and intellectual type that uses his mind as a tool or weapon against the problems posed by man's domination of the galaxy. The characters in Asimov's Foundation series, van Vogt's postwar fiction (e.g., The Voyage of the Space Beagle), British author A. C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust (1961), or Larry Niven's Ringworld (1971) all belong to this type.
Yet a more pessimistic view of man's future (and present) can also be found both in fantasy and science fiction. Its roots can also be found in the ideas expressed by writers of the 1940s and 1950s whose meditations on the consequences of man's technological advances had reached altogether different conclusions than those Wollheim presents. Probably one of the more relevant means of transmission of these conclusions (though not exclusively of these) once extrapolated into fiction was J. W. Campbell's Astounding. In Trillion Year Spree Brian Aldiss very adequately described its mood:
Astounding after the war was a very black magazine. Its writers and readers … were digesting the implications behind the nuclear bomb, its unlimited powers for greatness and destruction. It was a painful process: the old power fantasies were rising to the surface of reality. Many stories were of Earth destroyed, culture doomed, humanity dying, and of the horrific effects of radiation.
Aldiss himself observes the frequency with which these themes recurred in stories published between the late forties and the early fifties. A deeply deterministic view of man's destiny—which declared that when he is offered the choice between salvation and destruction he is bound to go for the latter option—underlies works of fiction like Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950 is the date of its publication in book format), Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1956). In all of these the crisis is not brought forth by an archvillain or an alien life form, but by mankind itself in the form of an all-powerful, man-degrading system. The hero (if he can be called a hero at all) may be wrapped in his sense of self-righteousness, like those in Bradbury's Chronicles (Yll in "Ylla," Spender in "And the Moon Be Still as Bright," Stendhal in "Usher II"), but in their fight against injustice they use the same means as the system they want to destroy, making them fair specimens of the civilization they seemingly refuse to belong to.
Reality has refused to comply with these dark forebodings. Civilization and Earth have not been destroyed—or not yet—and the more optimistic view of the future seems to have taken over. However, the fears of man's growing destructive potential have remained and have managed to find their way through in a substantial amount of contemporary fantasy and science fiction. The vehicle used for the expression of these fears is the most naturally extrapolable of literary conventions: the hero.
This process has produced, incidentally, one of the most significant transformations in contemporary romance. As Northrop Frye affirms, romance narrative results in a projection of man's ideals and dreams of wish fulfillment in the forms of the hero and the world he represents, while the opposite, a demonic world of nightmare and fears, is represented by the hero's antagonist. Gothic romance, much pulp fiction, and a substantial part of postwar science fiction shared that presentation of a hero in the midst of a demonic world, yet the hero still kept the links that allowed the reader to be bound up with him and what he represents. In contemporary romance, however, the links are split. There is still a world of dreams in need of protection, but the hero is no longer an intrinsic part of it. The powers he can tap—those that have sent him through the galaxy and settled him in distant planets—have placed him too far above ordinary readers and have transformed him into a source of the fears that had traditionally been provoked by the villain: if man's innate tendency is destructive, what could an extraordinarily powerful hero do but to destroy with a force n-times greater? Could he not destroy even the world he has pledged to protect? These are the underlying questions in a significant part of contemporary fantasy and science fiction. In this sense, these new heroes share the features of both romance and tragedy. As romantic characters, they are the direct inheritors of the galactic saviors of Asimov and van Vogt. As tragic heroes, they have a flaw in their capacity for self- and world-destruction, inherited from Bradbury's anti-heroes, and are to be feared; and, at the conclusion of the story, they must pay for their deeds—even if they have eventually saved the Edenic world—by suffering isolation from it, death or exile.
The most important representative of this type is found in one of the milestones of contemporary science fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune saga. Dune, first published in 1963, was the initial volume of a six-volume series that constitutes the most elaborate science fiction (or fantasy, as the series is at the edge of the distinction between both subgenres) since Tolkien's sagas of the Middle-World.
The plot of Dune, if summarized, does not give many hints as to its qualities. It would seem to be another story about a young deposed hero seeking revenge and restitution of his rightful throne, combined with the theme of the hero as the apparent fulfillment of an exotic prophecy. The innovations are not actually in the plot, but in what we might call the environment of the story, and especially in the characterization of the participants. In Dune, Herbert created a world in the manner of Tolkien: an abundance of background material provides a particular kind of coherence to both the events and the world described. As with Tolkien, the reader has the impression that the story he is reading does not start on the first page but exists beyond the book and extends backwards to the past, our immediate future. The effects for the reader are both an expansion of his imagination (wondering what may not have been told by the author) and a strengthening of the suspension of disbelief, as the story in the book becomes an episode in a potentially larger narrative, something which might effectively be assimilated into man's real, foreseeable history. These effects are similar to those produced by legends, where the exotic or wonderful is ambiguously mixed with real events of a distant past and therefore assimilated into the set of events that "might have really happened after all," even if they are incredible.
