The Great Dune Trilogy Critical Context - Essay

Frank Herbert

Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As one might expect, those readers who had lionized Herbert for what looked like advocacy of the ecological movement reacted with coolness to the sabotage of their vision in Children of Dune. Yet in fairness to the author, Herbert can hardly be blamed for not writing the book that someone else wanted to read. If readers of the first part mistook his theme, it needs to be stated that Herbert did not originally separate the work into three volumes but saw it as a single story. A second objection is harder to explain away: To the claim of the book’s admirers that it illustrates Herbert’s constant rejection of easy answers to human problems, one might reply that the reclaiming of Dune was no easy answer.

The religious themes of the book, the tensions between prophets and the religions that grow up around them, have been a second center of critical discussion. The books never show institutionalized religion (or governments, for that matter) in a favorable light. Throughout the works runs a distrust of anyone conceding responsibility and decision making to another. One wonders, however, if this suspicion is valid, given that nowhere in any of the books is a representative or elected government shown.

Even the figure of Paul provoked some readers, among them John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Although Campbell had published Dune in serial in his magazine, he rejected the later parts of the story, complaining mainly about the change in the character of Paul. Whereas Paul had been an agent in the movement of the plot of the first book, he decides in the second and third that he does not like what he has done, and passively retires from power, accepts a preventable blinding, and flees into the desert from the society that he has made. Those who, like Campbell, prefer activity to passivity found an unexpected change.

Nevertheless, the popularity of the Dune series shows no sign of lessening. Subsequent volumes have been best-sellers, although their action is far different from that discussed here. It may well be that today’s readers (and many future ones) will turn to Dune and its sequels for the same pleasures that its first readers found there: a sweeping story of action on a galactic scale, with a cast of characters both large and colorful, both heroic and thoughtful.