Hero and Society in Dune

Author: Mark Joseph Engleson

All the elements of science fiction clearly appear in Dune: exotic worlds, advanced technology, strange powers, and bizarre societies. To the discerning eye, the novel contains elements of psychology, comparative religion, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and politics. If a work of literature is tested based on its levels of influence, Dune is the greatest work of science fiction ever written. Intense, gripping, and thought-provoking, Dune takes its readers on a journey to one of the most unique worlds ever created, and holds their attention to the very last page. More importantly, no one walks away from Dune without having thought deeply about society and reality.

This essay will demonstrate the lessons about society Frank Herbert attempts to teach in Dune, by focusing on the superhero mystique of its main character, Paul "Muad'Dib" Atreides. First, the essay will take a micro-sociological view, exploring how Paul becomes estranged from and by society. Second, the essay will explore the macro-sociology of the forces that spawn a hero. Finally, the essay will validate the importance of Herbert's work by exploring the scientific and historical justifications of the novel's oddities. Frank Herbert's epic science-fiction novel, Dune, portrays and teaches the relationships of a society and its hero.

Society Alienates the Hero
One rather witty and insightful view of Dune claims that, "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 Emperor of the Universe," (Miller 21). Dune tells a story about a man forced to grow up too early. As, "The Atreides are known to start late getting their growth," and he is, "Small for his age," (Herbert 1965, 3) the reader may reasonably assume that Paul is just hitting the high tide of puberty. In addition to the normal stresses of puberty, Paul lives in a society where he cannot so much as sit with his back to a door. Political adversaries have murdered his father and his friends Duncan Idaho and Dr. Yueh; he has been separated from his companions Gurney Halleck and Thufir Hawat. He has survived an attempt to take his life. Paul's family and home have been utterly decimated; the forces of both the Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen are hunting him. Paul has nowhere to flee other than to the barren desert.

Paul must also deal with his special gifts and the destiny he is forced into fulfilling. When his psychic abilities first manifest themselves, Paul realizes that he is in many ways a tool constructed for the use of others: "He could look to his own past and see the start of it, the training, the sharpening of talents, the refined pressures of sophisticated disciplines, even exposure to the O.C. Bible at a critical moment… and, lastly the heavy intake of spice…I'm a monster! he thought. A freak!…He found that he was pounding on the tent floor with his fists…His mother was beside him…'What have you done to me?' he demanded." (Herbert 1965, 191)

His entire life, Paul has been manipulated and bent to the schemes of others. Throughout the novel, he finds himself a victim in deadly political games, bears the burden of his genetic heritage, is used by his mother to achieve Bene Genesserit goals, and becomes the messiah of a desert religion.

Paul's mother, Jessica, certainly dominates and manipulates Paul more than any other character in the novel. She conceived him in the hopes of creating the Kwisatz Haderach. She trained him to fulfill the roll, hoping that she and her Bene Gesserit sisters could control him. She tries to keep to Paul from marrying his love, Chani, hoping instead to secure a political marriage for him. Jessica, however, finally changes, refusing the commands of her Bene Gesserit superior, and telling Paul to marry his love, saying, "Don't make the mistake your father made," (Herbert 1965, 464-471). Jessica changes her treatment of Paul too late; he has already decided that no one is blameless in his suffering (464).

The changes Paul has undergone appear vividly when he reunites with Gurney Halleck. When Gurney first sees Paul, he cannot even recognize him (Herbert 1965, 406). Paul complains of losing a carryall, to which Gurney replies, "Your father would've been more concerned for the men he couldn't save," (408). When Gurney learns that Paul is the Fremen leader Muad'Dib, he reacts with: "An oppressive sense of foreboding. Half his own crew dead on the sand, the others captive. He did not care about the new recruits, the suspicious ones, but among the others were good men, friends, people for whom he felt responsible. "We'll decide what to do with them after the storm." That's what Paul had said, Muad'Dib had said. And Gurney recalled the stories told of Muad'Dib, the Lisan al-Gaib ¾ how he had taken the skin of a Harkonnen officer to make his drumheads; how he was surrounded by death commandos, Fedaykin who leaped into battle with their death chants on their lips." (412)

