Frank Herbert’s Dune is wildly popular. His sequels are not. Dune was a story about a young man’s rise to ultimate power. Dune Messiah is about his fall from grace. If Dune is the prototypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey, Dune Messiah is a deconstruction of the hero. In this book, we learn that Paul Muad’Dib has become a tyrant and that his rule has caused death and destruction, especially to those closest to him.
Many readers found this to be a disappointing resolution to Paul’s arc, but for me it felt like a natural continuation of the first book. It was also a refreshing challenge to the Hero’s Journey. I initially didn’t fully appreciate Dune because there are already so many stories in science fiction about a young protagonist overthrowing an empire, from Star Wars to Hunger Games. Dune did include some hints that Paul’s reign would unleash a violent jihad, but Paul never had to deal with those consequences in Dune itself. While Paul constantly expressed concern about the coming darkness, he still follows the Hero’s Journey and overthrows the emperor.
Dune Messiah is that reckoning. We finally get to see Paul struggle with those consequences. Paul’s imperial bureaucracy crushes all dissent and perpetuates a religion in which Paul is both God and Caesar. Unlike in Dune, the characters resisting oppression are the antagonists in this story, while Paul’s position is not dissimilar from that of Emperor Shaddam IV in Dune. This twist allows the book to raise a host of fascinating questions about charismatic leadership and the nature of power. To what extent can readers empathize or even sympathize with Paul given the actions he takes? When the masses are motivated by religious fanaticism, how much control do leaders really posses? How can one truly obtain power over another individual?
Admittedly, Dune Messiah never feels as epic as Dune. The book is short, both in terms of the number of pages and in the scope of its story. Unlike Dune, which took time to develop secondary characters like Count Hasmir Fenring, Dune Messiah keeps the focus on Paul and Alia. The book never takes the reader off the planet Arrakis to show us the effects of Paul’s reign on his subjects throughout the empire. Unfortunately, this makes the Dune universe feel somewhat smaller. It’s also more difficult to truly understand the motivations of those who oppose Paul when we barely leave the inner sanctum of his palace.
Objectively, I don’t think Dune Messiah is quite as rich and layered as Dune, but it works because of the sheer boldness of the plot and ideas. This is one of those rare sequels rather recontextualizes and improves upon the original. In an era when pop culture seems to revel in deconstructions of the previous generation’s heroes (like Luke Skywalker), Dune Messiah feels especially relevant.
My journey through Dune continues next week with Children of Dune…