Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune

Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune: Dune, Part Twenty

One Emperor enters! A different Emperor leaves!

It is the final countdown for Dune! The last section of the book!

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.

* * *

And Muad’Dib stood before them, and he said: “Though we deem the captive dead, yet does she live. For her seed is my seed and her voice is my voice. And she sees unto the farthest reaches of possibility. Yea, unto the vale of the unknowable does she see because of me.”

—from “Arrakis Awakening” by the Princess Irulan


The Baron Harkonnen waits for the Emperor to enter, as he was summoned for a reason he knows not. The presence of Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim reveals that this is a very important meeting. The Emperor asks him where Thufir Hawat is. The baron admits that Hawat has been gone for five days, that he was meant to land with smugglers and infiltrate the Fremen. He admits the poison he has been using on Hawat, knowing that the Mentat will die soon either way. The Emperor is very angry over how much of his time this difficulty has taken up. He asks if the baron has taken hostages, which he has not—because the Fremen don’t seem to care about them, treating each hostage as if they were already dead. The Emperor suggests that he has taken the wrong ones, and the Baron Harkonnen realizes that he must know something.

The Emperor reveals a little girl—the sister of Muad’Dib. Alia is hardly impressed with the baron, and she says so, seeming unperturbed by the situation. She claims that she allowed herself to be captured so that she would not have to tell her brother that his son was dead. The Emperor admits that his light force just barely got away with three prisoners… from the southern reaches that the baron insisted were impossible to reach. The Emperor believes that Baron Harkonnen has been lying to him, that he knew of all of this. The Reverend Mother suggests that this is not the case, which Shaddam can hardly believe, but Alia confirms it, stating that her father was never in league with the baron and that they have never met before. She reveals herself to be Duke Leto’s daughter, and the sister to Paul Muad’Dib.

The Emperor commands her to be quiet, but she insists that she will not take his orders and looks to the Reverend Mother for confirmation. The old woman calls Alia an abomination, saying that her birth should have been prevented at all costs, but one of their own betrayed them. Alia shows her how it truly was, and that she played a hand in it as well. The Reverend Mother wants her killed, but the Emperor wants Alia to communicate with her brother and tell him to surrender for her life. Alia says she will not, and that her brother is coming presently regardless. There is a rumble and the Emperor gets word from his men. He says that they will regroup in space, and that they should give Alia’s body to the storm.

But Alia is not afraid and she backs into the baron’s reach. The baron grabs hold of her on the Emperor’s behalf and she stabs him with a needle, telling him that he’s met “the Atreides gom jabbar.” He dies abruptly. The shield wall is breached. Muad’Dib’s forces shoot off the nose of the Emperor’s ship. The doors open and Alia rushes off to find a knife and kill more of the enemy. Fremen warriors seem to emerge from the storm and attack. Then sandworms arrive carrying many more troops. The Sardaukar are briefly awed by the impossible sight before launching into battle. The Emperor and his people are driven back and sealed against the onslaught, and he looks to the faces in the room with him. He sees his daughter and the Reverend Mother, then looks to the Guildsmen. One of them has lost a constant lens, and his true eye such a deep dark blue that it is nearly black.

The Emperor tells the Reverend Mother that they need a plan, and she agrees. Their plan is treachery. She tells him to send of Count Fenring.


So. However you expected the baron to die when you first read this book, I bet it wasn’t like that.

I do love it, though. I love Alia and her inability to be silenced, and I love her no-nonsense desire to dispatch her horrid grandfather. It is no surprise to me that she does not make it into the final section of the book; she is untamable, and would take center stage in Paul’s theater no matter what anyone wanted. As well she should.

Also, “the Atreides gom jabbar.” Think on that for a moment. If Alia takes up that mantle, then she is a being who can separate out the animals from the humans, isn’t she? That’s what Gaius Helen Mohaim said, after all. We don’t get enough time to sit with Alia as a character in this book, but their must be something especially awkward about being too small, too young, too fresh for all the experiences that you know. It must be aggravating… but also marvelous to be able to mess with everyone’s perceptions.

