Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ Saga: An Analysis

How does this classic work of science fiction manage to ask fundamental questions about civilization and human nature?


Peter Rooney

‘Dune’ is the first and most well known novel in Frank Herbert’s iconic series, ‘Dune’ irrevocably shifted the paradigm of sci-fi writing.

Through the fading haze of the desert’s scorching heat, a dancing gleam is visible, floating across the boundless sands. The movement of the massive hills evokes something ancient but not untouched, as the eyes of lords and duchesses, men and empires stare upon you. Welcome to the world of Arrakis, the setting for almost all of Frank Herbert’s iconic novel, Dune. The novel served as the origin of a 6-book saga, ultimately yielding dozens of additional sequels from the mind of his son, Brian Herbert, alongside infamous science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson. These additional sequels are generally regarded as lesser works, diverting from the stylistic excellence and thematic nuance of the original saga, instead adding to the already encyclopedic array of lore in Dune’s expansive universe.

Dune is often remembered for the depth and potency of its central political allegory of Arrakis and the spice melange, but the scope of its universe is far broader than this essential detail of development. First and foremost, Dune investigates the nature of religion and myth in politics and in the lives of an individual, particularly with regard to the development of a messianic figure. This dynamic is inextricably linked to the series’ depiction of power across its far-reaching universe. 

While scale is often disregarded in the investigation of a political lens, the astronomical scale of the Dune saga is a fundamental part of many of the books. Dune is not only a criticism of actions but of an entire method of seeing the world’s issues. It asks: what does it mean for a man to possess the power of God? And further, what is the nature of morality when we measure lives in the billions, and time over millennia?

Expansive beyond words, Dune’s world is as politically, culturally, and religiously complex as our own, if not more so. With powerful houses of war and empire and a complicated universal economy, Dune explores a world over ten-thousand years in the far future, in which humanity has taken to the stars. While absent of aliens, cultures and peoples have scattered into so many different environments that many of them are nearly physiologically unrecognizable as human, such as the antagonistic house Harkonnen, the eerie and mysterious tleilaxu, and the grotesque yet powerful navigators of the spacing guild. 

While Dune stands alone as a science fiction classic, its sequel, Dune: Messiah, is an essential element of the values, principles, and ideas Herbert sought to portray. In essence, this sequel clarifies that Dune functions as a criticism of the archetype of a hero’s journey, as the actions and ideas of the founding novel’s protagonist, the charismatic and gifted young Paul Atreides, are used to illustrate the failure of his myth and legacy. 

Dune begins with the semi-medieval structure of the known universe, with the rich background of the development of religion, culture, and heavily cemented myth. The economy of Dune is dependent on a spice called melange, only found on the desert planet Arrakis, as it is a part of the life cycle of the planet’s native sandworms, worshiped as “Shai-hallud” by the indigenous Fremen of the region. 

 The protagonist, Paul Atreides, heir to House Atreides, the inheritors of the fief of Arrakis from the ruling Padishah emperor Shaddam IV of The Imperial house of Corinno, is faced with the realization that he is part of the myth of the Kwisatz haderach and the Lisan-al-gaib (a sort of messianic figure). In essence, Paul’s mother, a member of the secretive and powerful Bene Gesserit order, which exists as something of a stand-in for the Catholic Church has forged his life and hence a large part of the Novel’s Plot.  Controlling the politics, religion, and even bloodlines of entire planets, this secret order is a central piece of Dune’s plot, begging thematic questions of the reader. 

The Dune saga’s central thematic device is its manipulation of scale, and thus the reader’s perspective. From a personal perspective, reading the Dune saga reshaped the absolute nature of my moral axioms and ideas. Via the setting and span of Dune, Herbert challenges the reader’s understanding of the triumph of ideas and morality with the historical constant which he perceives to be a guise above the infliction and pursuit of power.

While many characters throughout the story use ideology and a preconceived notion of moral righteousness in their rhetoric and supposed ideology, in actuality the vast majority of their actions are dictated by a will to power and a manipulation of the Universe’s medieval bureaucracy.

Herbert’s vision of  a far future is dependent on the belief that the most fundamental aspect of human organization and nature is the manipulation of mythology and stories in the pursuit of power. Thus, Herbert doesn’t envision a universe in which boundless progress is accomplished and inequality is greatly removed, but rather the exact opposite. 

