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Authors and After Words: Two Great Epics of the 20th Century

Two great epics loom over contemporary English fiction and they share a number of features in common. One of these epics is the first Dune Trilogy (Dune, Dune Messiah and The Children of Dune) by Frank Herbert. The other is The Lord of the Rings (actually a quartet if one includes The Hobbit) by J. R. R. Tolkien. The more obvious commonalities are fairly coincidental.

First, both epics are usually described as trilogies though both authors claimed that their three novels were conceived as a single work. In addition, both epics have launched a significant number of collateral texts presented as sequels or prequels which elaborate on the core values of the original texts. Third, each trilogy is presented as the narrative of virtual history as transcribed by one or more participant observers of the events chronicled in the texts. Finally, in both cases, the primary authorship has been bolstered by a son who has continued to serve both the work and the memory of the father, even to the extent of effectively co-authoring and posthumously publishing some or all of the collateral texts mentioned above. During his life, Frank Herbert completed three more Dune novels and left copious notes for the final two novels of the cycle. These novels were completed and published by his son Brian who, with his collaborator, Kevin J. Anderson, has added six more books to the Dune canon with more to come. J. R. R. Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher redrew the “Ring” maps and, with Guy Gavriel Kay, has published the completed Silmarillion, which was constructed from mounds of Middle Earth material that his father left behind. By any standard, the early primary books are magnificent achievements. Along with the above coincidences, they share some important structural characteristics. Here are two such details.

Place as Metaphor:

People who write epic cycles often describe the experience of discovering imaginary landscapes which manifest a psychic energy that infuses the narrative. That’s certainly true for Dune and Middle Earth.

In the first words of Dune, Herbert tells us that one cannot know Paul Atreides outside of the context of Arrakis. This desert planet would be nothing but a waste land were it not for the gigantic sand worms and their relation to the spice called Melange. The rest of the universe is addicted to this spice, making Arrakis a plum of a planet after all. One critic has suggested that the metaphor here is that spice = oil and the rest of the universe is “we,” addicted as we are to petroleum. In Dune, the planet is the prize and the ultimate fate of the hero is to transcend his humanity to become a divine worm.

The place of concern in Lord of the Rings is the Shire – that idyllic spot of safety and well being, suddenly threatened by an outward force, namely Middle Earth gone mad for the loss of a single ring. Critics have suggested that the Shire is a metaphor for England facing Nazi Germany in WWII but Tolkien played that down. Be the metaphor what it may, like Middle Earth, our world is filled with plenty of threats so the comparison holds. Similarities notwithstanding, there is a subtle difference between these two texts regarding settings. With Arrakis, the planet is the prize, the living system destined to die or survive depending on the way it will be used by those who possess it. It falls to Paul and to his son Leto II to make the right choices in their stewardship. In Lord of the Rings, something of the same may be said about the world of Middle Earth, but there is more. Wherever his quest takes Frodo, that setting will reflect the emotional and psychological state of the little hero. The Hell where he finds himself at the end of his quest is both internal and external, real and symbolic, material and psychological. The quest of the Fellowship of the Ring is nothing less than a series of archetypical experiences shaping the hero. In Lord of the Rings, the prize is Frodo’s soul.

Choice as Fate:

Whatever the setting in these great books, both setting and plot are constructed to do one and the same thing, namely to drive the hero towards a moment of decision in which he must make the right choice or perish. But, as in all myth based narratives, the right choice is not solely a matter of authentic self understanding; no, the right choice for the hero has huge social and cultural significance. The art of Tragedy is filled with those who have made the wrong choice; Oedipus, for one, Macbeth for another, and poor Hamlet who is unable to make any choice at all until the very last moment. In Dune, Paul chooses to pursue his “Jihad.” In Dune Messiah, he realizes that he has made the wrong choice and, like Oedipus, leaves to wander as a blind man in the desert, trying to understand his mistake. In Children of Dune, his son Leto II will follow a different path. In The Hobbit, Bilbo acquires the ring and lies about it. In Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King), Bilbo’s nephew Frodo must set all things right again. This myth based formula is called destiny, fate, or character. In Children of Dune the moment of choice comes when Leto II decides to pursue the Golden Path. In Lord of the Rings it comes when Frodo must decide whether or not to give up the ring. In each instance, following the mythic formula, Herbert and Tolkien set forth the battle between stability versus chaos, good versus evil, creation versus destruction. As the primary matter of mythology, this moment is also the fundamental element of metaphysics and ritual. A choice must be made! Through that choosing, the transcendent is made personal in the figure of the hero and then redirected outward to be synthesized by the tribe; the Fremen of Arrakis or the Hobbits of Middle Earth. This is the process that turns a story into an epic, a narrative which, like humanity itself, goes on and on and on until the ethical (and ecological) balance of life is finally restored.