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Comparing the texts and "realworld" contexts of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings and Frank Herbert's Dune (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 2, 2012

This paper is based on a draft for a presentation read at the 20th Annual Conference of the Polish Association for the Study of English (PASE), "In Comparison: Juxtapositions, Correspondences, and Differentiations in English Studies", held in Torun, Poland, at Nicolaus Copernicus University, May 12-14, 2011.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and Frank Herbert (1920-1986) have written works that are among the greatest achievements of the literature of the fantastic, or speculative fiction. I have used these two terms as a bridge expression for the rather distinct genres of fantasy and science fiction.

Tolkien's works are often collectively called "the Middle-Earth legendarium" or, more generally, the Arda mythos. Frank Herbert's creation is commonly called "the Dune universe," or, more colloquially the "Duniverse". In this presentation, I will be looking mainly at J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (originally published in three volumes in 1954-55), and Frank Herbert's original Dune novel, first published in 1965.

Like many great classic works of dystopia, science fiction, or fantasy, these two works are largely driven by the specific invented terms and languages used in them. The driving impulse of the works under study is the "special languages" used in both of them.

The invention of language is a vital element of what Tolkien called the "subcreation" of a world, and it can be seen that both Tolkien and Herbert have placed an enormous amount of effort into the construction of specific vocabularies. Nearly all of the special words appear in the ongoing flow of the text, without being italicized. Of course, these special languages are not created ex nihilo – they are based on languages formerly used in human societies.

In his world-building, Tolkien went to great lengths to create extensive invented languages. His most prominent invented language, two varieties of Elvish – Quenya and Sindarin, -- have been based largely on a combination of Latin, Old Norse, Old Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Finnish elements, to name the most prominent influences. It is at least somewhat interesting that the relation of the Elvish languages to the Middle-Earth setting at the time of the War of the Ring, is somewhat similar to that of Latin to the various European cultures in more modern times.

With regard to Frank Herbert's Dune, the specific vocabularies used were based on at least three years of intensive study of Arabic, Persian, and Middle Eastern cultures generally, combined with other linguistic and cultural influences (such as Ancient Greek, South Asian -- especially Mughal, East Asian, and Slavic).

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is said to be the archetypal work of fantasy in the modern period, or what has become termed "high fantasy". Some have said that Tolkien both opened up and closed the high fantasy subgenre, as anything that follows him is likely to appear derivative. Dune is said to be among the greatest science fiction novels ever written.

Nevertheless, some have suggested that Dune might be a work that is "intermediary" between the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Certainly, some of the tropes used in Dune (such as the crone coming to test the young hero at the beginning of the novel) could easily fit into a work of fantasy. There are also such things as the social structures of the Duniverse being mostly feudal, and the fact that the technology is a mixture of the archaic and the advanced (for example, people fight knife-duels, but travel in spaceships across the galaxy). However, this melding of the archaic and advanced is extremely well thought-out and carefully constructed, so Dune can quite fairly be called science fiction.

The respective stances towards religion in the two bodies of work are rather different. Tolkien was in real life a devout Roman Catholic. It was his conscious intent to minimize the presence of fictive religions in The Lord of the Rings, relying on the general spirit of the work to convey a somewhat Catholic- and Christian-traditionalist sensibility. The Lord of the Rings trilogy ostensibly takes place in the remote past of our own Earth. Hence historical Christianity as such is not present in it.

Frank Herbert, who tended towards agnosticism, refers partially to "realworld" religions in Dune, although most of them have become transmogrified over millennia of human development into new, hybridized, syncretic beliefs. He uses such terms, for example, as "the Orange Catholic Bible"; "Zensunni"; and "bindu". The predominant "realworld" context for his posited religions (especially in regard to the planet Dune itself) is Islam.

The two authors' approaches to issues of good and evil differ somewhat. Tolkien portrays hordes of monstrous, evil creatures on the march against the forces of good. This does not correspond to any "realworld" situation – as the greatest enemies of men have been other men. Perhaps Tolkien's point is that human beings in themselves, living in their human societies, have a choice to become either more like the demonic orcs -- or more like the angelic elves. Also, in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien offers a typology of resistance to evil that does not explicitly invoke revealed religion – but at the same time valorizes such virtues as heroism, loyalty, friendship, and modest romantic love. Thus it opens up the possibility of making these virtues considerably attractive to those persons in late modernity who have fallen away from revealed religion, as well as those who are still believers.

In Frank Herbert's Duniverse, there are in fact no malevolent aliens, but, rather, there are better and worse human beings. While Paul Atreides is shown as clearly, almost instinctually being able to distinguish between good and evil, he is also a conquering leader willing to apply force with little hesitation. In regard to Paul Atreides, one may indeed be reminded of Nietzsche's stated ideal – that of "Caesar with the soul of Christ". It is also somewhat reminiscent of the founder of Islam.

The vision enunciated by Tolkien could be termed as "pre-modern". It hearkens back to the idealized Middle Ages of Christendom, to a world – as Tolkien put it -- of "less noise and more green". The vision enunciated by Herbert, on the other hand, could be termed as "post-modern". It is a setting that, after millennia of future history, has left the modern world far behind.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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