June 2021

Dune is inspired by the Aeneid


Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel Dune draws heavily from classical sources, including the Aeneid, in its plot and writing. Dune follows Paul Atreides and his family journey from the planet of Caladan, the historic family holding, to Arrakis, after his father, Duke Leto, is reassigned by the emperor. Upon the Atreides’ arrival on Arrakis, they must contend with the House Harkonnen, their greatest rival and the previous rulers of the planet.

The ongoing conflict between the House Atreides and the House Harkonnen greatly resembles that between the Trojans and the Latins in the latter half of the Aeneid and includes further plot elements present in the Aeneid from before Aeneas’s journey. For instance, the emperor in Dune represents the divine influence and godly conflict from the Aeneid. Duke Leto’s orders to move to Arrakis are analogous to Aeneas’s destiny to journey to Latium, yet the reader learns that Duke Leto’s transferal to Arrakis was the result of a plot between the Harkonnens and the emperor to overthrow the Atreides. The emperor, then, additionally assumes the role of Juno, who tries to thwart Aeneas and divert him from establishing a powerful empire. Thus, the emperor is identified with both sides of the feuding gods that Vergil describes. Similarly, the Harkonnens assume the roles of both the Greeks and the Latins from the Aeneid. Soon after the Atreides’ journey, the Harkonnens besiege the House Atreides and ultimately infiltrate their stronghold with the help of one of the Atreides’ own entourage, mirroring the Greek wiles and the fall of Troy. Duke Leto is killed, leaving his son, Paul, to, like Aeneas, rebuild the gens and regain control of the planet from the Harkonnens in the remainder of the novel (which, in case you're still reading despite not knowing the plot of Dune, I won't spoil).

Especially interesting in the relationship between Dune and the Aeneid is the millennia between the two works and the application of Vergilian themes to a field that did not exist at the time of his writing—what Harold Bloom might identify as an example of “tessera” for its redefining the basis of the story to escape the anxiety of influence. Herbert greatly modernizes the story in order to make it more understandable to a 1960s audience and includes fanciful technologies and foreign planets in order to fit in the science fiction genre. As we have seen earlier, he swaps the divine and heavenly themes for secular replacements, such as the emperor. He furthermore portrays Paul as more of a flawed character than Aeneas, a necessary modification due to the modern audiences’ expectations of a character arc. At the time of the overthrowing of the Atreides, he is still a child, roughly fifteen years old. Throughout the several years that the novel spans, he grows and develops greatly. On the other hand, ancient audiences viewed Aeneas as a mythological and somewhat godlike figure, so Vergil already portrays him as composed, strong, and loyal at the beginning of the Aeneid. Finally, Herbert does to the Aeneid what Vergil did to the Odyssey and the Iliad: he retains the overall arc, but changes details such as setting, characterization, and some events to make it more appealing for a newer audience. Though his changes are large (a new planet with a new environment etc.), he uses relatively few of them to update the plot of a two-thousand-year-old epic to fit an imaginative science fiction novel. Despite this, Herbert’s inspiration is not immediately clear due to the novelty and surprise of the genre change. I did not consciously make the connection between the two works until brainstorming for this essay-—but when I did, I found references to Vergil in other classically influenced aspects that I had noticed before. For instance, Herbert utilizes names from classical sources and languages throughout his novel. Most obvious of these allusions is the name “Atreides,” derived from the House Atreus of Agamemnon and Menelaus and a reference to classical literary tradition.

Science fiction and mythology do not appear very similar upon first glance, but they both seem to fill the same cultural need. It is perhaps indicative of our society that today we prefer science fiction and speculating about the future than the past. Especially where I live, in Silicon Valley, there is a persistent sense of a “next big thing” looming around the corner. Yet in Dune, Herbert proves the resiliency of Vergil’s authorship, that one of the most influential science fiction novels of our time is so heavily influenced by a two-thousand-year-old classic.