Dune: A Concoction of Myth

I watched a movie from 1984 last night.  These were the highlights: Patrick Stewart with a mullet, clumsy fight scenes meant to be exciting and fast-paced, Sting as a villain with clown hair, Styrofoam rocks, red-headed villains, Kyle Maclachlan’s lion mane of hair, a boil-faced baron, sweat (way to much sweat), spittle, eyebrows the size of stuffed animals, and bald women.  I’m talking about Dune.

I’m not into science fiction, but Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert is number 52 on the BBC book list and I have to admit that I quite enjoyed it.  (That’s why I tried the movie.)  I’m not enthralled, nor will I read any of the other books in the series, but I didn’t feel tortured while reading, as I did during The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I found myself lost in the story and wondering what would happen next.  The writing proved to be infinitely more sophisticated than Douglas Adams’, although not as literary as Thomas Hardy.  Overall, I have a good impression of this science fiction novel, one of only a handful that I have read.

Most striking to me is Herbert’s use of myth in weaving his tale.  Myth is essential to any civilization.  These stories connect us and fascinate us, which is why any bestselling novel or popular movie series will include myths, especially the hero cycle (which I wrote about here and will not repeat in this post), as part of their storytelling.  I learned much about myth from one of my favorite professors, Dr. B.  Here’s what he taught me.

Myth is a branch of storytelling, opposite of iconoclasm, which has three main purposes.  One is to tell the story of the gods or the all-powerful.  Two, is to explain the origin of things.  And three, is to explain the correct relations with the gods.  Should a culture lose its mythology, it is finished.  Civilizations do not thrive without myths.  Myths are not necessarily false; they can be true.  It is one of the most clear cut and powerful forms of storytelling.  Hence, its popularity in our culture.  Think of the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings.  These books/movies follow the myth-making pattern I described above and the hero cycle that I described in another post here.

Dune does so as well.  The main character, Paul, is a young boy who becomes a man and discovers his heroic powers along the way.  Under test and trial, he rises to the occasion to lead his people to victory in a war.  His mother guides him.  Some of his heroic traits include: facing great danger, being small for his age, having an instinct for rightness, being the descendent of kings, leading his people, following the Messiah pattern, and ultimately overcoming all of his challenges.  He is a Christ figure, or a hero, who leads his people through the desert (that’s why it’s called Dune) to freedom.  He also sounds a lot like Moses leading the children of Israel, or like the apostle Paul.  Paul in our story gets a new name halfway through the book, similar to the way Saul became Paul in The Bible once he repented of his sins.

A lot of the myth I noticed followed the Christian tradition, and The Bible is a big influence on Western literature (see my discussion of that here).  However, Dune also borrows myth from Jewish and Muslim traditions.  Many words, beliefs, and customs are borrowed from all three of these religious cultures.  I attribute the novel’s success to Herbert’s skillful use of these familiar and beloved myths.

Another interesting facet of the story is the planet’s lack of water.  It is a desert, where giant worms roam and tribes compete for resources.  As I read about the water, which reminded me of the living water of The Bible (again, we see mythic storytelling elements), I found myself thinking of a conversation I recently had with a stranger on a bus.  When we visited Disneyland a few months ago, I ended up sitting next to an extroverted gentleman on the bus ride back to our hotel.  He talked about his grandchildren and his daughter.  But what most excited him was talking about the drought in southern California.  He believed that one day it would be necessary for Californians to catch rain water in order to live.  He talked of newspaper reports highlighting the need for water conservation and how the pipeline from the Colorado River would no longer be available to them because the other western states needed to keep that water.  He explained that the newspapers once had small back-page articles on this issue, but over the last few years, these articles had made their way to the front page.  Now, I don’t mean to make this man sound fanatical.  He was not.  He was concerned.  He saw that things had changed in his 30 years of living in California and wondered what the future would hold.  His perspective was interesting to me, and I thought of his remarks many times while reading about the fight over water in Dune.  Will we eventually live on a planet that does not have enough water for everybody?

The corniest part of the novel was Paul’s test ride on one of the makers, the giant sand worms.  To complete his training as a Fremen leader, he had to prove that he could ride a worm.  It came across as silly and ridiculous.  During his ride, his old friends from the Harkonnen tribe discover them.  A fight ensues, until he realizes who they are and they realize who he is.  Then they are awed by his riding of the worm.  Worms don’t seem scary or intimidating to me.  Perhaps they would be if I could see them as giant-sized creatures like the book describes.  This sort of drama pervades the book, and in my notes I have written that the whole novel is a little dramatic.