As for the characters, Frank Herbert's achievement lies in the elaboration of an almost new typology. There certainly were already superheroes in printed pages before Dune. Superman had been flying for decades, and Campbell's Astounding had been producing characters with mental superpowers for some time. Van Vogt's Gilbert Gosseyn of the Null-A books and Henry Kuttner's telepaths are instances of this type of paranormal heroes. Yet there are two features in their characterization that, in a sense, place them behind or below Paul Atreides. Their powers are frequently given to them by some superior entity or by some uncontrollable circumstance, usually of a scientific kind. Moreover, they (and sometimes the villains, too) are the exception in a world of ordinary people. Herbert's characters, on the contrary, grow their superhuman ability out of a strict control of mind and body gained from the application of mystical philosophies and techniques. Philosophy, not science, is the basis of their power. In Dune practically all the characters—from the Fremen and the Sardaukar, with their inordinate fighting skills, to the Bene Gesserit and the Mentats with their respective specialized tasks—are far from ordinary, even if not as great as the main characters. As Timothy O'Reilly points out, "Paul is a hero among heroes, wisest among the wise." Yet all these skills are not qualitatively different from those of ordinary human beings; they are the result of painful and slow personal progress, rather than something acquired suddenly and accidentally, or just given. This way the kind of Olympus that Dune portrays becomes an ideal inhabited by characters in whom a reader may feel himself projected, provided he accepts the possibility of evolving or changing through his own efforts.
This identification is also feasible with respect to the most desirable features of the main hero, Paul Atreides, even in spite of his uniqueness. He is the result of millennia of genetic manipulation and Bene Gesserit education, plus a series of unexpected circumstances; but much of what he becomes is the product of the hard learning of an extraordinary disciple who soon surpasses his masters. So when he goes further into the test of the gom jabbar than anybody else before him, we feel that he has smashed a previous record because he is better and not because he is different. The story of Dune is in fact the story of his progress in the knowledge and use of his latent powers until he becomes the leader of the Fremen in Dune Messiah. In this sense, Dune is a story of success, of Paul's learning the means to avenge his father's murder and regain his throne.
But Dune also differs from more typical narratives in a complexity of characters, which allows more than one reading perspective. So it may also be seen as the tragic story of a man with the flaw of having been born with the potential of a god. From this new perspective, Paul's figure is marked by a kind of nature that he does not fully assimilate and by forces that he can hardly control. Whether he wants it or not, he is the kwisatz haderach of the Bene Gesserit and the Mahdi of the Fremen, "the one who can be in two places at the same time," hence more a god than a man. The attributes conferred on him by this other nature give him abilities superior to those of any other hero before him and make him virtually invincible; he is a great warrior and is also very intelligent, and, above all, he has the power to see all the potential futures and to act accordingly. But these abilities, which would be definite weapons against enemies in other narratives, are here the real sources of the crises.
Paul's first important conflict is one of behavior resulting from the discrepancy between what he must do and the effects this must eventually produce. He wants to avenge his father's death and to liberate the people from the oppression of the Empire; but to do so he must set the Fremen loose and become involved in a process of revenge and bloodshed of, to him, too foreseeable consequences. The dynamics of liberation require the elimination of all obstructing forces and, eventually, the creation of another dictatorship where "unbelievers" are destroyed in the name of a faith emptied of all its original ideals. The fact that this effect seems to be inevitable in any revolutionary process ("Empires do not suffer emptiness of purpose at the time of their creation," it is said at the opening of one of the chapters in Dune Messiah, "It is when they have become established that aims are lost and replaced by vague ritual") does not offer any consolation to Paul, who holds himself responsible for the Fremen revolution: "Statistics: at a conservative estimate, I've killed 61 billion, sterilized 90 planets, completely demoralised 500 others. I've wiped out the followers of forty religions." Indeed he is responsible, but at the heart of the problem lies the fact that the immense power he has acquired is the real cause of the situation. The exertions of power of the heroes of romance are always almost inevitably destructive, and often more destructive than intended. In the final battles the villains are killed in fair combat by the heroes; but then also (in an act of supreme sympathy, and because the villain dies, not because it is the hero's conscious intent) the world of the villain dies too: off go the witch's enchantments, Dr. No's island, Fu Manchu's underground head-quarters. With Paul's practices the same effects are produced, but they are increased in direct proportion to the power he exerts. As his powers are immense, so are their often uncontrollable effects. The result of his acts is that what he started as a local and rightful rebellion to regain the throne and liberate the Fremen in Arrakis has acquired universal consequences; and one of them is that he is a savior regarded in a multiplicity of worlds as a tyrant.