This Paul, Muad'Dib, acts violently without a second thought. The Paul who Gurney knew had to be told: "'Mood?" Halleck's voice betrayed his outrage even through the shield's filtering. "What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises ¾ no matter the mood! Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It's not for fighting." (34)

Gurney sees that Paul has not only learned that mood has nothing to do with fighting, but he has become a man to whom violence is inconsequential.
In the final chapter of Dune, Paul realizes that by becoming a legend, something of a demigod, he has become a man alone. Much like the President of the United States, Paul is, as Abraham Lincoln would say, "the loneliest man in the world." In the case of his Fremen tribal leader and father figure Stilgar, Paul thinks to himself, "I have seen a friend become a worshipper," (Herbert 1965, 463). Paul worries that his relationship with his oldest friend, Gurney Halleck, will turn sour in the same manner (465). He has decided that, "There are no innocent any more," (464). Paul takes a royal wife, but will never love her (482). He seems destined to live the life of a cruel and lonely monarch.

The final chapter leaves two slight hopes for Paul's ultimate fate. The first of these, a symbolic expression, appears in Paul's refusal to use a special code word to paralyze Feyd-Rautha and kill him during their single combat. This act symbolizes the victory of Paul's humanity over his animal instincts (Miller 23). The second ray of hope appears in Paul's first meeting with another being like himself: "Paul, aware of some of this from the way the time nexus boiled, understood at last why he had never seen Fenring along the webs of prescience. Fenring was one of the might-have-beens, an almost-Kwisatz Haderach, crippled by a flaw in the genetic pattern, a eunuch, his talent concentrated into furtiveness and inner seclusion. A deep compassion for the Count flowed through Paul, the first sense of brotherhood he'd ever experienced." (480)

Because of this emotional contact, Fenring refuses to do the Emperor's bidding and kill Paul. Hope is left for the reader to believe that Paul may not live an emotionally barren life.
Paul, although powerful, cannot resist the whims of society. Paul as Miller writes, "Is more the victim than victimizer, for his 'terrible purpose' uses him more dispassionately than he spends his death commandoes," (21). Herbert himself wrote, "Power is the trap, political power and the other kinds of power which congregate around it," (1980, 100). Paul falls into that trap; he has been, "Trained by nearly all of the social and political groups of the feudal and hierarchical world he inhabits, and he defines himself out of a dialogue with them and their ideologies," (Touponce 16). Paul has a single-minded purpose, to exact vengeance on the Baron and Emperor who murdered his father. As Touponce says of Paul, "He wants nothing to with the jihad, the holy war, that he can see rushing from the future, but he is swept along by it anyway," (18).

Creation of a Hero-Monster
Paul becomes a destructive figure because, "Adolescents have the most ghastly horrible tendency to be sure they have The Answers to all the world's problems," (Campbell 113). This character fault does not limit itself to young men; it just has particular strength in youth. As Campbell goes on to remark, "Hitler was Sure He Was Right," (114). At times, Paul becomes an almost Hitler-like figure. Perhaps the most important question that a reader of Dune can ask is, "What makes a Paul Atreides? What forces shape a Hitler?"

At first response, most readers would the lay the blame on the monstrous individual. Certainly, "It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are sufficiently imbalanced they could be called insane," (Herbert 1980, 98). Many of the characters in Dune definitely make excellent candidates for admission to a sanitarium, the entire Harkonnen family, for example, is a study in sickness and depravity. Paul himself ponders the possibility that he is freak (Herbert 1965, 191). Nearly every character in the book, however, commits selfish, depraved acts that strike the reader as atrocious. Even the Duke Leto, Paul's valorous father, "Uses his men," and employs, "Charisma and loyalty, as well as fear and propaganda," (O'Reilly 45). The idea of insanity requires the existence of sanity, which every character in the novel seems to lack. Different moral and social systems, not insanity, have produced these men, who are simply men of their time in a sadistic age.

Societies shape and produce their superhero-monsters. Economics can profoundly influence the rise of a heroic figure in society. Herbert himself admitted to the direct reference to reality in Dune, writing, "The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC," (Herbert 1980, 98). When the Fremen of Arrakis refuse to continue to act by the status quo, they are cut off from their supplies; the same situation periodically occurs in the United States' dealings with the Middle East. Every society has certain material needs, determined by the level of technology on which that society depends. The "Law of the Minimum," an anthropological and ecological concept, asserts the truism that whichever of these material needs is least available to the society limits that society. In Dune, water limits the Fremen; oil limits contemporary America. Just as Paul seizes on the dream of Liet-Kynes to bring water to the desert as a tool to control the Fremen, someone who controlled the American energy supply could control the country.

