I recently had the pleasure of watching Denis Villeneuve’s Cinematic rendition of Dune, the Film based on Frank Herbert’s classic Dune Saga Series of Science Fiction Novels revered as perhaps the best science fiction novel series ever written. Villeneuve’s vision of Dune is both compelling and satisfying. Nevertheless, in my view, Dune can be viewed as a White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype.
Dune’s White Savior Story & The Politics Of Empire
The origins of Dune as as a White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype can be found in the Historical references that form the basis of the world and events in Dune.
Dune’s approach to world building has been highly influential in many science fiction works such as Star Wars. In Dune, Frank Herbert relies on a potent cocktail of a Medieval-esque historical backdrop laced with an imaginative mythos to deliver a compelling Space drama.
The historical references in Dune are apparent in sects such as the Jesuits, Bene Gesserit and the Spice Guild which are reminiscent of Medieval Europe. In addition, the Royal Houses in conflict in Dune are characteristic of the European Houses of old Nobility.
The goals, ideas and beliefs of the institutions and peoples that inhabit Frank Herbert’s world are the Universe in which events unfold in the futuristic world of Dune.
Central to Dune’s drama is the technology behind Interstellar Space Travel made possible by the Spice found on the desert planet of Arrakis that has been colonized and controlled by the Noble Houses of The Empire for the purposes of extracting the Spice.
In short, in Dune we have the makings of a classic tale about the politics of Empire, and in particular the British Empire.
In this world, Dune’s main character Paul Atreides has to walk his own personal hero’s journey which becomes inseparable from the liberation of the Colonised Fremen Native inhabitants of Arrakis who have been waiting for a Messiah called the Mahdi to liberate them from the oppression of the ruling Noble Houses of the Empire that extract Spice from their home Planet.
When Paul Atreides’ family is overthrown by another Royal House as Rulers of Arrakis, Paul finds himself a wanderer amongst the desert Native Fremen people of Arrakis and his Hero’s journey begins in earnest.
The White Savior Robinson Crusoe Archetype In Dune
The White Savior Story in Dune may come out of the fact that when relying on a historical backdrop, Frank Herbert perhaps unwittingly as a White Author falls into the Robinson Crusoe trap.
Frank Herbert’s use of the Mahdi Messianic Metaphor in Dune is a reference to the Sudanese Mahdist Islamic rebellion against the British Empire from 1881-1898.
It is interesting that the Mahdi Messiah that the Fremen Native inhabitants of Arrakis have been waiting for in Dune happens to be Paul Atreides, a scion of the same imperial Colonial powers whose oppressive yoke the Fremen have been trying throw off since time immemorial.
What makes Dune a as a White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype is that Frank Herbert’s Dune therefore dares to suggest that the Native Fremen people of Arrakis who since time immemorial have sought liberation from their Oppressors nevertheless also developed a Messianic Mythos for their deliverance from the hands of the Oppressor in which their Oppressor also plays the role of Messiah.
The effect of this is to transform the Colonizer in Dune into a Saviour of the Colonized.
This is an absurd re-inforcement of the White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype, because the underlying premise of Dune that the Colonised Fremen of Arrakis would create a Liberation Mythos around the active participation of their own Oppressor reveals more about Frank Herbert’s desire to portray the British Conquerors of Islamic Africa and Asia as Heroes and to explain how they become permanent Settlers in lands they Colonise.
It is not a realistic portrayal of how the Oppressed Islamic Nations in Africa and Asia themselves developed resistance against British Imperialism in Islamic Africa and Asia.
In-fact, taken to its logical conclusion, Dune suggests that the Colonization of Arrakis was so effective that the Native Fremen inhabitants could no longer conceive of a life for themselves without some role for their Oppressor within it even after their Liberation.
For this reason, Frank Herbert’s Dune is a particularly intriguing example of a White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype made more excruciating by Villenueve’s continuous doting on Paul Atreides throughout the Film in a manner reminiscent of the way Franco Zeffirelli doted on Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth.
From Paul Atreides’ arrival on Arrakis, the suggestion is made that his arrival represents the fulfillment of a Prophecy for the Fremen Native people of Arrakis. That in essence, all along the Fremen have been waiting for the arrival of a particular incarnation of the Colonizer for their Liberation.
From this perspective, whilst Dune will always be commendable for it’s vision and scope, Dune is nevertheless a reflection of a White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype.
However, Dune goes beyond the standard Robinson Crusoe Archetype because it does not end with simply inserting the White Colonizer within a visceral alien environment as Explorer and Conqueror. In Dune, the White Coloniser also becomes the Redeemer of that Alien world and its people.
Despite Dune’s creativity and complexity, it still suffers from the same biased Colonial attitudes that have plagued Western Art and Culture.
At its worst Dune can also be viewed as Frank Herbert’s own repressed fantasies of the White Man’s Burden.
Ultimately, Dune is perhaps merely a reflection of the times in which it was written.
As we get lost in Villeneuve’s scintillating visuals and score at the end of Part 1 when the frail White Paul Atreides gains acceptance amongst the Fremen by killing the most fierce and ‘savage’ Dark Fremen Warrior, instead of witnessing the first significant triumph in Paul Atreides Hero’s journey, we may instead be witnessing another example of a White Savior Story based on the Robinson Crusoe Archetype writ large.
It remains to be seen whether the next entries in the Dune Saga will do anything to rescue Dune from the abyss of its subconscious White Savior Colonial bias, a problem in the narrative which cannot be solved by Dune’s diverse cast and Paul’s exotic Love interest.