I’m (very slowly) making my way through the Dune prequels written by Frank Herbert’s son and a well-known science fiction novelizer, from the famous author’s notes.
The novels do not share the epic sonorousness of Herbert’s language in Dune, but they do cover interesting topics. The human race is struggling to survive against an empire of robots, yet, even among themselves, the human beings continue to enslave and degrade one another. The decision of many to try to destroy the robotic empire becomes what they call a “jihad,” continuing Herbert’s Orientalist cultural appropriation.
The robots, who are capable of intelligent thought and highly organized, refer to the human beings as “hrethgir,” a term that puzzled me for a long time. It has obvious similarities to the name, Hroðgar (Hrothgar), of a king in Beowulf, which I have taught several times. Well, those similarities are obvious to me now, but really I failed to recognize it for a long time.
The Dune prequels are fun, but messy. Supposedly they draw from our contemporary languages and traditions on earth, though set millennia in the future, but they use clumsy, superficial references. No other Anglo-Saxon features in the prequels. Hrethgir is probably derived from a mixture of two Anglo-Saxon words, a compound, as common in Old English and Old German, in this case of “hroð” (“hroth”), meaning fierce or fame-worthy, and “ger,” meaning spear, or pulos. Both of those are original Anglo-Saxon words, not Herbert’s invention.
The robots use this term in a derogatory sense for human beings, who appear primitive and senseless to the “thinking machines.” However, what the word really means, in the original sense, is a formidable opponent. And so the humans are proving to be . . .
The prequels question and complicate any ideas of a simple black-and-white struggle against tyranny. This is applicable to the contemporary war propaganda in our country as well. Sometimes we don’t even understand the resonance of the words we are using. Sometimes their meaning is lost or destroyed. Etymology is (re)written by the victors.