Religion plays a central role in creating superhero-monsters both in Dune and the real world. Dune has as its subject, "The messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us," (Herbert 1980, 97). In the novel, the Fremen have been seeded with a Messianic legend by the Missionaria Protectiva, "The arm of the Bene Gesserit order charged with sowing infectious superstitions on primitive worlds, thus opening those regions to exploitation by the Bene Gesserit," (Herbert 1965, xx). In the real world, many different sources give mankind Messianic legends. The term "Kwisatz Haderach," used in Dune, comes directly, "From the Kabbala of Jewish mysticism," (Touponce 24). In addition, "Like the Jews, the Fremen have long been wandering and persecuted, always awaiting the promised land," (O'Reilly 43). In recent years, Hasidic Jews have believed that the Messiah had come as the Grand Rabbi. The Fremen also resemble the Islamic culture, possibly the most Messianic of all faiths. Herbert even believed that a situation similar to that in Dune could have played out in the real world with the situation of Lawrence of Arabia, with the, "Manipulation of the messianic impulses with in a culture by outsidfers with ulterior purposes," (43). The initial reaction of the Aztecs to the Spanish Conquistadors, in which the Aztecs hailed the Spaniards as gods from across the sea, allowing them to infiltrate their society, provides an excellent historical example. Messianic and religious tradition, usually intended for benign purpose, easily fall prey to the manipulations of a charismatic leader.

The Truths and Importance of Dune
A reader looks at Dune and claims that it holds no great significance, because it portrays the impossible. The Voice, which is, "That combined training originated by the Bene Gesserit which permits an adept to control others merely by selected tone shadings of the voice," (Herbert 1965, xxix) clearly cannot actually be used by a person. Frank Herbert, however, claims that he merely exaggerates that which may already be found in everyday life. In an interview, he presented a thought experiment to prove his point: "I'm going to describe a man to you. You know this man. And I'm going to give you a task of controlling him by voice after I've described him and after you recognize him. I said, This is a man who was in World War I as a sergeant; he came home from World War I to his small town in the Midwest, married his childhood sweetheart and went into his father's business; he raised two children, whom he doesn't understand, and who don't understand him, he joined the VFW and the legion, went on every picnic, every convention, lived by the double standard (he thought). Now on the telephone, strictly by voice, I want you to make him mad. It's the simplest thing in the world!" (McNelly 107)

As further proof, Herbert cites the work of S.I. Hayakawa in the field of semantics. Hayawaka observed that the identical phrase, said in different tones, could mean different things (107). In everyday life, people gain emotional control over one another by the use of differing vocal tones, a girl makes a boy do her will by using a sweet, seductive voice; a child causes his parents to yell at him or her by speaking in a snide tone; a teacher throws a student out of class after the student attempts to imitate the teacher's voice. People constantly make use of their voices to influence and control one another.

Herbert's portrayal of the ancestral memories of humanity in Paul and his sister Alia, though seemingly impossible, also comes from a solid background. Paul and Alia's ability to, "live billions upon billions of lives," (Herbert 1965, 464) comes from the theory of collective unconscious. In fact, "Herbert described the Dune books…as a 'concretizing' of Jung's ideas about the collective," (Touponce 10). Jung developed this theory by researching the mythologies of a variety of cultures. Mythologies, across cultures, display many common features. This led Jung to believe that an unconscious psychic bond existed among all humans, which he called "the collective unconscious." The famous mythologian Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, also held that all human beings carried a racial history of humanity deep within their psyche (O'Reilly 167-168). The debate on the question of the source of mythical similarities has yet to end, as many theories other than ancestral memory account for this phenomenon. If the theory of collective unconscious ever becomes accepted scientific dogma, trying to access that part of the psyche will become a perfectly rational goal.

