The Golden Path:
Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune & God Emperor of Dune


Frank Herbert

4,241 words

Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is one of the masterpieces of science fiction, far eclipsing its five sequels in readership and reputation. But I wish to argue that the third and fourth Dune books, Children of Dune (1976) and God Emperor of Dune (1981), are equally audacious works of the imagination. [1] [2] Both volumes tend to be underrated, partly due to the long shadow of Dune, partly because the sheer scope of Herbert’s vision boggles the mind, although this could have been avoided if he had been a more disciplined and focused storyteller.

Dune tells the story of Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides, a man who becomes a superman, the “Kwisatz Haderach,” who has access to the memories of all his ancestors and the prescient power to see things across great gulfs of space and time.

Paul is the son of Duke Leto Atreides, the ruler of Arrakis or Dune, a desert planet where the universe’s most precious substance, the spice mélange, is produced by immense and terrifying sandworms. The spice extends life and expands consciousness, allowing prescience and the sharing of memories. Memory sharing is practiced by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, of which Paul’s mother Jessica is a member. Prescience is developed by the navigators of the Spacing Guild, allowing them to pilot spaceships. But the powers of both orders only foreshadow those of the Kwisatz Haderach, perfected in Paul.

When the Atreides are attacked by their archenemy, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, in league with the galactic Emperor Shaddam IV, Duke Leto is killed. Paul and Jessica flee into the desert where they find shelter with the Fremen, the fierce and secretive people of the wastes who believe that an off-worlder born of a Bene Gesserit will come one day to lead them to freedom.

[3]In his time with the Fremen, Paul’s powers fully awaken. He builds an army, launches a guerilla war to lure the Baron and Emperor to Arrakis, then defeats them. The Baron is killed, the Emperor captured. Paul marries the Emperor’s daughter Irulan, also a Bene Gesserit, and ascends to the galactic throne.

Dune Messiah, the first sequel, is set twelve years later. Paul’s rise was, naturally, contested. Countless planets rose in rebellion. Because the Fremen regarded Paul as a messiah and a God Emperor, the response was an immense holy war, which is now dying down. But Paul is also threatened by conspiracies hatched by his own Fremen, as well as the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, and the Bene Tleilax (a crypto-Muslim people who have mastered mnemonics, genetic manipulation, and other dark arts).

Paul is horrified by the crimes committed in his name and longs to discredit himself and the cult that has grown up around him. He is also oppressed by his prescience, for to truly know the future is to be bound to it. One loses even the illusion of freedom. As Paul’s son Leto says, “to know the future absolutely is to be trapped into that future absolutely.” [2] [4]

Paul is blinded in an assassination attempt, but his prescient vision is unaffected. At the end of Dune Messiah, Paul’s consort Chani dies giving birth to twins: a daughter, Ghanima, and a son, Leto II. Paul is astonished that his prescience failed to see Leto. This is odd, because one of the central premises of Dune Messiah is that one prescient being blocks the vision of another. [3] [5] Given that Ghanima and Leto both inherited their father’s powers, he should not have been able to see either of them. But maybe their powers were not awakened in utero.

[6]Suffice it to say that there is something special about Leto. Herbert believed that prescience was made possible by a strong version of determinism. We can see the future only if, in some way, it is already implicit in the present. Herbert then infers that if we are not visible to prescience, we must not be determined. That does not follow at all, since not knowing how one is determined is not the same thing as being undetermined. If this were true, then every prescient being is free insofar as he is invisible to other prescient beings but is also determined insofar as he can see his own future. But let us set this aside. Philosophers have never stopped arguing about the metaphysics of free will, and Herbert has a story to tell.

After naming his children and setting up a regency to care for them, Paul goes out into the desert to die, in accord with the Fremen custom of abandoning blind men to the desert, even though he can see perfectly well without his eyes. It is hard to understand the point of this gesture, since dying does not discredit Paul in the eyes of his worshippers. In fact, it completes his apotheosis.

Children of Dune begins nine years after Dune Messiah. Leto is still a child, but he has all of Paul’s powers, both ancestral memories and prescience.

Leto peers into the future and sees that the human race will be exterminated by autonomous, self-replicating machines produced on the planet Ix. [4] [7] To avoid this fate, Leto embarks upon the “Golden Path,” which is the most audacious project ever conceived by the human mind. Its goal is “the survival of humankind, nothing more nor less.” [5] [8] Leto called himself “the first truly long-range planner in human history.” [6] [9] The name “Golden Path” came to Leto in a vision: “I am on sand in bright yellow daylight, yet there is no sun. Then I realize that I am the sun. My light shines out as a Golden Path.” [7] [10] It is the way forward for humanity.