It is interestingly to me that the baron dies before the final act, so to speak. And while it may be a bit abrupt, I do think the placement is entirely intentional; for all his scheming, Baron Harkonnen dies after being humbled and belittled by the Emperor, being told that he had was too stupid to know what was truly going on. He cannot believe that people were living in the southern reaches. He cannot believe how effective the Fremen are at fighting. He cannot believe that Paul Atreides is alive, and that he has a sister. It collapses on him all at once, and nothing can truly save him because he was never worth saving in the first place. He dies an ignoble, quick death, and no one will remember it. It’s like there’s a code for dispatching the truly terrible villains—it either has to be a momentous thing, or something small and insignificant. The Baron Harkonnen is more a Voldemort than a Sauron.

And then we get the image of a true fighting Fremen force, which even awes me as a reader, to be fair. We sort of get to goggle like that Sardaukar, to learn at the same time as the Emperor does what it must truly be like to come under the full weight of their wrath. No more options, except for treachery, of course. And we’re not meant to know what the treachery is, but we can guess.

This story does love its poisons…

* * *

He was warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, the fox and the innocent, chivalrous, ruthless, less than a god, more that a man. There is no measuring Muad’Dib’s motives by ordinary standards. In the movement of his triumph, he saw the death prepared for him, yet he accepted the treater. Can you say he did this out of a sense of justie? Whose justice, then? Remember, we speak now of the Muad’Dib who ordered battle drums made of his enemies’ skins, the Muad’Dib who denied the conventions of his ducal past with a wave of the hand, saying merely: “I am the Kwisatz Haderach. That is reason enough.”

—from “Arrakis Awakening” by the Princess Irulan


They bring Paul to the governor’s mansion that the Atreides occupied when they first came to Arrakis. Gurney doesn’t like it and thinks a cave would be safer, but Paul insists it’s symbolic, especially because Rabban had been living there. He asks Gurney and Stilgar to check for any more Harkonnens or traps. He asks for Chani and his mother to be brought and asks for Sardaukar to send to the Emperor to give their terms. He is caught up in his sight, seeing only the jihad through every crack in time. He manages contact with Alia because even she has an ability with time that he does not. She tells him that she has killed their grandfather. Paul tells Stilgar that he knows they’ve found that baron’s body, shocking the man.

Paul tells a Sardaukar to bring a message to the Emperor, that he will keep them safe if they surrender their arms and come to meet him. The man is sent away. Stilgar tells Paul that Chani is taking a moment to be alone in grief and that Jessica has gone to the weirding room, though he doesn’t know why. Paul explains that his mother is yearning for Caladan, where water comes from the sky. Stilgar is awed by this, and in that moment Paul sees his friend become his worshipper and finds the man lessened. Stilgar tells him that Rabban is also dead, and Paul notes how the guards are hoping for his notice, that no one knows he plans to take the throne only to stop the jihad.

Jessica enters, finding that her minds rebels at the memories of this place, as though she had never lived there at all. She finds no compassion for Paul, noting the change in him. He tells her that his experiences of so many lives has allowed him to plumb the depths of human cruelty and kindness both. Jessica says he had denied that he was the Kwisatz Haderach before, but Paul insists he can no longer deny it. He asks her to stand with him when the Emperor and his entourage arrive, his future wife among them. Jessica tells him not to make her mistakes, but Paul sees the princess as a means to an end, and tells his mother that there are no innocents anymore. She says that he should tell that to Chani, who has just entered the room as well. She is crying, and Paul can only truly mark their grief through her. He tells her that they will have other sons, that Usul is the one who promises it.

The Emperor and his people are coming, Gurney has checked them all for throwing weapons. Paul worries that he might lose Gurney as he has lost Stilgar. Gurney tells him that Fyed is among them, and a Reverend Mother, and also Thufir Hawat. Gurney explains what he’s been doing all this time, and that he’d thought it best to lead him to it. Paul sees one version of the future where Hawat carries a poison needle that the Emperor will command him to use. Paul marks the people who have approached with the Emperor, and sees Count Fenring—he fears the man’s face, but he does not know it, nor has he ever seen it in any vision of the future or past. He asks his mother about him and she tells Paul his identity. Paul realizes that though he has seen many futures with his death, he has never seen how he dies, and wonders if this man is to be his killer.

