THE HERO AS A SYMPTOM: a thematic refresher on Frank Herbert’s Dune

***SPOILERS AHEAD for Frank Herbert’s DUNE***

THIS MAY BE OBVIOUS to anyone already captivated by Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction classic, but in light of fresh public interest (*cough* new mega-budget movie *cough*), I think it is worth reiterating: 

Dune is not a Hero’s Journey. Understanding this is essential to a fuller appreciation of this wild modern mythology Herbert has created.

Kicking things off, I’m going to dispense with the obligatory book summary and get to the heart of it. This is my TED Talk, after all, and it’s aimed at those with at least a passing knowledge of the first book in the Dune Chronicles; maybe those still wrestling with its idiosyncrasies as a work of epic fiction. If you want the Cliff Notes, I direct you to any number of all-you-can-eat wiki-buffets dotting the information superhighway. They’re everywhere. Like Denny’s. And they’ve got big, sticky menus running down Dune’s timeless plot, unique world-building, Machiavellian political allegory, and mythic and religious underpinnings.

This essay is focused not on the What, but the Why. Why Dune’s unconventional take on dramaturgy, theology, sociology, race relations, and politics (both power- and gender-based)—why basically everything which makes Dune DUNE cannot be taken at face value when it comes to common mythic structure, because the book is anything but a straightforward exemplum, much less a ringing endorsement, of Joseph Campbell’s touted Monomyth (or ‘Hero’s Journey’ as everybody and their demibrother knows it).

In Herbert’s universe, the cozy old ways are turned topsy-turvy. And good riddance.

Ill tidings on the horizon…

I. The Infliction of a Hero

It’s for lack of better description that Dune is so often lumped in with the bloated ranks of ‘Heroes’ Journeys.’ The reasoning is pretty obvious: to market and categorize a not-quite-categorizable work to a world still very hungry for familiar heroic archetypes (I’m looking at you, Beowulf, Odysseus, Bilbo, Neo, Luke-o, and every Avenger who’s ever avenged).

Not even the official synopsis of 2021’s much-hyped film adaptation by the talented Denis Villeneuve can help but label Dune “an emotionally charged hero’s journey”. Which is all well and good for marketing, but for the uninitiated, this tack is not only reductive, I’d call it deeply misleading. Those expecting a battle between good and evil on the order of The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars may find themselves baffled by the inversion of mythic tropes in Herbert’s ruminative epic. 

“I wasn’t going to do the Jesus story,” Herbert said of Paul’s tale. “I went to the Arthurian legend, and I was trying to create a mythology that would give people a different view of how we give over our lives to leaders. Not just to messiahs, but to people who pose as our leaders, or who make themselves our leaders, or who entice us into following them.”

Let em have it, Frank. 

As a result, Dune‘s ‘hero’ is not your typical ‘bumpkin drawn to adventure by supernatural forces.’ Paul Atreides is a rich boy, a withdrawn weirdo “stamped with strangeness”; scion of a noble house in vassalage to a corrupt and musty empire; and, as he soon learns, one more stud horse in an ages-long eugenics breeding program. His prescient powers awaken not because of his own agency, or even magical intervention, but because of unwitting addiction to an ‘awareness-spectrum narcotic’ called melange—or ‘spice’ as the kids call it these days—a commodity driving (and stymying) all of human progress. 

Notably, as these powers of his flourish, Paul does not grow more gallant or righteous. On the contrary, his warmth, his relationships, and his common humanity strain and diminish as prophetic awareness overwhelms his sense of identity. He comes to see himself less as an individual than a freakish new ’seed’ sprouting from the human veggie garden:

“I don’t understand you, Paul,” his mother said.

He remained silent, thinking like the seed he was, thinking with the race consciousness he had first experienced as terrible purpose. He found he could no longer 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 […] 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.

Yeesh. Imagine Peter Parker laying that shit on Aunt May.

If Dune has a place in comparative mythology, it is as pure disruption; an upheaval of that pesky Hero’s Journey. And it is here that the book either clicks with the reader on a deeper level, or abandons them in the drum sand. Because, while any good story is open to interpretation, you simply cannot ignore this novel’s iconoclastic elements without misreading the text as a despotic power fantasy, or—oof—some kinda racist, sexist, ‘White Man’s Burden’ treatise.

Beneath its pulp sci-fi cover, Dune reveals itself to be quite the subversive piece of literature. A philosophical anti-epic well-versed in the failures and atrocities of colonialist history, the ideologically incestuous limitations of rote mythic structure, and the deadly peril that the longing for a hero is emblematic of in human development.