The Golden Path is far more than simply averting a technological apocalypse. It is nothing less than securing the freedom and the perpetuation of the human race.

Leto’s first goal is to free humanity from the tyranny that prescience makes possible, even his own prescience. He wants to create a world “where humans may create their futures from instant to instant.” [8] [11] Setting aside the metaphysical questions of freedom and determinism, Leto’s project can be understood as an attempt to liberate mankind from the plans of visionaries, including visionaries like himself. A huge part of his power, as well as the Guild’s, is based on prescience. If they can see you, they can predict and control you. Thus anything that makes human beings less visible makes them more free.

The Golden Path is thus a plan to make planning impossible, a plan to increase the amount of opacity, contingency, and mystery in the world. [9] [12] Thus, “Leto loved surprises, even nasty ones,” [10] [13] because they were a sign that his plan was working. In Children of Dune, Leto says, “A universe of surprises is what I pray for.” [11] [14] Moneo, Leto’s majordomo, thinks that Leto “believes in chance. I think that’s his god.” [12] [15] At the end of God Emperor of Dune, Leto says, “Now, you see the mysterious caprices and you would ask me to dispel this? I wished only to increase it.” [13] [16] Leto’s goal is a humanity that can say, “We are the fountain of surprises!” [14] [17]


You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here [19]

In Heideggerian terms, the Golden Path leads us from the Gestell to Gelassenheit, i.e., from a world in which everything is understood as transparent to human knowing and available for human manipulation — to a world in which contingency and mystery are signs that beings transcend our understanding and control; they have lives of their own. It is the path from subjection to freedom.

Leto’s second goal is to scatter the human race to the far corners of the galaxy and beyond, so that at least some of humankind will always be out of reach of whatever malevolent forces may rise to threaten us. Leto says that because of prescience, there is no “frontier,” meaning a place where men might escape. “There is now no place to go where others of us cannot follow and find you. . . . humankind is like a single-celled creature, bound together by a dangerous glue.” [15] [20] The “glue” is the dependency of space travel on the spice, which binds mankind back to the imperium. It is also prescience, which allows oracles to follow us. This is a form of vulnerability, for no matter how vast the imperium becomes, all of humanity’s eggs are still in one basket. Changing that is Leto’s greatest ambition.

Looking back on Leto’s accomplishments, a historian from the distant future writes, “How many universes have we populated? None can guess. No one person will ever know. . . . visionaries cannot see us nor predict our decisions. No death can find all humankind.” [16] [21]

It is never made clear how Leto prevented the Ixian apocalypse, but in God Emperor of Dune, he says it would have happened by then if he had not prevented it. [17] [22] It is clear, however, that Leto cultivated a close relationship with Ix throughout his long reign. Perhaps he guided their research and development away from self-replicating killing machines toward technologies that forward the Golden Path.

The first technology allows one to pilot starships without prescient Guild Navigators, who depend on the spice. The second technology, which Leto himself used, is the “no-sphere” or “no-globe,” which is invisible to the outside universe, including prescience, whether of Leto, the Guild, or the Ixian navigation machines. [18] [23] The two technologies can be combined into the no-ship: an undetectable stealth craft that can go anywhere in the universe. The no-ship makes it possible for humanity to scatter beyond the imperium, because it untethers humanity from Arrakis and the spice and is invisible to any would-be pursuers.

Another important element of the Golden Path is Leto’s eugenics program. Leto seeks to breed human beings who are invisible to prescience and thus “free.” Recall that Leto was invisible to his father’s prescience while his sister Ghanima was visible. Leto proceeds on the assumption that this invisibility is a heritable trait. Herbert conceives this trait on the model of camouflage, the ability of animals to become invisible to predators by blending into their background. It is a “new kind of mimesis . . . a new biological imitation.” [19] [24]

However, Leto’s project of breeding more people with this trait focuses on the descendants of his sister Ghanima and her consort, Prince Farad’n Corrino. But why would Ghanima’s children have a trait possessed by her brother but not by her? It only makes sense if Leto was the father of his sister’s children.

To add to the confusion, Herbert maintains that the official history of Leto’s reign records that he married his sister and fathered her children, but the secret oral history that Leto relates claims that the father of her children was Farad’n. [20] [25] One wonders if this is just a case of Herbert literally losing the plot.