Part of the power of Dune as a long-standing staple of the Science Fiction genre is its flexibility as an allegory for many of our current political struggle. An allegory, however, it is not. Rather, Dune serves as a dissection of the way that human civilization manages power and religion, and its accuracy is most clearly demonstrated by the History of the United States and its intervention in the Middle East. 

Spice, while not a direct stand-in for oil, is a clear demonstration of how the dynamics of entire nations and geographic regions can be almost completely explained by the prevalence of a resource. The Fremen community, Native to the planet Arrakis use it as a part of ritual practices, as a powerful psychoactive chemical, yet do not benefit from its sale and distribution. 

The most obvious injustices from throughout the saga are very rarely righteously corrected in a meaningful way, instead they are manipulated by our supposed protagonists, as well as other characters for the glory of themselves and their families. Herbert himself described the initial motivation for dune as a warning against the actions and power of “charismatic leaders.” 

In essence, while the reader naturally identifies with the protagonist, Paul Atreides, and naturally assumes that his eventual liberation of the Fremen is a cry for justice and an example of the triumph of the individual human spirit, Herbert reveals the falsehood of this narrative. Paul’s successful play for the throne is an example of his manipulation of the downtrodden Fremen, and has drastic consequences for the universe at large. 

While Dune is naturally the most famous and thus renowned in the saga, God Emperor of Dune, the series’ 4th entry, spanning over 1,500 years, is arguably the saga’s most challenging and ambitious novel, seeking to make strides in our conception of the very story upon which our society depends.  

The quality of Dune’s sequel novels is heavily debated, but it is undeniable that without them, Dune alone is an incomplete critique of the systems and ideas that are depicted in Paul Atreides’ rise to power. As prince of Caladan and heir to the duchy, Paul is thrust into the intricate dynamics of the universe as the emperor lays the trap of Arrakis for the Atreides house, whose power rises with Arrakis’s two moons rise each night, giving the desert temporary relief from the scorching sun. 

Paul ventures into the desert, and the setting of the planet Arrakis serves as a powerful tonal and thematic element of the series, even when it is ultimately transformed into a balmy vegetal paradise. 

This manipulation of scale, primarily demonstrated by the time-span of the saga, separates the series from all other works of science fiction. Many of the series’ major acting forces, the imperium, the Bene Gesserit, and even our protagonist Paul and his son Leto II, exact forces on a massive universe for an extended period of time, taking upon themselves the power of God. 

Through his prescient eye, Paul Atreides becomes the fulcrum upon which the universe turns, taking upon himself the cruel fate of a jihad which, while liberating the Fremen from their oppression under the financial inner workings of the Imperium, unleashed a cascade of violence upon the universe whose final death toll exceeded 60 billion lives. 

Paul is the savior forged by the Bene Gesserit and expected by the Fremen, a messiah born from the divine in the eyes of the Fremen, and for the Bene Gesserit he is the fruits of centuries of labor. 

For the Fremen, Paul spells the coming of a messiah predicted by an age-old religion embedded in their culture as deeply as the resource of the spice itself. The consequences of his rise to power as a result  of the universe’s most powerful institutions are the central thematic elements of Dune’s plot and structure.

The rule of Paul Atreides, consequential to the liberation of the Fremen, releases a terror on the universe, and the penalty of his claiming of the prescient power of God is unleashed in the form of a Jihad which claims the lives of 60 billion over a short period. Despite his efforts to cease the onslaught, Paul has become an icon of rage and destruction, given the nature of the Fremen religion inspired by his spice given Talents. Whilst wielding the power of God, Paul has become powerless.

But the story of Dune does not end with Paul Atreides, and that’s the point; his son Leto and the following generations paint the picture of a universe clearly shown to be manipulated by a variety of strategic powers and laws of human nature. 

Dune begs the question, to what extent does a vision of a brighter future justify any action in the present, and what are the consequences of the assumption of power beyond a human lifespan, inspired by supernatural and abstract ideals? 

While it would be impossible to dissect every religious reference and every political motif in Frank Herbert’s classic six part series, it suffices to conclude that the saga is unparalleled in its accomplishment of portraying the intertwined nature of the narratives which hold our world together and the powers at be.

Dune is not only a criticism of actions but of an entire method of seeing the world’s issues. It asks: what does it mean for a man to possess the power of God? And further, what is the nature of morality when we measure lives in the billions, and time over millennia?