“I think people are responding to leadership overtures out of a very deep-seated, instinctual process that goes back to our tribal roots,” says Herbert of our human tendency toward leader-seeking and hero-worship. “And it’s a very dangerous thing in this day and age, because technology has given us the tools of self-destruction. And if you put those tools in the hands of sick leaders, then we’re really in trouble.”

To Herbert, a hero is rarely a savior. A hero is a symptom—of a malady deep in our collective unconscious. A warning sign of dependency; our addictive habit of relinquishing our own agency to those who would win it for sport. Our most useful leaders, argues Herbert, are not those who charm and enthrall us, but those whose misdeeds are so naked and egregious they shake us out of the spell of hero-worship. Serving as a cruel reminder that leaders are not divinely ordained, but fallible human beings. 

“And when they make mistakes,” Herbert explains, “their mistakes are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”

A true hero, then, would be a kind of chimera. A tragic monster, deeply self-aware and conscious that he or she is playing host to something at once higher and lower than mere morality. A ’terrible purpose’; a panhuman racial awareness of the evolutionary demands which must, under pressure of extinction, eclipse our cultural mores and individual desires. This is the kind of hero Paul Atreides is. And he is a truly terrifying thing to be inflicted upon an idle people.

The city of Arakeen

II. Society, Addiction & Stagnation

Mythology is, of course, rooted in society. An elucidation of values and a reinforcement of established customs. One of mythology’s primary goals, says Joseph Campbell, myth-guru extraordinaire, is to prepare youth for adulthood and social integration. To teach them to venture out into the world with an openness to growth and change, so that they may later return with a newfound mastery to contribute productively to their host society.

But what if said youth returns with the conviction that his society—in fact, the entire human condition—is fundamentally FUCKED? Faulty, backsliding, stagnant. Dying. This is the stinging question Herbert poses. And if we are to wrestle with it, we must first consider what we can glean about human nature from Dune’s various societal depictions. 

Take the Imperium (take her, please *ba-dum tss*). The Imperium is a sweeping interstellar civilization whose upper crust live long, comfy lives thanks to the geriatric qualities of the spice they regularly consume. Certainly an impressive feat. But beneath the facade of splendor and stability lies a corrupt, retrogressive, patrimonial, drug-addled, medieval feudal society under the heel of an autarch propped up by a vapid, scheming aristocratic class. A long outmoded and defective social system haphazardly transplanted into humanity’s future. The Imperium isn’t a beacon of human progress. It is a vision of utter human stagnation.

Threading together the planets of the Imperium is the Spacing Guild. A technological cabal imbued with the rare prescient talent of navigating ships between the stars without aid of computers (thinking machines having been outlawed after an ancient AI uprising). This gifted faction is vital to interstellar commerce, travel and stability. They are also underhanded opportunists monopolizing all dealings of imperial citizens across the Known Universe—nobility and vassals alike—essentially extorting the human race for greater shares of the spice, on which they depend to maintain their vital prescient talent. Kinda like that screwy older brother who won’t give you a ride to the mall unless you swipe him some of Grandma’s Percocet. Addiction. Stagnation.

Weaving their own galactic web is the mysterious Bene Gesserit: a mystic sisterhood, masters of mental and physical control practically superhuman by our standards. This secret order puts up a front of submission to the Imperium’s leadership (providing arranged marriages, concubines, Truthsayer advisers, all the desires of a patriarchic power structure) all the while secretly spying on and manipulating these little lords in hopes of steering the human race toward a more enlightened future. Sounds fairly noble, actually. Except the Bene Gesserit treat human beings like livestock (not the good grass-fed, non-GMO shit). And their eugenics program absolutely reeks of old Nazi ‘racial hygiene.’ And their end goal is to produce a genetic demigod, or Kwisatz Haderach, a pinnacle of human evolution whom they intend to condition and wield for their own dubious gain. And—like college kids on adderall—they just gotta have a hit of that sweet, sweet spice to maintain their talents. 

Addiction. Regression. Stagnation.

Is there any facet of this society that sounds admirable or worthy of contribution?