Leto’s eugenics program is not gentle: “I have the cruelty of the husbandman, and this human universe is my farm.” [21] [26] His aim is “to be the greatest predator ever known” because “the predator improves the stock.” [22] [27] Leto’s cruelty is magnified by the fact that his breeding program is practiced primarily on his own family. But the goal is to create a humanity that is immune to such manipulations and sufferings. At the beginning of God Emperor of Dune, Leto’s plans have finally come to fruition in the character of Siona Atreides, his much-removed granddaughter or niece, who is invisible to Leto’s prescience, and not because she is prescient herself. [23] [28]

Leto understands the scattering on the analogy of launching an arrow with a bow. One pulls back the bowstring, creating tension. When one lets go, the tension propels the arrow to its target. If humanity is the arrow, what is the tension that will propel it into the scattering? What is the release?

Leto creates tension by, in effect, bringing history to an end. He bottles up the creative, restless, and aggressive energies of the entire human race. In their place, he gives humanity peace and plenty, without change, for millennia. There is no politics, just the God Emperor’s bureaucracy — and endless conspiracies to overthrow him. All social hierarchies have been eliminated — except, of course, the difference between the Emperor and everybody else.

Leto’s empire is static, Pharaonic. Technological innovation is confined to Ix. The rest of the empire is low-tech. People have private property and trade among each other. Interest on money has been abolished. [24] [29] All forms of travel, terrestrial and celestial, are minimized. Basically, people only travel for government business and essential trade, no tourism, no hitting the road just for fun. Space exploration — whether for science, adventure, commerce, or colonization — seems non-existent.

Many people would regard such a system as utopian. But mankind is not satisfied with peace and plenty. We are not satisfied with being satisfied. We are more than just producer-consumers. There is another part of the human soul, what Plato called “spiritedness” (thumos), that is the source of the love of adventure and freedom, as well as competition, conflict, and social hierarchy. Thumos is also connected with honor, manliness, and love of one’s own.

The Atreides were known above all for their ability to cultivate thumos: they commanded loyalty from their armies and subjects by giving loyalty. They made a science of helping their friends and harming their enemies: “They could appear cynical and cruel to outsiders and enemies, but to their own people they were just, and they were loyal. Above all, the Atreides were loyal to their own.” [25] [30]

Surely then Leto gives thumos some outlet in his empire. After all, every government needs police and soldiers. But no, the enforcers of Leto’s peace are women, the “Fish Speakers.” I have no idea why Herbert chose that name. The Fish Speakers are, in essence, a sect of Leto’s most fanatical worshippers who combine the functions of warriors, bureaucrats, and priestesses. Whereas male militaries are bound to their leaders by thumotic ties of loyalty and honor, the Fish Speakers are bound to Leto by religious devotion. They are fanatical Maenads. Which implies that Leto is Dionysus.

But although Leto makes a science of suppressing thumos, giving it no outlet in the real world, he also keeps the spirit of adventure and warfare alive in art and literature. According to Ghanima, the people “long for the Pharaonic Empire which Leto will give them. . . . They long for a rich peace with abundant harvests, plentiful trade . . .” [26] [31] Leto remarks that, “The people of such a society sink down into their bellies. But when the time comes for the opposite, when they arise, they are great and beautiful.” [27] [32] They will inevitably arise because men are not just bellies. They also have chests, where thumos dwells.

When Farad’n asks Leto, “What will be the outcome of your peace?,” Leto’s reply is simple: “Its opposite.” [28] [33] “My peace is actually a forced tranquility,” says Leto. “Humans have a long history of reacting against tranquility.” [29] [34] Leto is counting on that reaction. Leto keeps his populations planet-bound, precisely because “It fills them with a longing for travel. It creates a need to make far voyages and see strange things. Eventually, travel comes to mean freedom.” [30] [35] “I have created a powerful spiritual tension throughout my empire,” Leto says. [31] [36] Obviously, one day there will be a huge explosion.

Leto expects that his death will be the trigger.

Leto never intended his empire to be the end of history. It is merely a pause and a gathering of forces for humanity’s leap beyond itself into a radically new age of freedom, adventure, and exploration.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s Here’s the Thing here. [38]

Like I said, the Golden Path is the most ambitious project ever conceived by the human mind. Such a project, however, would require unprecedented power exerted over an immense period: far more than a single human lifespan, even one prolonged by the use of the spice. One possible vehicle for such a plan is the initiatic order, like the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, or the Bene Tleilax, which can extend its founder’s vision across millennia.

