Dune and The Lord of the Rings

Worldbuilding in the mythic past and the remote future in two of the 20th century’s most influential literary sagas

SDG Original source: All Things SDG

Coming to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune films as I do with essentially no prior background with Frank Herbert’s books, two obvious points of entry for me into the general milieu of Dune are Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. In my reviews of Dune: Part One and now Dune: Part Two (filed and pending publication; stay tuned!) I’ve written a bit comparing and contrasting Dune with Star Wars. Here I’d like to consider Dune in relation to The Lord of the Rings and J.R.R. Tolkien’s larger legendarium.

In many ways Dune and The Lord of the Rings are comparable works; indeed, they stand alone among 20th-century literary projects in their depth and scope of worldbuilding, with dense, rich lore developed over multiple volumes finished and unfinished—in both cases in some way posthumously developed by the author’s sons. Tolkien may have left behind far more in the way of unfinished writings, and Christopher Tolkien may have managed his father’s literary legacy with more grace than Brian Herbert. Yet the parallels, however inexact, are striking and unique. Arthur C. Clarke reasonably remarked, “I know nothing comparable to [Dune] except Lord of the Rings.”

Even Tolkien acknowledged the kinship of the works—in a 1966 letter expressing his strong dislike for Dune:

It is impossible for an author still writing to be fair to another author working along the same lines. At least I find it so. In fact I dislike Dune with some intensity, and in that unfortunate case it is much the best and fairest to another author to keep silent and refuse to comment.

It might seem strange that Tolkien saw himself and Herbert as “working along the same lines,” especially given the popular idea of Tolkien as a medievalist curmudgeon who hated modernity, for whom science fiction would presumably be anathema. In reality, Tolkien considered science fiction “a very good medium for the imagination to work with”—and he saw science fiction and fantasy as more related than opposed:

The relationship between science fiction and fantasy is difficult and topically important.… Obviously many readers of [science fiction] are attracted to it because it performs the same operation as fantasy — it provides Recovery and Escape (I analyzed these in my ‘Essay on Fairy Stories’) — and wonder. But when they invoke the word ‘Science,’ and use an element of scientific knowledge (very variable, sometimes, in scope and accuracy) authors nowadays are more easily able to produce suspension of disbelief. The legendary laboratory ‘professor’ has replaced the wizard. [Emphasis added —SDG]

The caricature of Tolkien as a cranky Luddite standing athwart technological and literary history yelling Stop has received some salutary pushback in recent years, most notably from Holly Ordway in her 2021 book Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages. Middle-earth is set in the mythic past, but Ordway establishes that Tolkien’s legendarium is informed by his reading of a wide range of modern works—and that Tolkien’s literary tastes were certainly catholic enough to include works of science fiction. Tolkien had a high regard, for example, for H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, and he was “enthralled” by the first (and most “science-fictiony”) volume in his friend C.S. Lewis’s so-called Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet.

Tolkien’s dislike for Dune interests me partly because, while I’m fascinated by Villeneuve’s adaptations, reviewing them has proven a challenge, since I must try to articulate my appreciation of movies the appeal of which I struggle to explain to myself. Certainly when I read my own descriptions in my reviews, they sound to me like movies I would dislike! Yet I do like them. I suspect, though, that I wouldn’t enjoy Herbert’s books—and the excerpts of Dune that I have read do nothing to challenge that impression.

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