Mounds of sand cover the entirety of the landscape below. Looking down at the desert planet from above is the only way to even get a glimpse of the vastness of Arrakis. Something about this otherworldly domain speaks to the young man; that is, the duke’s son who is strapped to the seat of an aircraft flying towards who-knows-what. Even he doesn’t know what to expect. All he does know is that he’s here to observe his father’s duties as the heir to the family.
An emergency. Down below, many of his father’s men are trying to collect an important resource they must harvest, but their machine is failing. They don’t have time. If they don’t get out of there soon, they’ll be swallowed up by the renowned monster that roams the desert. The young man is tasked to go down onto the unfamiliar lands and call the men aboard to abort their mission. With no time to spare, the aircraft lands, and he takes a step outside. All of a sudden, the sounds of the world fade into stillness. As he slowly walks forward, the sensation of the sand against his clothed feet stirs something unexplainable inside him. He goes down on one knee and takes a fistful of sand only to let the strong winds blow it away. The severity of the situation pulls him back into reality, and as he sees his father’s men run for their lives, he shouts out to reach them.
That’s when it happened. A cloud of dust and smoke either from the abandoned machine, the weather of the desert or both envelope his entire body. Tiny, almost imperceptible, red and orange particles surround him. A voice enters his head. Within a blink of an eye, he’s not where he’s supposed to be anymore. He sees a young woman. He knows her. Past dreams had introduced her into his life. Now, he intends to follow her as she leads him to the unknown. Doesn’t he deserve to know who she is and what her visions are trying to tell him? After all, he is the heir to his father’s power, maybe even more. He is the hero of this story. He is Paul Atreides.
What makes a person special?
In both realms of reality and fiction, we tend to classify someone special as someone who has been ‘chosen’. This could mean being chosen to be the class leader, to perform on stage, to play the game of love, or to be the savior of the world. Clearly, these are all very normal things to desire. Of course, “being chosen” is most entertaining in literature because of how extreme the concept can go. When you think of “The Chosen One”, who do you picture? Harry Potter finally defeating Voldemort after six books and movies? Percy Jackson (or Jason Grace, a personal favorite of mine) finally fulfilling some prophecy that almost got him killed in the process? Katniss Everdeen, despite her reluctance to take on the role, shouting at President Snow through a camera after the bombing of District 8?
One year ago, I would have probably thought of Harry Potter first and foremost. Who wouldn’t? After I watched and became a big fan of the 2021 film Dune though, Paul Atreides comes to mind whenever I think about the successful trope of becoming the one and only hope of the universe. (A little disclaimer though: I’ve yet to read the book, so everything from here is based on the film).
Dune is originally a 1965 book by Frank Herbert, one so influential in science fiction that it inspired Star Wars. At first glance, “The Chosen One” of Dune is a young man named Paul Atreides. He is next in line for the position of duke in his family, he is possibly the messiah his mother’s people are waiting for, and the visions that plague his mind tell him that he is at the center of the world’s future. Like many protagonists, the idea of being a hero bothers him. He isn’t interested in power and politics, much less becoming a savior based on myths and folklore. At the end of the day though, most chosen ones are depicted as people who have pure hearts, and the only mistakes they make are a result of being too good that they fail to think rationally. If not that, they are ironically depicted to have no choice in the matter at all. However, Paul is a little different.
Clearly ahead of his time, Frank Herbert wrote Paul in a way that makes him a critique of “The Chosen One” stereotype. The protagonist of Dune isn’t meant to be a role model for audiences. He is meant to symbolize the dangers of recklessly following a so-called savior.
“A war in my name!” Paul screams in the film as horrific glimpses into the future overwhelm his mind and soul. Throughout the movie, he sees these visions of battle and bloodshed. Eventually, he figures out that this violent revolution that is set to take place later on will happen because of him. He knows that if he joins the ‘Fremen’ or the desert people of Arrakis, his actions will become a catalyst for this future massacre. Instead of figuring out a way to avoid the catastrophe, he decides to walk on the path that leads to it.