Many readers of Dune correctly infer that the discovery of the consciousness-expanding properties of the spice melange directly parallels the discovery of new psychedelic drugs in American society in the early 1960s. Many of the same readers, however, falsely infer that Herbert advocates drug use. Timothy O'Reilly quotes Herbert on the subject as saying, "It's a dead-end street," (83). In one of many essays written about the creation of Dune, "Sandworms of Dune," Herbert writes of the negative aspects of the spice melange: "To use such a substance, you pay the great price. You no longer live in the protective and gregarious midst of your own mind. Now, you are the shaman, alone and forced to master your own madness. You have grasped the tail of the ultimate tiger." (Herbert 1995, 123).

Paul pays the price when, "His body had slowly acquired a certain spice tolerance that made prescient visions fewer and fewer…dimmer and dimmer," (Herbert 1965, 431). Paul drinks the poisonous Water of Life, the liquid excrement of the sandworm, so that he may once more experience prescient visions. Paul then lies, "Three weeks in a coma so deep that the spark of life seemed to have fled," (438). Furthermore, Paul is the only man to ever survive ingestion of the Water of Life; all the others, the Reverend Mother tells Paul at the beginning of the novel, "They tried and died," (13). Herbert clearly expresses the dangers of drugs and does not glorify them.

Surpassing in importance any other message in Dune is, as Herbert later wrote, "Don't give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear," (Herbert 1980, 98). Within everyone lies, "A human being who makes human mistakes," (98). As Miller points out, even the Mentats, "Men trained to process information as a supercomputer might…remain men; hence, their loyalty must be secured," (19). Paul, for all his grandiose qualities, still cannot ignore his emotional pain, and becomes extremely bitter after his son's death (Herbert 1965, 464). Throughout history, "People tend to give over every decision-making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the myth fabric of the society. Hitler did it. Churchill did it. Franklin D. Roosevelt did. Lenin did it," (Herbert 1980, 98). Any leader has a chance of being a madman. Absolute rulership simply allows for great tragedy, even by a benevolent despot, as his mistakes will, "Involve too many of us in disaster," (98).

Herbert's great contribution to thought falls in the philosophy of history. O'Reilly terms Herbert's ideas, "His genetic theory of history," (49). Paul comes about as the product of millennia of genetic manipulation. The Bene Gesserit knew that when their Kwisatz Haderach appeared, he would force a change in the Universe the likes of which had not been felt in thousands of years. Somehow, the Bene Gesserit have bred not for a man but for a historical event. Combine the element of Paul's prescience with a genetic theory of history, and a disturbing possibility comes about, the Universe is deterministic in nature, and through genetics, the future may be predicted. Herbert himself struggled to maintain that man possessed free will, however, the logical progression of ideas in the novel makes his position a hard one to maintain.

The superhero mystique and its related ideas, as expressed in Dune, have immense significance to social thinking. Society, as Dune demonstrates, generally manages to alienate its most talented and important members. The religious and economic pressures of a society push it to create a figurehead who can bring fiscal or spiritual salvation. By portraying the creation and alienation of a superman, Herbert manages to make several valid statements about our society, through a medium that is both fantastic and logical. With all these achievements, will Dune ever sit on a classics shelf at a library? The work that Dune is most frequently compared to, The Lord of the Rings has for years sat on classics shelves everywhere. Dune not only has a story as powerful as The Lord of the Rings, it has importance to modern society, and for this, it deserves recognition.

Works Cited
Campbell, John W. Jr. "The Campbell Correspondence." The Maker of Dune.
Ed. Tim O' Reilly. New York: Berkeley Books, 1987; pp. 111-121.
Herbert, Frank. "Dangers of the Superhero." 1980. The Maker of Dune. Ed. Tim
O'Reilly. New York: Berkeley Books, 1987; pp. 97-101.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1965.
Herbert, Frank. "The Sandworms of Dune." 1995. The Maker of Dune. Ed. Tim
O'Reilly. New York: Berkeley Books, 1987; pp. 122-124.
McNelly, Willis and Tim O'Reilly. "The Sparks Have Flown." The Maker of Dune.
Ed. Tim O'Reilly. New York: Berkely Books, 1987; pp. 102-110.
Miller, David M. Frank Herbert. San Bernardino: The Borgo Press, 1985.
O'Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co,1981.
Touponce, William F. Frank Herbert. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.

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Last modified: Friday, August 17, 2012, 9:30 PM