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What's up with all the bullfighting imagery in 'Dune'?

House Atreides has a history with the ritual, and the thematic payoffs flow like Spice.

By Brian Silliman
What's Up With All the Bullfighting Imagery in 'Dune'?

The new adaptation of Dune shows that many things are different in the year 10191. Space travel is accomplished thanks to spice found on a desert planet, soldiers have personal force fields, and if you’re a Baron, you can hook a device up to your spine that lets you float around any room in style. One thing that has not changed? Bullfighting is still a thing. It's really good for tourism. 

The ritual of a human walking into an arena and facing off with a bull has, for some reason, stood the test of time. Denis Villeneuve’s new film loads everyone up with bullfighting imagery; he gives us giant space vessels, vast sand worms, and Zendaya, but he also keeps showing us a bull’s head mounted on a wall. Why? 

The backstory of House Atreides and bullfighting, though mentioned in the movie itself, is more filled out in Frank Herbert’s book. Villeneuve including the detail (multiple times) makes us fascinated by its thematic relevance, so much so that we're gonna go off the deep end with it. 

The father of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) was Paulus Atreides, usually called the “Old Duke” in the novel. He fought bulls for sport, something that Paul (Timothée Chalamet) refers to in an early scene on Caladan. Leto’s response is, “look what happened to him.” This is because Paulus Atreides died in a bullfight. Right before this conversation, Leto is looking at a relief carving of his father being gored by a bull. 

We see a painting of Paulus a few times in the film, as well as the head of the bull that killed him. If hangs on the wall on Caladan, it gets packed up, and it gets put on the wall again on Arrakis. Herbert tells us about it in the book, and Villeneuve includes it in the film. There are a few bullfighting statues (possibly borrowed from Space MOMA) shown in the film as well. 

The book goes a little further about the details, letting us know that the bull head still has the blood of Paulus Atreides on its horns; a fixative was used to ensure this. Also, the bull was from Salusa Secundus, the same planet where the Emperor’s Sardaukar warriors are bred. That planet is only referred to in the first Dune novel — it is visited in sequels — but one scene takes place there in the new film, and that's enough to make us want stay far away from it. 

Very nice, good backstory all around, but still: What does all this mean? Why spend so much screentime flashing to this imagery? It matters because Villeneuve is taking this bull by the thematic horns and making a show of it. 

Paulus, full of honor and hubris, willingly walked into an arena. He did not expect to die, but the bull from Salusa Secundus gored him to death. Leto does the same; full of honor, he walks right into a trap. He doesn’t expect to die, but look what happens to him. The bull from Salusa Secundus is emblematic of the Sardaukar, in turn emblematic of the Emperor, who conspired to topple House Atriedes. Not only that, but House Harkonnen possibly takes its name from the Finnish “Härkönen.” This name may come from the word härkä which translates to “ox.” 

The bull represents both the Harkonnens and the Emperor, both of whom were conspiring to end Duke Leto and his house. They created the arena, sold tickets, and the honorable Leto walks right into it. He goes down the same way that Paulus did, only on a much grander sci-fi scale. 

Again, very nice. Thanks for all of the parallels, but is that all there is?

Not necessarily. It’s time to take a mad leap and discuss how this cycle affects Paul’s story. We may be really off-base here, but we’re going for it. Hold on to your thumpers. 

Another image that Villeneuve repeatedly shows us is a crysknife lying in the sand. It is the sacred weapon of the Fremen, and is made from the teeth of the great sandworms. In the latter part of the film, Paul has visions of what he thinks is his own death. He keeps seeing images of a crysknife, and he wonders who will end up giving it to him. 

It bears mentioning that before we ever see the real thing, we see a relief carving of a sandworm… just like we saw the relief carving of the bull. Paul thinks that he is going to die on the blade made from the tooth of one of these big boys, but he struts onward anyway. He doesn’t understand his dreams yet, so what else is he going to do? He doesn’t want to repeat the mistake of Paulus or the tragedy of Leto, but he walks into his own arena nonetheless. 

He does die, but not in the way that he thought he would. He is handed the crysknife in question by Chani (Zendaya) and winds up in ritual combat against a Fremen warrior. All of the bloody hand imagery that he’s seen isn’t applicable here, because he wins the fight. He’s never killed someone before, so any innocence he had left is gone. Paul has metaphorically died in this scene, and he is replaced with what he will eventually become. 

The bull’s horns killed Paulus. Treachery from the Emperor and the Harkonnens killed Leto. Paul, however, not only survived the tooth of a sandworm, he transformed because of it. He will not fight this particular bull, he will join with it. He will use its teeth and its bulk as part of the “desert power” that his father talked about. 

All of this is well and good for Paul Atreides at the end of Dune, but this is only Part One. The real consequences of Paul’s bullfight subversion may come in the officially greenlit Part Two, and there will almost certainly be a lot going on that he will not like. He already sees a lot of the problems coming thanks to his dreams, but he’s a true Atreides. He’s going to walk into that arena no matter what.