A new generation of filmgoers are about to be introduced to a classic science fiction novel for the first time: Frank Herbert’s Dune, which director Denis Villeneuve is filming in an epic, two-part adaptation. The film follows a fight for control over a valuable desert planet called Arrakis in the midst of a much larger galactic power struggle. Oscar Isaac’s character Leto Atreides is at the center of it. So, what is House Atreides, the noble house that gains control of the planet?
To understand the Atreides, we need to zoom out a bit to the larger universe. Dune is a novel that comes with a famously detailed world — it comes with a series of appendices at the end, explaining the universe’s history, social structures, and ecologies.
Herbert revealed that humanity expanded out from Earth for 11,000 years before a massive war between humanity and machines: the Butlerian Jihad. Humanity ultimately prevailed, and the ruined state of the galaxy led to a new order: The Galactic Padishah Empire, a patchwork of powerful aristocratic houses, as well as powerful organizations like the Spacing Guild (which has a monopoly on space travel), the Bene Gesserit (a matriarchal order designed to guide humanity and which hones special powers), and Mentats (an order of people trained to take the place of computers.)
Fortunately, Dune only focuses on a couple of houses: House Atreides, House Harkonen, and House Corrino. The empire is ruled by one house, and for thousands of years, it was House Corrino that sat on the Golden Lion Throne. When the events of Dune roll around, Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV controls the empire, while House Atreides rules from its tropical ocean world of Caladan, and House Harkonnen is headquartered on the industrial planet Giedi Prime. The Harkonnens are also in charge of the planet Arrakis, the one planet in the known universe that produced the Spice Melange, a substance that makes space travel possible.
Dune is a complicated novel, covering everything from the author’s concerns about the planet’s health to military history to the state of religion. A former journalist (Dune itself came out of an article he never wrote about the mitigation of sand dunes in Oregon), Herbert was fascinated by power and leadership, and worked that into his extensive future history. In his biography of his father, Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert noted that Frank dug into Greek mythology for inspiration, naming the Atreides family for the Greek house Atreus, and a king of Mycenae who fathered Agamemnon and Menelaus.”A heroic family,” he wrote “it was tragically beset by flaws and burdened with a curse pronounced on them by Thyestes.”
In more recent times, Herbert notes that his father was interested in the cults of personalities that follow leaders, and the dangers that that poses. Written during the early days of the Vietnam War Herbert explained that the scandals that plagued Richard Nixon’s presidency were “proof,” of the inherent problems with government. His galaxy isn’t a democratic one: it’s a feudal system in which only the strong survive.
Shortly before Dune begins, House Atreides and other houses are ascending in power, which prompts Shaddam to conspire to cripple it. He orders House Atreides to take over stewardship of Arrakis from House Harkonnen, having conspired ahead of time with the Harkonnens to plot the House’s demise. In 1999, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson explored the events that led up to Dune with a trilogy of novels: Dune: House Atreides, Dune: House Harkonnen, and Dune: House Corrino. In Dune, The Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides I and accompanied by his son, Paul, concubine Lady Jessica, and other members of the house relocate their family’s home to the planet — knowing that it’s a trap, and hoping that that knowledge will allow them to prepare for an attack from their rivals.
Dune begins on the eve of that move, and in the first half of the book, we see the Atreides take control of Arrakis. Leto’s approach is in stark contrast to that of his predecessors: Where the Harkonnens are brutal lords who seek to squeeze the planet of its resources, the leader of House Atreides uses a lighter touch, hoping to demonstrate to the planet’s inhabitants that it would be in their best interest to help him stay in power. Ultimately ... well, we won’t spoil it. But everything that plays out puts Paul in a position to become synonymous with House Atreides.
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