I’ve always considered Dune and its many sequels more science fantasy than science fiction. Sure, there’s starships and other planets, not to mention sandworm biology, but there’s also a Catholic-like sisterhood with sinister mind powers, swordfights, a Chosen One trope, and a feudal society with emperors, princesses, and dukes. Herbert cribbed a lot from human history as well (the Hapsburgs, the spice trade, the rise of Islam, the Old Testament) so the books could, in a sense, also be called historical fantasy. Let’s add steampunk to the list too, for all the mentions of clockwork mechanisms and old-timey social mores. (If released today, they’d probably defy categorization.)
One character who has always gotten the short shrift is Princess Irulan, the eldest daughter of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, one of the baddies of the original book. Irulan serves as the binding force that holds the novel together, her narrations beginning each chapter. She serves the same purpose in the David Lynch version of the movie, her talking head introduction easing the newbie viewer into Herbert’s convoluted fantasy. Storywise, she serves as the mighty brought low trope, the tall, haughty blonde (can you say WASP?) married off to Paul Atreides so he can claim the Emperor’s throne. But at the end of the story Paul is no prize. He’s tanned to leather as a Fremen and has freaky blue eyes, his mind permanently altered by spice usage. To add insult to injury, he never consummates his marriage with Irulan, keeping true to his Fremen sweetheart Chani, who bears the twins who are his heirs. Irulan is little better than baggage, and unwanted baggage at that.
How this affects Irulan is by turning her into a victim of Stockholm syndrome. From some point in the future she writes the texts that become the chapter headers of the past, and judging by them, she has become slavishly devoted to the very odd family she married into. In the Lynch movie, Virginia Madsen does a swell turn as Irulan, her chiseled yet sensual features matching the character.
In Children of Dune Irulan was replaced by her sister Wensicia as the scheming villainess, but by then I had lost interest in the series. The characters I knew well and had sympathized with were all going off into different directions that put the lie to the conclusion of the first book, and I wish I had ended the series there.
In the Dune universe Irulan had four younger sisters, who, though they were not featured in the first book, were featured in the glossary at the end of the first book… which, for me, was actually more fun to read than the actual book. Herbert had a way with names, perhaps second only to LeGuin. The sisters had names odd enough to stand out, but familiar enough to feel comfortable with: Chalice, Rugi and Josifa are only a few letters off from the old-fashioned Alice, Ruby, and Josephine. Going by the glossary alone I expected to read more about them, but only Irulan figured in the plot. I wish, in some alternate universe, the whole series could have been about the princesses. Ah well, off to AOC to look up some fanfic.
Irulan and her sisters, re-mixed