GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND DUNE
By Dr. Willis E. McNelly
Many readers have often wondered about FH's sources. Aside from the fact that he was an omnivorous reader -- he once told me that he had read over 200 books before writing Dune -- he often utilized ideas he derived from the normal day to day experiences of his routine non-writing life. While unfortunately there is no known extant record of that extensive reading, nonetheless we can give a few examples of how the occurrences of his daily life influenced his writing. Several or these are already known from other commentaries, but one specifically relates to my personal friendship with him.
One such example accounts for the several times not counted, but he mentions the great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the Dune Chronicles, and thus, by extension, many other references can also be similarly explained. In about 1975 he visited the campus of California State University, Fullerton, while on a lecture tour in Southern California. In the morning he lectured at the University to a large and enthusiastic crowd, and then asked me if he could sit in on one of my afternoon classes - it happened to be a class in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," taught in Middle English.
He made it quite clear that he wanted to sit in the back and simply take in the academic atmosphere. However, I did introduce him; he spoke very briefly and wittily about his own academic background which had been interrupted by service in World War II-- lacking even a BA, he regaled the class - he took considerably pride that he had often lectured on writing, ecology, and other subjects at the University of Washington in Seattle.
I think continued my regular class - it was the "Nun's Priest's Tale" of Chanticleer and the Fox - and while I refrained from calling on him to translate, he seemed to enjoy the students' response to Chaucer's wit, his erudition, and the great medieval poet's self-effacing literary face or posture.
After class he asked a few questions about how the Nun's Priest carefully avoided directly getting involved in the eternal problems of free will and predestination which Chaucer had brought to down to earth -- deflated may be the best word here -- by placing them in the predicament of a rooster and a fox. We had a brief discussion about the question of how fore-knowledge or "prescience" affected Paul Atreides and he told me once again of his own experience in calling correctly all 52 cards in a deck.
In the DE, I had several ponder this subject - the problems of foreknowledge, predestination, and free will - from several different viewpoints. My good right hand - virtually the assistant editor of the DE who wrote all of the essays signed "WEM", Professor Walter E. Meyers of the English department of North Carolina State University - aided me in editing almost every essay in the entire book. I'd send them to Walter with a brief commentary; he'd edit my editing, send them back, and, for all intents and purposes, the essay was then "finished" and ready for final assembly, a step that was usually two years or so away.
Walter was also a trained linguist, the author of the excellent "Science Fiction and Linguistics", the best single book on the subject I know, and a teacher of Old and Middle English, Chaucer, and so on. So when Walter received the essay "ATREIDES, PAUL - as Kwisatz Haderach" by my friend Ted Jennings which begins on page 89 of the DE, he read it, just as I had, with more than a little trepidation. It's long, very very scholarly, almost to the point of being obtuse, deliberately so, of course. So with tongue in cheek, Walter carefully and quietly inserted his own translation of fifteen or twenty lines from Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale. In them, the Priest is ridiculing the entire notion of any discussion of the subject, particularly when Chaucer is considering the mishaps of a foolish rooster and a wily fox. Hardly earth-shaking. And so also with getting too serious about what is, after all, only a work of fiction.
It begins on page 94, left hand column, with the words, "The schools of the Old Imperium . . ." and so on.
When I called the interpolation to FH's attention, he laughed out loud.
Moral of this story: Don't take everything in the Dune Chronicles or the Dune Encyclopedia too seriously. It's fiction, not reality.
Second moral: Read Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale" either in the original or in a good translation, and see how sly old Geoffrey puts everyone on.