Middle Earth v. Duniverse – the different worlds of Tolkien and Herbert
MARK WEGIERSKI compares and contrasts two of the 20th century’s most successful fantasy writers
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and Frank Herbert (1920-1986) wrote works that are among the greatest achievements of the literature of the fantastic, or speculative fiction, and have had a major influence on popular culture. In this article, I will be focusing on Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (originally published in three volumes in 1954-55), and Herbert’s original Dune novel, published in 1965.
Lord of the Rings is generally agreed to be the archetypal work of ‘high fantasy’, and Dune among the greatest science fiction novels ever written – although it has been suggested that Dune is intermediary between fantasy and science fiction. Certainly, some of Dune’s tropes (such as the old woman coming to test the young hero at the beginning, and the feudal nature of the social structures in the book) could easily fit into fantasy. The technology is also a strange mixture of the archaic and the highly advanced – people fight knife-duels, but travel in spaceships across the galaxy.
Richard Hughes wrote of The Lord of the Rings:
Something which has scarcely been attempted on this scale since Spenser’s Faerie Queene, so one can’t praise the book by comparisons – there’s nothing to compare it with. What can I say then?… For width of imagination it almost beggars parallel, and it is nearly as remarkable for its vividness and the narrative skill which carries the reader on, enthralled, for page after page.
Among the critics of J. R. R. Tolkien have been radical feminists like Germaine Greer, and the iconoclastic author Michael Moorcock, especially in his essay “Epic Pooh” (originally published in 1978). Moorcock says that Tolkien and similar fantasy authors evoke an infantile typology similar to the Winnie the Pooh stories of A. A. Milne. There have also been accusations of implicit racism and sexism.
Tolkien wrote in 1943:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.
Before the Second World War, Tolkien forcefully rejected the publication of a German edition of The Hobbit when the German publishing house inquired about his Aryan ancestry. He also wrote in a 1941 letter to his son, Michael:
You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil… I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense. Anyway, I have in this war a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler… Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present it its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized.
Arthur C. Clarke said of Dune,
Unique…in the depth of its characterization and the extraordinary detail it creates. I know of nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings.
Robert A. Heinlein called it “powerful, convincing, and most ingenious”. But the feminist author Kathy Gower has criticized Dune for minimizing the role of women, while Samuel R. Delany has criticized it for its portrayal of homosexuality.
Tolkien’s works are often collectively called “the Middle-Earth legendarium” or the “Arda mythos”. Frank Herbert’s creation is commonly called “the “Duniverse”. Both books are largely driven by invented terms and languages. The invention of language is a vital element of what Tolkien called the “subcreation” of a world, and both Tolkien and Herbert placed an enormous amount of effort into the construction of specific vocabularies. Nearly all of the special words appear in the ongoing flow of the text, without being italicized. These languages are not created ex nihilo, but are based on real languages. Tolkien’s best known invented language, Elvish – which comes in two varieties, Quenya and Sindarin – were based largely on a combination of Latin, Old Norse, Old Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Finnish elements, to name just the main influences. The relation of Elvish to his Middle-Earth setting is like that of Latin to modern European cultures – increasingly confined to the most highly-educated, but still resonant and powerful. The vocabularies used in Dune were based on at least three years of intensive study of Arabic, Persian, and Middle Eastern cultures generally, combined with other linguistic and cultural influences (such as Ancient Greek, South Asian, East Asian, and Slavic).
The books’ respective stances towards religion are very different. Tolkien was in real life a devout Roman Catholic. It was his intent to minimize the presence of fictive religions in Lord of the Rings, relying on the general spirit of the work to convey a somewhat Catholic-traditionalist sensibility. The trilogy ostensibly takes place in the remote past of our own Earth. Hence historical Christianity is not present in it. Herbert, who tended towards agnosticism, refers to “realworld” religions in Dune, although most of these have become transmogrified over millennia into new, hybridized, syncretic beliefs. He uses such terms, for example, as “the Orange Catholic Bible”; “Zensunni” and “bindu”. The predominant “realworld” context for his posited religions (especially in regard to the desert-like planet of Dune itself) is Islam.
The authors’ approaches to issues of good and evil also diverge. Tolkien portrays hordes of monstrous, evil creatures on the march against the forces of good. This clearly does not correspond to any “realworld” situation – perhaps Tolkien’s point is that human beings in themselves have a choice to become either more like the demonic orcs or the angelic elves. Tolkien also offers a typology of resistance to evil that does not explicitly invoke revealed religion – but at the same time valorizes such virtues as heroism, loyalty, friendship, and modest romantic love, making these virtues attractive to those who have fallen away from revealed religion.
