Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune: Dune, Part Five

This week the Dune Reread is going to find foliage in a desert, worry about our son, and have a very long meeting talking about the specifics of spice harvesting.

Index to the reread can be located here! And don’t forget this is a reread, which means that any and all of these posts will contain spoilers for all of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. If you’re not caught up, keep that in mind.

What had the Lady Jessica to sustain her in her time of trial? Think you carefully on this Bene Gesserit proverb and perhaps you will see: “Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.”

—from “Muad’Dib: Family Commentaries” by the Princess Irulan


Jessica finds an oval-shaped door at the end of the south wing with a palm lock. She knows her way around the lock and opens the door to find an airlock on the other side, meant to keep in moisture. (Many households have airlocks to preserve moisture indoors on Arrakis, but this home was largely without it as a display of the family’s extreme wealth.) Beyond the airlock, Jessica finds a special environmentally controlled area covered in wet-climate plants. She finds a note from Lady Fenrig, who is also a Bene Gesserit and has left Jessica a hidden message, using an important phrase: “On that path lies danger.”

She searches around and finds a message coded onto the leaf above where the pad of paper had been sitting. Lady Fenrig tells Jessica that the duke and Paul are in danger. One bedroom has been planted with many deadly devices to kill her son, in hopes that one of the devices will avoid detection. There is a traitor in their midst, and Jessica is to be given to a minion in victory. Lady Fenrig apologizes for not knowing more, but her husband is not on the Harkonnnen payroll. Jessica goes to rush back to Paul, but he arrives in the same instant, holding the hunter-seeker, and telling her that he meant to submerse it in water to short it out for sure. She advises him to do so in the fountain. Once it’s truly shorted, she and Paul debate the safety of the room, though Jessica assures Paul that it is secure due to the note from Lady Fenrig.

One of Hawat’s men enters the room and tells them that they caught the man controlling the seeker, but they messed up in the pursuit and he’s dead. He assures Jessica that he is disturbed by their error, and that they are using sonic probes to scan the area. Paul’s attendance to the duke will be delayed as they continue to scan; Jessica tells them that they are safe in this room and can be guarded there. Paul suggests that Hawat is getting too old and working too hard, that they should do their own investigations around the place. Jessica thinks not, that trying to alleviate Hawat’s workload would make him ashamed and only lessen his accuracy. Jessica notes that Paul is withholding, so he tells her about the warning that Mapes gave him about there being a traitor among them. Jessica shares the secret note from Lady Fenrig with him, but tells Paul that he must only tell his father about this when they’re alone, as these messages might have been unknowingly crafted to sow discord among their people.

Jessica looks out onto the landscape and notes that stars are appearing, and one of them seems to be tapping in a distinct rhythm; it’s a coded signal, likely from Harkonnen agents, who cannot use the usual communications array for fear of the net being tapped by the Atreides. Hawat comes in and gives the all clear, ready to take Paul to his father.


Jessica finds the weirding room as Mapes mentioned to Paul in the previous section. Mapes is clearly displeased with the room’s very existence, and we get a callback to what Yueh was talking about earlier, that their new premises flaunts its water waste as a manner of showing wealth. But with its filtered sun and variety of flora, it is clearly also meant to serve as an oasis (both physical and mental) for those who are unaccustomed to the climate of Arrakis.

Lady Fenrig is another Bene Gesserit operative on Arrakis, and she leaves Jessica a warning coded onto a leaf. She is another of their order who is married to the man she was sold to, and Jessica feels a certain amount of bitterness over it yet again. Of course, we can presume that Fenrig isn’t a high enough official to warrant a political marriage, so it’s hardly a surprise.

It’s truly fascinating to me that the Bene Gesserit system appears to be built largely on the assumptions that others make of female interaction. What appears to be a polite note from one hostess to another, a kindness to make the next lady of the house feel more comfortable is in fact a coded message, a specific warning to the next operative stationed in the house. The Mentats seem to have a larger understanding of the Bene Gesserit than most, but Hawat still has no inkling to suspect such a mild communication. Even with the suspicion heaped on this organization, the men around them are missing large cues. We either have to assume that it’s down to a certain implicit bias about the importance of female relationships and communication, or else it’s a weak narrative device to ensure that no one ever figures out what is going on with Jessica. Hawat may be slowing down, but I’m sure that the fact that Lady Fenrig was Bene Gesserit wouldn’t have escaped his notice, and that note to Jessica however subtle is a pointed moment of contact.

