mrOrange: Transcendentalism in Dune, 2003

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mrOrange: Transcendentalism in Dune, 2003

Postby SandRider » Fri Apr 30, 2010 9:43 pm

alt.fan.dune / 2003
posted by: "mrOrange"


> We were required to do an essay / research project in my 10th
> grade honors English class last year. I chose to do mine on
> Dune and Transcendentalism. I thought someone on here might
> find it interesting, or perhaps critique it for me. I did
> this about a year ago, but have been lurking on this
> newsgroup and wanted to see what you people thought of it:



:Parallels Between Frank Herbert’s Dune and the Transcendental Writing of Emerson and Thoreau


Frank Herbert’s Dune, intentionally or not, contains numerous parallels with the tenets of the American Transcendentalism period. The rationalities contained within Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Self-Reliance are closely intertwined with the subtle undertones contained within the complex plot of Dune. As with Nature and Walden, all major concepts and philosophies in Dune stem from nature. The extremely harsh desert environment of Arrakis, or Dune to the native population, has directly influenced the culture and religion of the indigenous Fremen. The hero of Dune, Paul Maud’ Dib, conforms closely to the model set forth by Self-Reliance. Paul is the model ‘transcendental self’ as described by Emerson. One of the more important aspects of the Transcendental philosophy is the power of the human mind. Almost every aspect of Dune is permeated with proof of the near infinite power of the human mind. As Manlove noted in his analysis of Dune, Dune can simply be said to be about mind (104).

Nature is the physical basis for all other elements, both physical and mental in Dune and the Transcendental writings of Thoreau and Emerson. Environment and material wealth are contained within the natural domain, while religion and the individual are shaped by it. As Princess Irulan, the narrator of Dune, writes:

God created Arrakis to train the faithful.

The harsh desert climate of Arrakis, also known as Dune to the local population, has forced the native Fremen to live a brutal, austere lifestyle, filled with oppressive manual labor and lacking of superfluous material possessions. This is not unlike the Spartan-like lifestyle Thoreau describes in Walden, in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” (Abbott n.p.) As Abbott says in his review of Walden, Thoreau chose to live a simple life of practical clothing and lacking of amenities (n.p.). Thufir Hawat, Master of Assassin’s for House Atreides, describes the Fremen to Paul Atreides:

"Like as not I have seen them," he said. "There's little to tell them from the folk of the graben and sink. They all wear those great flowing robes. And they stink to heaven in any closed space. It's from those suits they wear - call them 'stillsuits' - that reclaim the body's own water."

The Fremen culture has adapted itself perfectly to the harsh desert environment. The pragmatism of the Fremen attire is significant. The Fremen stillsuit consists of tubes and catchpockets that reclaim sweat and other human excrements for the purpose of recycling and reuse by the wearer. The whole system is powered by hydraulic pumps which are activated by walking. The stillsuit serves as a metaphor for the Fremen culture: simple and effective, yet lacking of elegance. The stillsuit is also a symbol of the self-reliance of the Fremen. When wearing a stillsuit, the Fremen are somewhat isolated from the desert and are much less susceptible to the outside environment and the harsh climate of Arrakis.

The Fremen accomplish an incredible amount of work. To them, manual labor is dignifying. The Fremen respect Dune, while at the same time taming it, and reaping the resources it sows. The Imperial Planetologist Kynes, John the Baptist to the Christ-messiah figure Paul Muad’ Dib (Sheppard 270), engineers a massive ecological project for the Fremen to carry out, designed to change the desert environment of Dune to a more hospitable one. The project is comparable to Thoreau’s bean planting experiment in Walden. The Fremen wished to tame the environment to suit their needs, just as Thoreau wished to alter the soil around his home in Walden to grow beans rather than the native grass.

