Episode III. The House of Atreus, Dune, and Star Wars.
Some may not be familiar with the mythology involving the ancient Greek story of the House of Atreus, but it has held sway over many mythic developments from antiquity to modern novels, especially Dune by Frank Herbert. At its core, it involves familial/ordained duty in conflict with personal morality/self-determinism, and the abstract of justice, but most of all redemption.
Let’s start with a scant overview of the Greek myth of which there are a few versions and literary offshoots.
The House of Atreus.
Zeus had a son named Tantalus. Being a bit audacious and arrogant, he wished to test the gods omniscience. Being of the twisted sort, he killed his son Pelops and cooked him up and served Pelops pies (not really pies but you get the picture and it might remind you of the Rat King in Game of Thrones). All the gods could tell except Artemis because she was preoccupied with the kidnapping of her daughter Penelope, so she took a bite. This earned Tantalus a fate where he was sent to the underworld where he would be forever hungry and thirsty but water and food was just out of reach. Thus, the word tantalize. He started an imbalance/curse but would not be able to restore balance/lift the curse, which is the essence of the mythic cycle.
Pelops was restored to life. He had two sons named Atreus and Thyestes. They competed against each other and wanted the throne of Argos. Some trickery involving a sheep happens along with Thyestes being a rather poor brother by having an affair with Atreus’ wife Aerope, and he ascends the throne. But, Atreus takes it away and like most brothers, a bit of revenge was taken though in extremis. Following in his ancestor’s unwise footsteps, Atreus killed Thyestes sons, cooked them up, and fed them to his bro, who in an odd sort of shaming was sent into exile for consuming his kids. Now, every good ancient myth/drama needs more taboos, as if cannibalism isn’t enough, so a bit of incest goes down with Thyestes and his daughter Aegisthus. Guess who dies as a result? Atreus. It is a cycle of selfishness and revenge. The sins of the past climb down the generations and reflect the previous transgressions.
But that’s not the end. Atreus had two sons (yes, the parallels are obvious) named Agamemnon and Menelaus. Yup, The Odyssey guys. To cut to the chase, Agamemnon pisses off Artemis just like dear old grandpa. And because Agamemnon really wants to go to war with Troy, he must supplicate the goddess to gain the desired wind so his fleet can set sail. What is called for? Yes, you got it. Another sacrifice of a child. More taboos equal more fun.
Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so he can go to war and keep his promise to his brother to get Helen (of Troy) back. This, as you can understand, quite irks his wife Clytemnestra. The cycle of selfishness and revenge is renewed. She has Agamemnon killed when he gets back and this calls for their son Orestes to kill his mom, as per tradition, which he does with some help from his sister Electra (not the assassin who has a thing for Daredevil).
With no one to avenge Clytemnestra, the divine Furies/Erinyes go after Orestes. Jump to the end, Orestes is made to marry Hermione (not the Granger), daughter of Helen and Menelaus. This is after Apollo, the good old shiny god, sets up the first trial/courtroom in Athens so to end this cycle of retribution. Some say this myth illustrates the advent of the jury system and the growth of civilization from a clan modeled reality where blood is answered with blood, and that in turn must be answered with blood in perpetuity. Resolutions and justice could now take a foothold from the chaotic past. That is what I was taught but what I always took away was that the original sin of the patriarch infected the family line and redemption for the family could only come with stopping the cycle of violence and embracing a non-violent course of settling contentions.
Where does this fit in with Star Wars and Dune?
First, both are family sagas. Second, the sins of the family or father must be redeemed by the sons. The imbalance that was caused by an initial “divine/spiritual” action had to be brought back in balance with the natural/physical world.
It is evident that Dune influenced science fiction after its publication. The direct line of influence by the House of Atreus on Dune is overt in the name of protagonist. Paul Atredies. Atreus is translated from ancient Greek as “No Fear” or no tremble to be accurate. The descendant of Atreus are called Atreidai in the plural or Atreides in the singular. Overcoming fear is a big deal in Dune. It is spoken of in the Litany Against Fear by the Bene Gesserit and it is fear that keeps the Bene Gesserit from being “all places at once” with a powerful prescience ability that Paul obtains. Fear as a subject matter addressed in science fiction would be forever different after that, and in Star Wars, it is fear that consumes Anakin Skywalker and transforms him into the Sith Lord Darth Vader. It is fear that Luke Skywalker must overcome to redeem his father Anakin Skywalker.
