Friday, July 9, 2010

Campbell and Dune

This blog posting is a sort of sequel to my paper on Joseph Campbell which I presented at the Provo Conference. In the talk I discussed the influence of Spengler and Toynbee on Campbell. I cited the 1980’s PBS series with Campbell and Bill Moyers “Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth” several times during the talk.

During the conversations with Moyers, Campbell stated that he thought that his friend George Lucas did a very good job making mythological themes relevant today through his presentation of various archetypical mythological motifs in “Star Wars”. Moyers and Campbell then discussed the mythological motifs set out in “Star Wars”, which include: the mentor, atonement with the unknown father, the rogue hero (Han Solo), venturing into the unknown (the cafĂ© scene), escaping from the water in the belly of the beast (the garbage dump scene which Campbell likened to Jonah in the whale).

Ever since I first saw the Moyers interviews, I have been bothered by Campbell’s praise for “Star Wars” because I think that “Star Wars” is basically a children’s tale. Even though the mythological themes obviously are there (obvious once Campbell pointed them out), to say that they are made relevant for today’s world through treatment in “Star Wars” seems to me to trivialize the entire subject of relating mythological motifs to society today. (I also know that Jesus said that one must be as the little children are in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but I am going to keep writing anyway).

I think that there is another popular science fiction work that treats mythological themes in a much more mature manner—Frank Herbert’s masterpiece novel, Dune. I looked at David Lynch’s 1984 movie Dune for the umpteenth time last night, and I was struck by the number of religious, psychological, and mythological themes that it contains. Among them are:

A) The one forbidden thing (Lady Jessica is forbidden to bear her paramour Duke Leto a son, but because of her love for him she does it anyway, which unleashes the entire story, like Eve in the Garden of Eden).

B) Being cast out into the desert (like Adam and Eve, the Israelites in Exodus, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph going to Egypt, etc.).

C) Prophecy of a Messiah.

D) Abnormal birth (Paul’s sister Alia has already been conceived when Jessica drinks the water of life, which causes her to be born with superhuman psychic powers).

E) Communion (the water of life).

F) Initiation (Paul must ride the giant sandworms in order to lead the Fremen).

G) The feminine side (In a certain sense made visually explicit at the end of the movie, Paul and his sister Alia complement each other as the two
sides of one personality. In fact, “Alia” literally means “other” in Latin.)

H) The male Mentats are pure intellect, “human computers”; on the other hand the Bene Gesserits, women, have developed their female senses of intuition and psychic abilities to a superhuman level.

I) Holy war/jihad (not a pleasant example of a religious theme).

The foregoing list is not exclusive; there are probably other examples as well. Herbert’s treatment of these themes is much more sophisticated than Lucas’s.

One final area of Dune is of particular interest to civilizationists. Shaddam IV, Padishah Emperor, 81st of the line of House Corrino, is leader of a very old, weakened empire with a top heavy bureaucracy, court intrigue, and much in-fighting. In short, the emperor, his court, and his troops are guilty of extreme hubris. He relies for his power on “legions” of Sardaukar warriors. However, he and his legions are defeated and overthrown by barbarians—the Fremen of Arrakis (read “free men”; the name recalls the original meaning of the name “Franks”, who did considerable overthrowing of their own). Paul-Muad’dib, the messianic leader of the Fremen, then becomes the real power in the empire when he forces the emperor into retirement and marries the emperor’s daughter, who rules as regent, all in an arrangement very reminiscent of the Germanic barbarian general-chiefs who actually held the power in Late Rome.