Walking with God: The Sacred Journey of Villeneuve’s Dune
“And take the most special care that you locate Maud’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.” | Dune by Frank Herbert
“Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” | Genesis 5:24
The night oppressed by the weight of destiny and a haunted look in his mother’s eyes as she leads him down an uncertain path through the darkness. He trusts her with his life, but this night will try that trust in more ways than one. He passes through a screen, the sifting bringing pain worse than he has ever experienced before in his life. On the other side, a terrible purpose confronts him, an awakening of something that lies deep within — a power, a voice that has always been there: the Kwisatz Haderach. Paul Atreides has learned that his birthright is two-pronged, a power is his that could bring either a future most glorious or a terror so profound that the wailing of its lament cuts through the very fabric of spacetime itself.
This is not the path that Paul has chosen for himself, but the stamp of the Divine lies upon him nonetheless. For when you become the apple of the eye of God there is nowhere for you to lay your head to escape His presence. He will lead you onto the wilderness path, a path of pain and of sorrow, but neither for their own sake, but in order that the eye of the spirit may be opened to behold a glory and a beauty beyond what one can even possibly imagine.
This is Paul’s path, this is Paul’s story, of what it means to walk with the Divine. Many are tempted to view this story as a curse, something that destroys not only the person walking the path, but the entire world around him. We may even be tempted to think that we are watching not a story of a man, but of a terrible and wretched god who will fall from grace — falling short of everyone’s expectations and self-made projections of him, a messiah made in a broken image who will not lead them into a better world, but a nightmarish one filled with the stench of violence and death. Only this is not Villeneuve’s Dune. We aren’t watching a fall from grace, but a fall towards grace. For we seem to be taking Paul’s godhood for granted, as something that can be torn down and defiled, yet we must remember that it is a part of him, something that is woven into his very genes. You can’t remove the man from the Divine, and you can’t remove the Divine from the man. And although it is true that the man will not be able to live up to the Divine, this is not to his shame, but to his glory. For it is a beautiful thing that a man is not God. When he realizes this, he becomes truly free. Not because he is free from God, but because he is freed to God. So, this isn’t about a collapse of Divinity within a man, but it is about a man collapsing into Divinity — because sometimes the path to heaven leads into the desert. When you walk with the Divine, wrestling with Him along the way, you are going to be made lame, but you will be given a new name. This is Paul’s story.
“Defiance in the eyes. Like his father.”
“And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” | Genesis 32:24–28
One of the most beautiful things about Dune is that Villeneuve structures it as a series of tests, or what I would like to call catalysts, for Paul. Each catalyst leads and propels him forward until the final and ultimate test in the desert, the Amtal. From the first catalyst with the Gom Jabber to the last, it is interesting to note that Villeneuve visually punctuates them with a significant clue as to the deeper layers of the story. Before Paul enters the library with the Reverend Mother, we are shown the mounted Atreides bull hanging overhead. This bull is woven deep into the family history of Atreides — telling of Paul’s grandfather who “fought bulls for sport,” and lost his life in the process. You would expect that such an occupation and death would be shameful to the family, but the Atreides keep his portrait like a shrine, and carry the bull’s head as a symbol of pride for their house. Only I believe this indicates a spirit that goes so much deeper than pride. I would call this the unyielding spirit. The use of this image symbolizes triumph within this story, not defeat. It is the triumph of the Atreides’ spirit, of Paul’s spirit.
This is something the Reverend Mother learns, to her horror, as she holds the life of Paul in her hands only to find not the eyes of a boy about to die before her, but of a spirit and power that burns, strips, and defies with a terrible, unrelenting heat. Remember, even if a skilled matador holds all the advantages in the encounter — the bull never being able to overcome his tormentor — if the matador makes even the smallest of mistakes, it quickly becomes apparent who is truly the one in power. This is something that the Baron of House Harkonnen learns all too well during the third catalyst, as he holds the Duke Leto Atreides at his mercy. Notice that Villeneuve intercuts between what is happening with Leto to Paul and Lady Jessica in their tent. Both events are happening simultaneously, as Paul begins to unwrap Dr. Yueh’s package. The Baron, emboldened by greed and blinded by a show of force that has leveled his enemies’ house, arrogantly, foolishly, pridefully leans over Leto Atreides, confident in his power. In that moment of weakness, the bull strikes! At this same precise moment Paul looks upon his father’s ring. Visually both moments are connected, the tragic triumph of his father’s death is being transferred to the Atreides ring. The spirit of the bull, of the Atreides soul, lives on within the ring — within Paul.