Sure, subjects, topics, themes, can and do flow from many sources but Dune has a direct line from the House of Atreus, and Star Wars borrows a trajectory from foundational science fiction/speculative fiction to manifest a space opera coalesced from mythology. Just the similarities in location and character show the connections. Luke Skywalker is royalty even if he doesn’t know it. His mom was Padme Amidala, once a Queen of Naboo. Paul is the son of Duke Leto Atredies. Both must live in deserts. Powerful emperors plot their destruction or corruption. Both seek the greatest source of power in their universes. Luke the Force and Paul the control of prescience and the Spice Melange, which allows for controlled interstellar space travel and thus is the source of economic control of which all are bound.
Sins of the past or redemption of the father, or family, are the real pepper in the seasoning of the story and what drive Luke in Star Wars (in ROTJ at least) and Paul as he tries to reclaim the rightful place of power back from the Harkonnen, who he happens to be related to by his grandfather, which he doesn’t know until later just like Luke finding out about Darth Vader being his father. The old “We’re related” twist. In the end, Luke and Paul redeem their families. But, Paul really extends the House of Atreus cycle by becoming trapped by able to see the future but not able to change it (very common to Greek myths) and then having his son redeem him, even though it traps him into a destiny that isn’t so cool. Unless you want to be a giant worm that dies if it falls into water.
The imbalance issue. Restoring balance to the Force is reiterated throughout the prequels and the tv show The Clone Wars. What created the imbalance in the first place? Tricky question. We don’t really know. Maybe that will be addressed in the upcoming movie The Last Jedi. But perhaps the Skywalker family has a longer and more deeply rooted history with the Force than we know. Maybe an ancient Skywalker was one of the people who helped trigger the imbalance and therefore the line of Skywalker was mantled with the responsibility to bring restoration? Sins of the father deal. In any case, Anakin Skywalker did bring the Force back into balance, or so we thought. This would end the cycle of storm and stress, tit for tat, dark and light, but as with any system requiring homeostasis, new introductions of actors or elements can shift to imbalance. Looks like it didn’t last long. Perhaps another family was involved in triggering of the Force imbalance in the past and needs to join with the Skywalkers to really restore it.
In Dune, it is not Paul who does the real work to save the universe. It is Leto II his son who become a god-emperor/conquering worm. He, and Paul before him, foresees that human stagnation will lead to demise. Leto II recognizes that stagnation in human growth is the imbalance. To create a balance of potential, he becomes the architect of the Great Scattering where humans will need to leave the Known for the unKnown and ruins the old empire. This kicks adaption into gear.
One could parallel this with Anakin Skywalker being prophecized as the “balance bringer” and he does what he thinks is right for his new empire, even if it made him into a tyrant in an exoskeleton with lovely blinking lights and quaint quilted sleeves of black. Then, Luke just like Leto II comes about to save his father from himself and what he created. If you placed Luke Skywalker into a Leto II role, then the next logical step for his story arc would be he would take on his father’s task but direct it in such a way as to destroy it and create a new path or destiny. Leto II saw the error in the old rigid religious way of thinking regarding human civilization, status, and power so he altered it to be so oppressive that humans would eventually try to dismantle it. Casting it away. It worked. Though Luke tried to recreate the Jedi, it failed. He went to exile (Leto did a self-imposed exile before merging with the sand-trout) and seems to have had a revelation about the religious order he followed. In that “… the Jedi must end” from the trailer.
There are plenty of other elements that link Dune series of novels to Star Wars such as a special set of warriors with super powers, religious sects with rigid doctrine, messiahs, clairvoyant abilities, mystics in the desert, prophecy, twins, dashing rogues who fall in love with a princess (Idaho and Solo rhyme), a penchant for combat with blades/light sabers, forbidden love, desert worlds, and of course odd colored eyes. Lastly, I found it interesting that borrowing from the “Bible” was extant in both works. I mean, the reference to the New Testament is right there with first names, Luke and Paul, but that a whole other influence I don’t want to get into.
Like I have always said to my friends, I always thought Star Wars was Dune blended with tales of King Arthur, strewn with Greek and Celtic mythology, featuring psychic, super-powered samurais in space but it all goes back to the House of Atreus and this could give an idea of where it goes forward.
So ends the musing of Episode III.
Vox clamantis in deserto.