Content notice: spoilers for Frank Herbert’s first three Dune novels, discussions of white supremacy, antisemitism, fatmisia, LGBTQIA-misia, ableism, racism, child abuse, and incest
This is a follow-up to my essay “Dune’s Intellectual Ableism as a Function of Its White Supremacy,” which I posted on my Medium blog in October 2022. It may not make sense unless you’ve read the books and my first essay. My first essay covered Frank Herbert’s first Dune book and the 2021 Denis Villeneuve movie, which adapts most of the first book. By now, I’ve read Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune (in one Nook ebook bundle), but not God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, or Chapterhouse Dune.
In my previous essay, I argued that the Bene Gesserit are villainous and white supremacist — but are the world-building and story itself white supremacist? I think they are — perhaps unintentionally or by omission. Cultural appropriation and racist stereotypes are integral to Dune’s world-building. It tries to critique the idea of saviors, especially white saviors, but nevertheless reinforces Paul’s physical and intellectual genetic supremacy and exceptionalism. Another possible interpretation is that all of this is a legend or propaganda in the world of Arrakis and therefore distorted.
In Dune Messiah, Paul Atreides shifts from a potential messiah figure and undergoes apotheosis: elevation to a god-like status. In February 2023, guests on the podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy praised the concept of Dune Messiah but criticized its execution, including the formative events it omits. I agree with David Barr Kirtley that its premise suggests power corrupts, but ironically, it portrays Paul as almost perfect: burdened by, and limited in, his choices. He’s a fascinatingly complex, conflicted character. This novel always tries to have it both ways with Paul. Although the series tries to critique absolute power, the extent to which Paul succeeds at transforming Arrakis ecologically, supplanting existing religions, subjugating entire planets, and being worshipped is itself white supremacist.
As Connor Forhan notes in his blog post from 2022, Dune is an archetypal story. He points out many Biblical parallels to Paul Atreides and calls him “the quintessential messiah.” I will also analyze some of the same textual examples later in this essay.
However, many of these apparent parallels are deceptive or superficial. For example, Jesus said that his “kingdom was not of this world,” which makes him totally different from conquering cosmic emperor Paul. Despite a plethora of pseudo-Biblical language, it feels cliché and misguided to call Paul Atreides a “Christ figure.” In fact, the saga may attempt to satirize the idea of a Christ figure.
Jesus’ title as “king of the Jews” was often used mockingly or to justify antisemitism — for example, to blame Jewish people for Jesus’ death or force them to convert to Christianity. The Bene Gesserit carefully document genealogy, but they have far more in common with real, 20th-century eugenics programs than with any lineages in the Bible.
The Bene Gesserit also believe in and promote the apotheosis of genius, which I define here as the virtual worship of intelligent people. Some people use it uncritically to mean the ultimate genius, which is not what I mean by “the apotheosis of genius.”
I specified intellectual ableism in my first essay, but all forms of ableism are connected. The books also emphasize Paul’s unusual mental and physical self-control, which comes from both training and genetics. After atomic weapons blind Paul in Dune Messiah, he fits the ancient, ableist trope of a blind mystic or oracle. He also considers himself exceptional to other blind people.
Paul Atreides descends from two noble houses: Baron Harkonnen on his mother’s side and House Atreides on his father’s side. In my first essay, I analyzed Paul as the Kwisatz Haderach, the Bene Gesserit’s genetically engineered messiah. He has many other names and titles as well.
When the Fremen shelter Jessica and Paul in Sietch Tabr, Stilgar’s home, they privately name Paul Usul. Usul is derived from Arabic, means “base of the pillar” in the Fremen language, and marks Paul as a member of the tribe. Many years later, Paul hears Chani screaming, “Usul!” — probably telepathically — as she dies giving birth to their twins.
