“The Lord of the Rings” and “Dune” are masterpieces of world-building and story. But has one proven more influential than the other?
The below image, footnote 964, made publishing industry headlines in 2019. Referencing a March 12, 1966 letter to one John Bush, Tolkien stated:“Thank you for sending me a copy of Dune. I received one last year from Lanier and so already know something about the book. It is impossible for an author still writing to be fair to another author working along the same lines. At least I find it so. In fact I dislike DUNE with some intensity, and in that unfortunate case it is much the best and fairest to another author to keep silent and refuse to comment …”
Released on August 8, 2019, Oronzo Cilli’s exhaustive work, “Tolkien’s Library: An Annotated Checklist,” is an exploration of the author’s possible influences based upon a consideration of his bookshelf.
“In fact I dislike DUNE with some intensity …”
These are the only words that have surfaced in public regarding John Ronald Reuel’s (J.R.R. Tolkien’s) thoughts of Frank Herbert’s landmark tome. As such, any interpretation as to why he felt this way would be based solely on opinion.
Was Tolkien jealous of the younger author’s success? Embarrassed? Envious? There is nothing whatsoever in his curt words to Bush to allude to anything other than a personal distaste for Herbert’s masterwork; searching for answers would be akin to a hamster on a wheel. Instead, we will look at the critical and commercial successes of both epics to see if a valid comparison could be made as to the quality, and the lasting influence, of both epics.
Nothing has of yet surfaced publicly regarding Herbert’s thoughts on Tolkien’s “Rings” trilogy, for the record.
The Lord of the Rings
For those possibly coming to this unaware, “The Lord of the Rings” is a three-volume mythic epic comprised of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “The Return of the King.” The collective work was originally planned as a sequel to Tolkien’s 1937 “The Hobbit,” but it quickly morphed into something far more substantial. “The Lord of the Rings” was written variously from 1937–1949, and the volumes were published on July 29, 1954, November 11, 1954, and October 20, 1955, respectively. Tolkien had wanted a single volume of the work to be published in a two-volume set alongside “The Silmarillion” — which was ultimately released posthumously in 1977 — but the publisher was against the idea in part due to the length of the “Rings.”
Reviews and Honors
Initial reviews were mixed:
- Judith Shulevitz of The New York Times: “Tolkien formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself.”
- Richard Jenkyns of The New Republic: “Anemic and lacking in fiber.”
- Hugo Dyson from Tolkien’s literary discussion club, The Inklings, is said to have “complained loudly” during its readings.
Though the early reviews were mixed, they did include many of high praise. The Sunday Telegraph, for example, called Tolkien’s epic “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century.” Several other high-profile critics of the time agreed.
Readers discovered “The Lord of the Rings” via its many reprints over the years. It has been called “The nation’s best-loved book” (2003 BBC Big Readsurvey), and 2004 reader polls in Australia and Germany named it theirfavorite book. In 1999, the saga was voted “Book of the Millennium” by Amazon.com customers, and Salon.com called it “The Book of the Century.” Time lists “The Lord of the Rings” as one of the 100 Greatest Novels, and in 2015, “The Lord of the Rings” was voted #26 on the BBC’s list of 100 Greatest British Novels.
“The Lord of the Rings” has sold over 150 million copies worldwide, and won the 1957 International Fantasy Award for Fiction, among other honors.
Not bad for an English academic who set out to create a “working mythology of England.”
For further information, including extensive plot summaries and analyses on “The Lord of the Rings,” and Tolkien’s history as an author, see this Wikipedia entry.
A large issue with comparing “The Lord of the Rings” to “Dune,” Frank Herbert’s magnum opus, is the usual comparison with only the first volume of Herbert’s work. Since taken over by his son, Brian, with writing partner Kevin Anderson, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” has since spawned numerous spinoff novels.
For the purpose of this article, I will align “Rings” with Dune’s” original series of six books, all as written by Frank Herbert.
The first novel was released in 1965, “Dune Messiah” was originally serialized by Galaxy in 1969, “Children of Dune” was released in 1976, “God-Emperor of Dune” was released in 1981, “Heretics of Dune” in 1984, and “Chapterhouse: Dune” in 1985.