By contrast, in the Duniverse there are no malevolent aliens, just better and worse human beings. While the chief character, Paul Atreides, is shown as almost instinctually being able to distinguish between good and evil, he is also a conquering leader willing to apply force with little hesitation. One is reminded of Nietzsche’s stated ideal – “Caesar with the soul of Christ”, or possibly the founder of Islam. Herbert had a certain sense of ambiguity in regard to the depicted triumph of Paul Atreides –
I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.
In 1979, he said:
The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.
Possibly among the most important of Herbert’s concepts is “the Butlerian Jihad” – a war against robots and computer technology that occurs some 10,000 years before the events of the novel. This posited smashing-up of machine technology is one of the reasons that the setting depicted in Dune seems neo-traditional.
Tolkien’s vision could be termed pre-modern, hearkening back to the idealized Middle Ages of Christendom, to a world – as he put it – of “less noise and more green”. He was deeply shaped by Edwardian Britain, and that society was to be sorely tested by the Great War, in which Tolkien fought bravely. The original inspiration for his hobbits was said to be the British “Tommies” living in the trenches (“holes in the ground”) of the Great War – who so often rose to great levels of heroism. This elevation of hobbits qua ‘ordinary people’ rising to extraordinary heights is one of the main themes of Lord of the Rings. Tolkien also had a profound appreciation for hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. His Elves were clearly ‘natural’ aristocrats, beings of high excellence and superb accomplishment.
Another ingredient of Tolkien’s vision was a sense of tragedy, probably partly derived from his being a Catholic living in England. Part of the Roman Catholic experience in the British Isles was identified with a yearning for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. For Roman Catholics and some Scots, the British Isles were seen as being under the occupation of a hostile, usurping dynasty (the Hanoverians). The romantic resonance behind the historical desire for a Stuart restoration may play a part in an over-arching theme of kingship in Lord of the Rings (the third volume significantly entitled The Return of the King).
The fact that the Elves are increasingly harried and diminished throughout the unfolding of the legendarium may be a reflection of his sense that Roman Catholicism was increasingly attenuated in the British Isles. By this reading, Cromwell can be seen as a possible inspiration for the figure of the Dark Lord, Sauron – or even a precursor to Hitler or Stalin. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was often a tension between wanting simultaneously to be a ‘good Englishman’ and a ‘good Roman Catholic’. It is possible that one of the origins of the Arda mythos was an attempt to resolve this tension.
Herbert’s cosmos, on the other hand, can be termed post-modern – a setting that, after millennia of future history, has left today’s world far behind. Herbert is more ‘modern’, more willing to look at religion in an anthropological way, and approaches ecological issues through a more systematic, scientific lens. Among the germs of Dune was a long study that Herbert had been working on about sand dunes on the coast of California. The dedication of the novel reads:
To the people whose labours go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.
He is also far more willing than Tolkien to look at civilizations and cultures other than the European. One of the central tropes of Dune is the all-important “spice” that is the basis of interstellar space travel in the Duniverse. The sole source of this spice is Dune itself, also called Arrakis, populated by the warlike Fremen. One can easily transpose the reliance on spice to our reliance on oil – much of which is of course located in the Middle East. Dune can be seen as a treatise on how a widely-spread human civilization can have an excessive reliance on a single resource – and how the local inhabitants of a single area are able to seize control of this resource from hostile, occupying forces. (The Dune sequence is very popular in the Middle East.)
Both Tolkien and Herbert had precursors. Britain was of course the locus for Beowulf and the Arthurian legends. Tolkien had read George Macdonald’s and William Morris’s fantasy novels. Another influence was the epic poem “The Ballad of the White Horse” (1911) by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) portraying an idealized King Alfred. Much of Tolkien’s creativity was shaped by interactions with the “Inklings” group, notably C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), whose children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, appeared in seven volumes between 1950-1956, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Herbert could have been to some extent inspired by Isaac Asimov’s (1920-1992) Foundation Trilogy (originally published 1951-1953), and previous “space opera” attempts to meld archaic and advanced technology with feudal structures. A good example of the latter is The Rebel of Valkyr (1950), by Alfred Coppel (1921-2004) – an influential novella which has been characterized as “horses in the starship hold”. Paul Atreides’ story is also somewhat similar to the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, which have had an enormous impact on the Western imagination, both through Lawrence’s own writings and the superb 1962 film. There were also numerous late-nineteenth century stories where an exiled and disgraced European adventurer led Asian or African natives in a victorious war against their oppressors (who were either even greater savages, or supported by a rival imperial power) and thus regained recognition in his home country. (A possible criticism of Herbert’s approach is that it veers towards what Edward Said dismissed as “Orientalism”.)
