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The Savior-Tyrant Dilemma in Frank Herbert's Dune Series

Updated on May 14, 2020
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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

From Five Rings Publishing/Wizards of the Coast, uploaded by TAnthony, from
From Five Rings Publishing/Wizards of the Coast, uploaded by TAnthony, from | Source

The Sleeper Has Awakened

As the Dune series progresses many protagonists become or fear becoming oppressive forces, and Campbell’s monomythic cycle explains how such a transformation happens.

As Dune closes all seems well: a dictator is usurped, the Fremen control the spice and their own destiny, and Paul Muad’Dib has justice for the injuries against his family. Many readers are understandably shocked then as Dune Messiah opens with conspiracy against the Emperor Paul and that there is dissatisfaction even among the Fremen at the course their culture has taken. Paul Muad’Dib is venerated as a messiah but also despised by many who fear his prescience abilities and his autocratic theocracy.

The Wheel of Myth

Joseph Campbell’s studies show that a common mythic motif is the hero who essentially overstays his or her welcome. Someone who once brought a great boon becomes as tyrant by both their increased and dangerous stature and that he or she fights against upcoming heroes who act to revitalize society as they once did. Campbell points to King Minos who was once a good king, but through abuses of his divine relationships he is cursed to care for the bestial and insatiable Minotaur. Minos becomes a fearsome tyrant as he forces his citizens and conquered people into slavery and has them sacrifice themselves to the Minotaur’s ravenous hunger. It takes another hero—Theseus—to undo the oppressive carnage Minos brings.

Paul featured in the image "Because He is the Kwisatz Haderach"
Paul featured in the image "Because He is the Kwisatz Haderach" | Source

Muad’Dib the Messiah Devil

Paul finds himself in a situation similar to Minos as the church he built to secure his power grows monstrous. Led by his psychologically fractured sister—Alia—Paul Muad’Dib’s church establishes creeds and ossified rituals in place of the dynamism and adventurous spirit he showed by becoming leader of the Fremen in the first place and helping them liberate themselves and take revenge against their oppressors.The heroism of his leaderships sours, threatening to turn him into the same hated figure as the emperor he overthrew.

Paul is slightly better off than Minos because he sees what is happening, but he believes he is trapped in these circumstances by his prescient visions. He gambles greatly on the birth of his children to free him by becoming the kind of heroes he once was. The tragedy is that Paul looses everything trying to undo the tangle of self-serving institutions that have become Dune’s equivalent to the carnivorous Minotaur. The very people he saved are becoming slaves and victims of his own institutions.

Cover of Children of Dune
Cover of Children of Dune | Source

Children of Dune

The stage is set for Paul’s children to succeed where he failed. Alia takes power and turns the empire into an unbearable theocracy ruled by observance to empty rituals, suggesting an institutional necrophilia; the love of heroic actions and deeds is replaced by deadening fanaticism that stifles creative growth and turns the population fearful. Paul’s hyper-intelligent children know the trap their father fell into by trying to replace one dictatorship with another. Their situation will require an unthinkable extreme or the cycle will continue.

Leto, believing he sees where Paul failed, decides the only way to break free of Campbell’s mythic savior-oppressor cycle is to embrace it and synthesize the two roles. Through symbiosis with sandworms he becomes more and less than human—as the Minotaur was—and takes his place as god emperor. His goal is to be so oppressive and crushingly omnipresent that when his reign is undone, all the subjects of his vast empire will never again trust allegedly heroic men such as himself or his father. Essentially everyone must become his or her own hero.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Herbert, Frank. Children of Dune. New York: Ace Books, 1976.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. New York: Ace Books, 1965.

Herbert, Frank. Dune Messiah. New York: Ace Books, 1969.

© 2009 Seth Tomko


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    • satomko profile imageAUTHOR

      Seth Tomko 

      10 years ago from Macon, GA

      Yeah, this whole economic recession has me using Canadian money for my two cents. I think the source of friction in our understanding of this issue isn't about the actions and results--since we essentially agree on those--but is a matter of perspective. I may be wrong, but it seems you've adopted an in-text viewpoint, and I'll happily agree from where your stand that your interpretation of the novel's happenings is correct. My position is to try and understand those same events from an extra-textual perspective that examines events in the contexts of the Dune series being a continuation of a mythological motif and Leto's actions represent an attempt to dismantle that cycle. If I've misunderstood you then please let me know, but as I've said I think we're mostly in agreement.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      That may be so, but to be exact, it's not that Leto dismantles the hero idea and in doing so helps humanity survive, but the other way around. He helps humanity, and in doing so, also breaks the continuity of his family's "curse". And that happens simply because the "curse" only exists because no one dared to take this path. To cut to the chase, the actions you're crediting him with are just by-products. To note, although being the most obvious of monsters, the perspective keeps Herbert's usual "feint within feint within feint" idea, and thus Leto is one of the most humane characters in the series. Don't discredit him, you'll make me angry! :))

      My 2 cents, actually only 1, due to the crisis.

    • satomko profile imageAUTHOR

      Seth Tomko 

      10 years ago from Macon, GA

      I agree, JJSawry, that the motifs aren't immediately apparent, but I wouldn't go so far as to think they're not probable, especially from an authorial perspective. You're right about Leto's veiled motives in God-Emperor of Dune and that his self-sacrifice is meant to push humanity and save it at a later date. His state motives aside, however, he's also acting to destroy the redeemer hero to tyrant cycle that has afflicted the leaders like Shadddam, Alia, and Paul Muad'Dib. Leto plays the role to dismantle and in doing so help spread humanity so the cannot all be seen by the prescient or exterminated by the thinking machines.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Seems wrong though, maybe i didn't understand The God-Emperor as well as i thought. He chose the path in order to implement his plan to save humanity by making it untrackable by prescient entities, and by making it spread across the Universe. The motifs you see behind this seem a bit... far-fetched. Synthesis: The end justifies means, including self-sacrifice.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Excellent points! I came across Campbell and the dune series at the same time in my life and one of the things i thought from the beginning was that herbert was REFUTING many of the things campbell said about heros and myths

    • satomko profile imageAUTHOR

      Seth Tomko 

      10 years ago from Macon, GA

      Thanks, Clark Kent. I hope the hub has helped with your examination of the Dune series.

    • Clark Kent profile image

      Clark Kent 

      10 years ago from Europe

      Thanks for the hub, Satomko; it is very interesting! I found these movies (and also the books) full of teachings and meanings!


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