Fatherly Love and Messiah Complexes

Who or what are we rooting for in Dune?

Fatherly Love and Messiah Complexes

Who or what are we rooting for in Dune?


***This article contains (mild) spoilers for Dune parts 1 and 2***


Good storytelling usually leaves us in a state of surprise — not just with a well-placed plot twist, but with which part of the plot gives us the most “feels” and which part we walk away ruminating about. Dune is an excellent example of this. 


The lore and world of Dune would take too long to summarize here, not to mention the intricacies of the story itself — maybe you’ve seen or read it? — from the traditions of Bene Gesserit witchcraft to the geopolitics of the spice trade to the biology of the sandworms. But I will say, visually, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of Herbert’s sci-fi classic hit on all cylinders. At least for this fan.


One of the more endearing parts to me amid the relative darkness of the story is how undeservedly and almost stubbornly the main character, 15-year-old Paul Atreides, is loved by the big three father figures in his life. I say father figures because they even seem to surpass the love of his actual father, Leto, who often seems more concerned about pruning his heir than spending quality time with him. 


Their names are Thufir Hawat, Gurney Halleck, and Duncan Idaho, all of whom play significant roles in helping to protect and secure the Atreides’ house. They’re elite warriors, master assassins in their own right, yet they share such a surprisingly soft spot for the boy Paul. Thufir (who is a much more developed character in the book) calls himself “an old man who’s fond of [him],” and is constantly watching his back. The younger Halleck wants to play-wrestle with him and oscillates between that and the actual sparring meant to prepare him for battle. Duncan, portrayed by Jason Momoa, isn’t afraid to embrace him or playfully tease him, calls him “my boy,” and ultimately lays down his life for him. The moment when he touches Paul’s thin arm and says, “You’ve put on some weight!” to which Paul says “Really?” to which Duncan replies “No” was the only point that I audibly laughed while watching the movie.


They’re light, humorous, and admittedly passing moments in the story. You might be thinking, “What about the sandworms!” Yes, the sandworms are epic. But as is the case in a grand but otherwise loveless story (sandworms don’t love), these things stick out. They’re meant to. And what accentuates the love even more is the solemnity of their situation and the significant threats that await the family on Arrakis. Paul’s personal struggles and sins stand out as well: his inner messiah complexes and nightmares that plague him through life, which he sadly gives in to at the end of the book. This disillusionment with the savior figure leads us all the more to ask who we’re rooting for and who or what is going to bring resolution. But this is a welcome twist, not unlike the “heroes” of the Old Testament who have more flaws than strengths, and who give us glimpses of hope, but ultimately not from themselves.


Maybe in Dune’s case, the answer is staring at us right in the face, through the B-level characters who love from the shadows. In the midst of one of the crueler depictions of humanity that you’ll see anywhere in literature or film (the Harkonnens), and the drama of war and betrayal, I find that my hope is less for a universe that Paul can conquer, or even for Arrakis to transform into a tropical paradise, but instead for a world filled with a love like Hawat’s, Halleck’s, and Idaho’s.


There are a thousand other things going on in Dune. I’m not trying to “solve” this story by any stretch. Its complexity and how it breaks the mold is what makes it so intriguing. That said, it’s this love from outside of us, and from outside our bloodline, that I can’t shake. 


It reminds me of the Book of Ruth when Ruth decides to return with her mother-in-law Naomi to her homeland after both of their husbands die. Her promise of “Your people will be my people, and my God, your God” is one of the more well-known in this section of Scripture. It’s a bright spot in an otherwise dark time of biblical history “when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1) and all Harkonnen-hell was breaking loose pretty much all the time. But Ruth is a glimpse of love that was all too rare those days. 


At the end of the book, Naomi is told by her friends, “Your daughter-in-law, who loves you, is better to you than seven sons.” Now, there’s a plot twist. No offense to my or anyone else’s in-laws, but aren’t our kids even more valuable? Yet here the Bible operates on its own terms. The surprise left hook of a love coming from outside our bloodline, apart from us altogether, pushes the story forward to the one we could call the ultimate in-law, the friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24), Jesus Christ, who would come to love us apart from what we have to give him, by dying for us. God’s grace is given, not sourced or earned. It’s a complete surprise, so we can’t take any credit or consider it a “family trait.”


And yet it’s what we need to quell the tide of the messiah complexes in our hearts, our tireless attempts at self-deifying and self-aggrandizing. We need a love that precedes it and stays faithful to us when we slip back into it. A love that doesn’t keep score and that simply loves us for who we are, even when we’re up to our eyeballs in the sands of sin, drunk on the spice of power, and seduced by the allure of thinking that we’re enough on our own.