Dune: A Fascinating Exploration of Ecology and Religion

by Kyla Guilfoil, Asst. News Editor

Before the title “Dune” garnered worldwide attention due to the upcoming film starring Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya, it was a novel that transformed the genre of science fiction.

Frank Herbert wrote “Dune” in 1963, five years after traveling to the north end of the Oregon Dunes, where he was inspired to incorporate the powerful characteristics of its ecology into a story about religion, politics and philosophy. But the lasting impact of this story struggled to get initial traction.

After publishing a three-part serial titled “Dune World” in the magazine “Analog,” Herbert received over twenty rejections from publishers who did not see potential in publishing the work as novels.

A year and a half after the final publication in “Analog,” Herbert’s “Dune” was finally published in 1965 by Chilton Books, which wasn’t even a literary publisher, rather a company that specialized in auto-repair manuals.

Frank Herbert wrote “Dune” in 1963, five years after traveling to the north end of the Oregon Dunes. CLOUD LAKE LITERARY/COURTESY

Despite the circumstances, the novel won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Book in 1965, and the Hugo Award in 1966. Since then, “Dune” has been translated into 14 languages and has sold more than 12 million copies.

Holding 188,000 words that include dozens of story-specific vocabulary, “Dune” did intimidate me. However, a combination of Dune’s incredible reputation, my father’s impetus and my own adoration of Chalamet finally convinced me to dive into Herbert’s most famous work.

“Dune” is set in the year 10,191, with Herbert establishing that humans have abandoned Earth and now live throughout a collection of colonized planets. The story originates on Caladan, a luscious ocean planet where Paul Atreides, our main character, has grown up. Now 15, Paul will follow his father, Duke Leto Atreides, to the planet of Arrakis, a harsh desert planet known by its native settlers, the Fremen, as Dune. Arrakis is particularly important as it is home to melange, an expensive and exclusive spice that extends youth.

House Atreides settles into their new household, Arrakeen, following the orders of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, who is the leader of the empire which controls the series of colonized planets in this universe.

However, Shaddam’s assignment is essentially a trap, as the Emperor is threatened by House Atreides, and is using the assignment to conspire with House Harkonnen, another royal family living on Arrakis, to destroy the Atreides clan. While the Atreides are aware of possible trickery, there is no way to escape the assignment.

Therefore, the basis of the novel is the war that ensues following the attack of House Atreides, and the legacy that Paul inherits.

Herbert layers this novel with complex characters and environments.

The Bene Gesserit is a Sisterhood that completes intense training from which physical and mental conditioning grants one seemingly superhuman ability. Bene Gesserit is able to read thoughts, for example, by deeply understanding body language and emotions presented by others. They also use the Voice, which enables them to encourage certain moods or thoughts in another person.

While Duke Leto never marries, he is deeply committed to his concubine, Lady Jessica, who is a Bene Gesserit “witch” and mother to the royal son, Paul. Jessica has raised Paul to be trained in Bene Gesserit ways, despite the fact that he is a male.

Lady Jessica was never even supposed to birth Paul, as her orders from the Sisterhood was to only birth a daughter, and she directly defied this by granting her love, Leto, an heir.

Paul is not only trained by his mother, but also by Dun- can Idaho and Gurney Halleck, elite soldiers who have made teenage Paul a master of warfare and combat. Further, Paul has been educated in political strategies by Thufir Hawat. Hawat is a mentat, a human trained to mirror the cognitive and analytic abilities of computers, and Paul is thus trained in the mentat ways, too.

After the Harkonnen forces oust House Atreides and kill Duke Leto, Paul and Jessica manage to escape to the desert while their enemies assume them dead. The two find a new home with the Fremen, who live deep in the desert.

Here, Paul learns that he is actually the Kwisatz Haderach, the ultimate goal of the Bene Gesserit breeding plan. As the son of Bene Gesserit, who has been exposed to high levels of melange, Paul begins to understand that he can see the future through visions.

This ability means that Paul fulfills a Fremen legend, and is granted the title of a messiah among their people. From then on, Paul is referred to as Muad’Dib. He leads a Fremen force against the Harkonnen and Sarkudaur (troops of the Emperor) armies that take back the planet’s control. In the end, Paul takes the power over the entire empire, achieving his goal, but also committing the Fremen to a new religion.

After the victory, the Fremen believe Paul to be a God, establishing a new, religious order that results in jihad across the new empire of Muad’Dib.

This deeply intricate story is only the first of six novels that narrate the legacy of Muad’Dib, yet it delves intensely into the themes of religion and environmentalism.

For one, the setting of Dune consistently emphasizes the importance of water by introducing many technologies and rituals that all relate to the lack of water on the planet. From suits that redistribute water lost from the skin back into the body, to “taking the water of the dead”, Fremen are raised in practices of strict water discipline.

Paul’s importance exists in the Fremen environment, as they believe that he is to carry out the plan to build a new eco-system on Dune that the recently deceased Fremen leader had prophesied. Paul encourages this, sharing with his desert followers his visions of open water existing on Dune. To Fremen, this is a shocking possibility, especially since they believe Paul to be all-knowing.

These characteristics feed into what becomes the new Fremen religion.

Paul fulfills the role of messiah through his prescient abilities and success in taking back control of Dune. This role of religious importance, wherein a political leader is also deemed morally and spiritually superior, ignites an overwhelming sense of power in one being.

Paul senses the danger in this position but ultimately fulfills this path in order to achieve his political agenda. Religion offers a path to power like no other. The moral and spiritual incentives of religion encourage a blinding allegiance to follow orders unquestionably. It is because Paul uses religion that he ascends to the emperor of this universe.

Throughout history, humans have caused war, death, and violence in the name of a religion that is paradoxically rooted in spirituality and moral guidance.

Unlike many science fiction writers of his time, Herbert did not believe that religion was an outdated institution, but instead one that would continue to hold incredible authority over humanity. Despite the adoption of the “separation of church and state” in many modern democracies, religion continues to have persistent influences on the law. We see this in the US today, from the recent Texas abortion ban to the harsh opponents of same-sex marriage.

The revival of “Dune” as the highly anticipated 2021 film adaptation demonstrates the powerful analysis Herbert made of humanity 56 years ago.

Novels like “Dune” persist in popular culture because people can still relate to them. While we label such pieces of work “literature” and “fiction”, I think that it is important to review their lessons. We do not yet exist on a series of planets or have access to youth-granting spices, but we do submit to many systems that manipulate us in the name of religion.

The entire premise of religion is rooted in faith. And when faith is preached, one submits to believing in something despite a lack of evidence supporting it. To me, this is why politics and religion are destined to always be connected. If one believes so deeply and unquestionably that one way of life is morally and spiritually superior, no logic will change that. Yes, there exist followers that may have more lax views on the specifics of their religion or those that focus more on a balance between faith and science. But the essential lesson is that where religion exists, there will be those that are lost in an overwhelming commitment to faith and who commit hostilities in the name of salvation.

“Dune” teaches this, emphasizing that such a faith cannot be contained to one sect of life. Religion, environmentalism, and politics cannot be separated in our world. Finite resources and the breadth of humanity both rely on these things and can be destroyed by them.