Let’s Talk About Magic Dick Theory in ‘Dune’

If you look deep enough, much of traditional fantasy and science fiction boils down to the theory. Including ‘Dune.’ Until it doesn’t.

Ringer illustration

I am truly sorry for the words I am about to make you read, but before we get to Dune, let’s talk about Magic Dick Theory. Actually, you know what? Maybe you should click away right now. Get out while you still can. Once you’ve encountered Magic Dick Theory, you will never be able to un-encounter it, and you will find it popping into your head at the worst moments—say, as you recline innocently in your IMAX lounger, watching Timothée Chalamet surfing on sandworms during Denis Villeneuve’s soon-to-be-released Dune: Part Two—and you will whisper, “Oh, God, no,” and you will curse me for being the vehicle that brought you to this pass. Escape now, before it’s too late.

On the other hand, that’s fear talking. And you know what Dune says about fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Fear is overall not great. So let’s do this.

What is Magic Dick Theory? It’s my name for what we could call the psychoanalytic reading of canonical chosen-one narratives in fantasy and science fiction. You’re familiar with chosen-one narratives, I assume? These are stories—your Harry Potters, your Wheel of Times, your Star Wars, and, in a somewhat more complicated way, your Dunes—in which a seemingly unremarkable youth is selected by destiny to play a transformative role in history. Maybe he overthrows an evil king. Maybe he defeats the darkness that menaces the West Country. In recent years, we’ve been seeing more chosen-one narratives with girls as their protagonists, which is a welcome development. But traditionally, they’ve been about boys, and it’s in boy-focused chosen-one stories that Magic Dick Theory tends to fully reveal itself (gross).

Magic Dick Theory holds that chosen-one narratives are actually about adolescent boys’ relationships with their, um, sexuality. Spend enough time bumming around university libraries and you’ll eventually come across the argument that, essentially, the acquisition of magical powers in these stories is a metaphor for entering sexual maturity, and that one of the functions of these stories is to give readers a spectacularly dramatic framework for processing masturbation. And look, ugh, I know, but here’s the thing: The Freudian gymnastics required to arrive at this interpretation are actually … pretty reasonable?

I mean, who are the chosen ones in traditional fantasy and speculative fiction? Almost all straight, cis boys on the cusp of sexual maturity, right? And how does their chosenness reveal itself? Generally through the acquisition of an object that is both transparently phallic and imbued with profound mystic significance. A wand. A lightsaber. A magic sword.

Bonus points if this object belonged to the chosen one’s father. Double bonus points if it symbolizes a transfer of potency from one male generation to the next. Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone (gross), thus revealing himself to be the true heir of Uther Pendragon. Harry Potter receives a phoenix-feather wand that’s the twin of the wand used by Lord Voldemort, the nemesis who killed Harry’s father. Aragorn, in Lord of the Rings, differs from the classic chosen-one protagonist in many ways—he’s older, and he’s not the main character—but Narsil, the sword of his ancestor Isildur, is as classic a chosen-one object as it gets. It reconnects Aragorn to the patrilineal part of his family, establishes both his identity and his claim to political legitimacy, and, in being broken and then reforged, symbolizes the renewal of royal male potency, in the absence of which Middle-earth has languished.

And what happens when the chosen one has fully bonded with his new implement? Very often, his full power reveals itself in two ways: (1) He does something he didn’t know he was capable of, and (2) he does it in a scene of physically overwhelming orgasmic release, full of surging energies and streaming lights. You’ve probably read 20 books with climactic scenes like this, but as a quick example, consider the famous moment in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when the adolescent Harry first summons his Patronus (gross). This is the scene in which Harry, who’s gone back in time, is watching his earlier self being menaced by Dementors. The first time through, a majestic silver being appeared out of nowhere to save him, and he thought the being might have been his dead father. Now, living through the moment the second time, he sees everything differently, and you do not need a PhD in psychology to tease out the subtext here:

A terrified excitement shot through him—any moment now—

“Come on!” he muttered, staring about. “Where are you? Dad, come on—”

And then it hit him—he understood. He hadn’t seen his father—he had seen himself

Harry flung himself out from behind the bush and pulled out his wand.

