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Tolkien contra Dune

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

JRR Tolkien didn’t like Dune. As it happens, I prefer Dune to Lord of the Rings—but I know why Tolkien didn’t like Dune.

The first point to note is that the two series work well because both are based on nature: LotR is based on the Warwickshire countryside and Birmingham (I used to live next to one of the water towers Tolkien used as a model for the “two towers”)—Dune is based on the Oregon sand dunes. This gives us our first clue as to why Tolkien disliked Dune—Tolkien’s world is cosy, whereas Herbert’s world is bleak. It’s the frontier versus the established rural civilisation.

As someone on Twitter noted, the cosiness might have been therapeutic for Tolkien—he experienced the trenches, the rats that nibble the corpses; and he hated all that—associated it with industrialism, with Mordor (Birmingham—“workshop of the world”). So he wanted a world that was rural, that featured pubs and warm fires and fellowship—not a bleak world, he had had quite enough bleakness for one life.

However, there are further reasons why I believe he disliked Dune. For a start, Tolkien was a mythical writer but he was not a mystical writer. Tolkien was much more pagan than his friend, the moralistic prig CS Lewis, yet he was still firmly orientated in Abrahamic religion. For Tolkien, God is outside you and far away from you—and, though you might see visions and find a ring to make you invisible, you are somehow separate from magical events; everything you experience is “out there”.

In Dune, you see a mystical approach: it’s related to Buddhism, to Sufism, to Hermeticism—it’s “Jungian”. There’s an idea that a person has latent powers that can be activated, like the Hindu chakras—“travelling without moving”, as the line in the movie goes. Paul Atreides is an initiate—he learns that “as above, so below” and that there is no separation between “him” and the universe. When he becomes an initiate, he attains a powers and embraces his destiny to free Dune and, in the end, the universe itself.

This is very different to a Hobbit. A Hobbit has no such grandiose expectations. He is meant to be an ordinary Englishman to whom extraordinary things have happened (like being in WWI and WWII as a soldier, perhaps). Certainly, magical events take place, that is just normal in Middle Earth, but there is no mystical element. Really, the English don’t “do” mysticism; it’s not down to earth, pragmatic, and common-sensical—mysticism is a Teutonic thing.

I suspect that Tolkien saw the literal messianism in Dune as typical American hyperbole and grandiosity—if not anti-Christian; after all, there was one Messiah—LotR is quite pagan, more pagan than Lewis’s didactic Christian allegories, but it doesn’t contain anything that would negate Christianity (let alone suggest there was “another Messiah”). LotR is meant to be in the world before Christ came, I think—but he’s definitely coming.

I know enough about Englishmen from Tolkien’s generation from older men I met (Tolkien actually taught at my school) to know how they would have seen Dune: they would have seen it as crass and typically American—arrogant and too loud and full of itself. It takes itself too seriously, like Americans always do, and has no irony about it. It’s the typical Yank, “Gee whizz, look at me—ain’t I swell? Say, that’s a nice castle you have there—how much do you want for it?”.

Further, I suspect that Tolkien disliked Dune because it is quite Islamic. Herbert used a lot of Islamic jargon in Dune—notably, jihad—at a time when Islam, long before 9/11, just didn’t really register for an American anymore than Hinduism would. It was very exotic. However, for Tolkien, steeped in old Anglo-Saxon and a medieval Christian worldview, Islam was the definite enemy—the enemy of Christendom. Hence he would have reacted against it and its language in an instinctive way—even the English childhood hero for a man like Tolkien, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, was characterised by his war against the Saracens.

The theme is taken up in Lewis’s Narnia—the main kingdom opposed to Narnia, Calormen, worships the god “Tash” and Tash is clearly Allah, the Calormene are Saracens. So, for men like Tolkien and Lewis, to use Islamic language for a messianic figure would be unthinkable—all the associations would be negative, aside from the way it contradicts Christianity.

For Tolkien, who was a scholar of old Anglo-Saxon, I suspect the way Herbert uses completely foreign words—whereas his language and invented languages were testaments to his scholarship—seemed antithetical to his commitment to English (essentially, Herbert is deracinated; and he’s not as clever as Tolkien—Tolkien constructed functional imaginary languages, whereas Herbert just borrowed foreign words and mashed the consonants on the keyboard a bit to create the Tis’yuk-kara hak, or whatever). It could only inspire contempt from Tolkien.

The tension is between the frontier (sand dunes) and a long-established agricultural community (the shire)—so it replicates, in part, the tension between Europe and America. Further, Herbert’s book is definitely post-Christian, whereas Tolkien is a Christian man who explores a pre-Christian past (he’s a Catholic-pagan, to borrow Evola’s phrase).

Herbert is a post-Enlightenment man in a modern country for whom the Christian legacy is almost as alien as what he has read about Islam or Hinduism (“Yeah, in Saudi Arabia they have this thing called jihad. It’s pretty neat.” Americans say things like that because they’re innocent—they’ve only every lived in Mordor, an industrial post-Christian society; and so it’s all “neat-o” to them).

Dune clearly prefigures—or has its advent with—the whole 1960s phenomenon of being into Sufism, Zen, and a touch of LSD (the spice that confers supernatural powers?). It’s about self-actualisation; if you self-actualise enough, you might even become the Messiah (“Good for you, buddy!”)—after all, anything is possible in the land of opportunity.

LotR is not like that: it’s not cybernetics, LSD, and Zen—it’s not “human potential”. Indeed, Tolkien may have also disliked, as a conservative Englishman, the way Dune extols drug use as a path to superpowers and the divine—by the time he read it, the 1960s were already underway and, as a university don, Tolkien was undoubtedly cognisant of the nascent drug culture.

Unlike Dune’s oriental drug-gnosis, LotR rooted in a scholar’s appreciation of language that stretches right back to the Eddas—and also to a countryside he grew up in and that his ancestors inhabited. In Dune, by contrast, the noble families are parachuted into seigniorages on different planets on a regular basis due to Machiavellian power-politics. In other words, they live like Americans—footloose, on the hunt for spice.


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