Stilgar hates and resents the deification of Paul. I can’t blame Stilgar for this. It replaces his traditional religion. Besides, Stilgar (Chani’s uncle) liked Paul as a young person under his protection and now refuses to view him as a godlike figure.
Maud’Dib means “desert mouse” in the fictional Fremen language. Paul chose it to be his public name when he joined the tribe. Interestingly, Paul’s followers call him Maud’Dib when they believe he’s a prophet — even after he fakes his own death. By this time, he’s renounced his former names and titles, calling himself the Preacher. It’s implied strongly and becomes increasingly clear that the mysterious Preacher is Paul. His followers acknowledge this by using his old title, Maud’Dib.
Paul is a fascinating example of cultural assimilation versus appropriation and how they can blur. When the Fremen accept Paul as a new member of their tribe and as Chani’s partner, that’s respectful assimilation. However, when he becomes the leader and savior of entire worlds, including the Fremen, that becomes cultural appropriation. As I wrote in 2022, Paul’s ascent as the Fremen messiah implies that “Paul is better at being a Fremen, somehow, than the Fremen themselves are.” Decades later, on Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen would have a similar arc of assimilation turning into white saviorism and dictatorship.
I’m referring only to Paul’s character arc here. The world-building of the series itself is filled with cultural appropriation and racist stereotypes.
This 2021 article explains the meanings of Paul’s titles, many of which derive from Arabic. In Herbert’s fictional Chakobsa language, Kwisatz Haderach means “shortening of the way.” It fits the book’s pseudo-Biblical imagery of preparing a way in the wilderness. Maud’Dib plays on an Arabic word for teacher, creating a parallel to Jesus’ disciples addressing him as “Rabbi” or “Teacher.” To the Fremen, Paul is the Lisan al Gaib, or the “Voice from the Outer World.” As the article explains, in Arabic, the Lisan al Gaib has a similar translation: “tongue of the unseen realms.” The title was used to describe Persian poet Hafez. Applying the title of a real, historical, Persian poet to describe a fictional, white messiah is appropriative, white supremacist, and makes the books seem outdated.
Paul’s sister’s name, Alia, is Arabic and means high or exalted.
Mir Ali Hosseini described his impression while watching the 2021 film, after hoping it wouldn’t be racist:
“The moment in which my friend and I completely gave up came when a group of Fremen who seemed to have gathered to welcome Paul in Arrakis, greeted him by chanting ‘Lisan al-Ghaib, Lisan al-Ghaib’ — and so was our slightest suspicion that we’re getting it wrong shattered: not only did Fremen literally speak Arabic, Paul, a white man, turned out to be the Shiite Messiah! At this very moment, in a perfectly synchronized fashion, my friend and I looked incredulously at each other, just like the times when somebody unexpectedly makes a blatant racist remark.”
Before reading this article above, I didn’t realize the Lisan al-Ghaib was a term for the Shiite Muslim Messiah. This is especially ironic, as the Fremen are descended from Sunni (not Shiite) Muslims and from Zen Buddhists. This shows how Orientalist the world-building is, appropriating and conflating disparate, sacred elements from different religious traditions.
In my first essay, I analyzed the scene in which Reverend Mother Helen Mohiam “tests” a teenage Paul by holding a poisoned gom jabbar needle to his neck. If he removes his hand from the box that’s torturing him, he’ll die. Even if he gets an involuntary muscle spasm or tremor and doesn’t consciously move his hand, he may still die. Paul also experiences nerve pain from the gom jabbar later in Book 1.
As horrible as testing for intelligence or willpower is, it’s also impossible. The gom jabbar is primarily a test of reflexes. I keep returning to this scene because I have cerebral palsy, and someone with my type of neurological disability would probably pull back involuntarily, regardless of our intentions. We might never be tested in the first place in the books’ world-building, but my point is that many disabled people would automatically fail and die.
Tests of “intelligence” filter out intersecting groups of disabled kids, kids of color, and poor kids, in several ways. That’s the eugenic story of real IQ tests too.
