Before George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, there was Dune. Published in 1965, Dune introduced science fiction aficionados to the Known Universe, a galaxy with intricate political, economic, and cultural forces engineered by a variety of noble houses. Dominant among these factions are the Houses of Atreides, Harkonnen, and Corrino.

The titular Dune is, in fact, the planet Arrakis, the only known source of spice melange, which is critical for space travel and long lifespans throughout the galaxy. As such, the first book begins with Emperor Shaddam IV granting the Atreides family stewardship over the lucrative yet politically volatile and physically dangerous planet. Before readers (and, of course, fans of the 2021 Denis Villeneuve Dune film and its 2024 follow-up) take on the intricate plot of Herbert’s seminal work, it’s important to know a thing or two about the series’ predominant players in the galactic struggle for power. Here’s a breakdown of Dune’s key noble houses.

House Atreides

Paul, the protagonist for much of Herbert’s Dune saga, is the heir to House Atreides, a long-standing dynasty that rules over Caladan, a planet filled with green landscapes and giant oceans. In general, the Atreides represent a more diplomatic counterpart to the fanaticism and cruelty of House Harkonnen. The contrast of the Atreides’ lush homeworld with the seemingly barren desert-scape of Arrakis symbolizes the literal “fish out of water” element that exists for them throughout much of the first book’s plot. Known for his fair and just rule, Duke Leto Atreides’ newly granted stewardship of the hotly contested Arrakis and its valuable spice lines serves as the catalyst for the story’s subsequent events.

Along with his son Paul and consort Lady Jessica, Duke Leto brings his retinue to the desolate planet that he believes, perhaps naively, will be controllable using the same strategies his ancestors mastered on Caladan. It’s no big spoiler to say that Leto’s plans fail quite spectacularly. After a violent betrayal with echoes that reverberate up to the Emperor himself, Lady Jessica and Paul are forced to flee into Arrakis’ wastelands. The only known survivors of the Atreides family, the mother-son duo must adapt to life among the Fremen, a local population skilled at desert survival and reliant on spice’s more mystical elements.

As Paul grows into manhood among the desert sands, it becomes clear that he might very well be the Bene Gesserit-prophesied Kwisatz Haderach and, by extension, the Fremen’s Messianic Muad’Dib. Paul’s consistent exposure to spice melange amplifies the latent prescient abilities bred into him over generations of Bene Gesserit interference. With the combined strength of his ancestry and Fremen support, Paul becomes powerful enough to challenge the corrupt Emperor Shaddam IV. In subsequent novels to the first Dune, Paul’s unborn sister, Alia, also becomes a powerful character in her own right.

House Harkonnen

With roots on the heavily polluted planet of Giedi Prime, House Harkonnen is the long-standing enemy of the Atreides. Known for their brutality and treacherous behavior, some, like Feyd-Rautha (more on him below), possess a twisted sense of honor, particularly for warriors who impress them on the battlefield.

As the stewards of Arrakis before the Emperor’s decision to shift spice production to the Atreides, the Harkonnens are embittered against Duke Leto and his family. With a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality that culls the weakest members from their own ranks, the war-loving House is led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, an obese tyrant completely powered by anti-gravity devices.

Two other notable Harkonnens are Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista in the 2021 and 2023 Dune films) and the aforementioned Feyd-Rautha. Also known as “Beast,” Rabban is the nephew of the Baron and is in charge of managing spice production on Arrakis both before and immediately after the Atreides massacre. In contrast, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the Baron’s heir and another result of Bene Gesserit genetic tampering, is the erratic and volatile foil to Paul’s disciplined and stoic character.

A critical scene in the Dune saga is the duel between Paul and Feyd-Rautha. Perceived as rivals for political, economic, and spiritual reasons, the fight to the death between the two young men is symbolic of galactic affairs and how the battle over spice will impact the many worlds that rely on it. Similarly, Paul’s victory over Feyd-Rautha cements his status as a leader to be reckoned with and one that the Emperor in particular learns to fear.