Paul asks that Thufir Hawat stand apart. Hawat apologizes to Jessica knowing that he was wrong about her betrayal. Paul asks if he is his father’s son, but Hawat claims he is more like his grandfather. Paul says he will grant Hawat anything he wants for his years of service, including the chance to strike him dead. Hawat knows that Paul is aware of the treachery from the Emperor, but he tells Paul that he only wanted to stand before his Duke one last time. Paul realizes that Hawat can barely stand and rushes to brace him. Hawat tells him that he is pleased to see him again, then holds the poison needle aloft and taunts the Emperor for believing that he would ever betray the Atreides. Then he dies, and Paul has his body carried away.

The Emperor tries to tell Paul that he’s done wrong, violating their laws, using atomics. Paul insists that he only used them on a feature of the desert for the purpose of being able to ask about some of their activities. He tries to dismiss the Guildsmen, who tell him that they do not take his orders. Paul says that they will do as he says with no room for negotiation or he will destroy all spice production on the planet. The Guildsmen realize he is serious, and do as he asks. He tells the Emperor that he also has no choice in this matter, that even the Reverend Mother is trembling. Mother Gaius agrees that Paul is the one and that Jessica be forgiven her abominable daughter for his sake, but Paul insists that she has no call to forgive his mother anything. The Reverend Mother says that he is human, as she said before. Paul insists that though he was made of a Bene Gesserit breeding program, he will never do her bidding. She is appalled and demands that Jessica silence him, but Jessica has no intention of that. Paul tells the woman that he could kill her with a word, and will let her live out her life knowing she cannot control him.

He looks to Irulan, insisting that they have the power between them to settle this thing. The Emperor won’t hear of it, but Irulan points out that Paul is indeed worthy to be his son. Chani asks Paul if he wants her to leave, but he won’t hear of it. The Emperor and the Reverend Mother are fervently discussing these terms while Gurney approaches Paul to point out Feyd’s presence and his desire to kill a Harkonnen. Paul asks about whether Feyd is part of the entourage, then tells the Emperor that Duke Atreides might recognize his company, but Muad’Dib might not. Feyd-Rautha then invokes kanly, a fight to the death. Gurney and Jessica are against it, but Paul accepts. Jessica insists that Gurney let Paul be in this mood, and tells him that there is a word planted in Feyd by the Bene Gesserit that would make his muscles relax if Paul gets in trouble, but he won’t hear of using it. The Emperor agrees to have Feyd fight on his behalf and Paul realizes that this is the place where he cannot see the outcome. The jihad will happen no matter what, but this is where possibility entered and humanity had a chance to rid itself of stagnation.

Feyd is entirely overconfident in this fight, believing Paul to be a yokel to dispatch. Paul calls him cousin, then remains silent as the fight begins, knowing that Feyd is a talker and grows uneasy in silence. The Reverend Mother is mortified, knowing that both of them might die in this attempt, the culmination of the Bene Gesserit breeding program in its entirely, with only Alia and Feyd’s unknown daughter the only back up if they both fail. Paul gets the measure of Feyd’s fighting style, then sees that his girdle is hiding a poison dart. He gets knocked by Feyd’s blade, and realizes that the man is a better fighter than he’d thought. And the blade has a soporific on it, enough to slow him. Paul knicks him in return with acid. Feyd gets close again and Paul notes another poison dart near his belt. Feyd pins him to the ground, ready for the kill, and Paul remembers the word his mother mentioned. He shouts aloud that he will not use it, and the confusion gives him the upper hand to flip Feyd-Rautha onto his back and drive his knife into the na-baron’s brain.

Paul stands and look to the Emperor and Count Fenring, He can tell that the Emperor is asking the Count to do away with him. Paul realizes that the reason he never saw Fenring in any of his visions is because the Count himself was an almost-Kwisatz-Haderach, prevented only by a flaw in his genetics, by being a eunuch. The Count declines the command to kill Paul. The Emperor punches him across the jaw, and Fenring decides to forget this out of friendship.