Paul arrives with the hunter-seeker and is suddenly withholding toward his mother, something that surprises Jessica. A later section would seem to suggest that this is down to Paul being shaken over the attempt on his life, but it’s also typical of cagey teenage behavior, and he has more reason to be cagey than most. I love how Herbert writes the dialogue here; he doesn’t make the mistake of having the conversion flow perfectly. Paul has a couple of bits that seem like non-sequiturs, but are in fact thoughts that bubble to the surface as they speak, just like a normal conversion.

One of these turns occurs when he becomes irritated with his mother, and tells her that every time his father is angry with her, he says “Bene Gesserit” like it’s a swear word. I’m always curious about his purpose in telling her so; is he confused by Leto’s choice of curse? Does he want his mother to know what specifically bothers his father about their relationship? Is he attempting to tell her that he is similarly annoyed with the Bene Gesserit in that moment? It could easily be any or all of the above. But it yet again highlights this extreme suspicion and aggravation that people hold with the Bene Gesserit. There was some talk in the comments last week about whether or not anyone could ever trust them knowing about the Voice and its power, but there are several points to negate that—for one, the Bene Gesserit know they cannot overuse the Voice for fear of it losing its effectiveness. We also don’t know how well people outside the circle understand those abilities; it’s possible that Yueh only knows about those powers in detail because he was quite close to his wife. (Sidenote: it strikes me that one of the greater tragedies of this entire book that gets very little attention is that Yueh and Wanna seem to genuinely, deeply love one another, and have have their lives utterly destroyed by the Harkonnens.)

But more importantly, there’s the fact that Jessica has already defied the Bene Gesserit for the sake of Leto. It is possible that no one really knows this—I assume that Leto does, but I could be misremembering that—either way, Jessica does not appear to have ever openly defied his wishes. She clearly attempts to persuade, she wheedles and chips away at things, but she is always deferential from an official standpoint. And of course, if there were a clear reason to mistrust her, one that outweighed the benefit of Jessica’s skills, then she wouldn’t be the duke’s concubine in the first place. It’s hardly surprising that people don’t generally trust the Bene Gesserit as a group—even if they’re keeping their political machinations generally a secret, the idea that they would not have political leanings of some sort given how they train their women for positions with powerful men is improbable in the extreme—but the suspicion that surrounds Jessica early on, the irritation with her background, is down to pure paranoia given her history with the duke.

While Leto is concise and scathing in his methods at times, Jessica is the one who takes it upon herself to teach Paul diplomacy in every realm. Her insistence that they be respectful of Hawat despite his error is pure irony by the end, however, seeing as he is being directed toward suspecting her as the traitor in their midst. Nevertheless, Paul is learning to put aside his feelings about people, and think first of how to help them function optimally as assets.

We see the first of the signaling system, blinking lights on the horizon, which really only serves as a reminder of how little power the Atreides currently have. There are agents everywhere, and no ability to control them without carefully rooting them out one by one. Even in this beautiful haven, Jessica is keenly aware of the precariousness of their situation.

* * *

It is said that the Duke Leto blinded himself to the perils of Arrakis, that he walked heedlessly into the pit. Would it not be more likely to suggest he had lived so long in the presence of extreme danger he misjudged a change in its intensity? Or is it possible he deliberately sacrificed himself that his son might find a better life? All evidence indicates the Duke was a man not easily hoodwinked.

—from “Muad’Dib: Family Commentaries” by the Princess Irulan


Duke Leto thinks of the signs posted across the planet signaling his transition to run Arrakis in the name of the Emperor, filled with anger at how meaningless it is. He is furious at the attempt on Paul’s life and misses his home on Caladan, but he is determined to make a good show of it in hopes that Paul will find a way to call this place home. Gurney and the last of his men arrive, and the duke asks him to spare some of them for Hawat so that they can secure things right from the start. He also asks Gurney to persuade some of the spice hunters that are leaving with the next shuttle to stay and work for them. They talk over what incentives Gurney is allowed to offer to get them to stay, and what sort of battle they can expect to engage in going forward, both secret and not. Then Leto tells their propaganda man to tell the men where their women can be found, and tries to show every confidence, still thinking of Paul.


There are a few practical bits of knowledge in this section, including the fact that Arrakis has more women on it than men. There is also a reiteration of the importance of keeping on specialists in this time of transition, which comes up in the next section as well. But mostly these few pages are working in concert with the opening section from Irulan about whether or not Leto might have willingly sacrificed himself to the cause for the sake of giving Paul a better chance going forward.