In the light of this process, the words of Duncan Idaho anticipating that Muad'Dib would "die of money and power" are justified. Nevertheless, that fate seems to be kept for his sister Alia, another character in conflict with her own supernatural self. His death is due to something very different, as he says at the conclusion of Dune Messiah:
"I'm dying of prescience, did you know that, Duncan?" "Perhaps … what you fear won't happen," the ghola said. "What? Deny my own oracle? How can I when I've seen it fulfilled thousands of time? People call it a power, a gift. It's an affliction! It won't let me leave my life where I found it!"
This leads us into the second and more important conflict in Paul Atreides, one that might be called the struggle between his dual self, or between nature and supernature. The key to understanding this conflict is in a phrase that is pronounced several times throughout the Dune series: "nature abhors prescience," when prescience is the main feature of Paul's (and later of Alia's and all the Bene Gesserit's) superhuman nature, and the only feature that makes him different from other romantic heroes: he can see, that is, he knows in advance what the effects of his acts will be.
The immediate cause of Paul's nature is the manipulation of the Bene Gesserit; but their contribution was to the creation of someone who, though unique in his abilities to rule the Empire, still remained human—ordinary enough to allow for his control by the sisters. To the Bene Gesserit, Paul's birth was a mistake: he was born before his due time, out of an act of love, and he was not born a girl. Furthermore, the interference in genetic evolution has produced in the victim, among other unexpected results, a complex dual personality which he can hardly synthesize. It is this duality that is released within him when he drinks the water of life:
There's in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty finding that place within himself where the taking force dwells, but it is almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed…. I'm the fulcrum…. I cannot give without taking and I cannot take without. [Dune]
Surviving the test of the water of life represents the last step in a process of assimilation of a more than human nature (hence more than just male or female, or more than either one of any two opposites). The previous trials had started after the death of his father and as soon as he came across a large mass of the spice that gave him the prescience. Paul must then face his new self, the "sleeper" that has been awakened in him. In an axial chapter, Paul has his first vision and at the same time realizes what there is of the extraordinary in him. His first reaction is of repulsion: "I'm a monster … A freak!"; then he sees his task, "I'm a seed," and "they'll call me Muad'Dib, 'the One Who Points the Way." And though he follows meekly the path shown in his vision, his revulsion is not averted when he sees the potential dangers of that path and realizes that seeing the future does not necessarily mean knowing the right thing to do. Thus, the faculty that makes him superhuman and gives him immense power over the Fremen can and does also become a curse. His assimilation and acceptance of his extraordinary nature after drinking the water of life does likewise not mean that he is reconciled with it.
Paul's dual nature does not cease to exist after the test. In order not to let go of his Empire, he must dislocate himself to be both the loving husband and the merciless tyrant, "warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, the fox and the innocent, chivalrous, ruthless, less than a god, more than a man." In the end, he is glad to give his "water to the desert" as a way of escaping his affliction, and glad, too, we may infer, to leave the floor to his son. But at the conclusion of Dune Messiah, the reader is aware that the novel gives an end to the story of Muad'Dib while everything else continues as ever and even threatens to grow worse. The fate of Arrakis itself is a symptom of such a process, in the sense that what is initially beneficial—water for the planet—will be the cause of the fall of the Fremen way of life and of the disappearance of the big worms and melange production. This is Leto's inheritance, together with his struggle (and Alia's) against his own superhuman nature. As a matter of fact, Leto's life can be understood as an extension of his father's, a furthering of the consequences of supernature and prescience over 3000 years of tyranny. So, as Liet Kynes gave way to a prophecy incarnated, now the prophet Paul gives way to Leto the God. In this sense the tyranny is also a consequence of Paul's deeds, and somehow evidence of his failure.
The last two volumes of the series seem to shift the emphasis on the responsibility of the Bene Gesserit as keepers of the order in the galactic Empire and prima causa of the kwisatz haderach mistake. Saving the differences, their relation with Paul and the rest of the Atreides is similar to that of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. They created something they disliked and could not control, and made no attempt at understanding the monster's inner conflict. But while Frankenstein's monster worries about beauty and ugliness, the Bene Gesserit's must be concerned about nature and supernature and the practical use or misuse of them. A more fundamental difference, though, is that in Dune only the creators and creatures see the abomination. Herbert's twist of the plot is that Paul and Leto are welcomed by the Fremen as saviors and leaders, when their message—especially Paul's—is precisely of concern for the effects of heroic or prophetic voices. As O'Reilly comments, "Paul's real battle is with time, with the inertia of the human spirit, and with the paradoxes of messianic leadership" [Timothy O'Reilly, Frank Herbert, 1981].