But Leto found a better way. In Children of Dune, Leto discovers something extraordinary about “sand trout,” the tiny larvae that mature into the giant sandworms. He learns to fuse living sand trout to his skin. This gives him enormous strength and speed and makes him impervious to most weapons. The only thing that can kill him is water. Eventually, Leto morphs into a colony organism that looks like a worm-human hybrid, with a long sandworm body, a human face, and vestigial human limbs.

Leto’s transformation first allows him to wrest control of the empire from his aunt Alia. Then it gives him the immense longevity necessary to carry out the Golden Path. At the opening of God Emperor of Dune, Leto has ruled the empire for 3,500 years, and his plans are finally coming to fruition.

It is an agonizing transformation but a necessary one. [32] [39] It is a lonely, loveless existence, but bent toward a noble end. Without it, humanity would perish. Leto has sacrificed his humanity to preserve the entire human race. But he has not given everything yet.

In Children of Dune, during the early stages of his metamorphosis, Leto fought against the ecological transformation of Dune set in motion by his father because he realized that it would ultimately destroy the sandworms. His aunt Alia (possessed by her grandfather, Baron Harkonnen) welcomed this outcome, since the Atreides controlled vast hoards of spice that would only rise in value if production stopped forever.

Once Leto was on the throne, he recognized the power such a monopoly would give him. The leadership of the entire galaxy was addicted to spice. Imagine their subservience if they knew the supply was now strictly limited and controlled by the Atreides. Thus Leto allows the ecological transformations to continue.

In God Emperor of Dune, the sandworms are long gone. They can return, however, but only when Leto dies. Then his skin will fragment into countless sand trout. Leto teaches his followers that each sand trout will contain a pearl-like droplet of his consciousness, in a dreamlike state. Eventually, the great worms will once again roam Arrakis, and the vessels of the divided god will bring forth the spice. Thus Leto’s death will not just trigger the scattering of humanity. It is also his apotheosis. Leto will become another Osiris, another Dionysus, a god dismembered and scattered only to be resurrected as a bountiful harvest.

Leto’s story is far more interesting than that of his father. In Dune, Paul goes from man to superman. In Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, he becomes a self-pitying anti-hero ranting about the prison house of prescience and the evils of organized religion. He is entirely self-absorbed, from beginning to end. Were it not for his son, he would be a blight on the universe.

Leto is born a superman then transforms himself into a god who then dies and is reborn in order to save the human race. Rather than ranting about the chains of prescience, he breaks them — not just for himself, but for all mankind. He is a genuine hero, a savior, the real Dune messiah. As Ghanima says about Leto, “He gives more than anyone ever gave before. Our father walked into the desert to escape it.” [33] [40]

The full power of this story was, however, lost on me when I first read Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune. Children of Dune struck me as more the end of Paul’s story than the beginning of Leto’s. As for God Emperor of Dune, I found it dreary and distasteful. The story arc as I have outlined it is concealed behind a great deal of clutter. Most of the characters, including Leto himself, are poorly realized. In six Dune volumes, Herbert never manages to communicate why Duncan Idaho is important enough to be resurrected repeatedly over five thousand years. Siona is not just baffling but also repulsive. There are immense swaths of repetitive talk, interspersed with action sequences that are often cursorily sketched. It really needed a rewrite.

God Emperor of Dune cannot be rewritten as a novel, of course, but it can be adapted for the screen. It has the makings of a magnificent movie. Indeed, what finally brought Leto’s story home to me was the Sci Fi Channel’s 2003 miniseries of Children of Dune, written by John Harrison, directed by Greg Yaitanes, and starring James McAvoy as Leto. When I reread the novel, I was amazed at Harrison’s masterful adaptation, which distills the essence of the story. I also was much impressed by Yaitanes’ direction and James McAvoy’s compelling portrayal. In fact, I wish they would team up again for God Emperor of Dune. If anyone can bring a 3,500-year-old tyrant worm to life, it is McAvoy. (For more on the miniseries, see my review. [34] [41])


James McAvoy as Leto II and Jessica Brooks as Ghanima

Dune Messiah and God Emperor of Dune are deeply reactionary and politically incorrect. The whole Dune saga is premised on the thesis that liberal democracy cannot give rise to a galactic civilization because of its inability to engage in long-term planning. Herbert’s imperium is, instead, modeled on medieval Europe, with a feudal nobility, guilds, and initiatic religious orders. [35] [43]

We need an end to liberal democracy if we are to develop the science and technology necessary to deal with global ecological and sustainability crises, much less explore and colonize space. [36] [44] We need someone to plan and act for the long-term interests of our race and the planet — to look out for the welfare of the world. A God Emperor who reigns 3,500 years is not (yet) possible. But we can build something like the Bene Gesserit, an initiatic order whose aim is to preserve, perpetuate, and improve the human race over the very long term.