During the finale of the movie, he meets the Fremen. One of them, a man he has previously seen in his visions, challenges him to a duel to the death in order to prove that he is worthy of joining the group. Right before he takes on the fight, a vision of him falling in battle surfaces in his mind with an accompanying voice that whispers, “Paul Atreides must die. When you take a life, you take your own.”
The voice’s words end up coming true. Paul kills the Fremen challenger, thereby killing his former self in the process. By the time this happens in the film, he had already been a witness to the loss of his security, his father, and his best friend. The chaos that tore him apart, from his dreams to his tragedies when awake, seemingly altered his worldview. All of a sudden, he wanted to fall into the political abyss that his family was always trapped in. When he won the duel, he made a choice to give up his former self for good, someone who would have tried to avoid this situation altogether. It begs the question of “what else” is he willing to give up to pursue a certain agenda.
Paul provides a clear example of how being the supposed chosen one, especially at such a young age, isn’t as simple as being a “good” person. It’s more complex than that; he made decisions that may have been right or wrong, just or misguided. He could have avoided joining the Fremen to prevent the future war from happening. He could have asked them to send him back to his home planet instead of becoming one of them. He could have refused to fight the man who called him a friend in his visions to save a life. Instead, he chose to follow the destiny that his visions showed him while being actively aware of the consequences that may occur.
Towards the end, we see Paul’s character abruptly switch from being indifferent to power to embracing it. It leaves audiences wondering if he changed in order to sacrifice his own desires for the good of those around him or if he is doing this because he secretly indulges in the grandiosity of being a savior. Perhaps he wants to avenge his father’s death so he’s using the people’s faith in him to his advantage. Perhaps he wants others to see him as significant. Perhaps he believes that what he is doing is truly the right step to take as everyone around him has always told him that he was meant to be a leader. Perhaps he’s a lost and confused young man who just wants to live up to the expectations forced upon him. Who knows? No matter the reason, the Fremen will follow him through and through because he is fulfilling their flawed expectations from legends that were never true to begin with. Paul himself knows this; he is aware that he’s feeding into the false stories that were made thousands of years ago yet he still decides to go along with the flow by allowing these stories to justify his position among the Fremen.
Dune is essentially trying to present to people the idea that no one should be “The Chosen One” considering no one is truly perfect to be one. Most people, if not all, are just like Paul: someone who is trying to take on the chaos of the world when he can’t even face the chaos within himself. The regretful part of it all is that sometimes, others won’t bother to realize this because they don’t hear things that contradict what they think is true. When everyone tells you that you’re the best at this and that, what else are you supposed to believe in? We all want to be told that we’re at our best. It’s easy to fool ourselves when everyone else is encouraging us to do so. It is also important to consider if “everyone else” is even aware of what they're doing. Who can blame them if their beliefs are rooted in their upbringing or their environment? Is it really their fault if they’re simply the unknowing victims of a system that’s been normalized for decades? It couldn't be plainer that in a cycle like this, placing the blame on others is the easy thing to do because in reality, we're only accountable for our own reactions.
So, what makes a person special? It’s definitely not the ‘superior’ label people place on other people because not only is that label misleading, but it’s also problematic when taken a little too far and too seriously. One thing I learned from Dune and Paul Atreides is that life is not about being special, it’s about being you. No, this isn’t a “it’s not you, it’s them” moment because actually, it is about you. You have to look within yourself before you look for something in others because you’re the one thing you can control. You can decide where you go from here to there and only you can take responsibility for your actions because that’s the only way you’ll learn—or at least that’s what I believe in. I know it’s easier said than done, but I just want to put it out there anyway.
You might have heard this before or something similar to it, but just remember: “You’re the hero of your own story, and you don’t have to save the world to prove it.” Oftentimes, all we have to do is take a step back, breathe, and look at the bigger picture in order to be true to ourselves and be mindful of the way we affect the world around us—even if it’s not an epic desert planet like Arrakis.