A quote from the gom jabbar scene in 2021 film:
Reverend Mother Mohiam: Like sifting sand through a screen, we sift people. If you had been unable to control your impulses, like an animal, we could not let you live. You inherit too much power.
Paul Atreides: Because I’m a Duke’s son?
Reverend Mother Mohiam: Because you are Jessica’s son. You have more than one birthright, boy.
Jessica defied the Bene Gesserit but paradoxically fulfilled their prophecy by having the Kwisatz Haderach a generation early.
Paul’s younger sister, Alia, absorbed the “cellular memories” of all her ancestors when Jessica endured spice agony while pregnant with her. She has access to all of their memories, but the Bene Gesserit will consider her an “Abomination” if she allows one ancestor’s personality to dominate.
As a child in the first book, Alia killed her maternal grandfather, Baron Harkonnen, with a poisoned gom jabbar needle. Ironically, as an adult, Alia becomes possessed by the Baron, who offers her relief from all the other ancestors’ thoughts in exchange. This has incestuous overtones, as he asks her to let him experience pleasure through her when she has sex. Alia also absorbs all of her mother’s memories of her father — including the intimately romantic or sexual ones.
Baron Harkonnen’s characterization is anti-LGBTQIA and fatmisic. The first book conflates Baron Harkonnen being fat with being rich and greedy and conflates him being gay with sexually abusing young boys. He is described as “grossly, immensely fat” (906).
A generation after Paul was tested, Jessica hasn’t learned from her previous mistakes. She also has Paul’s son Leto Atreides II trained by torture, but not by gom jabbar. She still hasn’t learned to respect children’s autonomy. She’s now a Reverend Mother, hiding a gom jabbar needle in her cloak at her first meeting with Paul’s daughter, Ghanima — not to test her, but in case she needs to use it in self-defense.
Like the Neolutionists in Orphan Black, the Bene Gesserit’s belief in genetic purity ultimately leads to incest. The Bene Gesserit try and fail to engineer incest between Paul and Alia. Sibling incest would “CEMENT the desired characteristics into offspring,” the Reverend Mother thinks (730; emphasis mine).
One character later says, “The Bene Gesserit believed they could predict the course of evolution. But they overlooked their own changes in the course of that evolution” (1280).
Princess Irulan is Paul’s wife in name only and for purely political reasons. Chani is his life partner, and Paul refuses to have sex with Irulan. Despite this, the Bene Gesserit still try to control his “precious Atreides genes” and ask him to have a child with Irulan (728). He offers to provide only a sperm sample, but they refuse. Because the Bene Gesserit preach self-control of unconscious urges, I assumed they’d support IVF. However, they probably consider sex a powerful tool to manipulate and bond people.
The incestuous Bene Gesserit plans are finally poised to succeed near the end of Children of Dune. Leto wants to marry his twin, Ghanima. This incest was foreshadowed by their “parent game” (919). Like Alia, Ghanima and Leto have access to their ancestors’ memories. They draw on these memories to reenact their parents’ (Chani and Paul’s) conversations. This information is useful to them, but with a dangerous possibility of forming incestuous attraction.
Paul the Blind Prophet
In Dune Messiah, Paul is blinded by atomic weapons. He then retreats into the desert to die but survives. It’s also a Fremen custom to murder blind members of the tribe by leaving them to die in the desert. “A blind Fremen, then, was a curiosity” (884). Many Indigenous peoples in the real world have been falsely accused of murdering elderly and disabled people customarily. So, this is one of many racist stereotypes the Fremen embody.
Paul says he’s not blind: he sees with prescience. He says, “They’ve taken my eyes, but not my vision” (772). He considers himself exceptional to other blind people. “The eyes of Maud‘Dib” becomes the punchline of an ableist riddle on Arrakis, as well as slang for “fire diamonds” (957). Even the event of Paul being blinded is eventually mythologized in a nursery rhyme (811). This reinforces the idea that Paul’s culture considers him superior or exceptional to other blind people.