Manlove describes Dune as a “giant spice farm.” (104) The Fremen, unlike the rival House Harkonnen, take to a more Thoreau-esque philosophy regarding spice mining. They mine for necessity, while the gluttonous Harkonnens mine for profit. Sustenance is the Fremen goal, rather than material gain. The Fremen sell excess spice supplies when the need arises, but it is not their primary goal, much like Thoreau, who sold his excess bean supplies from his farm at Walden as somewhat of an afterthought.

Krutch explains in his criticism of Walden that one of the main topics the book tackles is what is meant by living a life close to nature, and the rewards it offers(n.p.) The Fremen live and die by this philosophy, immersing themselves in their environment. The Fremen are at dynamic equilibrium with their desert home, shaping it through their planned ecological project, and letting it shape them into the fiercest and most dedicated fighters in the universe. Dune allows only those who embrace nature to survive (O’Reilly 40-41). The Fremen consume the treasures of the desert, the spice mélange, and use the great sandworms of Arrakis as transportation, thereby establishing deep connections between themselves and the desert.

The duality of the giant sandworms of Arrakis is significant. The sandworm represents the physical, nature and the environment, while at the same time the worm symbolizes the spiritual, divine power and eternity. The sandworm illustrates the relationship between man and nature. The crysknife, the “Death Maker,” is a crystal tooth from the great sandworm of Arrakis, the “Maker,” used for ritualistic killing by the fierce Fremen warriors.

“...the fabled crysknife of Arrakis, the blade that had never been taken off the planet, and was known only by rumor and wild gossip.”

“Knife, that's "Death Maker" in Chakobsa.”



The spice is the source of power within the Empire: deathly addictive, geriatric, and most importantly, the source of Paul Maud’Dib’s prescient vision. The Imperial Planetologist Liet-Kynes makes the connection between the sandworms and the spice. Without sandworms, there would be no spice. Paul recalls what the Planetologist mentioned about the spice-worm relationship: What has the worm to do with the spice, mélange? he asked himself. And he remembered Liet-Kynes betraying a veiled reference to some association between worm and spice.


Fremen boys must successfully call and mount a sandworm as a rite of passage. Paul Maud’ Dib undergoes this initiation trial to prove his leadership to the Fremen: I am a sandrider, Paul told himself. He glanced down at the hooks in his left hand, thinking that he had only to shift those hooks down the curve of a maker's immense side to make the creature roll and turn, guiding it where he willed. He had seen it done. He had been helped up the side of a worm for a short ride in training. The captive worm could be ridden until it lay exhausted and quiescent upon the desert surface and a new maker must be summoned.


The Fremen of Arrakis use Maker teeth as weapons, consume the spice mélange produced by the Maker, and use the Maker itself as their main means of long distance transportation throughout the desert. The symbiosis of man and worm is definite.

Nature, self-reliance, isolation, individualism - all are connected in some way to one of the most evident tenets of Transcendentalist writing, the power of the human mind. Manlove’s opinion of Dune is that ‘the medium of Dune is mind.’ (102) The main difference between the ‘Transcendentalist’ capabilities of the human mind and the power of the human mind in the Dune universe is that the Transcendentalist mind is nurtured primarily through nature and the beauty of the environment, while the ‘Dune’ mind is nurtured artificially through the use of potent drugs. As Warren mentions in his review of Walden, Walden is Thoreau’s religion and universal medicine. Thoreau is inspired by the beauty of his natural surroundings. Gerber describes in his “Ralph Waldo Emerson” the way in which Emerson stresses that nature’s primary role in existing is to excite the intuition of the individual (n.p.). The great minds of Dune, however, are stimulated with chemicals. The Mentats, humans with the computational ability of a computer, who assist every major leader in Dune, enhance their already considerable mental powers with Sapho juice. The Guildsmen of the Spacing Guild, who navigate huge spaceships through space, rely on the spice mélange for the prescient abilities it grants in large doses, to ensure a safe journey ahead of time. The Reverend Mothers of the Bene Gesserit make use of “spectrum awareness” narcotics to enter a heightened mental state which gives them the ability to detect the truth or falsehood of statements. The Fremen Reverend Mothers, called Sayyadina, use The Water of Life in rituals for passing on their extensive internal memories to younger generations. The Transcendentalist methods of increased awareness appear to be much more serene, while the methods of Dune, while more effective, are much more extreme and often associated with negative consequences such as chemical or psychological dependence and death.