As I have noted, Herbert believes in eugenics. He also believes in biological sex differences. Leto flatly declares that “There are behavioral differences between the sexes.” [37] [45] When one character says, “The sexes can’t be that different” the response (Herbert’s response) is: “But they are.” [38] [46] For instance, it is precisely because women are less thumotic that Leto makes them his guardians of order. After 3,500 years of thumos being rapped on the knuckles by burly nuns, patriarchy is going to return with a roar.

Leto does not trust social reformers: “There has never been a truly selfless rebel, just hypocrites — conscious hypocrites or unconscious, it’s all the same.” [39] [47] Leto finds that “Liberal bigots are the ones that trouble me the most. . . . Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat.” [40] [48]

At one point, Leto casually observes that “The new diversity on Arrakis could only bring violence.” [41] [49]

These books could never have found a mainstream publisher today.

Frank Herbert’s saga of Leto II is one of the most ambitious, imaginative, and bizarre stories in all of world literature. Indeed, I can think of few stories to equal it. It is also deeply moving. The failures of Herbert’s execution are not so serious that they cannot be repaired by readers with a vivid imagination, as well as a roadmap like this essay to guide them.

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[1] [53] Citations are to Frank Herbert, Children of Dune, in The Great Dune Trilogy (London: Gollancz, 1979) and God Emperor of Dune (New York: Ace, 1987).

[2] [54] Children of Dune, p. 638.

[3] [55] See my “Notes on Dune Messiah,” Counter-Currents, April 17, 2020.

[4] [56] God Emperor of Dune, p. 348.

[5] [57] God Emperor of Dune, p. 13.

[6] [58] Children of Dune, p. 861; cf. God Emperor of Dune, p. 166.

[7] [59] Children of Dune, p. 627.

[8] [60] Children of Dune, p. 826.

[9] [61] This is the project of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, hence his name, which he connects explicitly with the wild card. See my review in Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).

[10] [62] God Emperor of Dune, p. 22.

[11] [63] Children of Dune, p. 639.

[12] [64] God Emperor of Dune, p. 102.

[13] [65] God Emperor of Dune, p. 420.

[14] [66] God Emperor of Dune, p. 423.

[15] [67] God Emperor of Dune, p. 273.

[16] [68] God Emperor of Dune, p. 423.

[17] [69] God Emperor of Dune, p. 345.

[18] [70] One plot hole in God Emperor is that Leto discovers the Ixian no-globe near the end of his life (p. 375), but his journals were found preserved in one after his death (p. 1).

[19] [71] God Emperor of Dune, p. 420.

[20] [72] God Emperor of Dune, p. 289.

[21] [73] Children of Dune, p. 868.

[22] [74] God Emperor of Dune, pp. 16, 66.

[23] [75] God Emperor of Dune, pp. 39, 350, 418, 420.

[24] [76] God Emperor of Dune, p. 26.

[25] [77] God Emperor of Dune, p. 48. Cf. Children of Dune, pp. 731, 740.

[26] [78] Children of Dune, p. 862.

[27] [79] Children of Dune, p. 867.

[28] [80] Children of Dune, p. 869.

[29] [81] God Emperor of Dune, p. 92.

[30] [82] God Emperor of Dune, p. 238.

[31] [83] God Emperor of Dune, p. 385.

[32] [84] Ghanima says, “One of us had to accept the agony, and he was always the stronger” (Children of Dune, p. 639).

[33] [85] Children of Dune, p. 861.

[34] [86] Trevor Lynch, “The Sci Fi Channel’s Dune & Children of Dune” in Return of the Son of Trevor Lynch’s CENSORED Guide to the Movies, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

[35] [87] Children of Dune, p. 664.

[36] [88] See my “Technological Utopianism and Ethnic Nationalism,” Toward a New Nationalism (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2019).

[37] [89] God Emperor of Dune, p. 91.

[38] [90] God Emperor of Dune, p. 206.

[39] [91] God Emperor of Dune, p. 28.

[40] [92] God Emperor of Dune, p. 185.

[41] [93] Children of Dune, p. 732.