Dvar Torah on Parshat Shemot
If you’ve ever read the book of Dune, one of the many things you might notice in Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of the first half of the book is that Timothee Chalamet never says the word “jihad.” Mahdi, Mahdi, the Fremen shout at Paul. The film and book each use the Arabic word that (very roughly) translates to savior, the future prophesied hero who will come and establish a perfect Islamic word, a figure that’s broadly similar to Jesus’ Second Coming or the Mashiah in Judaism. But jihad is absent.
Haris Durrani describes Dune’s “Muslimness”—its engagement with Islamic philosophy and ideas like jihad—as “embedded in its underlying structure and themes, and not relegated to the surface of the text.” Herbert using jihad in Dune is no coincidence. He is engaging with Muslim theology and philosophy in crafting his narrative, and so his use of jihad in connection with Paul’s war isn’t a coincidence.
But the mahdi Paul does not go on his jihad in the movie. Half of the story is missing, both because the movie ends halfway through the book and because the creators of the movie see Islamic ideas as “exotic” dressing rather than fundamental to Frank Herbert’s philosophy and theology. They cut out the jihad.
This makes sense from a marketing perspective. The word “jihad” has aquired baggage in Europe and America since Dune came out in 1964. Jihad has, wrongfully, become the province of purely terror and senseless violence. It doesn’t fit in with the heroic narrative of Paul Atreides, a prophesied Chosen One, the savior of the poor, oppressed indigenous masses, fighting a heroic war against the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen. That’s the impression Dune: Part One gives, anyway. But Paul Atreides is the savior of the Dune universe, the Chosen One.
Or is he? There’s one scene where Paul sees a vision of the future: the Atreides banner over a pile of corpses. Small hints that Paul may not be the virtuous hero we believe him to be. But we’ve been telling the same heroic story for millenia. Paul just seems to fit right into that story.
The lone savior who liberates the people from their desert prison is not a new story. At the time of writing, Jews around the world are in the middle of reading the Exodus narrative in the weekly Torah reading cycle. Moshe is a quintessential Chosen One and his story is a basic monomyth, or “Hero’s Journey.” The monomyth is a concept popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which defines a basic story structure common across myths. Moshe, from Midian, receives a call from God and then embarks on a journey to liberate the Israelites from Egypt. Through Moshe, God liberates the Israelites from slavery and forms them into a nation, and Moshe leads them through the desert. It’s a compelling and beautiful vision of Israelite liberation, and a mythic story that has reverberated for Jews and other oppressed groups and enslaved peoples across the millenia.
The monomyth is ubiquitous across world mythologies: Osiris, Prometheus, Arthur, and the Buddha all go on Hero’s Journeys. The Odyssey is not a monomyth, but Odysseus does follow the steps of the monomyth in his journey to Troy. The monomyth is a journey for heroes, but within an Abrahamic religious context it takes on a particular messianic valence. The Hero crafted by the monomythic narrative becomes a savior, chosen by God. This is where the monomyth becomes a Chosen One narrative.
The Chosen One-monomyth also has political implications. It gels well with Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history. Carlyle, a 19th-century philosopher, argued that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Chosen Ones are practically identical to Carlyle’s great men: leaders with select virtues that allows them to steer the course of history, or in this case narrative as their own.
In response to this, historians (often Marxist) focus instead on writing people’s history, histories that focus on social, political, and economic factors and the marginalized and silenced masses of their times. It’s easy to read the second half of the first chapter of Exodus as a proto-people’s history, at least from a Jewish perspective. It’s the story of two midwives and the Israelite women reacting to Pharaoh’s decree, rather than grand leaders or politics or Divine miracles. It’s not perfectly a people’s history — the Torah is still a narrative, after all. But the Exodus narrative starts by telling us how the whole people resisted Pharaoh, not just one man.
The Chosen One trope also reverberates across modern media. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings features a version of the Hero’s Journey, both for Frodo and Aragorn. But neither of them are quite classic monomyths. Frodo, the protagonist of the series, is not a Chosen One. The One Ring falls into Frodo’s hands by coincidence, and he is chosen by Gandalf and Elrond to bear the weight of the Ring because he is really the only person who can. He is not special or prophesied. Aragorn, meanwhile, is special and prophesied: he’s the Heir of Isildur, the chosen heir to the Gondorian and Arnorian throne. He is a Dunedain, a member of a group of superhumans blessed with divine favor and long life because they helped the gods in a war against evil. But Aragorn is not the savior. Frodo is. Tolkien certainly valorized heroes and Chosen Ones, but the message of Lord of the Rings is that the heroes of war are also the regular people, the Samwise Gamgees and Frodo Bagginses who went into the trenches with Tolkien in World War I. He resists making a Messiah-Hero, although his narrative still focuses on individual heroism in triumphing over Sauron.
The person most responsible for bringing the monomyth into film as a Chosen One narrative is George Lucas. Lucas was a fan of Campbell’s, calling him “my Yoda” and acknowledging his influence on Star Wars. Luke Skywalker (and Anakin in the prequels) are both Chosen Ones who follow the monomyth perfectly, leaving behind their dusty desert planets to save the galaxy from the evil Sith. When Star Wars rebooted in 2015, Rey again follows the Hero’s Journey to become the savior of the galaxy. Lucas chose to depict his Chosen One as an antifascist, revolutionary figure, fighting against an Empire with the politics of Nazi Germany and the aesthetic of Vietnam-era America. He clearly drew a great deal of inspiration from Herbert’s narrative, down to the desert planet, the Apostolic name for his protagonist, and even Dune’s spice.
