Let us praise the names of Dune. Our heroes come from House Atreides, their elegance enhanced by that smooth classical diphthong. Their rivals are House Harkonnen, whose knife-edged Finnish consonants are like a hunter-seeker for the ears. (Frank Herbert got it from a phone book.) The official titles for the emperor, Padishah, and his vassals’ fiefs, Siridar, were two of many terms Herbert seems to have borrowed from The Sabres of Paradise, an account of 19th-century Muslim resistance to the Russian empire in the Caucasus. Of course, some are better than others. Jessica and Paul sound like a couple who met on The Bachelorette, and the name of the Fremen, an idealized warrior society unbound by the strictures of civilization, was probably slightly obvious even in 1965. But still — the names of Dune largely do their job, evoking a world of sci-fi grandeur and mystery whose corners beg to be explored.
And then there’s Duncan Idaho.
Much of Dune would turn out to be prophetic, but perhaps nothing more so than this: In its neon-tinged XTREME-ity, the name Duncan Idaho would presage the coming of the ’90s by a good quarter-century. Because, while Jason Momoa is clearly having a blast as Duncan in Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation, there’s no getting around the fact that — for myself and others — this is a fictional universe that should abhor a name like Duncan Idaho. Duncan Idaho is not the name of someone from Dune. Duncan Idaho is the name of a Chris Pratt character in an action movie that goes straight to Paramount+. It is the name of a professional snooker player in a British sitcom written by Matt Berry. It is the garbled voice command of someone trying to find a caramel macchiato in the Coeur d’Alene area.
Now, I am a newcomer to Dune fandom, and I am aware I need to tread lightly. An extremely scientific sampling of the community found that roughly two-thirds of fans considered Duncan Idaho “a cool name.” Some spoke compellingly for their side. “It’s absolutely a cool name, but it wouldn’t be as cool if everyone else didn’t have names like Thufir Hawat and Gaius Helen Mohiam,” said critic Michael Nordine. “Duncan’s the cool, laid-back one.”
“[A]side from the fact that it feels excellent in the mouth to say, by the time of Dune ‘Idaho’ is a lost place, a forgotten land from the ancient world,” wrote film preservationist David Neary. “If you met a slick-ass super-soldier today whose surname was ‘Babylon,’ ‘Troy,’ or ‘Tenochtitlan,’ you’d think them cool.”
This was also the explanation offered up to me by Denis Villeneuve himself: “Personally, I deeply love it. I love that Frank Herbert gives hints … that these people were coming from Earth, and then they expanded into the galaxy.”
But consider this. In the Dune saga, even Duncan Idaho refuses to go to bat for the name Duncan Idaho. After — spoiler alert — Duncan’s death in Dune, his body is artificially replicated as a ghola in the sequel, Dune Messiah. The ghola originally goes by the name of Hayt and possesses none of Duncan’s memories. But when he does get them back, Paul wonders if he’d prefer to stick with Hayt or switch back to Duncan?
“My lord may call me what he wishes, for I am not a name.”
“But do you enjoy the name Duncan Idaho?”
“I think that was my name, Sire. It fits within me. Yet … it stirs up curious responses. One’s name, I think, must carry much that’s unpleasant along with the pleasant.”
In his own words, “Duncan Idaho” contains “much that’s unpleasant.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.