While Tolkien’s writings enjoyed modest success in Britain, it was in America where they gained a truly mass audience, starting in the 1960s, and mushrooming exponentially. Ironically, Tolkien became one of the favorite writers of the ‘hippie’ movement. Generously for a traditionalist, he admitted that there were elements of the Sixties he found highly congenial. In the 1970s, Tolkienian fantasy became the mainspring of fantasy role-playing games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons (released in 1974). Tolkien had sometimes expressed trepidation that his writing would become the basis for something like a cult.
Since his father’s death, Tolkien’s son Christopher has published virtually everything his father ever wrote. These various papers and notes were so voluminous that there was no need to write new fiction based on the mythos, to keep what became a mega-franchise in the public eye. The first rendering of Tolkien on U.S. television was the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit. In 1978, Ralph Bakshi’s animated film, The Lord of the Rings (Part One) was released. (The studio left off the “Part One” suffix, greatly confusing viewers.) Owing partly to an outcry by fundamentalist Christians about ‘adult’ animations on which Bakshi had worked, he was not allowed to finish this endeavour.
In 1980, there appeared an animated version of The Return of the King, based on the third volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by the same team who had brought out the 1977 Hobbit. The two television efforts were not well-received. But in the years 2001 to 2003 The Lord of the Rings appeared in a trilogy format magnificently rendered by director Peter Jackson, acclaimed as some of the greatest films ever made. The movies have also been made available on DVD at extended length in DVD formats. Given the years in which they were released, the movies were often seen as expressing support for resolute American and Western opposition to the challenge from radical Islamists.
Andrea Lewis was highly critical of the series in “Lord of the Rings vs. Matrix: Patriarchy vs. the Rainbow Coalition” (Pacific News Service, 5 January 2004), accusing it of being “Eurocentric” and of advocating a “Return to Patriarchy”. In his response of 19 February 2004 (posted on VDare.com), Sam Francis made clear his understanding of what was at stake in the battle over the imaginative visions of entertainment mega-franchises:
The fact is that Lord of the Rings is an important, beautiful and entirely healthy movie, more or less faithfully based on an important, beautiful and entirely healthy book, which itself draws from some of the deepest springs of Western culture – the myths and folklore of Northern Europe – and tells an important, beautiful and entirely healthy story that white Western men need to hear.
In 1977, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) brought out the very colorful board wargame War of the Ring, with two smaller games, Sauron (about the battle at the end of Tolkien’s Second Age), and Gondor: The Siege of Minas Tirith (from the trilogy). In 1983, Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) brought out the boardgame, The Fellowship of the Ring, then in 1984, the first volume of its Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) system, which became probably the second-most-popular role-playing game (after Dungeons and Dragons). ICE produced supplements and elegantly rendered stand-alone maps until 1999, when Tolkien Enterprises unceremoniously yanked its franchise rights; the company went bankrupt the following year.
Herbert published five sequel novels to Dune before his death in 1986. His son Brian, with the help of Kevin J. Anderson (better known as the author of the novels in the Star Wars franchise) has in recent decades been producing books of fiction based on the Duniverse, some based on Herbert’s fragmentary notes. Brian’s efforts have met with a very mixed reception. In 1984, a lavishly budgeted film based on Dune, directed by David Lynch, was released. It was not the best of all possible renditions, introducing many deviations from the book. For example, in the book Baron Harkonnen is a “Mephistophelean” figure, but he is rendered as a hideous horror-flick monster in the film. In December 2000, there appeared a new rendering of Dune, as a six-hour television mini-series on the U.S. Sci-Fi Channel. This seemed like a more graceful adaptation of the book, and the various East European actors playing in the movie (alongside mostly British actors) gave it a nice touch (available on DVD in a “Director’s Cut”). Nevertheless, some have argued that some of the costuming was better in Lynch’s version – notably the dress of the Bene Gesserit (the all-female religious order).
What are the main differences between the visions of Tolkien and Herbert? Tolkien seemed to look backward in a defence of an Old England, whereas Herbert boldly looked to a future consisting of what has been characterized as “feudal values plus high technology”. (This latter phrase stems from 1985, when the left-wing science fiction writer Judith Merril complained that most science fiction was characterized by such a typology.)
Tolkien’s writing remained entirely rooted in the context of his British and European roots. For example, the political geography of Middle Earth is like that of historical Europe; the forces of freedom are centered in the west, while invasions come from the south and the east. What has been called Herbert’s “anthropological” outlook gave him the opportunity to step outside the West and entertain Islamic and Eastern outlooks.
While Tolkien’s work can certainly inspire ecological and cultural resistance to the negative aspects of late modernity, Herbert’s work is more akin to prophecy, suggesting ways in which traditional mores might be able to persist even in technically advanced societies.
MARK WEGIERSKI is a Toronto-based writer, who specializes in science-fiction and fantasy
This paper is partly based on a presentation to the 20th Annual Conference of the Polish Association for the Study of English (PASE) held in Torun, Poland, at Nicolaus Copernicus University, 12-14 May 2011