“For as I take it Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in his world, is at bottom the history of Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modelers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or attain.” -Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship.
As the theatrical release of a new film version draws near, Dune fans eagerly await seeing their heroes brought to life on the big screen. So it strikes me as an excellent time to devote a little space to Frank Herbert’s groundbreaking science fiction masterpiece. Initially published in 1965, the novel introduced readers to a universe that turned many of the tropes of classic science fiction upside down. In Herbert’s vision, computers have been outlawed, and personal force fields have made projectile weapons obsolete. Instead of regaling us with a tale of robots and duels with laser guns, Dune explores a world of feudal lords who rely on knives to defend themselves and use specially trained human computers to calculate their odds of survival.
The future history that Herbert builds as a backdrop for his saga is complex and multifaceted. And the novel weaves many thematic elements into its story, from ecology to religion. In such a variegated tapestry, it’s challenging to draw out one thread that will give us the key to the whole, but for this post, I’d like to focus on what seems to be Dune’s central message. In his lectures On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Thomas Carlyle writes, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Frank Herbert’s Dune seems to me a meditation on and critique of that assessment.
This aspect of the work might not be evident at first glance. When I first read Dune as a young teenager, like most, I wanted to identify myself with the hero and share in his adventures. Paul Atreides is the son of a Duke and has been specially trained from childhood. He possesses remarkable powers of observation and formidable combat skills. When a sneak attack by his family’s mortal enemies leaves him stranded with his mother on the desert planet of Arrakis, he must use all his resources to survive and restore the fortunes of his house.
However, this desperate change in his circumstances soon precipitates frightening new powers in him. His latent abilities to predict the future begin to manifest themselves, and he sees himself at the focal point of all human history. “Paul’s mind had gone on its chilling precision. He saw the avenues ahead of them on this hostile planet. Without even the safety valve of dreaming, he focused his prescient awareness, seeing it as a computation of most probable futures, but with something more, an edge of mystery-as though his mind dipped into some timeless stratum and sampled the winds of the future.”
He realizes that he will become a religious leader to the disenfranchised Fremen who live in the desert he must now call home. They will call him Muad’Dib, and he will lead them in bloody wars of conquest throughout the known universe. At first, Paul shrinks from this possibility. He must use the Fremen to survive, but he also urgently desires to evade the role his vision predicts for himself among them. But as the novel continues, he realizes that he may be trapped by his own prophetic abilities. “Paul sat silently in the darkness, a single stark thought dominating his awareness: my mother is my enemy. She does not know it, but she is. She is bringing the jihad.”
Dune, then, offers us a fascinating exploration of the idea of heroism and hero-worship. In many ways, Paul Atreides is the ideal hero. He is brave, intelligent, moral, honest, and charismatic. Generations of readers have found him a compelling character and felt swept into his world and caught up in his struggles. And in this sense, he presents us with a healthy form of hero-worship, someone we may aspire to emulate, a pattern upon whom we may model our lives.
But hero-worship has a negative aspect that the novel presents as a counterpoint. Herbert gives us some hints on this subject. In a crucial passage, while he is hallucinating and close to death, the planetologist, Dr. Kynes, hears the following words. “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”
Later, when the sociopathic Feyd-Rautha kills a slave gladiator in the family arena, his bravura display is celebrated with wild abandon. A guest expresses concern for the boy’s safety, but his uncle replies, “No one will harm the lad. He’s a hero. He could walk unarmed and unshielded through the poorest quarters of Harko tonight. They’d give him the last of their food and drink just for his company.”
Fiction lends itself to a benign form of hero-worship. We naturally identify with the protagonist in their struggles. Their victories against the odds are cathartic reminders that we too may triumph over our circumstances. And in this sense, the medium of Dune forms a part of its message. We are meant to identify with Paul Atreides and to read ourselves into his story.
But mindless devotion to leaders and the dangers of unquestioning obedience to our heroes forms a dark undercurrent in Dune. The Fremen chieftain, Stilgar, at one point, presents a healthy vision of leadership. “A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from a people. He maintains the level of individuals, too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob.” But leaders who are worshipped as heroes often do not maintain the level of individuals. Instead, they debase those who follow them into a mob.
Ironically, it is Stilgar himself who eventually loses his individuality to his hero’s religious leadership. “In that instant, Paul saw how Stilgar had been transformed from the Fremen [leader] to a receptacle for awe and obedience. It was a lessening of the man, and he felt the ghost wind of the jihad in it. I have seen a friend become a worshipper, he thought.”
Dune can be read simply as a tremendously exciting and entertaining adventure story. But its deeper themes bear examination. Heroes can inspire us and drive us toward goals we would never have imagined without the impact of their lives. But Frank Herbert cautions us of the dangers of unquestioning loyalty to our leaders. In this sense, no greater disaster could befall us than to fall into the hands of a hero.
Heroes and Hero Worship in Frank Herbert’s Dune: Copyright 2021 Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Dunes at Death Valley by Gleb Tarro. Fair use attribution.