House Corrino

A family based on the planet Kaitain and led by Emperor Shaddam IV, the Corrino House has held imperial power in the galaxy for generations. Corrupt in less overt ways than the Harkonnens, the Corrinos play their own games to shore up power and hold at bay the many forces wanting to take their place as rulers.

House Corrino governs through a combination of economic power, military might, and political maneuvering. The Bene Gesserit also hold a prominent role within the Corrino family, so much so that the Emperor’s own daughter, Princess Irulan, was raised and trained as one. With the formidable Sarduakar troops behind him, Emperor Shaddam IV involves himself directly in the struggle for Arrakis and its spice deposits. Ultimately, his secret alliance with the Harkonnens against the Atreides backfires as Paul takes control over the spice production and shipping processes.

Princess Irulan is the Emperor’s daughter who is wise beyond her relatively young years. Married to Paul in order to cement the Atreides claim to the throne, Irulan becomes increasingly torn between loyalty to her family and the Bene Gesserit order and Paul’s grand vision for the galaxy’s future. In Herbert’s Dune, Irulan’s voice pops up the most in preface chapters and various commentary throughout the novels. As a historian, Irulan plays a significant role in shaping Paul’s legacy. Her marriage, however, provides no real emotional fulfillment as Paul remains deeply in love and committed to Chani, his long-time Fremen partner. This platonic relationship creates tension later on as Irulan struggles with Paul’s disinterest in fathering an heir with her.

The Fremen

Although not an official ruling house as recognized by the Emperor, the Fremen play a highly critical role in Paul’s eventual bid for power. The native inhabitants of Arrakis (and the peoples who refer to the desert gem in their language as “Dune”), the Fremen are a tough, resilient group that has adapted to the harsh conditions of the planet. Deeply reliant on a strong sense of community and a reverence for water, the Fremen are excellent fighters and innovators. Their stillsuits both protect them from harm and preserve moisture from bodies both living and dead. 

One of the closely-guarded secrets of the Fremen is their ability to ride on the giant sandworms that live under Arrakis’ surface. The worms are both worshiped and feared by the Fremen. Referred to as the “Shai-Hulud,” the sandworms are considered divine because of their critical role in producing spice melange. Paul’s successful attempt to ride a sandworm earns him immense respect among the Fremen clans, a step that is pivotal to his eventual defeat of Harkonnen and Imperial forces on Arrakis.

Although several Fremen characters play large roles in Dune, the most notable of them is Chani, Paul Atreides’ romantic interest and later concubine. Played by Zendaya in the most recent film adaptations of Dune, Chani’s on-screen story arc appears to differ from that of the original novel so far. Regardless of how her character evolves in subsequent movies, Chani is undoubtedly a critical impetus for Paul’s commitment to Fremen culture and adoption of their ways.

Other Notable Houses

Fans of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movies will likely not be familiar with Houses outside of the story’s dominant three players: the Atreides, Harkonnen, and Corrino. However, the expanded universe of Herbert’s original novels — which include prequels partially written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, and a series of lesser-known video games — include characters from House Vernius, House Richese, and House Ordos.

In general, these Houses tend to play a secondary role in the Dune series’ primary plot lines, but they do factor into the larger workings of the Known Universe. For example, House Vernius produces technology akin to what we would call artificial intelligence. Ruling over the planet Ix, Vernius has an alliance with the Atreides in the prequel series. The fall of Ix and the repercussions of their technological innovations set the stage for the later events of the original Dune novels. 

Similarly, House Richese is another minor noble house that engages in a sort of arms race against House Vernius. Although House Richese is not mentioned often in Herbert’s stories, it exists as a background player in an increasingly complex cast of galactic influencers.

Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations do a good job visualizing and differentiating the three primary noble Houses in Dune. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to understand the full plot without knowing something about the identity of each noble family and their long-standing rivalries with each other. Like his descendants in the realm of fantasy literature, Herbert creates a story that exists on a truly epic scale, one that still captures imaginations well into the twenty-first century.

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