Fear is the Mind-killer: Rereading Dune

(Warning: major spoilers for Dune)

I bought my first copy of Frank Herbert’s Dune in a used bookstore in Minnesota. I was twelve years old, had two dollars in my pocket, and some time to kill while my mother shopped next door. To this day, I don’t know why I picked up that worn-out paperback with its yellowing pages and ugly orange cover. Perhaps the bone-chilling cold of the Minnesota winter made me long for summer and deserts. Perhaps it was because I only had a couple of dollars, and at seventy-five cents, it was in my price range. Whatever instinct guided me to choose it was an inspired one. Twenty-five years and more than a dozen re-reads later, Dune is still one of my favorite books of all time.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

When you’re twelve-years-old, Dune reads like a grand adventure story. The teenaged Paul Atreides travels to another planet with his parents, Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who have been ordered there by the emperor. The planet, Arrakis, is covered in vast deserts and is the sole source of the mysterious spice melange, which is vital to space travel and is a highly-additive, consciousness-expanding drug. The Atreides know that Arrakis is a trap meant to destroy them, but they go anyway. Duke Leto believes he can outthink his enemies, but he can’t. Once he arrives on Arrakis, his fate is sealed. He is betrayed by someone close to him, but Paul and Jessica manage to survive and escape into the desert where they are found, and later taken in by the mysterious people known as the Fremen. The Fremen live in the deep desert and thanks to the scarcity of water and the harsh conditions they live in, have become extremely disciplined warriors. They are also intensely spiritual. They have a prophecy about the lisan al-gaib, ‘the voice from the outer world’, who will lead them to true freedom.

Because of the mental and physical abilities Paul has been trained with since birth, the Fremen come to believe that he is the lisan al-gaib. The Mahdi. Their messiah. Because the spice has induced a profound change within Paul’s psyche and given him prescient abilities, Paul must accept this mantle or risk unleashing a holy war across the known universe. Because Paul cannot completely stop this war, he seeks a way to divert it. In doing so, he reveals his identity– as Duke Paul Atreides– to the emperor, and when the emperor arrives with the leaders of the other great houses, Paul and the Fremen use the nature of Arrakis against the Imperium, crushing their defenses and emerging victorious in a matter of hours. With an unbeatable Fremen army at his back and his own ability to see into the future, Paul becomes the emperor.

It’s thrilling stuff, even if it is heavily laden with philosophy and strange words: kwisatz haderach, gom jabbar, Bene Gesserit, sayyadina. Rather than confusing me, the strangeness of it all made me even more interested in the story. I wanted to figure out what it all meant (though at age twelve, I wouldn’t be able to comprehend much of the philosophy. I didn’t have the necessary life experience). But even if I couldn’t understand everything about Dune, I know what the Litany Against Fear was about and I memorized it. I’m not the only geeky teenager who used it to get through scary situations. Though my own personal trials were nothing compared to Paul’s, I could use the same words to confront my fears and get through them. Good books, after all, help you grow as a person.

“It is so shocking to find out how many people do not believe that they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.”

I don’t know how many times I read Dune in high school and college. It might have been once a year or once every two years. However many times it was, the quote about learning (above) stuck with me the most.

Paul Atreides’s homeworld of Caladan was a water-rich world of rain, rivers, and oceans. Arrakis was a planet covered with vast deserts and barren mountains. Every drop of water was precious, and nearly every piece of Fremen technology was designed to capture those fleeting bits of moisture. They also spent their lives staying hidden from generations of oppressors. To survive among them, Paul had to quickly learn about Fremen culture and discipline, all while trying to understand the changes being wrought in his own mind and body thanks to the spice. On Arrakis, there are no second chances. If you make a mistake, the desert will kill you.

With this in mind, I decided that learning would not be a difficult thing. I just had to believe that I could learn– and then I did. It wouldn’t always be fun. I wouldn’t always enjoy what I was learning, but when I decided that I could learn it, in most cases I did learn it.

It’s amazing how much of our own education comes down to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I had decided, on the first day of my Calculus class, that I couldn’t learn it, I wouldn’t have. But I decided to keep going. It was not fun, and mathematics remained my weakest subject in school. But I didn’t fail out of it.

This notion that I can learn has stuck with me. Whether I am learning a new aspect of my job or figuring out how to navigate in foreign countries where I don’t speak the language, the fundamental knowledge that I am capable of learning new things has made a profound difference in my life. And it’s all because I read a weird book when I was a kid.

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”

I grew up in a Christian family in a small town with fourteen churches. Christianity was the default, and because I grew up in the 1990s, when the internet was still new and difficult to navigate, finding a different path was next to impossible. But being just a little different in such a homogenous community isn’t easy, and when people at church are glaring at you and whispering awful things about you and your friends, Little Goth Girls on the Prairie, it’s hard to want to associate with that church or the people in it.

