The Hero Has Had Enough Journeys, Composing, 08/10/2013

I’m now about halfway through reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I do find it quite impressive, but I have something of a difficulty with it. I’m sure this has been hashed over in a variety of blogs and articles that I frankly can’t be bothered researching, so certain am I that someone has raised this critique before and my conclusion is more a tired old theme than any original interpretation.

I am sick to death of the Hero’s Journey trope, and I don’t find it interesting anymore. A detailed analysis of the Hero’s Journey can be found on TV Tropes, Wikipedia, and Phil Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum discussion of the influence of Star Wars on science fiction. Dune is an obvious example of this plot shape. The book first came out in 1965, so it doesn’t have the excuse of being swept up in the mania of unintelligent media executives shamelessly copying the basic outline of the first Star Wars films. In short form the Hero’s Journey is the story of a figure (usually a boy, but occasionally a girl) who appears unremarkable, but is of some noble lineage or possesses some hidden talent. A tragedy happens to him which sets him on a path of hardship that helps him develop his peculiar talent, and culminates in restoring the order that the initial tragedy disrupted. 

Dune is one of the most obvious examples of the Hero’s Journey trope that I’ve read in an incredibly long time. Paul Atreides is the son of a powerful duke in a royalist interstellar society, who has been bred to have special mental and physical powers of perception, prediction, and bodily control. The murder of his father as a result of political machinations makes him a fugitive and puts him on a path to develop his powers at a rapid pace. He becomes the prophesied messiah of the natives of the planet Arrakis, beats the bad guys, and brings peace and ecological prosperity to the world.

It’s not that this is a bad trope inherently; it’s a gripping plot and a fascinating world. But it’s been done so often that my natural inclinations to do something new and creative lead me away from it. I came to Dune after a long delay because I knew Herbert achieved a very difficult task: building a science-fiction world of immense historical and technical detail without infodumps that drew energy and focus away from the actual story and characters. He achieved this remarkably well, and I’ve learned a lot already for when I start working on my own epic sci-fi project, the tentatively titled Lost in Space taken seriously. But it’s frustrating to see this skill used to prop up yet another Hero’s Journey story.

This shot certainly isn't composed to make Paul Atreides look like some kind
of uniquely remarkable messianic figure, is it? (I hope my readers can tell
when I'm being sarcastic.)
The funny part is that Herbert seemed to have had just as much doubt in the Hero’s Journey archetype and the political movements articulating the same underlying ideas. In the interview I linked last Monday, which I’ll link here again, Herbert expresses deep doubt in the human tendency to trust charismatic leaders to coordinate and spearhead a mass movement for radical political and social change. He said his aim was to build a story where an ordinary person ends up in this role as messiah (and he never even says ‘messiah’ in this context, only ‘charismatic leader,’ a voice typical of the tendency in mid-1960s science-fiction for deflationary atheism). The goal was to destabilize and critique the social tendency to elevate messiahs and look for leaders instead of working on your own to improve your community. 

Then he writes a story that is explicitly about a central character who becomes a messiah because he’s been engineered to have special powers in the first place! Maybe this is part of the subversion. Maybe Herbert thought of the messiah figure having been engineered and trained to be a messiah as a critique of the idea itself: messiahs aren’t born and forged by supernatural forces, but by the planning and machinations of people. In 1965, when Dune was first released, perhaps this idea alone was radical enough to constitute a critique. Herbert’s language in the interview to describe Paul was distinctly atheistic, which makes me believe his goal was to subvert messiah narratives by building one without a god. But this makes the same mistake that atheism in the 20th century did: it kept the narrative of a messiah while simply putting humans in the roles that god would traditionally play. Despite its apparent atheism, Dune is still a religious book precisely because it’s still a messiah narrative. Telling a truly atheist story would require a far more radical transformation of the structure of your narrative.

Aside from this critique, Dune does impress me. I particularly enjoy how the book toys with the spoiler-averse among its readers. The book has appendices that explain various parts of the history and technology of the novel’s world. But it also has an index of notable figures from their noble houses, including one of the central characters: it includes her date of death. In other words, it guarantees that some of the central characters will survive the novel. 