“EXPECTO PATRONUM!” he yelled.

And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal.

Yeah. I know. I did warn you to click away. But I’m telling you about Magic Dick Theory not because I think it’s right, necessarily—or at least not because it’s the best or only way to interpret these stories. I’m telling you about it to drive home the point that the connection between chosen-one narratives, adolescent sexuality, and fantasy-world politics is vastly deeper and weirder than we generally assume. And I’m driving home that point because Dune: Part Two is about to be released, and there may be no contemporary chosen-one narrative that understands this connection and does more to examine, complicate, and undermine it than Dune.

But hang on. What does Magic Dick Theory even have to do with Dune? Didn’t we just say that traditional chosen-one narratives typically give the hero a sword or something swordlike, a phallic object that becomes the key to unlocking his special destiny? But there’s not really a magic sword in Dune, is there? Huh. Well, maybe when Frank Herbert sat down to write the novel, he decided to skip the overt penis symbolism and go for something more subtle, less obviou—OH MY GOD, THE GIANT FUCKING WORMS. It’s the giant worms. Of course it’s the worms. The first way Herbert blows up the traditional chosen-one narrative is just by making it bigger than anyone else’s. Paul Atreides doesn’t just get a cute li’l wand buddy; he gets AN ENTIRE WORLD whose underground depths, like a 14-year-old’s sketchbook, are teeming with dick imagery.

Herbert really looked at the myth of the sword in the stone and went, “Hey, nice little story you’ve got there. … What if we turned the stone into a planet and the sword into a thousand-foot-long ravenous hell-schlong that could erupt from the surface at any moment, killing hundreds?”

Next: What special destiny do the sandworms help Paul unlock? In most canonical, male-focused chosen-one narratives, there’s a powerful link between the protagonist’s burgeoning sexuality and what I’ll cautiously call the fundamental order of the universe. Something is wrong in the world. The benevolent social order has been overthrown by, or is being threatened by, a wicked usurper. But there is a higher power—a god or a Force or a magical will—that intends to set things right via the heavily but subliminally sexualized power it invests in the protagonist. The retrieval of Excalibur sets Arthur on the path to found the Round Table and restore justice to Britain; the reforging of the Sword That Was Broken sets Aragorn on the path to destroy Sauron and restore balance to Middle-earth; the acquisition of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber sets Luke on the path to redeem his father and destroy the Empire. This is what it means to be the chosen one. Most of us were just trying to get through middle school; the hero of destiny had to go through puberty literally to save the world.

In Dune, though? It’s all a con. There is no benevolent higher power.

The connection between patrilineal inheritance, male heterosexuality, and just governance is not a fact of nature; it’s a convenient fiction. The prophecy that makes the Fremen accept Paul as the savior figure—the Mahdi—isn’t magic at all. The legend of the Mahdi was planted in Fremen culture generations ago by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. It’s a kind of just-in-case psyop intended to give the famously Machiavellian Bene Gesserit an easy way to control the Fremen if they ever need to. It’s a plainly imperialist fiction designed to exploit an indigenous population, and it works.

And that’s the second way in which Dune explodes the chosen-one narrative: by revealing the protagonist’s chosenness to be a cynical political construct.

What does that signify? Well, Dune is an American novel. It rose to popularity during the era of the Vietnam War. As a former rebel colony that wound up becoming the world’s dominant imperial power, America has a … let’s say challenging relationship with revolutionary narratives. We love to see ourselves as the scrappy freedom fighters; more often than not, our actual politics plant us firmly on the opposite side. George Lucas, who was invited by Francis Ford Coppola to direct Apocalypse Now, has said that his Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was inspired partly by the Viet Cong, and it’s a tension you can feel throughout the movies. Who exactly are we supposed to be, here? There was a time when America could plausibly have seen itself as the scrappy band of underdogs waging asymmetric warfare against an overwhelmingly powerful adversary, but that time was not 1977, when Star Wars was released.