The limitlessness of the human mind is evident in many different characters of Dune. The Bene Gesserit women are masters of their own mind and body, capable of physical feats of extreme discipline. Both the Sardaukar, the Emperor’s elite guard, and the Fremen, Paul Maud’Dib’s fighting force, are exceptionally well trained and disciplined fighters. The Mentats, who act as substitutes for computational machines, have extremely powerful minds capable of predicting near infinite numbers of outcomes for any given situation. All varieties of mind are represented in Dune: the high-level abstract minds of the Guildsmen, the analytical minds of the Mentats, and the battle-oriented minds of the Sarduakar and Fremen.

“According to [Emerson], the individual has the ability and the obligation to mold the world to his will, for man, not nature, is dominant.” (Warren n.p.) The Fremen and Paul Muad’ Dib tame Shai-Hulud, the giant sandworm. Manlove states in his essay: “... the picture of a sandworm used till it is exhausted is a striking one of nature’s subservience to man in this book.” (102) While this image can be taken literally, it also has metaphorical significance. Paul Maud’ Dib, by riding a sandworm during his rite of passage into the Fremen culture, has conquered not only the worm itself, but what is represented by the worm, eternity. Man’s dominance over nature extends itself to dominance over time. Paul’s control reaches far beyond the sands of Dune into the sands of time. By that same token, the Water of Life, the drug that matures Paul’s prescient abilities, is a by- product of the sandworm lifecycle as described in Ower’s essay on Dune. (274) Metaphorically, Paul has been matured by the spiritual-natural forces represented by the sandworm. Warren explains that Self-Reliance contains the idea that history is determined by ‘a few stout and earnest’ individuals. (n.p.) Paul can indirectly influence history by viewing the future. He alters the future, therefore altering what will become history. The paradox of Paul’s prescient vision is comparable, on basic terms, to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Theory of Quantum mechanics. The energy required to observe an electron’s location or velocity, when applied to one variable, changes the opposite, making it impossible to observe both at the same time. The act of Paul previewing the future with his prescient powers, like the scientist observing the electron with laboratory equipment, changes the course of time itself, making it impossible to predict with all certainty future events without somehow altering them. Paul’s prescience gives with one hand while taking away with the other.

Because of the paradoxical prescience limitations, Paul must deal with his foresight accordingly. Paul sees his fate, Jihad, a religious war started by the fanatical Fremen killing billions and ending in Paul’s destruction. At any point Paul could have abandoned the path he was traveling on and rewritten history, saving himself and his loved ones at the expense of altering fate. However Paul sacrifices himself, so to speak, for the good of all men. Thoreau states that charity begins at home. The man who obeys his own genius serves men infinitely more by so doing, than if he were to turn aside from his path. (Child 351)

Frank Herbert’s writing, like that of the Transcendentalist’s Emerson and Thoreau, is laced with thought-provoking ideas that are all interrelated. The connections between ideas are not always overt, but they are always present. Nature, the base of the pyramid, influences every other idea in some way. Dune, like Thoreau’s Walden, is an ecosystem with macro- and microcosms. The creatures of Walden Pond, the Fremen, the sandworm, the spice, are all part of a complex ecosystem. The desert environment of Arrakis has forced the Fremen to adapt and embrace the environment. The sandworms of Arrakis have evolved and thrive on the desert planet. The sandworms have come to dichotomously represent both nature and divine power. The Fremen have given Shai-Hulud religious significance. The spice mélange, a source of long life and limited prescient ability, is produced by the worms of Arrakis. In this way nature, religion, and mental capability are all related. The vast mental capability that the spice awakens in Paul allows him to enjoy absolute self-reliance. He is his own sovereign man-state watching over all time and space. Analyzing Dune as a Transcendentalist piece allows one to observe the entire philosophy contained within at once, with insights perhaps only the heightened awareness received from a dose of the spice mélange would otherwise yield.