Paul tells the Emperor that he will rule on Salusa Secundus now, and Paul will receive the throne. Salusa will become a gentle world, and Arrakis will have water some day, and always belong to the Fremen. But they will keep enough desert that the spice production can continue. The Reverend Mother glimpses the jihad coming, tells Paul he cannot unleash the Fremen on the universe, but Paul begs to differ. The Emperor has no choice but to accept, and Irulan is not bothered by the deal. Paul asks Jessica to negotiate the terms for him with Chani by her side. Paul wants the Emperor stripped, all of his CHOAM holdings as dowry. He wants a directorship for Gurney on Caladan, and power and titles for every living Atreides man. The Fremen are his and Stilgar will be governor of Arrakis. He asks what Jessica wishes, and she asks to go to Caladan for some time.

Jessica asks what Chani would like, but she begs for no title. Paul insists that she will never need one, that Irulan will have no affection from him, nor children. Chani is not sure she believes him, but Jessica assures her that though Irulan may get the Atreides name, history will call women like them wives.


Practically everything here is symbolic. The location. The people in the Emperor’s entourage. The costumes everyone wears. It’s Thunderdome now. It’s a very polite gladiatorial ring. Strap in.

There is a crazy perfect storm of loyalty here, alignment between the Atreides family and the legend of Muad’Dib. The Fremen are looking to Paul and solidifying his legend in their minds, and moments where a man meant to kill their beloved leader turns around and essentially flips the Emperor the bird are going to stick in their minds. Many of the people in this room cannot distinguish from loyalty to the Lisan al-Gaib and loyalty to the Atreides family, and they are wildly different things; loyalty born of a belief in a godlike figure and loyalty to a man who won trust from others through years of building bonds. We see the conflict for people like Gurney and Jessica, the people who know that whatever Paul is, he is still only a man. The sudden and frequent comparisons to his grandfather here are not meant as a compliment.

The flip side to this is Paul watching Stilgar morph from friend to believer. Knowing that someone who you love on an interpersonal level has bought into your myth must be a deeply disconcerting experience, and it must be that because every believer Paul gains is another person who no longer sees him as human. I think that’s really the crux of what’s going on here—Paul doesn’t want to be divorced from his humanity, but more he fulfills his odd destiny, the more people will forget he was ever a man.

A side note to give Herbert props for not making Paul’s rise to religious figure overly-Jesus like in its trappings. Western epics practically never fail to do this, and it’s just boring. It’s been done so many times, and practically never with anything new to add to the concept.

There an abruptness to the ending of Dune that I could never quite get my head around. While I appreciate Herbert’s ability to wrap up his material quickly and succinctly, it does feel strangely rushed. That might just be down to writing style at the end of the day; Herbert’s flare for prose is undeniable, but he’s not particularly florid. There are also so many character present that you run the risk of swapping POV far too many times and confusing the whole thing. But there’s so much happening and so quickly, and we never get to see even a hint of the aftermath to these decisions. It’s an interesting choice, but ultimately feels like being cut off mid-breath. I’ll take Tolkien’s extra-long denouement any day, just to get a proper sense of closure.

Paul humbles the Guild is short order and then it’s just a matter of the Emperor realizes by bits and pieces that he has lost and has no choice in the matter. Irulan recognizes it from the beginning, and I have already loved how nonplussed she is by the entire event. She’s like ‘sure, I’ll marry that guy, he seems cool’ and keeps trying to get her dad to chill out. At that point, you have to wish that the book had delved into her arc more, rather than presenting her as a scholar only. We could use a bit more of her personality her, a bit more insight into her mind.

The Reverend Mother is horrified throughout, but the one thing that really terrifies her is the thought that Paul and Feyd might both end up dead as the result of kanly, and then the only parts of their breeding programs left are Alia the abomination and Feyd’s daughter. And while I know what’s coming for Alia, I feel like there’s an alternate universe version of events where that’s precisely what happens, and the next story is what happens to those women as they come into their own… and I’m kind of sad that I never got to read it.