I described this more complex kind of suspense in earlier posts about Herbert. It’s another way he shifts the suspense from matters of what happens to matters of how events happen. We know from the ‘history book’ quotations at the top of each chapter that Paul Atreides will survive and live a long career as Arrakis prophet. We know from the appendices that his mother will survive the events of the book and give birth to her daughter, Paul’s sister. The question now becomes how it’s going to happen.


  1. Adam, glad you're persevering.

    Here's my take, for what it's worth:

    You are absolutely correct that Herbert wrote Dune with the Hero's journey myth at the core of his narrative design. I think what makes the book so successful is the other point you tease out: Herbert was immensely ambivalent about the concept of the hero and the place of the strong man in history. That I think is exactly his theme, but it is not a theme he's simply reproducing; rather, the question is asked by the characters and he gives these characters all the room in the universe to answer it. The concept of the Kwisatz Hederach (at first glance, just another bit of silly business in this childish genre, critics may think) is to my mind a very rich meditation on how progress can be realized by humans. If we think at the absolute maximum scale and have the most perfect understanding of genetics, could we produce someone who really does deserve authority? If so, well, that would truly be sacred authority: a man (or a woman, we'd think in these more enlightened times) who is by nature the pinnacle of what humanity can be and who has every advantage would surely be the greatest of all possible philosopher kings. Or is authority always corporate, always profane, and even in this final instance man is indeed the flawed and shabby thing we've always suspected? So to my mind, the starting point in his world-building hinges on that thought experiment into authority and human capacity, and it is a question that he has his Bene Gesserit, Bene Tleilax, CHOAM, Guild and Aristocratic characters all answer in different ways.

    As you'll see, Herbert balances this question in two ways. First, he raises the stakes to an absurd degree for the benefits of enlightened leadership, locating his characters in an environment where all corporate interest is baroque and perverted beyond belief (with one exception, the pure but brutal men and women of the desert). This is justified on the grounds of a monopoly economy supported by a perfect balance of powers. In that environment, there can be no human flourishing, so the possibility of a democratic or incremental development is off the table. The only thing that is possible for the countless masses of humans to advance as a species would be radical transformation of some sort: who in the galaxy can do that?

    And then, second, Herbert hinges in the other direction. The goal of perfecting humanity is not accomplished, but rather we have someone more recognizably flawed and sympathetic character at the center of the story. He may or may not be as good as they come: no one, including him, is quite sure. So this gives us the chance to think through for ourselves what the perfect leader, the perfect man would look like. What is a hero but an idealization, an embodiment of the higher ideals we share? Had Herbert just given us what he thinks the Kwisatz Hederach would be, then the story would collapse as some mad fascist wish fulfillment, but instead he trips up his characters by introducing love into the mix. This great hero may or may not be the perfect man that so many have worked for so long to bring about, but we do know that he's invested and defined by that most contemporary and humane of values, familial love.

    To my mind, then, Herbert is investigating, not reproducing, the hero myth. Luke Skywalker is a noble but flawed leader destined to pass through the rites of passage and adopt the mantle of the Republic, ceding control to the masses in an affirmation of the democratic spirit. Herbert is so much bolder than that: the future that Paul sets out to realize may not be one that comforts us or is recognizably desirable to us at all. But in Paul we have the conceptual pivot to question what we think is good and just, and an environment of such extremes and such contrasting ways of living that the stakes in answering these questions feel very high indeed.

    1. I have no problem with the hero myth itself, just its rampant overuse. I respect and admire Frank Herbert for subverting it as he does in the first Dune book (though it may take me a while to get to the rest of the series, simply because I'm technically reading this for my work, and I have other work-related research to do soon as well). My only problem, if you could even call it that, is that the Hero's Journey monomyth isn't a direction I want my own fiction work to follow. Herbert is rebelling against the thoughtless acceptance of Hero myths, but he still needs those myths to rebel against. His ability to paint a complex world in incidental details, without tedious infodumps, is that drew me finally to the book. What I want to do with the Hero's Journey framework is even more radical than Herbert: I want nothing to do with it at all.

  2. For the record, I think Orson Scott Card tries to do the same thing with his character of Ender, and with interesting results. This is a major theme throughout a lot of speculative fiction that I think productively challenges the place of the hero myth in our societies.