College was a massive change for me, and though I still wasn’t living in the most diverse city in the world, there was enough of it to open my mind to new ideas and perspectives. I took a hard look at my own religious and political beliefs and realized that they didn’t suit me anymore. By the time I graduated, I was on the opposite end of the political spectrum from where I’d started. Dune didn’t make me a non-believer, but it was one of the books that nudged me in that direction.

Lady Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, an organization whose members (women only) are trained to have such control over their bodies that they can determine the sex of their children and use their voice to command anyone they choose. One of their core doctrines, the Missionaria Protectiva, was brought to Arrakis centuries earlier. It was meant to provide a stranded Bene Gesserit a measure of safety, but it became the basis for the Fremen religion. Jessica knows this, and though she isn’t happy about the situation, it doesn’t stop her from using her knowledge of the Missionaria Protectiva to manipulate the Fremen into providing herself and her son, Paul, a secure place among them. And while Paul is just as reluctant to take up the religious mantle himself, he ultimately does it. This allows the Fremen to become a galactic power, but it proves disastrous for the rest of humanity. The Fremen are the ultimate warriors, and they have spread across the known universe to force their beliefs on others at gunpoint.

When I considered my own beliefs and looked outward, toward history and current events, I decided that Frank Herbert was right: “When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way…”. I was a college sophomore in the Fall of 2001, and I watched as religious politicians declared war on an idea and send thousands of soldiers– some of them my own classmates– overseas to fight for a questionable cause. During Spring Break of 2003, I didn’t get to go anywhere. I had to stay home and alternated between watching the news about the war in Iraq and SyFy’s miniseries based on Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The parallels were not lost on me.

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”

Twenty-five years after picking up an ugly orange book in a used bookshop somewhere in Minnesota, and more than a dozen readings later, I am still grappling with Dune. These days it doesn’t influence my philosophy so much as it forces me to consider works of literature as they exist in a broader cultural context.

Dune was first published in 1965, and it shows its age. The Bene Gesserit might be a powerful organization, but women are still, essentially, bought and sold as part of feudal marriage alliances. The only LGBTQIA character is the Baron Harkonnen, whose homosexuality was a storytelling shortcut to tell the reader that the Baron is a revolting, unstable villain. This was not an uncommon practice at the time. In the United States, homosexuality would be considered a mental disorder for another eight years and wasn’t completely removed from the DSM (the American guide that describes psychological disorders) until 1987. So how do we deal with a book where the sole gay character is a disgusting human being?

The Chosen One trope is a major aspect of Dune, too, as is the White Savior. Paul and Jessica are both described as white characters who end up among a native (and brown) population, and end up leading them. True, Paul and Jessica are ambivalent about their roles, but they’re still leaders of the Fremen by book’s end. What do we do with that?

There is the matter of cultural appropriation to contend with, as well. Frank Herbert was neither Muslim nor Arabic when he wrote Dune, but he used ideas and terminology from Islam to describe the Fremen. How should a Western audience respond to that? How does a Muslim audience respond?

“Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”

Dune is not an easy book. Though it has a sweeping story of love, betrayal, and vengeance, it does not have surface-level themes that are picked up in a moment and digested like so much fluff. It has profound messages and troubling topics, and while some of these topics are addressed, others are not. It is not light reading, and it is often not ‘fun’. But like other great books, it will make you stop, think, and question your assumptions about yourself. I have been learning from this book for most of my life and will continue to learn from it in the future. Though it is not always ‘politically correct’, it still has a lot to offer, both as a historical note (being a product of 1960s American culture) and for the philosophy it contains. If you let it, Dune might forever change the way you look at the world.

4 thoughts on “Fear is the Mind-killer: Rereading Dune

  1. I’m sure that authors must change just as cultures and ideologies change, don’t you think? I often wonder if some of the books we loved as children, many of which have some rather questionable plot or characterizations for now but were acceptable in that time- do you think some of those authors would want to re-write anything? I haven’t read Dune since my own childhood and admittedly don’t remember details like you discussed in your post, but I do remember being fascinated with the plot and enjoying it. Great post! It made me think!

  2. Yes, I think authors do change over the years. They’re human. They have to. I wonder how much Dune would have changed had Frank Herbert written it in 1985 or 2015. Would the themes remain the same? Would it at all resemble the book we actually have?

    We have an example of an author’s changing viewpoints with Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea series. She wrote the first three books from 1986.72 and wasn’t thinking of feminism or a woman’s perspective at all then, but then, in the late 1980s she looked back at her own work and thought about how her perspective changed, and write the blistering Tehanu as a follow-up to the original trilogy. Then, ultimately, she made peace with the whole story and published The Other Wind to close it out in 2001. Le Guin was a bold woman, though, and I do wonder how many authors would have the courage to utterly change a series halfway through because their own views have changed over the intervening years.

  3. I have read her novels too although it’s been years. Good for her for making the effort to write and string together the series cohesively when I’m sure that must’ve been a really difficult challenge. I kind of wish it had been a male author to make that effort though. It would make a greater impact.

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