In 1959, a former Catholic with a fondness for psychedelic mushrooms, Zen Buddhism, and Arab culture entered the Oregon Dunes intending to write an ecological research article. Frank Herbert emerged months later with the most beloved and influential science fiction novel of all time: Dune.
Dune later inspired George Lucas’s Star Wars—to Herbert’s great ire. The story appeared on the big screen in its own right in 1984, with David Lynch’s adaptation. Ever since that movie flopped, Dune has had a reputation as an unfilmable book. Undaunted, lauded science fiction director Denis Villeneuve released the first film of his two-part adaptation in October.
Dune tells the story of a far distant future in which a drug known as Spice, produced by the desert planet Arrakis, is the most valuable substance in the universe. Following the fall of the imperial House Atreides, Paul, young heir to the Atreides throne, must flee into the desert. There he meets the Fremen, the oppressed native Arakeens who await a messiah figure called Mahdi—“The one who will lead us to paradise.”
Among other things, Dune is a critique of colonialism and organized religion. Yet at the same time it is interested in Islam and Buddhism, uses Jewish terms, and seeks to understand man’s desire for religion. In the novel, Paul Atreides is a product of intense mental conditioning and eighty generations of breeding by the Bene Gesserit, a shadowy secular order seeking to produce a messiah known as the Kwisatz Haderach—a derivative of the Hebrew for “shortening of the way.” Fremen believe Paul to be their Mahdi and the Bene Gesserit their Kwisatz Haderach.
Although Villeneuve captures the vastness of the novel’s universe, he whiffs on something that makes Dune stand out from other sci-fi stories: its awareness of man’s innate religious longing. For Herbert, this begins with the desert and its inhabitants. Arrakis, with its giant man-eating sandworms and fatal temperatures, constantly reminds the Fremen of the imminence of death. However, due to cool, blue-toned lighting, some unconvincing CGI, and the fact that the actors rarely broke a sweat, Villeneuve’s desert left me feeling rather chilly.
This is a problem, for in the story, it is the harshness of the desert that shapes the Fremen's culture and helps us understand their faith. Their attentiveness to water verges on the sacramental. They take the Spice not purely as a pleasure drug, like the rest of the universe does, but as part of a religious ritual called Changing of the Waters—Herbert’s re-imagination of a combined baptism and ordination. Put simply, when life is hard and the body is denied immediate gratification, we recognize our need for the transcendent. The care and discipline (mortification) that the Fremen must learn just to survive transforms naturally into a ritual reverence and hopeful faith in a Mahdi who will lead them to paradise.
This lifestyle contrasts with that of the story’s villain: Baron Harkonnen, who rules Arrakis from another, softer planet. Constantly indulging his vast appetites, he has become so corpulent that he cannot sit up without “fat-suspensors.” This perverse technology encourages self-indulgence over self-mastery and complacency over responsibility, severing the relationship between action and consequence. Death is far from imminent to the Baron, as is true life. The Baron has no need for a god.
Herbert gleans, from practical wisdom, two rather Christian ideas: First, that sometimes denying the body dignifies it more than indulging it; second, that denying the body and the passions—like a dying to self—can make room for a higher truth. The Fremen faith has some frightful elements and their god is only a vague grasp at an unidentified transcendent spirit. But still, in the Fremen, Herbert connects fleshly mortification not just with health—like dieting or working out—but with a transcendent faith.
Though Villeneuve’s film failed to fully capture Dune’s spiritual sense, the story's enduring popularity reminds us: Even when we do our best to destroy it, man has an inherent religious longing. Readers are captivated by the Fremen’s meticulous rituals and traditions, the harshness and consequent richness of their lives, because we are bored by the ease of lives that ask nothing difficult from us. Dune remains popular because it challenges us to sacrifice a little bit for the sake of fulfilling responsibilities—to ourselves, to our families, and to God—and offers as a reward to that suffering at least purpose and unity, if not some kind of transcendent salvation.
Though Herbert abandoned Roman Catholicism, he seems to have retained an understanding of the benefits of religious self-denial: practices like fasting, long Masses that require extensive periods of kneeling, daily devotions to saints, and observing hourly traditional prayers at certain times throughout the day. Yet while the Fremen’s rites arise from necessity and only incidentally awaken a spiritual awareness, Catholic mortifications arise first from love for our Creator and then manifest as intentional gifts of bodily suffering. They are based on the understanding that we are not disembodied creatures, but that God made us in his image; our bodies and what we do with them bear directly on our spiritual life.
Herbert was a religious seeker his whole life, eventually becoming a Zen Buddhist. He certainly understood the innate religious urge that plagued the men of his time and that still plagues us today. His Dune isn’t merely the sci-fi novel of sweeping scope and futuristic gadgets, but a story of man’s craving for God.
Elizabeth Bachmann is a junior fellow at First Things.
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