Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 1 The Epic in Space The Influence of Archaic Literature on Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ A good story is a good story, despite the genre, and this realization was an important step in the movement of Science Fiction from an obscure pulp existence into a recognized and respected literary form. A preoccupation with science and the future was enhanced by using refined literary techniques from the past, with authors like Asimov, Herbert and Heinlein making SF a popular phenomenon by utilizing good storytelling. Particularly „backward-looking‟ among these figures was Frank Herbert, whose massively successful Dune was simply a mystical medieval epic transplanted into a distant future, complimented with a relatively sparse amount of technological and alien nova. Herbert was a classically-trained writer, educated at the University of Washington, Seattle1 and knowing very well the necessities for a good story. When he set out to write “a long novel about the messianic convulsions that periodically inflict themselves on human societies”2, Herbert was aware of the scope such an examination would require. What he utilized, whether consciously or unconsciously, were a series of techniques pioneered by the greatest writers of antiquity and recycled throughout time in literature‟s greatest works. The „Epic‟ gave Herbert the model he needed for his complex story of heroism and struggle, acting as a “suitable vehicle for a grandiose treatment of individual and national destiny”3. Archaic epics had lasted through time for the same reason that Dune was destined to succeed, surviving millennia due to the “quality and character of the story that they tell…a mixture of pure adventure, of morality, and of tragedy.”4 Dune, as described by Adam Roberts, was written as a “heroic romance of the best kind”, a “straightforward moral battle, a battle between good and evil” 5. By supplementing a science fiction premise with the common traits of ancient and medieval epics, Herbert was able to create an „SF masterpiece‟, an endlessly significant and emotionally addictive work that helped push the genre into the mainstream. Most immediately noticeable is the „epic‟ scale of Dune. A heavy novel both physically and figuratively, Herbert‟s tale presented a universe more sweeping and complex than most science fiction of from the time. Dune‟s depth was compared with Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 2 Tolkein‟s Lord of the Rings, which itself was “firmly rooted in the mythologies of northern Europe.”6 One of the key features of any epic is an “astonishing complexity, richness, and allusiveness”7, and certainly Dune fits into this category. With such a complex universe to describe, however, there is the threat that the reader will be overwhelmed. Epics are known to utilize the strategy of „In Media Res’ to avoid this problem, beginning a story quire literally in “the middle of things.”8 Homer‟s Illiad concerns the Battle of Troy – a ten year war – but the poet focuses on only one crucial, ten day episode.9 He even ends the tale before the city of Troy falls!10 Herbert faces a similar problem in that to open the book with a description of the economic, political, and historical situation of this futuristic world would make for bad storytelling. He instead dives right into the action, beginning Dune by describing the displacement of the Atreidies family from Caladan. Like Homer, he skips over details about why, and also avoids a clear conclusion at the end. Ultimately, the novel is meant to focus entirely on Paul‟s jihad, much as the Illiad follows the story of Achilles‟ rage. This is indeed an effective literary strategy, for it avoids the technical and scientific description that may have clouded the introductions of other science fiction works. By opening the novel with, “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy…”11, Herbert draws the reader right into the action, enhancing the intrigue of the story, and forcing the reader to read on. Another characteristic evident within the first lines of the Homeric epics is the traditional „invocation to the muses‟, an appeal to the gods for aid in storytelling.12 The Odyssey opens with the plea „O muse, inform!‟13, giving immediate evidence of the “strong element of the supernatural”14 consistent in epic literature. The presence of mysticism in Dune is undeniable; it is just as prominent in this work of science fiction as it is in the ancient and medieval epic. This obvious deflection from the humanism of the SF genre is one of Herbert‟s most unique contributions: Dune is very much a religious novel. Even the most scientific element of the story – interstellar space travel – is a spiritual, mind-expanding experience.15 Religion has conquered science in this fictional universe, with the “Butlerian Jihad” supposedly purging civilization of thinking machines years before the events in the novel.16 The dangers of technology are constantly Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 3 emphasized, for instance, the Reverend Mother warns too much faith in machines: “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”17 Science in Herbert‟s novel has been replaced by mysticism, and the role of faith in Dune is as great as the role of the Gods in the Homeric epics. This is important because Epic literature, in appealing to the masses, works to invoke familiar images and themes to make readers feel connected. Religion, mysticism, and faith are particularly effective in grounding a work, presenting something familiar to the reader. In the sterile world of Science fiction, this strategy is even