Strange Bedfellows: Dune and Harry Potter

Trying to notice similarities between Harry Potter and Dune is quite difficult. There are some obvious similarities, such as Harry and Paul being from powerful families and regarded as boys who will grow to be important men, but this is a very common narrative for fiction, particularly fiction that’s based on adventure narratives. The primary similarity seems to be the large investment in world building, with a focus on a different reality to our own, but this similarity also demonstrates a large difference.

Harry Potter follows urban fantasy with its world, focusing on finding a strange and magical reality behind our normal world. For instance, the bank run by goblins, which is located on London’s high street and is accessed by pressing the correct brick on a bar’s wall. This’s interesting for fairly obvious reasons, what is not interesting about hidden realities and secret societies hidden within normalcy, what’s not interesting about the idea of your local hairdressers containing a wizard’s guild with thousands of years of tradition?

Dune’s world is completely alien to the reader. There are some parallels with our reality such as the use of terms Duke etc., and we can assume that we’ve a shared history with Dune’s world. We are also not dealing with a newcomer like Harry Potter, and while Paul is a newcomer to the new world his family will govern, he has lived in that overarching empire his entire life and has some understanding of its ways. This means that Herbert has to approach things differently to Rowling. There are simply a bunch of options that cannot be explored, such as using Hagrid to explain the way Hogwarts works.

I don’t know how others refer to a character such as this, but there are characters which are used for exposition in both stories. Paul has a number of advisors who give him additional information about his new planet, and while this is not as extensive as the otherworldly tour Harry is given, it does provide some knowledge. While this approach to exposition is generally criticised, I do think it’s primarily down to reader preference as to much a reader can endure. For instance, one of the criticisms I’ve seen of Dune is that it moves too swiftly into the narrative. I don’t agree with this, but I can see why someone would think it.

A common piece of advice is to weave the world building into the narrative, and this is a primary reason that main characters in books are often newcomers to town or the locale of the book. It means that the reader can discover things about the new world as the character does, can see new places and have them described in terms the reader would understand, terms that someone unfamiliar with the world would use. The idea can be more generalised, such as describing a room as a character moves around it, rather than describing it in one chunk when the character enters. Of course, this needs to be used wisely, some narratives require an information dump. Imagine trying to watch the Matrix without Morpheus’ speeches for an obvious example.

Another common features of novels is using multiple perspectives, which also allows more world building, alongside other narrative benefits. Rowling doesn’t utilise this but Herbert does, with a major antagonist having the second chapter in the novel, and the novel frequently switching into different character’s minds. This helps because it can show parts of the world where the main character wouldn’t ordinarily go, and in my opinion, novels that truly seek to construct large worlds have to utilise many perspectives, as one is simply too small to encompass an entire world. This’s even more true when the novel not only concerns a world but a universe, as Dune does.

There are universal tools that can be used to build world’s within stories and both novels use these. I think the numbers of these tools is probably limitless, but for most novels, only a few need to be used. It is more about the application of these tools, and that’s something I’ll seek in the next chapters of these novels. The next blog will probably be examples of the authors using these tools and trying to decipher why they are effective or not.

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