Paul continues the ancient, ableist trope of a “blind seer” or mystic, like Tiresias, a blind oracle character from Greek myths and drama. In another popular, ableist convention in fiction, Paul becomes even more prescient after becoming blind. He accurately describes visual stimuli around him and even sees telepathically through his newborn son’s eyes. His powers overcompensate for his disability and are part of what makes him seem superhuman.
Princess Irulan describes her husband, Paul Atreides, as “less than a god, more than a man.” This continues the theme of apotheosis.
Another flagrant example of ableism in the Dune Saga is the character Bijaz. Bijaz has dwarfism, is enslaved, and made into a human distrans, like a living radio or data receptacle. Distrans are usually non-human animals.
Bijaz speaks cryptically but reminds Paul that he (Bijaz) is human. Duncan Idaho’s ghola kills Bijaz as a “kindness.”
More on Paul’s “Supremacy”
In the first book, when the Fremen welcome her and Paul, Jessica thinks, “They’ve prepared a way for us in the desert.” This reminds me of John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible: “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” Connor Forhan also noted this in his post I cited earlier.
Jessica could have quoted many Biblical passages about “welcoming the stranger” to describe Fremen hospitality. Instead, she references a line that implies her son is the Messiah in context when she applies it to him. As the Preacher, Paul Atreides later becomes John the Baptist to himself: fulfilling the paradoxical roles of both John the prophet AND Christ the Messiah.
On Arrakis, everyone lives in a state of chronic, severe dehydration, at least before Paul’s interventions. The expression “to give water to the dead” refers to crying tears of emotion. It’s so rare that it’s reserved for deaths. Even then, it’s considered an unusual sign of respect. Soon after he starts living with the Fremen, Paul “gives water to the dead” for someone he didn’t even know or like much. The Fremen are amazed. This is one reason Chani falls in love with Paul and Stilgar trusts him.
Although the two quotes may seem totally unrelated, the Fremen reactions to Paul are like the reactions to the prophecy “He shall know your ways,” which I analyzed in my first essay. Both scenes establish Paul as a superior, white “offworlder” and a potential messiah. However, Paul has just come from Caladan, an Earth-like planet full of water. Paul could probably cry only because he was an “offworlder” recently drinking water, sweating, and urinating regularly, like we do on Earth. The Fremen praise a mostly biological response as a sign of Paul’s supposed profundity and superiority.
The Dune Saga is so replete with language reminiscent of Jesus, it obscures the ways Paul is the antithesis of Jesus. Many passages show how Paul feels burdened or trapped by his roles. Alia thinks, “Deification is a prison enclosing him” (803). In Dune Messiah, Paul is weary: “Everywhere there is peace, Paul thought. Everywhere . . . except in the heart of Muad’Dib.”
There are eerily similar moments of weariness and vulnerability from Christ in the Gospels, for example: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay His head.”
Paul’s pronouns are often capitalized, like he’s God. He often repeats emphatically, “I say to you,” a phrase Jesus uses frequently when preaching in the Gospels.
The Preacher says in Children of Dune: “It was said of Muad’Dib that he died of prescience, that knowledge of the future killed him and he passed from the universe of reality into the alam al-mythal. I say to you that this is the illusion of Maya” (956). Also spelled Alam al-Mithal, this term derived from Arabic is like a spiritual realm or afterlife in the novels. It’s repeated in the book that he “died of prescience.” When asked whether he’s Maud’Dib, the Preacher always replies cryptically that Maud’Dib is dead.
