Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated adaptation of Dune is due later this year. Like many nerds, I decided it was high time I read the book. I knew the story fairly well from various adaptations, and I can say none of them have truly done it justice.
Frank Herbert wrote Dune in the 1960s. It is vast and complex, set in a distant future where humanity has expanded into a galaxy-spanning empire. This empire is ruled by a feudal system of nobility and an emperor. The most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange. It is found in just one place: the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune.
Control of Melange drives much of the narrative in Dune‘s story. The spice extends human life, expands mental abilities, and enables a level of prescience in humans. It enables mutated humans to fold space for interstellar travel and perform complex calculations as fast as any computer.
Into this mix are thrust the noble Atreides family, their arch-nemeses the Harkonnens, and the Fremen, the native people of Dune.
The Emperor’s throne is not secure, as he has no male heirs (more on this in a moment), and Duke Leto Atreides is immensely popular amongst the nobility. His planet prospers, people are drawn to him, and his soldiers are completely loyal. He’s therefore a threat to all the nefarious characters of the novel.
Fueled by greed and jealousy, the Emperor and the Harkonnens lay a trap to ensnare and ultimately destroy the Atreides. The Duke is given the dubious honor of overseeing the planet Dune and spice production. Here, in a new and inhospitable environment, the Emperor and his minions can eventually murder the Atreides away from prying eyes. This might have worked, except for the machinations of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood.
The Bene Gesserit are a secretive order of women who are pejoratively known as witches. Rather than using actual magic, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, with the help of the spice, have trained their minds and bodies with such precision that they are capable of incredible feats. They can bend the laws of physics in a combat system known as the Weirding Way, and pitch their voices in such a way that the listener must obey any command. Their ability to perceive nuance in body language and inflection gives them a near-telepathic ability to ready the hearts and minds of others. These abilities, paired with a secret mission, make them treacherous indeed.
Noble families across the universe send their daughters to be trained in Bene Gesserit schools, coveting the skills they possess. It is here the true plans of the Sisterhood are revealed. By controlling the women of the noble houses, they have for centuries been selectively breeding the bloodlines to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach, a male superbeing with all of their powers and more, for them to control. Up to this point, every man who has attempted to become the Kwisatz Haderach has died.
Bene Gesserit women are everywhere and have such control over their bodies that they can change the gender of a child in the womb. The wife of the Emperor is Bene Gesserit, and was ordered to only bear girls. Hence, the lack of a male heir.
Likewise Jessica, concubine to Duke Atreides, is a Bene Gesserit and was also ordered to only produce girls. The plan was to create a star-crossed mix of the Harkonnen and Atreides bloonlines and thereby produce the Kwisatz Haderach. But, Jessica, out of love for the Duke, disobeys and gives birth to a son, Paul.
Intrigue, Treachery, and Manipulation
Most characters in the story are manipulating the world around them to achieve their own ends. This is perfectly normal behavior for the treacherous nobility and the various groups that make up the world of Dune. It almost universally ends up having disastrous consequences. The Bene Gesserit do succeed in their plan to create a super being, but it happens in Paul, who arrives a generation too soon and cannot be controlled.
As the plot to destroy the Atreides unfolds, Jessica and Paul flee into the open desert where they encounter the Fremen. Life on Dune is harsh and the Fremen have adapted to surviving in that harshness. Water is the most precious substance in such a place, and when Paul and Jessica first encounter the Fremen, they find a less than hospitable reception. The Fremen would sooner kill them than have another drain on precious resources.
It is here in this moment of crisis that another Bene Gesserit scheme is their salvation.
For generations, the Sisterhood has sown myth and superstition across the galaxy in primitive cultures. A member of the sisterhood is deposited on a planet and begins manipulating the local culture, inserting religious beliefs that can later be exploited by future sisters. If a Bene Gesserit ever finds herself in a strange world and in need of protection, she can use her own seemingly supernatural powers to lend credence to the myths and superstitions planted among the people so long ago. She can then set herself up as a leader, prophet, or messiah and assume control of the culture.