“Here I am, here I remain.”
Leto’s death is visually the end of “the bull” within the narrative. Now it will be the ring that will provide the same story within story visual cue to help us understand the deeper layers of the narrative. Just like with the bull, the ring is shown to us before and after each subsequent catalyst, ie. at the ecology station of Duncan Idaho’s death and Paul and Lady Jessica’s escape flight in the ornithopter. Most significantly, though, it is shown to us just before Paul’s fight with Jamis — Paul’s hand resting upon the rock as he seeks to understand the mystery of the Divine. Remember, we have just been shown that this symbol is one of triumph — symbolizing the unyielding nature of Paul’s spirit which is unquenchable like a fire. Only this is where things get very interesting. The test of the Amtal is clearly not a triumphant moment for Paul. Standing before a man who has been promised to be a friend to him, someone who has been a gentle guiding presence within his visions, instead meets him in the heat and aggression of combat. Jamis is hot-headed and rash, as he seeks to cross blades with the young boy — perhaps spurred on by the defiance he has seen within him. Paul has never killed a man before, and he has no desire in his heart to kill a man now. Yet he has been told, “Paul Atreides must die for Kwisatz Haderach to rise.” In order for Paul to move forward on this journey, he must die, for “when you take a life, you take your own.” When Paul kills Jamis, it is Paul Atreides who dies.
Ah, but remember the ring! The ring which is a symbol of the triumphant spirit! Villeneuve is visually layering these two concepts on top of each other, the juxtaposition causing a tension that compels us to ask, “How does a non-triumph become a triumph?” Paul Atreides has experienced a death, but Paul Atreides has not died — not in the sense that we may be tempted to believe. The unrelenting nature of the test clashes head on with the unrelenting spirit of Paul behaving like a crucible that burns and strips him, molds and refines him, breaks him and remakes him. It is a painful, excruciating process, a process that does bring about profound loss — a loss of Paul’s childhood, his past, everything that he had ever known up until that point. He has passed from boyhood to manhood — from a kind of death to a new kind of life, a life that will be marked by “sweat and tears” — the life of the desert. Only this is not a path towards obliteration, but towards transfiguration!
“A friend will help you. Follow the friend.”
Before I unpack that further, let us rewind a bit, and go back to the fifth catalyst with Paul in the ornithopter. As Paul and his mother make their desperate escape from the Emperor’s Sardaukar, they use a Coriolis storm to disorient the jet flyers that have locked on them. Only with 800 km winds, nothing could survive such a storm. Their ornithopter pressed almost beyond its endurance, their situation dire, Paul hears a voice speaking to him — the kind guiding spirit of Jamis, speaking to him from another reality or perhaps beyond reality to something akin to a living dream. “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve. But a reality to experience,” he instructs with patience, bringing stillness to Paul’s soul. “A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it.” The loving wisdom casts out all fear in Paul and instead of fighting against the storm, he flows with it — allowing it to pass over him and through him. Paul and his mother make it miraculously to the other side!
This is what I mean when I said that you cannot separate the Divine from the man, or man from the Divine. In this moment, Paul’s gift — his inner eye — was opened to see its path and he endured and overcame, passing beyond the test. The mystery of the moment, the consummation of heaven and earth that exists inside of Paul, births a miraculous event that ends up saving his life and the life of his mother! Yet we know this will not be the last time that such Divinity helps Paul through the guidance of Jamis, but we return now to the Amtal. “A friend will help you. Follow the friend,” the voice had said to him as he had made his brave crossing through the desert path of Shai-Hulud. “Don’t be frightened,” it spoke soothingly, “Even a little desert mouse can survive. You’ll need to face your fears.”