We have the fight with Feyd-Rautha, and while the story does an excellent job of making him an intricate opponent for Paul, it seems such an odd place to go. The fight is interesting but reads as unnecessary, a move to make sure that Feyd is out of the way because he’s just a troublesome guy. If it hadn’t been Paul, it would have been Gurney. He’s not the person who Paul cannot see (Fenring), so while he makes a good show, he doesn’t have that mysterious veil of threat hanging about him.

We’ve had a hint that Count Fenring had an important role here from Irulan’s earlier text indicating that Fenring’s greatest act against her father was refusing to kill a man when he commanded it. And while I appreciate that cool bit of warning I’m not sure it plays out well here with that reveal. Fenring is a cool character, but to insist that he is another Kwisatz Haderach potential? I dunno, the segment is strangely written, and it seems like the suggestion is that being a eunuch (or the traits that made him correct to be a eunuch, which who the hell knows what they are) is the reason why he couldn’t be “the One.” Which… like, what? So, he doesn’t have genitalia and that’s somehow a prerequisite for being the chosen dude? Sorry, I’m just going to need a little more explanation for that to fly because right now I’m not buying it.

I still do love Fenring’s defiance before his buddy the Emperor, and his instance that he’s fine with the choice and will overlook his friend decking him. It’s just classy.

So… these final lines are weird, right?

Here’s the thing. There is what was intended, and there is how the text reads. Now, the story of Dune has done an excellent job of building up this theme between Jessica and Chani both, these women who love men who cannot marry them out of political necessity. We come back to this difficulty for them both, time and again. And there is political intrigue to this, and also emotion as well. The problem is, when the hyper focus on this aspect, this angle, everything else about these women is sidelined. You have ended your grand epic on the suggestion that while Paul Atreides can be god-emperor of the universe and exact his perfect revenge, the best that the women of this story can ever hope for is that history will remember them… as wives.

I mean, without intending to, the book has hyper-focused on one of fiction’s greatest problems. That women are only what they mean to men. That women have nothing outside of their families and their husbands. That women do not have their own grand tales and awesome deeds. But it’s okay. Because even if they can’t marry their beloveds, history knows they were the one who truly knew him best.

It’s a weird place to end your grand saga, literally focusing on that point. (It’s not ended, I know, but at the time this was it.) On the other hand, I think that the story ends this way for a reason: it’s meant to read as a point of happiness is all this carnage. It is how you end the story on an upswing. We’ve been invested in Chani and Paul for about half the book now, and knowing that he will not forsake his Sihaya for a fancy princess is meant to be a nice thought that turns our collective gaze away from the carnage that Paul knows his victory will unleash on the universe. He and Chani will have more children, and she will always be the woman he adores. And it isn’t as though Paul disregards her on a higher level; he wants Chani there to negotiate with Jessica because he knows that she is brilliant and unyielding. But still. This is where we rest our heads, the story completed. It’s kind of a head tilt for me, emotionally. Like an “awwww” followed by a “bzuh?”

Either way, the tale is completed and we know that the universe is irrevocably changed. And the frightening part is that we’re not surely true if it’s for the better. We can end on thoughts of romance, but at the end of the day, Paul Atreides is full of terrible purpose, and he is releasing an endless war across the cosmos. He has finally come to accept this, but the reader clearly should not—Paul’s great power ends certain feuds and old ways, but he will replace it with more violence, more pain. The only thing celebratory here is the end of stagnation, as he puts it. Humanity will move forward, and that move will be brutal and full of suffering. It isn’t surprising that more stories were written because the end of Dune is hardly cut and dry. We have watched Muad’Dib achieve his goals, and the act was dazzling, but we’re meant to remember the cost of that victory.

And we are certainly meant to question it.

Final Thoughts

Well, this has been a wobbly ride, and a very interesting book to go through in a reread format. It does kill some of the momentum, which I feel is inevitable for a book that’s this high on politics, but the closer look was interesting for me.

The next two books will be broken down into slightly bigger chunks, so they’ll go a bit faster, but they’re also shorter. Before we continue in that direction, however, I will be looking at the many screen versions of Dune proper. So next week: David Lynch!

Emmet Asher-Perrin is very interested to see how David Lynch version strikes her after many years of avoiding ever having to watch it again. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.


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