On Dune, Paul and Jessica find this ancient plot at work in the Fremen, who believe a messiah will come one day to help them reshape Dune into a watery paradise. Paul and Jessica, in possession of some serious superpowers from all that selective breeding, Bene Gesserit training, and constant exposure to the spice, set themselves up among the Fremen; a veritable Madonna and child among the stars. While they succeed in saving their own lives and helping the Fremen, the cost is high. Lies and manipulation always have a price.
The Old Testament contains well-known admonitions against witchcraft. Magic, divination, and necromancy were common practices in the cultures around Israel. Rather than being the fairytale hocus-pocus variety, witchcraft is rather the exertion of one’s will upon the universe; manipulating events to achieve a desired outcome. Spells, mantras, and rituals are all designed to manipulate mystical forces into giving the practitioner what they want.
It all smacks of the very thing that started this whole fall of man thing to begin with: pride. Pride says we know best, we can take control of our own destiny and make our dreams come true. It can even seem like we’re taking matters into our own hands for the right reasons. God helps those that help themselves, right? The problem is, we don’t really, fully know what it is we are signing up for.
At a critical moment in the story, Jessica, having to walk out the religious role she has taken on with the Fremen, must drink poison and survive to prove she is who she says she is. She happens to be pregnant at the time. While she and her unborn daughter survive the ordeal, the experience brings the infant Alia into the world with a fully adult consciousness, deprived of life experience and the maturity to handle the things she knows and is capable of. She is also in full possession of her mother’s Bene Gesserit powers.
Alia is a frightening creature; the Bene Gesserit call her an abomination. As an adult, her unchecked powers, foisted on her by her mother’s actions, destroy her. Alia’s presence in the story illustrates what happens when we expose ourselves to spiritual things we were never meant to handle.
Alia is hardly the only character to pay a terrible price. The Bene Gesserit, despite generations of manipulation, lose the very thing they wanted above all else. Jessica loses what she loves most. Paul grows to despise his mother. Other characters meet death, or worse, for their efforts to control destiny. No one has a happy ending. Everyone is marked by paranoia, pain, suffering, and loss before the tale is done.
The Peace of Redemption
It’s an incredible story, but it’s also incredibly bleak at times. I was reminded, as I often am, of how much I depend on my faith when I find myself in the unknown. I often have to surrender my own immediate wants and desires, even valid things I THINK I need (like answers), for the path the Lord has called me to. There is peace in that. Not carelessly ignoring real concerns or dangers, but a place of rest to be found in trying times when life is too much for me to handle.
While the arc of Dune sees its protagonists hardening into ruthless, twisted versions of what they once were, the opposite is true of our walk with the Lord. Rather than having to control all the outcomes, we are invited to trust and surrender. We can take our concerns, hopes, and dreams and place them with the one who will bring about all good things in the proper time.
From the temptation of Adam and Eve to Judas’ betrayal, scripture shows what happens when we take matters into our own hands. David’s failures on this front cost countless lives, and divided the kingdom of Israel for generations after. He stole a man’s wife then had him murdered, refused to discipline his own children, flaunted his success as though he was responsible for it, and all to a disastrous end. Yet, this was the man after God’s own heart.
How beautiful that God sees us for the best we can be and responds to us from that identity, rather than identifying us with the worst of our mistakes and shortcomings. How thrilling to know there is always hope, no matter what we face in this life, and we don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to manipulate the universe, because we serve the one who holds it all.
The more we grasp, manipulate, and control, the more we become isolated, paranoid, and trapped in our own web. We might get what we want, but we also get much more than we bargained for.
However, in the upsidedown nature of the kingdom, the more we submit, the more we reign; the more we surrender, the more freedom we have. In opening a hand to let something go, you free up space to receive something greater. In opening your heart to be wounded, you are free to love and be loved in return.
Come Fall, I will watch Dune in all its stunning, big picture glory. I will also remember there is one who holds the universe in his hand, and who has tender regard even for me.