Despite these overwhelming, superficial similarities, in many ways, Paul is NOT a “Christ figure.” While he’s still alive, his armies conquer and commit genocide at his behest. He is a military leader and Emperor, the opposite of Christ’s life of non-violence and poverty. Paul amasses wealth and is pro-capitalist, like most nobles and unlike Jesus. Paul even has shares in CHOAM, the colonial corporation that controls mélange (spice). The Preacher laments that Maud’Dib’s message is being distorted, but all these atrocities happened while he was still alive. This is incomparable to Christians committing many atrocities in Christ’s name long after his death.
Even in the first movie, colonialism and capitalism are associated with genocide. For example, the colonists notice there are many times more Fremen inhabiting Arrakis than they expected.
Paul compares himself to Ghengis Khan and Adolf Hitler but says he’s killed more people than they did: billions to their millions (703). Most of this action, including the first 12 years of Paul’s reign, is not depicted in the books. This narrative choice can feel opaque or frustrating, but it hints at the ways Paul’s followers might have sanitized his legacy. We do get oblique hints of the mass death that he directly committed or that his armies committed in his name. So, it’s concerning that white supremacists take him at face value as a savior figure.
Although Paul’s origins and life story have many parallels to Biblical prophecies, these are deceptive. The Bene Gesserit’s intentional genetic engineering creates a significant departure from Biblical narratives and philosophies. Parts of the Bible are concerned with lineage, but these are entirely different from the Bene Gesserit and their deliberate eugenics projects. The people who transcribed the Bible didn’t understand or seek to control genetics. The Bible was situated firmly in the ancient Jewish and Christian communities that produced its oral and written narratives. I believe that equating the Bene Gesserit’s traditions to Biblical lineages is a misinterpretation. This egregious misreading may explain some of the books’ appeal to antisemites and other avowed white supremacists.
In my first essay on Dune in October 2022, I cited Jordan S. Carroll’s 2020 essay and its description of the Butlerian Jihad, which banned computers in Herbert’s SFF books. The essay describes many white supremacists’ fascination with Dune. Carroll wrote: “Even the alt-right’s favorite novel does not seem to support their misreadings.” He points out that Paul and his armies killed billions of people. I agree. The novel is rife with cultural appropriation, but it doesn’t say dictatorships or genocide are good. It tries to critique imperialism and colonialism, but in ways that seem misguided and racist today. This is especially noticeable because SFF is more diverse now than in 1965.
Elon Musk has also been widely criticized for misquoting and misinterpreting Dune.
In the first book, the Fremen mention their “Sunni ancestors” (445). However, it’s not clear (at least to me) that they also have Zen Buddhist ancestors. The word “ZenSunni” is not used until Dune Messiah. Like many other readers and viewers, I initially assumed the Fremen practiced a form of Islam. They even use some of the Muslim titles for God for their deity.
There are also frequent references to pilgrims making the Hajj. This is confusing, as Hajj has a specific meaning in the real world: the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca. In Dune, Mecca and Earth presumably no longer exist. Earth is a distant, almost mythic, memory. The pilgrims apparently travel from around the galaxy to Arrakis and Paul himself. This appropriates a real religious practice into the homage paid to a fictional, white messiah in a SFF world.
Though they have Buddhist and Muslim ancestors, the Fremen follow no extant religion. They worship Shai-Hulud: Arrakis’ sandworm deified. Leto Atreides II also experiences apotheosis and becomes associated with Shai-Hulud.
Although Dune is filled with ableism and racist, appropriative world-building, it tries to critique colonialism, eugenics, monarchy, and imperialism. Paul Atreides is a terrifying, genocidal, complex figure. His story attempts to satirize the concepts of Christ figures and white saviors and how they are mythologized. However, the extent to which he transforms Arrakis and becomes its worldly ruler and prophet reinforces racism and individualism.
Herbert, Frank. Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga Collection: Books 1–3 (Dune; Dune Messiah; Children of Dune.) Copyright 1965, 1969, and 1976 by Herbert Properties LLC. New York: Penguin Random House. Nook edition (2010).
Dune. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, starring Timothée Chalamet, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, 2021.