Works Cited

Abbot, Collamer M., a review of Walden in The Explicator,” Winter, 1998, pp 74-77. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/SRC. This essay discusses Thoreau’s desire to be an individual, as well as “an uncommon man different from conventional beings.” It states that Thoreau considers nature his religion, and Walden Pond is his sanctuary and his heaven. The author states that Thoreau’s life is one of Spartan simplicity, with a simple diet, and free of many common amenities.


Child, Lydia Maria. (1854) “Thoreau’s Walden,” in Thoreau: A Century of Criticism, Southern Methodist University Press, 1954, pp. 8-11. This essay is a criticism of Walden. It discusses the idea that all of the accomplishments of Western civilization, material improvements, commercial enterprise, and the rapid accumulation of wealth are overrated. It tells of how Walden is about individualism. Man must obey his own genius, and will infinitely serve other men by doing so, rather than exhaust his efforts meeting the expectations of others.


Gerber, John C., “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December 2000.
http://www.galenet.com/servlet/SRC. Gerber’s analysis of Emerson’s writing discusses Emersons belief of the natural and supernatural as two different levels of reality. The essay also analyzes Emerson’s philosophy that nature, although serving as commodity, beauty, language, and discipline, really exists to offer inspiration and mystical experiences to man.


Krutch, Joseph Wood, in his Henry David Thoreau, 1948. Reprint by William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1974, 298 p. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000.
http://www.galenet.com/servlet/SRC. This excerpt from a criticism on
Thoreau discusses the mean themes of Walden. These themes are mainly what the book is concerned with, and include the life of quiet desperation which most men lead, the economic fallacy which is responsible for the situation many men find themselves in, the rewards that come from living a life close to nature, and the “higher laws” which man must follow to reach transcendence.


Manlove, C. N. “Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)” Science Fiction: Ten Explorations, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1986, pp. 101-108. The essay describes the relationship of the mental and physical in Dune. The author repeatedly states the importance of mind to Dune, and how it relates to several of the more important characters and factions.


O’Reilly, Timothy. Frank Herbert. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1981. This novel studies all of Herbert’s work, concentrating on the themes and ideas presented in Dune. It discusses the central ideas of Dune, the traditional hero, religion, and human transcendence. The relationship between nature and religion is discussed, as religion is often derived from nature. Herbert’s mindset of embracing nature as a means of survival is also mentioned.


Ower, John. Criticism of Dune. Contemporary Literary Criticism, 12: 273-275. This essay describes the Arrakeen sandworm as a source of divine energy. The author describes the relationship of the spice, the worm, and Paul’s prophetic powers. The development of Paul’s mental-psychic powers is also discussed in detail.


Sheppard, R. Z. (1971) Criticism of Dune. Contemporary Literary Criticism, 12: 270-72. This essay describes Dune as a successful science fiction novel with ideas relevant to public concerns. It states that the novel contains ideas relating to the power of mysticism. The essay also mentions the research Herbert put into Dune, which had extensive information on desert ecology, history, and desert cultures. The extensive growth and planting project planned for the planet Dune is not unlike Thoreau’s bean planting project, on a larger scale.


Warren, Joyce W., “Transcendentalism and the Self: Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Rutgers University Press, 1984, pp. 23-53. DISCovering Authors. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/SRC/. This essay discusses the topic of gender roles in Emerson’s writing. His emphasis of self-reliance is mentioned. Emerson’s belief that men were destined for transcendence while women were designed to support men in this role is discussed.
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