Maybe we’ll find our true-blue heroes on the flip side of the Imperial coin: the Fremen. Those exile inhabitants of the desert world Arrakis, home of the coveted spice. At first glance, definitely a badass bunch. Highly skilled, fearless, long-suffering, ecologically literate, master survivalist warrior-craftsmen-and-women. And freedom fighters, baby. Ah! These are our dudes, right? The brave Rebellion to the Imperium’s evil Galactic Empire! Well…except they don’t give a shit about freeing the universe. Their singular dream is terraforming their barren homeworld into a private Eden. Very exclusive—no water-fatties. Speaking of water-fatties, Fremen are merciless killers who exsanguinate all interlopers for their precious moisture. Basically H2O vampires. And they are religious fanatics who worship a death worm-god called Shai-Hulud. And their life-and-death existence has crippled them with superstitions easily manipulated by religious engineers; ripening them for indoctrination by a cunning champion. Oh and they’re spice-junkies like everyone else. Hell with it—

STAGNATION. EVERYWHERE.

The ‘Shortening of the Way’

III. Terrible Purpose 

I’m laying it on pretty thick, but only to make clear: the human universe as depicted in Dune is the furthest thing from an ideal future. Though exotic and morbidly fascinating, almost nothing about it is exemplary—not its politics, race relations, gender biases, religions, etc. And entirely by design. What Herbert is presenting us with is a humanity in decline. A pastiche of our most self-seeking and self-defeating paradigms which crop up time and again throughout human history like whack-a-mole defects. At best: this is a society acclimatized to pernicious patterns, and merely going through the motions of life. At worst: it’s a veritable breeding ground for sociopaths, megalomaniacs, manipulators, zealots, murderers. All the crumb-bums.

It begs the question: are we actually intended to root for any one of them? Even the noblest and most sympathetic of characters—the honorable Duke Leto, the wise tribal leader Stilgar, the dauntless Lady Jessica—cannot extricate themselves from the patterns, prejudices, and toxic rites of their heritage. They’re flies caught in a thrumming web of human degeneracy. None emerge unscathed, if at all.

For his part, Duke Leto’s honor demands he all but shun the love of his life for expedience and political appearances, only to be devoured by the very system he hopes to mollify and elevate. The measured Stilgar loses first his Fremen tribe, and then himself, to blind fanaticism for a charismatic personality. And Lady Jessica, who boldly weathers grief and brute survival for her children’s sake—stripped of love, and excommunicated by the only sisterhood she ever knew—is left coarsened and world-weary by the time her son ascends the throne. Feeling “suddenly old and tired.” A stranger, even, to her freakish progeny.

Speaking of freakish progeny, to bring things full circle: just what are we to make of Paul? (I’ll leave poor Alia out of this for now.) If this is his hero’s journey, it is certainly the strangest, murkiest one ever written. Paul does not embark on adventure for any power, knowledge or ‘Ultimate Boon’ to contribute to his society. In fact, he is born with entirely too much knowledge and power; talents he initially seeks to repress because they are eroding his sense of self. His humanity. Devolving his friends, family, and mentors into unquestioning worshipers in a cult of personality.

Herbert writes: “All governments suffer from a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”

Paul, then, serves as a ‘corruption of the corruptible.’ A byproduct of his society’s sins. His ‘hero’s journey’ (if you still insist on calling it that) teaches him only that he and his fellow humans are, through their own vicious cycles of habits and vices, winding themselves down to extinction. His purpose becomes a terrible, inhuman one. And the only ‘gifts’ he has to bestow on his society are a bloody crusade, and a hydraulic despotism on the spice which will send the universe into agonizing fits of withdrawal; leaving the human race with two options: true metamorphosis or death.

Not terribly heroic by modern standards. Then again, Paul ‘Muad’Dib’ is no savior. He is a symptom of those gangrenous trends in human affairs. Addiction. Stagnation. Idolatry. Entropy. He is not here to deliver a penitent humanity. He is here to put an unholy squeeze on a stalling, dysfunctional species. I hate to break it to all the Timmy Chalamet ‘stans’ out there…but Paul is a freak, a monster whose all-seeing oppression will teach humankind to never again place its future in the hands of a fucking ‘Hero.’ He (and by extension his children) is to be our final exam. A living, breathing ‘gom jabbar’ here to test humanity’s own humanity. Our ingenuity, our staying power, in a cold and inhospitable universe.

I’ll let the Man himself have the last word: 

“Messiahs should come with a warning label: ‘May be dangerous to your health.’ “

One thought on “THE HERO AS A SYMPTOM: a thematic refresher on Frank Herbert’s Dune

  1. Thoroughly fascinating, thoughtful, and insightful analysis overall. This essay deserves publication! Like, New Yorker status, lol. Seriously, great work. It certainly gives an in-depth perspective on Dune that I hadn’t considered before. It also speaks to the reality of why the story has been so difficult to adapt to film. But they always try. Bravo, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

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