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…)