Some of this section seems to confirm that line of thinking; though Leto misses Caladan dearly, his true concern is Paul’s adapting to the environment so that he might consider Arrakis his true home. On the other hand, there is no indication that Leto believes he won’t survive this crucible, only that he knows he will be stuck on this world unto his death. It seems as though he’s under no illusions about the extreme danger they are in, but the the truth of the matter is simply that the deck is stacked against him in ways he cannot predict. So Irulan has the shape of things perhaps at the start—Duke Leto is so accustomed to danger that he misjudges the far reach of that danger.

* * *

Over the exit of the Arrakeen landing field, crudely carved as though with a poor instrument, there was an inscription that Muad’Dib was to repeat many times. He saw it that first night on Arrakis, having been brought to the ducal command post to participate in his father’s first full stage conference. The words of the inscription were a plea to those leaving Arrakis, but they fell with dark import on the eyes of a boy who had just escaped a close brush with death. They said: “O you who know what we suffer here, do not forget us in your prayers.”

—from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan


Duke Leto is speaking with Paul in the conference room about the hunter-seeker attack and Mapes’s warning, and he’s having difficulty keeping his anger in check. He thinks of turning it on Hawat, but Paul has taken his mother’s words to heart and is no longer angry with the man, saying that they should leave him to do his work. Leto is impressed by Paul’s maturity and agrees that Hawat will punish himself more thoroughly than they ever could. Hawat bursts in immediately after and insists on resigning, but the duke won’t hear of it. He has him call the men in and they begin their meeting with Leto making light of the incident and elevating everyone’s mood.

Leto asks for the new report on the Fremen, and Hawat tells him that while they don’t have their trust entirely, the Fremen are warming to them, and have already gifted them with stillsuits and accurate maps. There seem to be many of them, sietches with thousands of people who are all loyal to a man named Liet (who Hawat concedes might be a local god rather than a person). The Fremen work with smugglers, and Leto wants to bring them in under their wing. He tells Gurney to meet with them and agree to look the other way on their operations, as long as they pay tithe. He plans to bank the whole thing in the Emperor’s name so it’s all above board. Hawat tells the group that the Harkonnen were bringing roughly ten billion in profits of the planet every year or so, and that they left all the equipment needed to collect spice in horrible disrepair. Gurney is dismayed at the injustice of it all, particularly the fact that none of the Great Houses have offered to help them.

They begin looking through the equipment, first being a projection of the harvester factory. Paul asks if there are sandworms big enough to swallow it whole and the answer is yes. There is a discussion of the lack of shielding; the shields draw the sandworms, and the Fremen find shields amusing. There are also carryalls to deposit harvesters in the desert and pick them up, and ornithopters as well. While they replace the equipment, their profit margin will be rather low—a third less than Harkonnen output. The duke wants five battalions of Fremen ready before their first inspection, expecting the same amount of Sardaukar disguised as Harkonnen before long. He also wants to strip all the Harkonnen sympathizers in a clever move that will allow him to confiscate their lands legally. Paul and Gurney are both displeased by the continued scheming.

Duncan Idaho comes in. He tells the group that they found Harkonnen agents dressed as Fremen, but in the fight, one of his Fremen allies was mortally wounded, and he obtained the man’s crysknife. Before he can unseat it, he is stopped by the voice outside the room: Stilgar, chief of the sietch Duncan visited. Stilgar tells the duke that outsiders may not see the weapon as they did not know the man it belonged to. Others at the table try to argue, but the Duke Leto respects the wishes of the Fremen and agrees that if that is the way, he orders it so and will not look on the blade. Stilgar spits on the table, but before anyone can overreact Duncan thanks Stilgar for offering the water from his body; it was a sign of respect. Stilgar wants Duncan to enlist with his people, and Leto asks if he’ll accept dual allegiance, hoping that Duncan will go with them. Stilgar accepts the offer, trading Duncan’s water for their fallen friends to create the connection between his sietch and the Atreides, then makes to leave. The duke asks if he will stay a while, but Stilgar isn’t interested. Leto is impressed by the man, and tells Duncan that he needs five battalions. Duncan tells him that there is a reward of one million solaris for anyone who can bring a crysknife off world because it is the perfect infiltration object. Duke tells Duncan to take great care of the knife.

Hawat makes mention of advance bases that might have more equipment in them, but no one seems to know where they are. The Duke wants them to ask the Emperor’s man Kynes if they exist, just to see if they can get their hands on some of that equipment. Hawat and Paul don’t like the idea, noting that it is politically unsound to try and find the advance bases as they have significance for the Fremen and technically belong to the Emperor. Leto asks for them to prod Kynes gently about it regardless. The meeting is ended and Paul realizes that they’re in bad shape—the meeting ended poorly and his father is acting desperately. The duke tells him he might as well stay in the conference room for the rest of the night, and Paul thinks on the Reverend Mother’s words “…for the father, nothing.”


