Frank Herbert’s fictional extravanganzas, Dune (1965) and Dune Messiah (1969), have sold in the neighborhood of two million copies in hardback and paper. The final volume of the trilogy, Children of Dune (1976), has just bowed in with an initial printing of one-hundred-fifty thousand copies, which will most likely be exhausted within a few weeks. You will find the trilogy in nearly every bookstore and airport in the country and in a goodly proportion of the grocery stores and drugstores. By year’s end, counting borrowings from libraries, several million people will have read one or more of the Dune books.

Why? What is it about these fictions that engages so many readers? One of the most important questions to be asked about any item of popular culture, and one we rarely ask, is also the most obvious—what makes it popular? To suggest an answer in the case of the Dune trilogy (and I suspect in many other cases as well), we have to talk about ideology, about the world view which the novels project.

The storyline, which Herbert elaboratesover twelve hundred pages, can be outlined simply. To the desert planet of Dune, inhabited by a fierce tribal people called the Fremen. and by land-going leviathans called sandworms, comes a new ruling House, the Atreides. Son of the House is Paul, who is transformed through occult instruction, drugs, and genetic gifts into a prophet. Allied with the Fremen, he wages a religious war against the rest of the inhabited universe, which he subdues after twelve years of slaughter. Disillusioned with the realities of power and with the institutional rigor mortis which follows upon his triumphs, Paul wanders, blinded, into the desert, giving way to his son Leto who becomes prophet and imperial leader in turn. The rise and fall and rise again of the father-and-son team of prophets, and of the empires which they rule, provide the cloth for the trilogy. This is embroidered with plots and counterplots, conspiracies by the fistful, religious doings, battles, and desert ordeals. Worked through the imperial and prophetic fabric is another important pattern of events, involving the transformation of the planet’s ecology from harsh desert to a moderately green and arable earth. All this tinkering with the environment endangers the sandworms, who are responsible for the planet’s strategic value, because in the arid wastelands they produce a drug called melange, which prolongs life, provokes hallucinatory visions, and in the select few (including Paul and Leto) inspires prophetic sight. Whoever controls melange, controls the universe.

Elements of the trilogy’s appeal are evident even in so brief a summary: drugs, ritual, heroic characters, intrigue, cosmic skulduggery, higher-power psychic states, Herbert deftly mixes paraphernalia from the counterculture with the stuff of historical fiction. Like many historical novels, the Dune books focus upon the lives of Great Persons, for the same reason that so many Elizabethan plays centered upon monarchs: whereas our own lives are inconsequential, leaving no mark on history, the Great Person’s every move is laden with cosmic significance. Every gesture which Paul or Leto makes, we are told repeatedly, touches the destinies of millions. Shakespeare understood the peon’s fascination with the world-historical figure, such as Caesar, whose death was heralded by the fall of stars; and every fictional chronicler of Napoleon or Charlemagne or Alexander has understood it as well.

It is possible to view heroes as nobler versions of ourselves, or else as beings set apart, fundamentally different from the ordinary run of humankind. If you maintain the first view, you produce inspirational figures of the sort typified by Horatio Alger, to take a capitalist example, or by the intrepid tractor driver, to take a communist one. In subtler versions, you get Hamlet of Levin or Emma: these are members of our own species, whose rich humanness is only a heightened image of our own. If you take the second view, that the hero is a creature set apart, endowed with superhuman powers, then you project a Great Person vision of history, a vision for which the priests of ancient Egypt and China, as well as Hegel, Carlyle, and Nietzsche, and more recently the National Socialists and the deifiers of Stalin and Mao, have served as apologists. According to this view, the strings of history are manipulated in each age by a few semidivine heroes whose powers derive from outside the range of humanity. Apostolic succession for popes and divine right for kings are two of the longest-running illustrations of the idea.

In the universe of Dune, first Paul and then Leto is set apart from ordinary folk, not just by office—although that gives each prophet the power to make or break planets or to destroy any mortal who gets in the way—but also by vision. They can read the future, in varying degrees, and this places in their hands the strings on which the worlds dangle. Both are invulnerable to personal attack, to poisons, to psychic weapons; both are capable of controlling others by voice, seeing through disguises, surviving in the desert, outwitting every foe. By the end of the third volume, Leto is transformed into a creature whom Herbert tells us explicitly is no longer human, a creature able to lift spaceships, walk through fire, leap sand dunes at a single bound, alter the planet’s ecology on his own, and survive for several thousand years.

The Great -Person view of history is appealing for at least two reasons. First, it relieves us of the responsibility for shaping the future, because the hero controls our fate. Who are we to challenge the superhuman? Second, it allows us to indulge our own megalomaniac fantasies. We live inside the heads of Paul, Leto, and a few other superhumanly endowed figures, such as Paul’s mother Jessica and his sister Alia. Everywhere we turn others bow to us, tremble at our raised eyebrows, leap at our bidding. It is a flattering existence, which becomes more flattering, for a predominantly teenage audience, when two more facts are added: at the time he assumes control of the planet, Paul is sixteen, having already defeated warriors and enemy barons and his mother; at the time Leto wrests control of the universe from Paul’s sister, and from Paul himself, he is nine. This matter of ages is complicated by the fact that each of the prophets contains within himself experiences derived from predecessors. But the central fact remains: the child or adolescent vanquishes the parent, in physical and psychological combat. Paul is challenged on account of his youth by a Fremen warrior; Leto is tested by an entire tribe; both win out. In each of the three books there is a scene in which the child hero outwits and even humiliates the parent. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, the child goes through a phase-change, from dependent to dominant, with heady swiftness. Captain Marvel comic books gratified the same adolescent wish by means of a classic device: the cartoon child transforms himself, by the mere saying of “Shazam!” from a midget into a marvel, from a weakling into a wonder.

A further source of the appeal which Herbert’s Great Person holds out for readers in America at the present time is his radical self-sufficiency. Unable to trust anyone, even parents or siblings, even teachers and bodyguards, the Great Person lives out our own paranoias. But unlike us, he or she is equipped with the tools necessary for survival in a hostile land Like Christ, Paul and Leto prove their powers of endurance in the desert. Each is adept in the martial arts, holding his own through test after test. Karate and judo are presently in vogue in this country because, among other reasons, they promise to make of the individual a “fighting machine,” capable of defending himself against the enemies who will inevitably challenge him. Each of Herbert’s superheroes possesses the ability to alter his bodily states at will, tinker with his heart rate or ease his tension, and likewise to control his emotions. Ruler over psyche and soma both, this hero is like a human starship, voyaging through hostile space, self-sufficient and alone.

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