My first exposure to Dune was the David Lynch movie, and then I read the first 4 books in middle school. Being the precocious kid I was, I definitely understood all of the nuances that were going on there, like how the Fremen were obviously an allegory for Native Americans and the coveted spice melange was just a general metaphor for the environment and natural resources and stuff. And obviously the Mahdi Paul “Maud’Dib” Atreides was a good and righteous savior — a hero. I was very smart.
But e-reading the books in my 20s, it became pretty fucking obvious that I missed a few things in my middle school reading. Like the fact that Paul being a prophesied savior is actually fucking terrible and that the imperialist theft of land, cultural, and resources makes everyone complicit in our own collective downfall. Also the Fremen definitely weren’t Native American allegories (oops).
There’s a reason DUNE still holds up. At the same time, it’s not without its problematic elements; Herbert had some Freudian issues with women, for example, and the coding of fatness and queerness as evil traits manifesting in Baron Harkonnen was pretty gross. But of all the complaints one can make about the story, the accusations of a “white savior” narrative quickly fall apart.
Haris Durrani, an author and JD/PhD candidate at Columbia Law School and Princeton University, recently wrote a very in-depth Medium post deconstructing the white savior elements of the Dune-iverse. He covers a lot of ground, and there’s a lot to dwell on, especially if you’re a Dune fan like me. But his article also pointed me to this 1969 conversation between Willis E. McNelly and Frank Herbert, where Herbert makes clear his distaste of Western Imperialism, and his desire to tear down the Lawrence of Arabia archetype:
We’ve [“western man”] set out our missionaries to do our dirty work for us, and then come along behind them with the certain belief that we are right in anything that we do, because God has told us so — God and the person of the avatar.
It’s long, and there’s a lot to unpack, but it’s pretty fascinating. If you want the gist of it, check out Durrani’s full article (which is also not short, though it is shorter). If you’re into DUNE, though, it’s kind of neat hearing Frank Herbert discuss the book shortly after its release, before it became a phenomenon. This isn’t Herbert responding to criticism; this is just him laying out his ideas at the time. And that’s pretty cool.
Dune’s Not a White Savior Narrative. But It’s Complicated. [Haris Durrani / Medium]
Image: Shruti Muralidhar / Flickr (CC 2.0)