home > archive > 2012 > this article

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 Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 9, 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.

Obviously, neither of the works arose ex nihilo. There was a societal and cultural context out of which the two works sprang, these being roughly-speaking Britain/England, and America, respectively. Tolkien was deeply shaped by pre-World War One Britain, a society where propriety and decorum and so-called civilized values were not yet out of fashion. That society was to be sorely tested by the Great War, in which Tolkien fought heroically. The original inspiration of the hobbits was said to be the ordinary British "Tommies" who were living in the trenches ("holes in the ground") of the Great War -- and rose to great levels of heroism, despite their preference for the simple comforts of home. This elevation of hobbits representing so-called ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights of courage is one of the main themes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

At the same time, Tolkien had a profound appreciation for the element of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy in human existence, which he saw as being increasingly under attack in Britain. The Elves were clearly "natural aristocrats". Also, part of the vision of Tolkien as a Catholic living in the British Isles was a sense of tragedy. For centuries since the time of Henry VIII, Roman Catholics had faced varying degrees of persecution in the British Isles, especially so under Oliver Cromwell. The fact that the Elves are increasingly harried and diminished throughout the unfolding of the Middle-Earth legendarium may be a reflection of this sense that Roman Catholicism was increasingly attenuated in the British Isles. As well, Oliver Cromwell could be seen as a possible inspiration for the figure of Sauron. Indeed, Cromwell might be considered a precursor to twentieth century tyrants like Hitler or Stalin.

Also, part of the Roman Catholic experience in the British Isles was identified with a yearning for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, epitomized by the Jacobite Rising of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart).  For Roman Catholics and some Scots, the British Isles were seen as being under the occupation of a hostile, usurping dynasty (the Hanoverians). The romantic resonance behind the historical desire for a Stuart restoration may play a part in an over-arching theme of kingship in The Lord of the Rings (the third volume being significantly entitled, The Return of the King).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was very possible for a tension of sentiment and feeling to exist between the person who wanted to be a quote "good Englishman" -- and the person who wanted be a quote "good Roman Catholic" on the other. It could be argued that the dynamic arising from an attempt to effect a resolution of this tension was one of the origins of the Arda mythos.

Frank Herbert's writing took its rise from America. He is more "modern" than Tolkien, more willing to look at religion in an "anthropological" way, as well as approaching ecological issues through a more systematic, scientific lens. Also, he is far more willing than Tolkien to look at civilizations and cultures other than the European, mirroring in this way what is usually America's (this is true at least of some of America's intellectual circles) greater openness to "the Other".

Among the germs of Dune was a long non-fiction piece that Frank Herbert had been working on about sand dunes on the coast of California.

One of the central tropes of Herbert's Dune is something that is clearly "realworld". Herbert writes of the all-important quote "spice" that is the basis of interstellar space travel in the Dune universe. The sole source of the spice is the desert planet Dune, also called Arrakis. The local inhabitants of Dune are the warrior Fremen. One can easily transpose the reliance of the Dune universe on spice, to the reliance of our current-day Earth on oil – much of which is in fact located in the mostly sandy Middle East. Dune could be seen as a treatise on how a widely-spread human civilization can have an excessive reliance on a single resource – and how the local inhabitants of a single area are able to seize control of this resource from various hostile, occupying forces. Herbert's Dune novels have apparently been quite popular in the Middle East.

Another central trope of Dune -- that of the scientific approach to ecology – is also definitely "realworld". The dedication of the novel reads: "To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of "real materials" – to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration."

Neither Tolkien's nor Herbert's works arose without some precursors. Tolkien, for example, had read George Macdonald's and William Morris's fantasy works. Britain was also the locus for the Arthurian legends and their literary renderings. Tolkien also had high respect for Beowulf, the great Old Anglo-Saxon poem. Another influence was the epic poem "The Ballad of the White Horse" (1911) by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) portraying an idealized King Alfred. Much of Tolkien's creativity was shaped by his interactions with the Inklings group, especially C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), whose own children's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, appeared in seven volumes between 1950-1956 – beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

As for Herbert, he could have been to some extent inspired by Isaac Asimov's (1920-1992) Foundation trilogy (originally published 1951-1953), and the attempts in the space-opera subgenre to meld archaic and advanced technology with feudal structures. A good example of the latter is "The Rebel of Valkyr" (1950), by Alfred Coppel (1921-2004) – which has been characterized as quote "horses in the starship hold". However, in the typically written space-opera, this was done without close attention being paid to well-considered sociological and technological explanations for such a state of affairs.

Paul Atreides' story is also somewhat similar to the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, which have had an enormous impact on the Western imagination, as demonstrated, for example, in the superb 1962 movie on this gallant figure. There were also numerous late-nineteenth century stories where an exiled and disgraced European adventurer led "the natives" in Asia or Africa in a victorious war against their oppressors (who were either even greater savages, or supported by a rival imperial power) and thus regained recognition in his home country. A possible criticism of Herbert's approach is that it may veer towards what Edward Said has called "Orientalism".

Is it possible to see differences in American vs. British fantasy, and American vs. British science fiction?

It could be argued that the origins of American fantasy (as the term has become to be understood in more recent decades) were largely characterized by what later came to be called the "sword and sorcery" subgenre. This term could be applied in part to the Barsoom (Mars) series of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), the first volume of which, A Princess of Mars, appeared in 1912. There were also the stories of Kull and Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), and the Lankhmar stories of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber (1910-1992). British fantasy appeared to be more literary, and, with Tolkien, was certainly given a major turn toward so-called "high fantasy."

As for science fiction, this has often been conceived as a heavily American genre. Meanwhile, British science fiction was more distinctly literary, and embraced far fewer of what are considered the stereotypes of science fiction (such as monstrous aliens or malevolent robots menacing scantily-clad damsels in distress defended by rugged, stalwart heroes from Space Command).  Indeed, probably the best known works of serious dystopian science fiction are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). One of the writers of very philosophical science fiction in Britain was Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950).

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






Site Map

E-mail ESR



© 1996-2023, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.