The differences between what he wants, what he sees, and what the others expect him to do are the cause of the hero's reluctance to accept his role as a hero. And in his awareness of the inevitability of his role lies also the source of his tragic nature. This way Herbert breaks with a tradition of heroes convinced of the righteousness of their principles and therefore not in conflict with what others, or themselves, ask them to do. The clear-cut difference between the objectives of the oppressed and the hero and, on the other hand, those of the villain of traditional romance wanes when a character like Paul Atreides springs out to make everything relative and continuously changing. He is at the same time a hero and a monster—hence, like the villain, demonic—doing good and evil and subverting the distinction between these two categories.
For an average reader, especially in the sixties, this ambivalence might have been puzzling. Even such an expert on superheroes as John Campbell mistook the significance of Paul's nature: "In outline, it sounds like an Epic Tragedy—but when you start thinking back on it, it works out to 'Paul was a damn fool, and surely no demi-god; he loused up himself, his loved ones, and the whole galaxy'" [in Frank Herbert]. But what Herbert does is to create a contemporary hero, partly out of the same discontent with man's scientific progress that had produced Spender and Stendhal in The Martian Chronicles and partly out of the particular cultural situation of America in the 1960s. Dune is imbued with references extrapolated from life in the sixties, some of them introduced deliberately (the similarity in the effects of melange and of drugs is an obvious one) and some others, especially those associated with larger and more general preoccupations, probably introduced unconsciously. It is in fact easy to find parallels in the major conflicts at work in Dune and in the ones that were upsetting the America of that decade. The words of Chester Eisinger, applicable originally to the American 1940s, can be made extensive to the description of a state of mind common to the decades following:
The price of power is the loss of innocence and the knowledge of good and evil…. The United States came to the end of innocence … as it engaged itself everywhere in the affairs of the world and took, or at least struggled to assume, its place as the greatest power on Earth. Emerging thus onto the world scene, the United States came to know both failure and success, to understand the onerous responsibilities of leadership and to realize that not all problems could be solved or all questions answered. [The 1940s: Profile of a Nation in Crisis, 1969]
Of all the decades after World War II, the 1960s brought with them the most consciously determined attempts to tackle the problems presented by this situation. Counter-culture was one of these attempts, and in the most anxious minds it served to install a ferment of profound disagreement with established ideology and to open alternative paths towards new social changes. The rejection of machines and machine societies, the belief in a path of perfection of the mind and the body with the use of drugs and certain oriental techniques are some of the alternatives that Herbert introduced in his Dune series. But this forms part of his world of desire and wish-fulfillment. While these alternatives were being proposed, certain traumatic experiences also contributed to stir up a ferment of unrest by showing the darker side of American society:
In SF of the 1960s … one can see the stress lines which shattered the solidarity of the Cold War period. A central event, and one that reverberates in much of writing of the decade, is the assassination of President Kennedy. The assassin was not … an "alien," but an American … Another traumatic experience was the Vietnamese involvement which created in SF, as in other areas of American life, a division largely along generation lines. [J. A. Sutherland, "American Science Fiction Since 1960," in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, edited by Patrick Partinder, 1979]
If American ideals had been the central source of science fictional expansion across the galaxies, these two events together with many more made such ideals questionable. A superpower could act wrongly or mistakenly even when apparently answering the calls of the oppressed: but, above all, could show signs of having flaws of an essential—and therefore hardly resolvable—nature. Likewise, the science fiction superhero, who had elsewhere symbolized the greatness of the achievements of a nation, could now be an exemplary instance of the symptoms which a new view of reality made manifest. In this sense Paul and Leto show the inadequacy of the old romantic heroes to appeal to a reading public that had lost its belief in America as a world of dreams and innocence. The result is a kind of hero in whom the readers' fears are projected more intensely than their desires. In the forties and fifties, the fears had been of the effects of a nuclear holocaust or of the despotic rule of aliens and dictatorial leaders; but there was practically always the alternative of an ideal and righteous hero with his implicit message that hope always exists. In Dune … that hope has been shattered. Like Eisinger's America, Paul and Leto are the fallible leaders with immense power, aware of the fact that, while they must respond to their calling as leaders, whatever they do or fail to do the effects, because of their immense powers, will no longer be local and controllable….
The importance of the ambivalent hero type and its lesser subtypes in contemporary narrative cannot be denied. As a matter of fact, they have even spread to other fields of narrative, such as comics (Marvel's superheroes are evident variations on this hero type) and television serials (The Equalizer is the most representative example). Imitation may be one of the causes of this recurrence, but their relation to particular cultural situations of contemporary America cannot be denied either. Only when these situations are altered substantially will the ambivalent hero begin to disappear from contemporary narrative; and, so far, the cultural conditions that produced these heroes seem not to have changed significantly.