Just like in the moment of the ornithopter, Paul must face his fears, allow them to pass over him and through him in order that he may see his path — and this is where Jamis guides him once more. Paul cannot move forward on his journey unless he passes through the Amtal — which this rule is defined as: “To know a thing well, know its limits. Only when pushed beyond its tolerances will true nature be seen.” Why does this sound familiar? “He wields our power. He had to be tested to the limits,” the Reverend Mother had told Lady Jessica. Now we see at this critical point the cumulation of all of Paul’s tests falling to their climax. This has been the same test all along. Paul has been set on this path of fire and pain, sweat and tears — a sacred pilgrimage meant to bring Paul to the very ends of himself, threatening destruction, threatening obliteration — only haven’t we’ve been told that it is fear that brings “the little death” of obliteration? “You’ll need to face your fears.” Jamis helps Paul to face his fears, therefore Paul was not destroyed, but he was instead remade — and though it is through the loss of Jamis’ life, it is by his death that Paul is able to be accepted as one of the Fremen, passing from one life to another.
I will note here that in my first viewing of the film, my instincts told me that Jamis’ part in the story was not finished. Not understanding the nature of the narrative just yet, I had fully expected something to happen in this regard — that it wasn’t going to be so cut and dry in regards to Jamis’ death. Yet the movie came to its end and we must all wait for Part II of Paul’s journey. However, I am now convinced that my instincts were correct, as a recent interview with Villeneuve he was pointedly very evasive when asked a straightforward question in regards to Jamis’ part in the story. I do not think we have seen the last of Paul’s friend.
“ […] everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean.” | Numbers 31:23
This is a profoundly spiritual story for Villeneuve, as he layers symbolic structure over the narrative like a master painter using glazing techniques. In oil painting, glazing is a method by which you can make the opaque surface glow with a seemingly inner luminosity. The layers of transparent glaze do not mix with the painted surface underneath but simply covers it, tinting it, and this produces an optical effect that gives your painting a depth of color and light that normally would not have shown through without such a process applied (Source). This is what Villeneuve has done with Frank Herbert’s Dune, his symbolic glazing covering the original text with a brilliant, luminous sheen that transforms it and reveals deeper spiritual truths. As the movie opens with the powerful declaration: “Dreams are messages from the Deep,” so Villeneuve delves into the depths of Paul Atreides who walks the path of his dreams and is confronted by the Mystery that resides there in the desert. This is a journey that is meant to refine and purify him as through a furnace — the kind of journey that is meant to lead towards transfiguration.
What was it that Shadout Mapes said of the crysknife — the use of which becomes such a significant symbolic focal point of Paul’s Amtal? “The Maker of the Deep Desert,” she had said. “The Tooth of Shai-Hulud.” This knife has passed through Jamis into Paul and killed him — whittled him — made him. The Tooth of Shai-Hulud becomes a refiner’s tool on the glinting diamond of Paul’s spirit which meets the fire of its adversity and is not destroyed. For those whose spirit has already been tested by this kind of holy fire of making — the material of his soul recognizing the fire’s redemptive, forging work — can also endure it and overcome through it because it was never about what could be destroyed, but what can be revealed. This fire that flows from out of the “Deep Desert” threatening a terrible, all-consuming destruction — as the pain of the path into Arrakis decimates everything Paul ever knew — reveals instead the parts of his soul that are indestructible. He will burn, but not be consumed — Paul’s unyielding spirit striving with the dreadful scouring of the Divine and in the end prevailing.
“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.” | Isaiah 48:10
So, Paul’s journey will lead him out into that lonely, painful path in the desert through many more such trials, going from “pyre to pyre” to be “redeemed from fire by fire” as he’ll be continually be sifted, tried, tested, and cleansed through the process. He will pass through many more such deaths, perhaps even 60 billion deaths; yet each sorrow and death will be drawing him closer to the Divine that is alive and active within him — that sharp, burning Reality that is transforming him into an image of beauty, from one degree of glory to another. When all has been burned away in Paul through this anguished holy wrestling, what will remain? When the inner eye is opened and he is able — with unveiled face — to behold the glory of the Divine, what will he see?
“My road leads into the desert. I can see it.”
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” | Revelation 2:17