more effective. Herbert‟s world is distant, but extremely familiar. His use of the Messiah figure, prophecy, and the Fremen worship of land and animals (the deification of the worm – „Shai Hulud‟) are all characteristics of human civilization on Earth. The reader is presented something they can relate to, and it makes the story that much more appealing. Absolutely vital in a story based on the conflict between good and evil is the hero, the key device in any Epic18, and the literary standard that Herbert most draws from for Dune. The central figure of most archaic literature is a brave, noble man of “superhuman caliber.”19 The heroes of epics are synonymous with virtue: Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and so on existing today as symbols of courage and valiance. Each of these men are characterized by their ability to “transcend their human limitations and, for a time at least, become more obviously in the image of God-like creatures.”20 In Dune, Paul Atreides fits perfectly the standards for an epic hero as laid forth by The Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. First, he is “of great physical and/or mental prowess.”21 Paul was trained in cognitive calculation by the Mentat Thufir Hawat, and taught mental and spiritual awareness by his Bene Gesserit mother. His physical abilities were refined, having “been taught fighting in a deadly school, his teachers men like Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, men who were legends in their own lifetimes.”22 Second, Paul, being the son of a Duke, is certainly “of royal or at least noble descent.”23 The Atreides family is a beacon of goodness – “humane, civilized, cultured and intelligent”24 – and no doubt Paul‟s heroism is an inherited trait. In a quote already noted Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 4 by Roberts but too powerful in poignancy to ignore, the planetologist Liet Kynes observes the heroics of the Duke Leto, Paul‟s father: “This Duke was concerned more over the men than he was over the spice. He risked his own life and that of his son to save the men. He passed off the loss of a spice crawler with a gesture. The threat to men’s lives had him in a rage. A leader such as that would command fanatic loyalty. He would be difficult to defeat. Against his own will and all previous judgment, Kynes admitted to himself: I like this Duke.”25 Finally, Paul is “capable of extraordinary deeds beyond the ability of ordinary humans.”26 The boy, on top of his mental and physical capabilities, is transcendent: able to see into the future and to look “where [the Bene Gesserit] cannot – into both feminine and masculine pasts.”27 Paul is the „Kwisatz Haderach‟, the product of ninety generations of selective breeding28. For the Fremen, he is the „Lisan al-Gaib‟, the product of prophecy, the messiah destined to lead them to a better life29. Paul‟s super powers, as granted by the Bene Gesserit gene selection, are similar to those granted to heroes in ancient Epics by the Gods. Consider the „birth‟ of Gilgamesh: “When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man.”30 This idea of higher beings offering gifts enhances the superhuman appeal of the hero, but the capability of using these gifts in the real world is the true source of glory. Paul is “unambiguously heroic”, surviving crises “by virtue of physical strength and bravery, ingenuity and determination.”31 He is a clear and distinct hero, and in creating him, Herbert ensures the participation of the reader. Paul is someone to root for, and when he is in danger, the reader fears for him. The reader comes to hate those who stand against the Atreides, introducing an entirely new dimension to the story: emotional attachment. To oppose the epic hero, a distinct evil force is always necessary. The villain is often caricatured to exaggerate the evil he represents, and this is certainly a strategy Herbert uses. The writer of Beowulf describes the villain Grendel to be a descendent of Cain, history‟s first murderer according to the Bible.32 This fact was meant to stimulate immediate resentment in the Christian readers of the time, and in much the same way, Frank Herbert introduces the “Baron Vladimir Harkonnen” to call forth a wealth of antiRussian prejudice ingrained into the readers by their life in the Cold War.33 Beowulf‟s Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 5 Grendel is a despicable creature, an “outcast monster, who attacks in the middle of the night, devours warriors, and pollutes the seat of government.”34 The Baron is grotesque in the same way, meant to represent the complete opposite of the hero. He is physically monstrous to Paul‟s athletic attractiveness; he is cold-blooded to Paul‟s sense of compassion. He is also portrayed as being sexually different, which although perhaps politically incorrect, exemplifies his polar opposition to the novel‟s hero. In the same way that Paul gives readers someone to love, the Baron gives readers someone to hate. This passionate attachment enhances a work of literature enormously; by developing clear and distinct characters, Herbert opened his work of science fiction to a whole new audience. Dune is peppered with these morally distinct characters, all participating in the battle between good and evil. The Atreides family seems to command unquestioned loyalty, with characters like Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho fighting and dying for their Duke. Even Thufir Hawat, the displaced Atreides mentat, remains loyal to the hero in the end, despite being brainwashed and employed by the Baron for three years: “„There is pain, my Duke,” Hawat agreed, “but the pleasure is greater.