Hypothesis: all of Western Literature (or at least the swatch represented by the BBC’s book list) thematizes one of three main questions. These questions are:
- Does God exist? If so, is God benevolent, malevolent, or ambivalent? If not, then what are we doing here?
- What is the role of time in our lives and in what ways do we try to cheat and escape it?
- Are our lives governed by our own free will, or do we have a destiny to fulfill? If the latter, how do we know the nature of our destiny, and can we do anything to escape it?
Frank Herbert’s Dune addresses all three of these issues to some extent, though the third is obviously the focal point of the novel. Essentially a Christ metaphor set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, a boy groomed from childhood for command during a time of great political unrest. Trained by his father to command the respect of his followers and his mother to discipline his mind so as to be able to identify traitors and plots, Paul seems like any ordinary ducal successor when his father is betrayed and killed by the Harkonnens, Atreides’ longstanding enemies. But no! Prophesies have been swirling like sand around Arrakis for years, telling of a savior who will lead the native Fremen people out of the desert, overthrow the evil Harkonnens, and restore the planet to a lush paradise. And guess who fits all aspects of the prophesy?
I don’t mean to be flip; I realize that Dune was and is a triumph of science fiction that changed the genre forever (not to mention being the first winner of the Nebula Award). It is as much an adventure story as it is a religious commentary, both an environmental treatise and a political manifesto. And yet, I couldn’t help but think as I read, “I know all this already. How is this different from the gospels?”
In the character of Paul, Herbert had a real opportunity to humanize his messiah, allowing his readers to connect with the savior in a way that the gospels will never achieve. Christianity is a worldwide religion with Christ at its center; worshippers’ sense of awe and unworthiness often prevent them from viewing Jesus as both fully God and fully human, as the scriptures suggest. We cannot understand this dichotomy and so we lean towards the “fully God” part and leave out the rest. After all, we know our own weaknesses; it is difficult to imagine worshipping a being we know to have been even remotely as fallible as we are.
Paul Atreides could have provided a link between an understanding of the messiah and an understanding of the man. At first reluctant to accept his role, Paul realizes shortly after his father’s death that he has power beyond comprehension. “He saw people,” Herbert describes. “He felt the heat and cold of uncounted probabilities. He knew names and places, experienced emotions without number, reviewed data of innumerable unexplored crannies. There was time to probe and test and taste, but no time to shape” (190). This realization leaves within him “a clockwork control for a bomb” that continues ticking no matter what he does (191). Paul’s destiny isolates him even from his mother, who up until this point has possessed a reassuring awareness of all things. Suddenly, Paul realizes that he is alone. Even his mother Jessica notices the change in him. “I’m afraid of my son,” she realizes. “I fear his strangeness; I fear what he may see ahead of us, what he may tell me” (241).
Rather than allowing us to see how the change affects his daily life, however, Herbert forces us to lose track of Paul for several years as he adjusts to life among the Fremen in the open desert of Arrakis. When next we meet Paul, he is fully installed as the leader of the Fremen, fully-grown, commanding men with his father’s ease while desperately working against a war-of-the-worlds that he has foreseen. “It must not be,” he thinks, “I cannot let it happen” (309). Yet Paul needn’t worry. The Fremen so come to respect and admire him that they won’t do anything without his say-so. Even the previous leader, Stilgar becomes “transformed” from a powerful community member “to a creature of the Lisan al-Gaib, a receptacle for awe and obedience” (455). Even while he lives, the other characters in the novel transform Paul into a thing to be worshipped rather than a man to be followed. Instead of showing us an alternative way of interacting with a messiah-figure, Herbert mirrors our own blind devotion, and thus falls short of anything but gospel mimicry. Just as Paul cannot escape his destiny as Muad’Dib, Herbert’s novel suggests that we cannot escape our destiny as mere spectators of our deities, admirers rather than participants, acquaintances rather than friends.
PAGE COUNT: 20,645
BOOK COUNT: 52/100