There is a lot of information dropped off in this section, from the specifics of spice harvesting to our first introduction to a Fremen chief. There’s also our first mention of “desert power,” something that Duke Leto claims they will need to harness the assets of Arrakis for their own purposes, and a phrase that will stick with Paul in the long run. It is also a pointed section for how it gives Paul the chance to observe his father in good form and bad. At the start, Leto cracks a joke with precision, lightening the mood of everyone in the conference room. Paul recognizes how his father works the room from that standpoint, a leader who knows how to make everyone at his table feel trusted, understood, and important.

We learn about how the Harkonnen have cut the Atreides off at the knees—they have left all the spice harvesting equipment in extreme disrepair, making it impossible for them to meet quotas in their first term on the planet. Leto has certain sharp plans for making sure that they retain goodwill of the people on Arrakis while also maintaining good relationships with the Emperor; he plans to allow smugglers to operate, but will tithe them and deposit all those earnings legally in the Emperor’s name. He wants a fighting force of Fremen ready to go by their first inspection, expecting Sardaukar dressed as Harkonnens to show up before long. There is still much about the Fremen that they have not learned, and Hawat is perplexed by a figure named Liet, who might be a real person who is largely in charge of the Fremen or perhaps a god. (This is always fascinating when rereading because we know the true identity of Liet, and get served with a reminder of how clever his deception is.)

The unfolding of this complex meeting is essential in how it differs from your typical narrative; in most stories, the tension would be delivered by withholding the identity of traitor, forcing the reader to suspect everyone at every turn, especially everyone in this room. Instead, the tension here is delivered by a sense of inevitability—we watch these people carefully plan, move from one action to another, knowing that their planning is largely useless. We are present for the meeting to learn more about Arrakis, about its political ins and outs and the specifics of obtaining spice in such an environment (Paul’s point on the sandworms being able to swallow the harvesters is central to that), but we cannot prevent this slow march toward destruction.

We get our introductions to Duncan Idaho and Stilgar, and everything about these first encounters are meant to show us that they are both exceptional men. We know this is true of Idaho because he has managed to earn the respect of the Fremen so quickly, and we know this of Stilgar because he just. so. cool. I mean, I could be more analytical about it, but it’s still true—Stilgar has an instant vibe to him that makes it clear he is no-nonsense, an honorable man who is blunt and true with no room for subterfuge. He is precisely the sort of person you would want as an ally, and Leto recognizes this instantly. He respects Stilgar’s wishes about the crysknife because he knows it is best to have this man on his side and prove that he is worth their time and support. (It is weird to be introduced to Duncan and have him so quickly spirited away. It always struck me as a bit of an error on Herbert’s part—it seems that the narrative would have benefited from learning more about Idaho earlier in the story, given his importance.)

The idea of the Fremen spitting as a sign of respect by giving their body’s water is a nice, deft touch that clearly elucidates that differences between cultures, and shows the importance of diplomacy in those moments. They are lucky that Idaho has done a thorough job in getting to know that Fremen, and prevents anyone from reacting poorly to the display. Then we have an exchange to create the bond between the Atreides and Stilgar’s sietch; they offer Turok’s water and take Duncan’s for their own. The importance of water continues to unfold and gain more complexity they closer we get to the Fremen.

I love that the duke asks Stilgar to stay, and his response is just “…why?” And then Leto says that they would honor him and Stilgar is basically like “that’s great, but I got things to do.” Yeah, Stilgar is the best.

Leto caps off the meeting by insisting that they seek out the advance bases for extra equipment, even though Hawat warns him that these sites might be important to the Fremen, and that the Emperor would be furious if he found out. So Paul starts the meeting respecting his father’s moves, then ends it realizing how incredibly desperate his father is to maintain their foothold, knowing that his choice in this instant is reckless. (He was also displeased alongside Gurney earlier at the use of more trickery to gain lands and sidestep the current people with power.) He is learning as the Reverend Mother said he would—that his father does not quite understand the “language” of a place, and is making errors because of it.

On the other hand, this all plays much in the same way a Shakespearean tragedy does. It is written, unavoidable. Do we take it at face value, or criticize the participants regardless?

Emmet Asher-Perrin would pick Julius Caesar as the Shakespearean tragedy she would most like to occupy. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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