‟ He half turned in Paul‟s arms, extended his left hand, palm up, toward the Emperor, exposing the tiny needle cupped against the fingers. „See, Majesty?‟ he called. „See your traitor‟s needle? Did you think that I who‟ve given my life to service of the Atreides would give them less now?‟”35 Paul finds loyalty wherever he goes, especially with the Fremen. The Baron, however, is not so lucky. His „allies‟ are to be feared: even his nephew and heir Feyd-Rautha attempts to poison him36. His court is full of ambitious back-stabbers and clever conspirators. He is only able to maintain power by threatening death and destruction. There is a clear moral message in this distinction: those who act just and good will be rewarded, those who act evil will live in fear. This message is timeless, as most epic themes are, and exemplified by the characters in Dune. Dune’s story arc is characterized by a “sense of chivalric conflict”37, a quality that reaches back to the celebration of honour and respect between warriors in archaic epics. In Science Fiction, a common stereotype is that conflicts are expected to be resolved by star-fighter battles and hover-bike chases, and although this is certainly not true for all works, few writings in the genre approach battles the way Frank Herbert does in Dune. Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 6 Conflicts on Arrakis are resolved on a “personal level”, face to face, man to man, armed with only knives and swords. Twice in the novel Paul partakes in an intensely personal duel to the death, the first time with Jamis in the Fremen cave, and the second with FeydRautha in the presence of the Emperor. The emotions and trivialities of the fight are described in enormous detail, emphasizing the bravery and skill required for such a task: “Feyd-Rautha gaped at him, caught in the merest fraction of hesitation. It was enough for Paul to find the weakness of balance in one of his opponent‟s leg muscles, and their positions were reversed. Feyd-Rautha lay partly underneath with right hip high, unable to turn because of the tiny needle point caught against the floor beneath him.”38 Through this sort of man-to-man combat, Paul Atreides is put on par with the epic heroes: the greatest Greek fighter Achilles, for instance, defeated the Trojan Hector “in single combat”39, and Beowulf ultimately overcame Grendel in hand-to-hand combat.40 The chivalric struggle of equals, unaided by laser guns, space helmets and seeker missiles, adds much to the development of character in this science fiction work. It brings about an intimacy with the struggle of the hero, as if the reader is fighting alongside him. A hero cannot be a hero without a population to save, and so epics tend to be concerned with the fate of a people, often embodying “the history and aspirations of a nation.”41 Homer‟s Illiad and Oddyssey held so much historical esteem that they were the basis of the Greek education system for years.42 The Roman Virgil is considered “the first national poet”, with his Aeneid recording and celebrating “the foundation of Rome by Aeneas.”43 Dune can be considered the story of the rise of the Fremen people, „their escape from bondage‟. It charts the foundation of their new power on Arrakis, and the beginning of the environmental change instigated by Kynes: “There will be flowing water here open to the sky and green oases rich with good things.”44 By describing an oppressed people with hopes and dreams, Herbert is able to relate historical and emotional sentiment to the story, further enveloping the reader. By contrasting the noble and heroic Fremen with the horrible living conditions they are subject to, the persecutions of the Sardakaur and slaughters of the sietchs, as well as portraying the tyranny of the Harkonnen „Beast‟ Rabban, a reader comes to pity the people and root behind them as they root behind the hero. It adds to the moral decency of the hero, as well, for Paul strives to help these persecuted people. Much as the Romans read the Aeneid with Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 7 patriotic fervour, the fictional Fremen would read Dune to proudly remember their history. This passion is meant to be shared by the reader. It may seem blasphemous for a genre concerned so much with the future to invoke so many images of the past, but it is also very difficult to come up with something totally new: ancient patterns are very hard to escape. „Epics‟ last through the years because their themes are timeless, and although they may grow out of the civilization they were written for, they still contain truths evident in all of humanity. Throughout the history of literature, the characteristics of these tales have been recycled, from Dante with his Divine Comedy to Joyce with Ulysses45. Herbert was certainly not the first to draw from the likes of Homer: Jonathan Swift, in particular, utilized The Odyssey as a model for his famous Gulliver’s Travels. While Dune owes a lot to the concept of hero developed in the Iliad, it was the structure of Odyssey that the Irish satirist Swift borrowed. Odyssesy, a word synonymous with epic voyage, embodies the “perilous journeys and various misadventures” common to many epics.46 Gulliver’s Travels followed this example by describing the feats of a sea adventurer whose voyages are constantly interrupted with fantastical obstacles and tests. This is in step with the hero of Homer‟s poem, who “at sea felt many woes,/much care sustained, to save from overthrows/himself and friends in their retreat for home.”47 Both Gulliver and Homer‟s Odysseus are unlucky but cunning seaman. Neither can escape adventure, and Gulliver, a valued and experienced