Reviews and Honors for “Dune”
The first reviews in this instance were largely positive:
- Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey, said, “I know nothing comparable to it except “Lord of the Rings.”
- The Chicago Tribune called Herbert’s initial offering, “One of the monuments of modern science fiction.”
- The Washington Post described Herbert’s “Dune” as “A portrayal of an alien society more complete and deeply detailed than any other author in the field has managed … a story absorbing equally for its action and philosophical vistas … An astonishing science fiction phenomenon.”
Much like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Dune” has seen its share of mixed reviews as well: Jon Michaud in The New Yorker claims it “has not penetrated popular culture in the way that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’ have” in large part due to not including robots or computers.
On November 5, 2019, BBC News listed the first novel in Herbert’s series as one of the 100 Most Influential Novels. In 2012, Wired called it “the best science fiction novel of all time.”
The first book in Herbert’s series tied with Roger Zelazny’s “The Immortal” for the 1966 Hugo Award, and won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel.
The novel has sold over 20 million copies worldwide ... considerably less than “The Lord of the Rings” but enough to make it the bestselling science fiction book of all time.
For further information, including extensive plot summaries and analyses on the “Dune” books and Frank Herbert’s history as an author, see this entry from Wikipedia:
“The Lord of the Rings” reads as one novel divided into three parts. The Frank Herbert “Dune” collective reads — to me — as separate novels written in separate times. Indeed, time jumps are di rigueur from “Dune” novel to “Dune” novel, unlike the other.
“The Lord of the Rings” largely reflects Tolkien’s mythological research, while “Dune” as science fiction is a king of invention.
From www.Dune.Fandom.com: Earth, also called Old Earth or Old Terra, is the third planet located in the Sol star system. The human race originated here. It was where the Commission of Ecumenical Translators converged to assemble the Orange Catholic Bible after the Butlerian Jihad.
“Dune” is our real world as earth is part of its universe. Ditto “The Lord of the Rings,” as Middle-earth is the north continent of earth (Arda) representing a fictional period of earth’s past.
To me, the “Dune” saga is the more interesting work due to my familial and political interests, while “The Lord of the Rings” is the more consistent, and human. There is far more emotion in the latter.
For an excellent article on the influence of “Dune,” see here.
For an older (2005 revision) academic piece on the influence of “The Lord of the Rings,” now publicly available, see here.
Books 2–6 of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” saga were not as well-received as the first, nor has their stature proved nearly as influential. However, they have all become popular works, and the current sequel series by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson have as well.
But none of the them was the science fiction game-changer, nor could they be, as the first.
Several filmmakers had unsuccessfully developed “Dune” as a feature, most notably among them was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s development period from 1971–1982. A documentary on the making of the long-awaited film (that never was) was released in 2013.
The first produced “Dune” film, directed by David Lynch and produced in 1985, has attained cult status but is largely considered a critical (and commercial) failure. The source material was so strong, however, that since its release the film has been increasingly appreciated as an original vision. SyFy (then the Sci-Fi Channel) aired a three-part miniseries based on the first book in 2000, followed by a second three-parter, “Children of Dune,” in 2003. Both achieved fair to good reviews, but were not in any way considered groundbreaking.
Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was, by far, the better received production. Years following a 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated version, the final film in Jackson’s trilogy, “Return of the King,” won the Oscar for Best Picture. His films based on “The Hobbit” did not fare as well, expanding the relatively short work into three films of (what many critics and fans have called) excessive length.
An Amazon series beckons.
The first of Denis Villeneuve’s (“Blade Runner 2049”) two-part “Dune” remake was released to generally positive reviews in the U.S. on HBO Max on October 21, 2021, and theatrically the following day, following an earlier international theatrical release.
A new “Dune” series is also scheduled to premiere in 2022 on HBO Max, spearheaded by Villeneuve.
My two cents: As a fan, I prefer the “Dune” books to “The Lord of the Rings” as they better match my sensibilities, but “The Lord of the Rings” is the more influential work.
As far as who was the better writer, Tolkien or Herbert? Even attempting an answer is a fool’s errand. I’ll call it a “tie,” and add that it’s too bad Tolkien did not appreciate Herbert’s rich work.
There’s room for more than one epic genre masterpiece in the universe.
What are your thoughts?
Thank you for reading.