Frank Herbert’s Dune Explained and Reviewed

In this article, I’ll explain some of the core symbols and ideas of Frank Herbert’s Dune as I see it.

The Review

Well, the plane trip across the country allowed me the time needed to read most of Dune. I’ll start out by saying that this book was very challenging for me at first.

Dune contains a complicated system and hierarchy set up. There are families and alliances and sworn enemies. There are traitors. There are lots and lots of confusing names.

The book essentially throws you in, and although the first 100 pages or so are very slow in what I imagine is Herbert’s mercy at trying to catch you up, it makes for tough reading.

The other tough part is that it is incredibly dense.

It is like reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. It contains 100 aphorisms because you are supposed to stop and think after each one.

This kept happening to me, except that it was a novel, and so I probably wasn’t supposed to do that.

Anyway, I hit a critical point when I was on the plane and had these two ideas about what the book was actually about, but my history isn’t very good, and so I had no way to check.

I also couldn’t see if other people had come up with this or not. So I just started testing it against everything I read, and it fit way too well to not have at least crossed the author’s mind. This also made the book way more exciting to read.


Overall, it is a great read once you get a grasp on it all. It’s one of those books that probably makes for a better re-read than a first time read.

The worldbuilding is outstanding. The characters have a lot of depth to them, and unlike a lot of modern sci-fi and fantasy, they aren’t just one-dimensional caricatures of some personality trait.

Let’s move on to the analysis. This is what makes it truly remarkable.

frank herbert dune

Dune Explained

Here goes. The first thing I thought was that Dune was a metaphor for the Middle East. I checked when the book was published: 1965.

This was rather unhelpful because I couldn’t even be sure which countries existed in the Middle East in that year, let alone what sort of political things were going on.

I haven’t really researched it because I wanted to at least get this post out there. So I apologize if this is way off base.

First off, the book takes place on Arrakis…a desert. Does this sound like “Iraq” to anyone (for future reasons, I actually think that Arrakis is Saudi Arabia in this metaphor)?

The natives are the Fremen and they have a tribal society. Here are some common strange names that keep appearing: Muad’Dib, Kwisatz Haderach, and even at one point Rhamadan.

These all have an Arabic flair to them. All right, so this one can be resolved with a quick google search. Kefitzat Haderech is Hebrew for “short cut”, and the made-up word means “shortening of the way”.

Well, those are all things that got me thinking about this, but they are sort of the fluff of this argument.

The Spice Melange

The real thing was that the universe seems completely dependent on the “spice.” So, the spice is a metaphor for oil.

All the conflict is essentially based around possession of the spice. Here comes a spoiler if you haven’t read it. But to solidify the metaphor beyond a doubt, the spice is created by some chemical underground process that happens to dead gigantic worms (maybe they don’t have to be dead, this was unclear to me).

What is oil (re: fossil fuels) in our world? It is just decomposition of buried organisms in a particularly well-suited environment.

Some things I still haven’t figured out that will take a bit of researching of what was going on at the time are who the families/people are. I’m assuming that the Atreides are a country and the Harkonnens are another country.

Who would have Herbert have thought of as the “good guys” at that time and who the “bad guys?” I don’t think the U.S. had a big involvement yet, so it probably wouldn’t be one of them.

The emperor presides over all the families (re: countries) but seems to have no power in controlling them. Is this the UN? Also, is this just a metaphorical retelling of events, or did he take it further and insert some sort of warning/message about the situation?

This brings me to my next topic:

Religion in Dune

I thought the only really clear overriding message was one of religion. I guess I can pitch this at two different levels.

The more dramatic level is that religion is invented by people in order to control people. Whether you believe this or not, there is no doubt this was an intention of Herbert in Dune.

I wish I had quotations on hand, but it is repeated time and time again that the Bene Gesserit invented legends and myths to create the religion of the Fremen a long time ago so that when this time came it could be exploited for their protection.

Paul is a messiah figure that most religions have, but he also clearly exploits this to gain power.

The less dramatic religious message seems to be that religion and politics need to stay as separate as possible. When people believe they are doing things for a religious cause, then they will stop at nothing since the cause is far greater than their mere earthly bodies.

In particular, wars waged with religious overtones break from any sense of a “just war” (whatever that is).

The end of Dune talks about women, children, and elderly throwing themselves onto swords so that the men can get in and actually kill the other side.

The Fremen are often so feared as fighters because they have no reason to fear death with the assurance of an afterlife.

I’ll stop here. I’m sure there are holes and errors, and I purposely skipped details and quotes. But a first sketch of these arguments is now out there for criticism.

Be gentle, remember this was my first time through the book. It is possible a second reading would make me embarrassed that I ever thought this.