surgeon, cannot remain at home for ten days before being approached for another mission.48 In “A Voyage to Laputa”, Gulliver is at sea for only three days before his boat is captured by pirates, and, in the same way Odysseyus tricked the Cyclops49, Swift‟s hero uses cunning to escape death. The fantastical lands Gulliver travels to are no doubt influenced by the voyages of Odysseus, who encountered giants, witches, seven-headed monsters and a whole variety of other mythical creatures on his journeys.50 “Laputa” is an example of one of the many strange places Gulliver visits, it being a floating island: “The reader can hardly conceive my astonishment, to behold an island in the air, inhabited by men, who were able (as it should seem) to raise, or sink, or put it into a progressive motion, as they pleased,”51 The model of Homer‟s archaic travel epic gave Swift a frame for his story, and the author was Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 8 able to enhance his tale by creating a character as cunning as the heroic Odysseus, and forcing him to face the same type of obstacles that proved the epic hero‟s worth. Science fiction may be able to survive with its head immersed solely in the future, but it is certain that recognition of archaic literary formulas can take an SF story beyond genre restrictions and into the world of successful, popular literature. Frank Herbert proved this with Dune, utilizing a strategy common to countless authors before him, including Swift, but applying it to a genre that had ultimately tried to avoid it. By building his story on familiar ground, avoiding a saturation of detail, and creating an emotional attachment to his story through courageous heroes, vile villains, and the chivalric struggle for the freedom of an oppressed race, Herbert made a Science Fiction novel that could appeal to a mass audience. He weaved important themes (touching on political and environmental issues) and timeless truths (the battle for good against evil) with scientific and technological nova in a true Science Fiction Epic. The novel‟s combination of the past and the future is one that characterized the movement of Science Fiction into the mainstream. In the end, the necessities of good story-telling overcome genre restrictions, and for this, Herbert can be considered an SF pioneer. ENDNOTES 1 2 Nicholls, 280 Roberts, 36 3 Cuddon, 229 4 Sandars, 7 5 Roberts, 38 6 Roberts, 40 7 Cuddon, 225 8 Benét, 317 9 Daskalopoulos, “Iliad”, 323 10 Amos + Lang, 29 11 Herbert, 3 12 Benét, 317 13 Homer, 13 14 Cuddon, 221 15 Roberts, 38 16 Herbert, 12 17 Herbert, 11 18 Amos + Lang, 29 19 Cuddon, 221 Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 9 20 21 Cuddon, 229 Daskalopoulos, “Epic”, 186 22 Herbert, 301 23 Daskalopoulos, “Epic”, 186 24 Roberts, 41 25 Herbert, 126 26 Daskalopoulos, “Epic”, 186 27 Herbert, 13 28 Herbert, 477 29 Herbert, 307 30 The Epic of Gilgamesh, Translated by N.K. Sandars, 61 31 Roberts, 41 32 Clark, 45 33 Roberts, 42 34 Mandel, 55 35 Herbert, 475 36 Herbert, 368 37 Roberts, 39 38 Herbert, 486 39 Daskalopoulos, “Iliad”, 324 40 Mandel, 55 41 Cuddon, 220 42 Amos + Lang, 36 43 Cuddon, 221 44 Herbert, 488 45 Cuddon, 229 46 Cuddon, 221 47 Homer, 13 48 Swift, 151 49 Hansen, 464 50 Amos + Lang, 33 51 Swift, 155 Chris Moffat – ENGL 208B October 18/2005 10 Bibliography Note: Although my bibliography is expansive, most of the resources were used so I would have significant authority to make some of the claims that I have made.. A lot of the texts were used for only one sentence, such as Clark’s resource on ‘Beowulf’. I have focused primarily on Herbert’s Dune and Swifts Laputa, as instructed, and the other resources act merely to give academic weight to my analysis. Primary Sources Author Unknown. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by N.K. Sandars. Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd., 1960. Herbert, Frank. Dune. New York: Ace Books, 1965. Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by George Chapman. Kent: Wordsworth Classics, 2002. Swift, Jonathan. “A Voyage to Laputa.” Gulliver‟s Travels and Other Writings. Place of Publication Not Specified: Bantam Books, Inc., 1962. Secondary Sources Amos, H.D. and A.G.P. Lang. These Were The Greeks. Pennsylvania, Dufour Editions Inc., 1979. Benét, WilliamRose. The Reader‟s Encyclopedia. 2nd Edition. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1965. Clark, George. Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990. Cuddon, J.A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: André Deutsch Limited, 1977. Daskalopoulos, Anastasios. “Epic.” Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. Ed. Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A. Rosenberg. Denver: ABC-CLIO Inc., 1998. 185-186. Daskalopoulos, Anastasios. “Iliad.” Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. Ed. Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A. Rosenberg. Denver: ABC-CLIO Inc., 1998. 323-324. Hansen, William. “Odyssey.‟ Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. Ed. Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A. Rosenberg. Denver: ABC-CLIO Inc., 1998. 462-464. Mandel, Jerome. “Beowulf.” Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature. Ed. Mary Ellen Brown and Bruce A. Rosenberg. Denver: ABC-CLIO Inc., 1998. 53-55. Nicholls, Peter. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. New York: Dolphin Books, 1979. Roberts, Adam. Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2000. Sandars, N.K. “The History of the Epic.” The Epic of Gilgamesh. Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd., 1960.
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