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Reply To: Dune: Breakthrough as Breakdown of the One,” with Norland Telléz, Ph.D.”


Have to admit that is delicious to ponder, Norland. You ask

So the question remains, as I put it at the end of my blast, do these epics succeed in tearing down or glorifying hero worship?

Let’s take them one by one. Lord of the Rings by no means tears down the edifice of Hero Worship. Quite the opposite. Though it may pose the Many (the Fellowship of the Ring) to the One (Sauron), no reader considers Sauron a hero.  And even though the first book is a collective adventure, that breaks down as our fellowship splits apart, with individuals, pairs, or small groups veering off on specific quests – all supporting the ultimate goal  with multiple parallel yet distinct hero journeys, a fugue formation that to a crescendo.

There is much to be gleaned about teamwork and the collective ethic from this epic; nevertheless, it does follow the trajectory of the hero’s journey, over and over again – with one major difference from traditional myths. The heart of the story are not Superheroes but Hobbits, whose reward is not glory. When I read LOTR in college, for all the wisdom of Gandolf and prowess of Aragorn, it was Samwise who moved me most – in many ways, the real hero of the sage, someone ordinary who achieves something extraordinary, gives himself to a vision something greater than himself – then, deed done, like Cincinattus goes home and fades into the mundane world.

This meant I could be a hero, not through feat of arms or special talents , but with a simple heart that’s true

. . . not that I consciously thought that, but that’s what “the feels” were.

I don’t think LOTR fostered over the top hero worship (I could be wrong – might be hordes of hobbits roaming the halls at Comic-con for all I know), but it did equate heroism not so much with glory, but duty and service and sacrifice – doing what must be done for the greater good.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has, I suspect, fostered hero worship – though at the same time, “Man’s in humanity to man” is on full display – violent, and bloody, where life is brutal and painful, even at its best. Though it’s fantasy, there is a sense of realism to it. Nevertheless, the audience, myself included, booed the villains and cheered our heroes, no matter how flawed. Martin, and the show runners on the small screen, did their best to subvert the hero archetype, but their heroes still follow the trajectory Campbell identified, and those we wanted to come out on top in the ned mostly did – particularly the Stark lan, as opposed to an individual, who over the arc of the series suffered a great fall, ordeals, magical helpers, death, resurrection, and come the final episode a restoration of fortune over the arc of series.

And yet, Daenerys – Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Annals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons – and, clearly, my intended soul mate – ultimately failed in her hero quest . . . at least in the televised tale (still to be determined in the book series) .

And what was the public reaction to that failure, as she followed a path Campbell warned of, morphing from Hero to Tyrant? Disappointment and outrage – a reaction in stark (no pun intended) contrast to the jubilation that greeted Arya’s unexpected slaying of the Night King three episodes prior; at least Arya followed the trajectory of the traditional hero’s journey, though with buckets more blood and gore than disneyfied heroes: Arya slays – hooray!; Daenerys disappoints – down with the dastardly show runners!

Now is that because the writers, directors, and powers-that-be did a poor job, or because the the hero’s journey is etched in our psyche, perhaps even embedded in our DNA? Hard to say, but we will not be denied our heroes.

Which brings me to the question you pose in your essay:

Did not Dune end up inadvertently strengthening and propping up the very thing it was supposed to take down: the naturalization of an imperialist ideology?

I do not know. I would say the jury is still out on that. All over the internet there are blogs, critiques, and commentaries on the Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones that tie these works rather tightly to Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey. Fair enough in one sense – all, even Dune, follow that pattern (not that Tolkien could consult his pocket Hero with a Thousand Faces for guidance, considering Joe hadn’t written it yet, any more than Homer used it for a reference – the Hero’s Journey just seems to emerge almost naturally from a tale well told . . . which may be why it takes such hard, often unsuccessful effort to subvert it).

But there doesn’t seem a lot of reflection, at least on the internet, and in more than a few academic papers, that are prompted by those works to question the Hero.

The same doesn’t hold for Dune. Yes, it follows the HJ story arc, and if all one does is read that first novel of the trilogy (which was conceived as one complete, massive work by Herbert), it’s easy to think this is the standard tale. But those who read beyond, through Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, what you’re expecting is not what happens. I recall finding that unsettling, but I was not up in arms about it the way so many were with the abrupt ending to HBO’s GoT series. Rather, I did a lot of thinking.

On the other hand, maybe my loss of momentum as I attempted God Emperor of Dune, essentially an afterthought to the original series, was because the trilogy left a bad taste in my mouth.

However, even though there is plenty of material in cyberspace that lauds the use of the Hero’s Journey in Dune, much of that comes from superficial fan blogs and reviews. There are also many deeper analyses that acknowledge what Herbert was trying to do. The fact that came through makes me think that maybe Herbert has struck a chord, or at least a discordant note that cannot be ignored.

I’d say the jury is still out. A successful film reaches so many more people than a complex, science fiction novel; based on the this first film, I suspect it is taken by most as a traditional, albeit somewhat darker, version of the Hero’s Journey. We’ll have to see where the director takes that in the sequel, which will only bring us up to the end of the first novel; if there’s enough commercial return to green light further sequels, we may have the opportunity to see if Herbert’s themes translate to the big screen, and whether they strike a chord with the movie-going public.

At this point, I have my doubts – but time will tell.