Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Greco-Roman Mythology in Frank Herbert's Dune

First off, it's terribly intimidating to be in a Lit class chock-full of English majors, so I hope you'll forgive this Engineering student's writing as I'm sure it's not up to par with what most of you are used to.

That being said, here's my term paper relating some myths made popular by the Greeks and Romans to the popular science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert:

Mythology has permeated the modern culture so thoroughly that many people are unable to pick out the parallels between the newly penned stories and those created thousands of years ago, oftentimes developed by people who did not even have symbols with which to represent their words.  Sometimes the allusions are impossible to miss.  Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is a major player in many of Stan Lee’s comic books (in fact, all of Asgard has a place in the Marvel Universe) and remains largely unchanged from his original mythological background.  On the other hand, many mythological entities have been well disguised, either in song, art, or the written word.  Although perhaps not apparent at first glance, Frank Herbert’s highly popular Dune has strong remnants of Greco-Roman mythology.  Published in 1965, Dune has become one of the most acclaimed science fiction novels of all time and has produced multiple spinoffs and several movies and it owes much of its success to the strength derived from the transcendence of the ancient mythological figures present in its pages, the most prominent individuals being Leto, Paul, and Alia Atreides.
It would be difficult not to begin by scrutinizing the name Atreides itself.  Taken from the Greeks, “Atreides” was the name given to entire line of Atreus.  It began with the cursed Tantalus continuing to his prideful daughter Niobe and ivory-shouldered son Pelops, the latter of which wed Hippodamia and was the father of Atreus.   Atreus went on to marry the granddaughter of King Minos, AĆ«rope, and their children were Menelaus, the king of Sparta and catalyst who inspired the Achaeans into a decade-long war with Troy, and Agamemnon, king of Argos and commander of the aforementioned Achaeans.  The Atreides line is present in many of the most well-known Greek myths.  In Dune, the protagonist family possesses the surname Atreides and they, like the Atreides before them, are of royal blood and are leaders of men.
The characters bearing the name Atreides are no less mythological than the name itself.  Herbert’s Duke Leto I, for instance, shares a name with the goddess Leto of the Ancient Greeks (or Letona to the Romans).  Letona’s main purpose in Greco-Roman mythology was to bring into the world her children, the gods Apollo and Artemis, after which she fell to more of a minor roll.  Similarly, Duke Leto is the father of Paul and Alia (who will soon be shown to represent Apollo and Artemis, respectively).  Although Leto is a Duke and a big character in his universe, his roll is largely to sire his children and to be a set up character for the escapades to follow.  He dies about a quarter of the way through Dune and as such exits the story entirely from that point on, leaving his children to become the heroes they were meant to be.
Apollo and Diana by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
When it comes to Apollo, son of Letona, and Paul, son of Leto, the examination can again begin at their names.  The pronunciation alone of the names Paul and Apollo suggests something more than just a coincidental similarity; the relationship between the two is far more developed than that.  Apollo was quite famous for being the god of oracles and prophecy.  One of his great deeds was to kill the earth serpent that harassed the Delphi Oracle, though this feat will be noted with more detail later, and from this point on he had a special place in his heart for prophecy.  Paul Atreides was similarly notable for his precognitive abilities, able to see several possible futures at once.  Although this can drive him mad at times while Apollo is in always in full control of his wits, the relationship between Paul’s future sight and Apollo’s prophecies is undeniable.
The god of prophecy has also always been looked up to as the protector of flocks and colonists.  Paul is exiled from Arrakeen, Arrakis’s principal city, when his father is killed by a rival House.  Although by rights he should ascend to the throne as Duke of the House of Atreides, he must flee into the inhospitable deserts and live among the nomadic Fremen whom he guides and counsels until their eventual reclamation of Arrakis.  By becoming the leader of these less civilized peoples he satisfies his role as protector of flocks and, arguably, is serving those below him, much the same way Apollo was punished for killing Python at Delphi by being ordered to serve the mortal king Admetus as a cowherd for several years.  After Apollo serves Admetus, he is allowed to return to Olympus, just as Paul is reinstated as Duke and eventually becomes Emperor of the Universe.  It was also Paul who came up with the scheme to remove the impenetrable Shield Wall that surrounded Arrakeen, guiding atomic weapons into the otherwise invulnerable wall, thereby assisting the incumbent Fremen in their assault against the invading offworlders.  This situation is reflected in Homer’s Iliad, where it is Apollo who guides Paris’s arrow into the heel of the near-invincible Achilles, a serious blow in favor of the Trojans against the Achaeans.
It was a custom of the Fremen people to learn, as a coming-of-age ritual, to ride the massive sandworms that inhabited the Arrakeen deserts by grappling the worm’s ring segments with a long hook, exposing the worm’s sensitive flesh to the elements, forcing them to stay above the sand.  The Fremen riders could then dictate direction by harassing certain segments and use the worms to travel vast distances across the desert.  This practice was solely utilized by the Fremen until Paul Atreides, as an outsider, attempted and succeeded in conquering the sandworm riding skill.  Paul Atreides’ triumph over the sandworm was reminiscent of the Apollo’s vanquishing of Python, the earth-serpent of Delphi who was attacking Letona.
Gurney Halleck playing baliset
As the god of music, Apollo oftentimes had with him his favorite instrument, the lyre he was given by Hermes.  The lyre comes up fairly often in association with Apollo, it being the instrument used to defeat King Midas in musical contest being the most well known instance.  Paul Atreides, on the other hand, was an admirer of the baliset, which, according the appendix of Dune, is a "nine-stringed musical instrument, lineal descendant of the zithra [or zither].”  The lyre is likewise a derivative of the zither and both the lyre and baliset are stringed instruments played using a plectrum.  Paul gained a great appreciation and skill for the baliset from his music instructor, Gurney Halleck, and when perusing the equipment that lay with Jamis, a man he defeated in a duel, Paul chose Jamis’s baliset to be his own, carrying it with him for the rest of the story and often playing ditties to calm or entertain himself and those around him.
Paul’s sister, Alia, in many ways is like the Greek Artemis or Roman Diana.  Artemis was sister of Apollo the other child of Zeus and Letona.  As Goddess of the Hunt, she was often associated with hawks, the hawk also being the symbol of Dune’s House of Atreides.  Although Alia is but a child in the novel, she acts as if an adult, so it would be fair to say her lack of romantic interest was at least partially by her own design, thereby drawing another connection between her and the virgin goddess Artemis.
According to legend, immediately after exiting Letona’s womb Artemis assisted her mother in the delivery of Apollo.  Alia Atreides took this to the next level and actually became conscious in her mother’s womb and upon exiting could speak and articulate her thoughts perfectly.  Alia was born and raised in exile, hidden within the barren deserts of Arrakis.  She grew up in the wilderness, became acquainted with it and comfortable in its confines.  She was as content in the outlands of Arrakis as Artemis, Goddess of the Wilds, might have been in a similar situation.
If Herbert’s intention was to emulate in his work characters of such importance that they have existed for thousands of years, then he succeeded in Leto, Alia, and especially Paul.  It may be, however, that Herbert had no thoughts whatsoever about masking mythological entities behind children who inhabit another universe in a science fiction novel, that it was entirely by accident.  This case would wonderfully exhibit the universality of the ancient figures and their staying power against time itself.  If we are aware of the old, original stories we can better appreciate their modern camouflage and acquire from them a deeper, more thorough understanding and consciousness of how they penetrate our everyday lives.

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