The characters are comprised of four tribes: Harkonnens, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, and Fremen.  Paul’s mother is Bene Gesserit, his father is Harkonnen.  Paul and his mother, Jessica, join forces with the Fremen and defeat the Sardaukar.  Paul therefore unites the people and defeats their enemies, again making him a hero.

Here are the best quotes from the novel:

“It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult” (65-66).

“If you rely only on your eyes, your other senses weaken” (227).

“What do you despise?  By this are you truly known” (230).

“It occurred to her that mercy was the ability to stop, if only for a moment.  There was no mercy where there could be no stopping” (245).

Overall, I am glad to have read this book (embarrassed to have seen the movie).  I am glad that I discovered and tried something new in my literary tastes.  Sometimes it is hard for me to change my ways, especially when it comes to the types of books I read, but this was a good exercise in stretching my horizons.  What are your favorite science fiction novels?  Are there any others that I should try?  (Not that I’m making any promises…)

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13 thoughts on “Dune: A Concoction of Myth

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  1. Given what you’ve written about the mythmaking in DUNE, you may want to try another classic, THE CANTICLE OF LEIBOWITZ (sp?), which is a post-apocalyptic novel in the far future of Earth. Richard Matheson’s novella I AM LEGEND also plays with the question of how societies build their own stories.

    Regarding water — this absolutely will be the issue our children must wrestle (along with the petroleum thing, obviously). More than the pipeline that man mentioned, we should be concerned with the quickly-depleting Oglalla Aquifer, a vast system that feeds a significant portion of the western United States.

    Good review!

    1. Is I Am Legend the same as the movie? I know there’s a book version, but I think it had a different title, so I’m probably mistaken. Yes, water conservation is a real issue/problem. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great post. I have never read Dune because I am not a sci-fi buff, except I did like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (post-apocalyptic) by Philip K Dick, and, like DigitalSextant, I also enjoyed I Am Legend. The film, I thought, was dreadful but the book very good. I like Richard Matheson generally. As for Dune, the idea of Patrick Stewart with a mullet make the mind boggle!

  3. Hi,
    There are so many obvious stratagems in the first book that nobody should ever say there are four tribes. The Sardaukar are a military force culled/trained by Corrinno (the emperor house).
    The technology all houses do not like to use, even the bene gesserit, is raw number crunching.

    Compare to 2015. Insurance companies and politicians influenced by number crunchers, they will use statistics to meet their need.
    Any sort of measurable (even the not scientifically countable) will be used in an overblown diagram to prove they can lift one number into the hilight they need.

    But there were a helluvalot more tribes and things that struck me as enlightening when I first read dune in its first translation here.
    I am sixty now ( I have first original editions of all of those books by now).
    I read the book and it sequels each time e new sequel came out.
    It never took me as a surprise that I had been some sort of superficial reader /aka / undereducated (one gets what the IQ can fathom, but education also mleans that you got a great many other things under your belt, not just what you was told when you first learned this or that, but also many years latern, when you realise you were kept dumb when you was not told the “story” when you inquired about the incomprehensibility of infinity when the cncept of a line was explained.
    a series of nothing that has a mass of nothing and is straight… he mumbled.
    (I do recall I was dazed and confused when I first heard of some axioma.)

    What I want to say is that the first three books by Frank were great entertainment, could be reread and rediscovered, because stuff told in a later book made you understand someting Frank had intended to BE THERE in the first.

    I will also admit that the Kevin J anderson / and son of Frank are absolutely not equal to the writing quailty Franl had. (a bit too repititive)

    like tv shows …. TV shows thinking that in every 8 minutes segment at least 91 pct has to again explaned all over again? I saw the dune 2000 show, it was acually better than the film with Sting.

    I lost track about where my thoughts went.
    Kinda fitting, because the books can get you really thinking.
    Kind regards, Jaak

    1. Absolutely! I love that books make me think. It sounds like you are a big fan of this series. I’ve just read this one, and it has been long enough that I don’t remember everything about it, but I remember enjoying it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. David Lynch’s New Age vision for “Dune” comes off misguided, and frankly, a bit ridiculous. I read “Dune” in college during the late 70s and I could not grasp how Frank Herbert sanctioned this version. As with all epics (and yes, “Dune” is considered epic in the context of the genre) translating the plot twists and psychological realism to celluloid proves problematic at best. A TV Mini-series released in 2000, starring William Hurt, captures the scope more faithfully than the Lynch version and is more entertaining in general.

  5. Incidentally, I think you will find some Science Fiction worth reading. Especially the New Wave (Post-Modernist) authors of the late ’60s and beyond including Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick, Samuel Delaney, John Brunner, and William Gibson, a group of authors known for their original ideas and experiments in style and narration. If nothing else look into Ray Bradbury as his prose style was virtual poetry in some of the early novels.

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