The future is … feudal

Photo of the author’s copy of Dune

The latest big screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, Dune, finally received its U.K. cinema release on 22 October 2021. The movie is the latest work by Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve and has been very warmly received by critics and fans. On the back of this success, the studio has just given the go ahead for Villeneuve to film Part 2 of Herbert’s novel.

I’ve been a big fan of Herbert’s novel since first reading it as a teenager. I’m going to stick my neck out and also say that I still have a tremendous affection for David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of the novel.

The received wisdom is that Lynch made a real mess of this version. As a counter argument, I would urge you to watch the fan edit of Lynch’s movie which demonstrates, in my humble opinion, that he had a clear vision for the project. Tellingly, the studio hadn’t given Lynch the right of final cut in his contract in relation to the movie and a much shorter version was shown in cinemas. At one point, Lynch had his name removed from the credits in certain versions of the movie and he is on record that the whole experience remains a great source of sadness for him.

If you are interested in the fan edit version of Lynch’s Dune, check it out on YouTube at the link below:

A place beyond your dreams ..

This was the first part of the marketing tag line used by the studio to market Lynch’s version of Dune. True, Herbert’s plot is set 10,000 years into the future. From what we can gather, Planet Earth no longer exists and the human race has spread out to colonise other planets far, far beyond our known universe.

The planet Arrakis (or Dune) is an extremely harsh desert world where water is at a premium. Herbert tells us in the early stages of his novel, that labourers go out before dawn to gather in the dew. As Duke Leto Atreides reflects:

“Perhaps this planet could grow on one. Perhaps it could become a good home for my son. And it could be a hideous place.”

More importantly, the planet is the only source of the spice, Melange which makes interstellar travel achievable, increases human longevity and can give certain individuals the gift (or curse) of prescience. For these reasons, control of Arrakis – despite its barrenness and the hostility of the native Fremen – is fiercely sought and often contested. This desire to control the planet is one of the most important plot drivers in the novel, but more about that later.

Yet, was Herbert’s universe really so strange and beyond our dreams?

Yes – and no. Any student of history would tell you that the institutions and concepts that Herbert uses to give structure to his universe have a long pedigree in human existence.

What struck me most about Herbert’s novel was the fact that democracy or rule by and of the people doesn’t even get a look in. Readers can safely assume that democracy is extinct – rather like Earth. What we have in its place is monarchical government or – more accurately – imperial government. Prime Ministers and Presidents are very much in the past and Emperors, Dukes, Barons, Counts and their various retainers are the order of the day.

The Padishah Emperor

What we have is an imperium headed by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV of Noble House Corrino. This family has controlled the Golden Lion throne for thousands of years. Below Shaddam IV are the various noble families (Atreides and Harkonnen to name two of the most significant Houses). Like a medieval monarch or Roman Emperor, Shaddam IV retains control through a mixture of coercion and patronage. The iron hand in the velvet glove might be a useful metaphor here.

In this imperium – strange and yet so familiar – we have a rigid class hierarchy known as the faufreluche system which Herbert tells us lives by the motto, “A place for every man and every man in his place.”

To any Scots lawyer who remembers their sources of law lectures will doubtless recognise this system – admittedly by another name – feudalism.

It’s worth noting that women, in this system, don’t have many rights. Although Duke Leto Atreides is portrayed as an honourable man, he keeps a bound concubine, the Lady Jessica. We are told in the novel that the Old Duke, sent his buyers to acquire Jessica as a concubine for his son. Although Jessica is not the wife of Duke Leto, she wields huge influence due to the fact that she has given him a son and heir (Paul Atreides).

In many respects, this aspect of Dune, is similar to one of the plot devices in director, Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic, The Last Duel. In the feudal system, women are regarded as the chattels (moveable property) of their fathers, husbands or other male relatives. In The Last Duel, Matt Damon’s character is perhaps most outraged by the fact that Adam Driver’s character has interfered with his proprietorial rights over his wife.

Feudal law

The feudal system is described as a multi-tiered system of land ownership and, consequently, it can be very complex.

Yet, it wasn’t a Scottish invention: the credit or the blame for this social hierarchy lies elsewhere. To paraphrase Dune, be careful to locate feudalism in its rightful place: England.

It was introduced to Scotland during the reign of King David I (1124–53). David had spent his youth at the English court (probably as a hostage to secure the good behaviour of the Scottish King) and was clearly influenced by the effectiveness of feudalism.

The first Norman King of England, William the Conqueror (1066-87) brought feudalism to his new kingdom primarily as a means of controlling an often hostile populace who would never be reconciled to their new masters. William had seized control of England after defeating the last English or Saxon king, Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings (1066). Grim Norman keeps would spring up all over England from which battle hardened warriors would (and could) sally out to keep uppity locals in their place and to safeguard the King from any foreign threats to his power.

From the earliest days of the system, it operated, however, on very simple principles. The King (the Superior) would grant parcels of land to his supporters (vassals) who, in return, would administer the land (very often in the role of Sheriff – another English practice) and, more importantly, they would provide the King with soldiers in times of war or civil unrest.

In other words, the feudal system was all about maintaining royal power in England and Scotland (i.e. land for loyalty). The land was never granted absolutely – if a vassal (i.e. the person who held the land) failed to keep his side of the bargain, the King would remove all his rights to the land and appoint someone in his place. These supporters would in turn distribute parts of the land to their followers in order to retain their loyalty.

Under the feudal system, property was divided into two categories:

♦    Heritable property 

♦    Moveable property 

The fundamental principle of the feudal system always centred around tenure. This means that the land was granted according to certain conditions which the vassal had to carry out dutifully.

It may be rather hard to believe, but remnants of the feudal system survived in Scotland into the early twenty-first century before it was finally abolished on 28 November 2004 when the provisions of the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 took effect.

Feudalism as a plot device in Dune

The initial stages of the novel are driven by the Emperor’s command that House Atreides take control of Arrakis from their mortal enemies, House Harkonnen. Although Duke Leto Atreides suspects that the Emperor’s motives are less than pure when conferring Arrakis on him as new fiefdom, he has no choice but to obey this order.

You might be forgiven for thinking that Duke Leto could refuse, but this would invite punitive military action at the hands of the dreaded Sardaukar – the Emperor’s terror troops. Even Baron Harkonnen, a partner in the Emperor’s scheme to destroy House Atreides, is fearful of the Sardaukar, knowing only too well that they could turn on his own troops at the click of the imperial fingers.

Like many historical monarchs, Shaddam IV fears the growing power of rival noble houses in his imperium and Arrakis is the bait which will bring the Atreides down. William the Conqueror, while still a mere Duke of Normandy, had an often fractious relationship with his cousin in law, the King of France. William also had a difficult relationship with his eldest son, Robert Curthose, which eventually degenerated into open warfare.

The Conqueror’s successors (the Kings of England) would make repeated bids to seize control of the French throne during the period known as The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). It is often forgotten that Paris was, at one point, an English possession which French military, heroine, Jeanne d’Arc tried to wrest back (unsuccessfully) for the King of France.

Perhaps the most infamous example in Scottish history where a monarch dispatched a serious rival was when King James II personally murdered William, 8th Earl of Douglas, at a banquet held at Stirling Castle on 22 February 1452. George R R Martin has stated that it had provided the inspiration for his Red Wedding in his Game of Thrones’ series of novels.

You can read more about this event and the background to it by clicking on the link below:

The transfer of fiefdoms by a monarch is a key feature of feudalism. You might hold a fief at the Emperors behest, but tenure is never absolute. Don’t ever forget this …

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 19 November, 2021