By Pablo Castillo Lacalle
With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterwork, Dune, earlier this year, there came also a wave of complaints regarding the source material, its messages and its themes. Of all of these, none was more prevalent than the accusation that Dune promotes a ‘white saviour’ narrative deemed problematic for contemporary audiences. An accusation that took me quite by surprise, as having just read the book over the summer, and watched the movie upon its release, I had thought it was quite clear the opposite was true: Dune isn’t an example of the ‘white saviour’ trope. In fact, it’s a scathing indictment of it.
It might be helpful to loosely break down what a ‘white saviour’ story is: broadly speaking, it is a narrative that explicitly places a Caucasian protagonist as a miraculous and often Messianic figure that is instrumental to saving an indigenous population (whether it be fictional or not), garnering all the credit for themselves and undermining native agency. For a classic sci-fi example, think of James Cameron’s Avatar or, in historical fiction, Disney’s Pocahontas.
Critics were quick to point their fingers at Dune in this regard. Its plot sees Paul Atreides, the son of a noble House, step into the reluctant role of liberator of the Fremen. The Fremen are an indigenous group of the sand planet Arrakis, brutally exploited and occupied by colonial Imperialist rule for the purpose of extracting its most valuable resource, the ‘spice’ - or ‘melange’ - on which the Universe is dependant on. At first, it seems like all the tired beats of the ‘white saviour’ story are there: Paul is hailed in prophecy as the ‘mahdi’ who will guide the Fremen to salvation, and he is accepted almost unconditionally as their leader due to this perception. But in actuality, the driving force for Paul’s ascent has little to do with the implication that he is somehow inherently better and destined by fate to fill this role, as the ‘white saviour’ narrative exclusively suggests.
Rather, Dune reveals that the legend of the ‘mahdi’ that existed long before Paul’s arrival has nothing to do with divine will or destiny. It is instead the product of the insidious efforts of the Bene Gesserit - a matriarchal organisation within the world of Dune preoccupied with maintaining stability in the Empire through precise control of their influence. Through the ‘Missionaria Protectiva’, the Bene Gesserit implant superstition and fabricate myths and prophecies in order to prime planets for exploitation. If the situation demands it, after enough time has elapsed, any member of the Bene Gesserit can arrive on a planet and find a religious belief engineered specifically to be taken advantage of, conveniently ‘fulfilling’ the prophecy.
On the run and desperate, Paul and his mother Lady Jessica (a former Bene Gesserit) make use of this in order to survive. Paul’s influence and rise to power is never suggested to be a natural by-product of his race and Dune does not stoop to the dangerous paternalism of suggesting that, due to his non-native status, Paul is better equipped to free the Fremen.
Instead, ironically, Paul becomes the man he is by hijacking a white saviour story artificially constructed by a third party within the narrative. It’s a brilliant meta-textual commentary on the dangers of the trope, and Dune certainly does not shy away from starkly underlining how devastating this is. Critics who complain that Paul is presented as the key to the Fremen being
liberated have clearly missed the wider tragedy the text (and film) outwardly alludes to: though in the short-term the Empire is ousted from Arrakis, Paul quickly fills the power vacuum, and the Messianic role that he adopted due to the Missionaria Protectiva spirals horrifically out of control, culminating in an unstoppable genocidal holy crusade undertaken by the newly formed worshippers of Paul that not even he can reign in.
At best, the claim that Dune is a ‘white saviour’ narrative is a simple misreading of the text and its themes. At worst it’s a purposefully near-sighted deconstruction of the source material for the purpose of farming clicks on articles by stoking outrage. The fact of the matter is, it is grossly reductive and even outright irresponsible to paint Dune as a problematic, outdated piece of media peddling offensive and outdated concepts. To do so is to obliterate Frank Herbert’s masterful criticism of the ways religions and myths can be artificially manipulated for the purpose of controlling the masses and, how the adoption of a faux-Messianic role inevitably leads to more violence and tyranny than what it sought to undo in the first place.