The next major Chosen One-monomyths came out in the late 1990s. Lana and Lilly Wachowski created The Matrix, starring Keanu Reaves as Neo, the One who is supposed to save humanity from the machines. Meanwhile, JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, a saga about a young Boy Who Lived prophesied to defeat the evil fascist allegory, Lord Voldemort. I won’t dive too deep into The Matrix here, but suffice to say that the Wachowskis use The Matrix sequels to deconstruct and critique the Chosen One narrative that they use in the first film.
Rowling, however, plays the Chosen One narrative fairly straight, with a minor twist about how exactly the Chosen One becomes Chosen. Harry goes on the Hero’s Journey and defeats Lord Voldemort. But Potter and Rowling also exposes some of the shortcomings of the Chosen One narrative. Rowling began writing Potter at the tail end of the Thatcher era of British politics and its most political books were written as Tony Blair swept into power and replaced Thatcherite austerity politics with a New Labour that embraced a centrist economic vision that only ended up entrenching Thatcherite politics into Britain for nearly half a century. She embraced Blairite politics with aplomb. Like Virgil to Augustus, or Lin-Manuel Miranda to Obama, she was, as Laurie Charles argues, “the ideological embodiment of the elite’s highest virtues.”
Blairite politics infuse Harry Potter: it has a surface-level focus on racial diversity and feminism, and a strong focus on reformist politics. Harry’s Chosen One-ness is wrapped up in Blairite politics too. Harry, a half-blood, wealthy wizard, saves the world from evil fascists and rebuilds it with the very systems that allowed him to become privileged in the first place. It’s girlboss feminism in Messianic form, and a testament to the individualist ethic that pervaded post-Thatcher politics in the UK. Rowling also wholeheartedly embraces Carlyle’s theory of history. There is no mass movement that poses a credible threat to Voldemort’s power, only a prophesied Chosen One who will come to save the world. The other protagonists in Potter help Harry on his journey, but ultimately without the Savior they would all be slaughtered. One Great, Chosen Man saves the world.
The Great Man makes sense as a narrative structure. You can’t really write a compelling monomyth about a mass movement. Stories focus on individuals amidst greater events, and it’s hard to write interesting stories when those individuals don’t affect those events. But it’s also a framework that embraces an individualist politic, where the actions of individuals matter more than mass movements, and there’s a dark side of this: “if i’m not the chosen one, what do I need to do?” If we have a Harry Potter or a Luke Skywalker, why do my actions matter? Margaret Owens argues: “Since the answer is in slotting the correct people into existing power structures, and there are clear markers of who has been chosen and who has not, the audience is absolved of their ethical responsibility to confront injustice.” The Chosen One narrative as it exists in contemporary storytelling replaces a framework of communal responsibility with one that embraces hero-worship and a focus on individual politicians, leaders, and billionaires as saviors rather than communal fights for justice. JK Rowling herself shows how dangerous this can be. She was a moral voice against bigotry, a leader and role model for many young millennials who grew up reading her books. As Charles puts it, “Nobody deserves to have their childhood mythology stripped of its moral architecture in such a degrading way as our generation’s: the same author whose books taught us the meaning of courage and tolerance is now publicly behaving in patterns of cowardice and bigotry.”
Dune: Part Two will still be a chosen one narrative. Paul will defeat the Harkonnens and become the Chosen One. This isn’t really a spoiler. We all know how the story will end. But in 1964, before Star Wars and Harry Potter and the countless spin-offs those stories have had in fiction since then, Frank Herbert had a more nuanced understanding of Chosen Ones. Paul’s precognition gives him visions of a mass jihad that would sweep the galaxy, killing billions, with him at its head. Dune isn’t a heroic narrative. It’s a tragic one. Paul might be righteous in his quest for justice, but ultimately his Chosen One quest creates nothing but death and destruction. At the end of Dune: Messiah, the second novel in the Dune saga, Paul realizes what he’s done, and steps into the desert, a blind man, no longer a Messiah. Perhaps Villeneuve should have left jihad in the film, with all its cultural baggage, because the critique of the Chosen One isn’t really clear in the first movie. Herbert’s philosophy in Dune is that Chosen Ones aren’t really saviors, that putting all our faith in one flawed person to save us is ultimately a futile exercise.
In the wake of the failure of the Blairite movement, the Labour Party turned to Jeremy Corbyn as its savior. He embraced many of the left-wing politics of the Old Labour, promising to bring a new era that would undo all the damage done since Thatcher was elected. Corbyn failed, plunging the Labour Party into even more disarray and purging it of Jews in the process. The American left likewise turned to Bernie Sanders in 2016 and a succession of leaders (most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) since then. Liberals looked to Obama and then Biden, who has done a great deal in the last few months to undermine those hopes placed on him. On the right, people turn to Donald Trump or Elon Musk to save them. We pray for a Messiah to come save us. There are countless smaller messiahs, big and small, who will inevitably disappoint their apostles.
I believe, one day, the Mashiah will come. But until then, I don’t want Chosen Ones. I don’t want another Moshe. I want the midwives, quietly resisting Pharaoh, and the mothers, still reproducing even though they know their babies might die horribly under Pharaoh’s genocidal decrees. Even within an Exodus narrative that is so focused on the heroics of Moshe, the heroism of the people, of the women, lays the foundation for the ultimate redemption. Shemot is a reminder of how crucial they are. Chosen One narratives teach us to wait for a savior. Shemot reminds us that we — together, pushing to resist tyranny and create change — pave the way for true justice.
//ALYX BERNSTEIN is a Junior in Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary and Managing Editor at The Current. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.