It’s Dune, though—which first started appearing, in serial form, in 1963—that most mercilessly twists the knife of America’s double identity. After the Harkonnen invade Arrakis and kill Paul’s father, Paul seeks refuge with the indigenous Fremen. He takes advantage of the Bene Gesserit prophecy to become the Mahdi, overthrows the Harkonnen, and goes on to supplant the emperor himself … only to see his reign become a bloody horror in which tens of billions of people are killed and the culture of the Fremen is more or less destroyed. (Paul believes he’s averting an even worse fate for humanity, but, dude, please.)

The legend of the Mahdi isn’t the only prophecy that Paul lives under. He’s also the Kwisatz Haderach, foretold by the Bene Gesserit themselves. Normally, only women can survive Bene Gesserit training, which gives them the ability to see a short distance into the future; the legend of the Kwisatz Haderach holds that someday a male will be born who can undergo the training, which will give him much more powerful precognitive abilities (1963 was still 1963). The Bene Gesserit will then turn him loose on the cosmos as a kind of messiah figure, whose true aim is to increase their power; Paul is literally supposed to master the planet of apocalyptic phalluses to prove his worth as history’s no. 1 mama’s boy.

But in fact, even this prophecy is fatally compromised. The Bene Gesserit haven’t been sitting around waiting for the foreordained birth of the Kwisatz Haderach. They’ve been actively attempting to create their messiah by breeding selected bloodlines together across untold generations. Paul is just the result of this breeding program. He’s not the chosen one. He’s a goldendoodle.

On Reddit and elsewhere on the internet, it’s been popular for years now to draw on these plot points to argue that Dune “subverts the chosen-one narrative.” And on the surface, this appears incontrovertibly true. Herbert identifies the devastating consequences of the patriarchal sex/power/divine authority myth that underlies so much imperial culture and lays them out pitilessly. He gives us a wildly exaggerated version of the myth, a cosmic epic bigger than any that came before it, and shows that it ends not in glory but in ruin.

That said, I’m not sure the Dune situation is as simple as “subverting” the chosen-one narrative. For one thing, the first Dune novel, which is the best-loved and most highly regarded, is just extremely easy to enjoy as a straightforward, totally unsubverted chosen-one narrative. This is almost certainly how most people have experienced the story over the 60-plus years of its existence. Most of what’s thrilling about the story is thrilling because it follows the familiar beats of the chosen-one narrative, not despite its doing so; there’s a weird undercurrent of melancholia but not to a degree that feels subversive until you start looking for evidence at Shai-Hulud-like depths.

To my mind, Dune belongs to the strange genre of modern stories that I think of as cake narratives—cake, as in having it and eating it, as in being both one thing and the other. A cake narrative is a story that critiques a thing while also offering you all the pleasures of that thing, the pleasures that the narrative itself seems to want you to distrust. Think of the way The Sopranos functions as an extended takedown of toxic masculinity, mob violence, and the sociopathic will to power while at the same time serving up hugely entertaining dollops of all those things. Would it be compelling TV if it didn’t lean into the fun of the things it deprecates? Not really. So is it truly deprecating them?

I love a lot of stories like this, but I never know quite what to make of them. They feel like half measures, though that may be unfair to say about a story as subtle, sophisticated, and imaginatively rich as Dune. (“Why did you create brilliant work within the confines of an existing form rather than inventing an entirely new mythos to transform the future of human culture and instantiate your idea of the good, loser?”) It’s two stories at the same time. That’s its strength and its weakness. It’s the legend of a great hero, foretold by destiny, who personifies the ancient embodiment of male psychosexual urges as the foundation of the social order, and it’s a cunning rejection of everything about that legend. Straight teenage boys can easily read it as yet another narrative telling them their adolescence has cosmic significance (ask me how I know), but anyone who looks deeper can find a story that’s keenly aware of the harm that can result from telling teenage boys precisely that. However you read the book, there are sandworms beneath the surface, and at any moment, they can arrive to swallow you whole.

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