Gurney Halleck, the Moor; or, Othello in Space

The (apparent*) race-swapping of Liet Kynes, played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster in the 2021 Dune adaptation, is a well-known and contentious subject. But the adaptation also, perhaps inadvertently, makes another swap: Gurney Halleck is portrayed by Josh Brolin, who is white.

The problem? Gurney Halleck is a brown, and possibly black, man. Specifically, he is a Moor.

Yes, this is in the books.

Allow me to explain. It’s a theory. Bear with me.

{ *Kynes is technically mixed, although Herbert meant to use the character to demonstrate the arrogance of “western man.” Credit to Margari Aziza Hill for raising this. }

For more, see Revisiting Dune: Table of Contents.

Halleck’s Complexion

I was re-reading Children of Dune when I came across a curious passage near the end. Halleck observes the changes wrought by Paul Atreides and his sister Alia’s empire, the modernization processes by which Fremen ecology and society have shifted from what they were before the colonization of Arrakis (p205):

It came to Halleck then that the stormwinds of his new reality might shred these smugglers and all of their friends. It might destroy Stilgar with his fragile neutrality and take with him all of the tribes who remained loyal to Alia. They’d all become colonial peoples. Halleck had seen it happen before, knowing the bitter taste of it on his own homeworld.

I stopped. I had entirely forgotten that Halleck had been enslaved by the Harkonnens and “rescued… from a Harkonnen slave pit” by the Atreides (Dune, p443) (white savior much?). Neither had I realized the degree to which Halleck also thought of himself as a former colonial subject.

On its face, a character 20,000 years in the future who is formerly enslaved and colonized is not necessarily a person of color. But I suspected Herbert may have assumed that association. After all, earlier in Children of Dune, Herbert’s description of Leto II’s thought process, as Leto II recalls Stilgar’s dream to return to a time before colonization, specifically connects colonial subjects (here, the Fremen) to complexion (p127):

Before the glowglobes and lasers, before the ornithopters and spice-crawlers, there’d been another kind of life: brown-skinned mothers with babies on their hips, lamps which burned spice-oil amidst a heavy fragrance of cinnamon, Naibs who persuaded their people while knowing none could be compelled. It had been a darkswarming of life in rocky burrows.

With respect to Halleck, my suspicions about complexion were confirmed. After reading the passage about Halleck’s memory of colonization, I recalled two previous scenes that had puzzled me. In the scenes, a masked man confronts Leto II at Sietch Jacurutu. Not once, but twice, Herbert describes the man’s complexion. Leto II “ made out a dark strip of skin, the utterly shadowed eyes of melange addiction” (p140). Later, upon confronting the masked man a second time, Leto II remarks that “[i]t was the same man who had taken him prisoner: the same dark strip of skin above the stillsuit mask, the identical searing eyes” (p149). Immediately thereafter, the man reveals himself as Halleck.

At first, I had ignored these scenes. I had always assumed Halleck was white, and I dismissed the descriptions of his complexion as something like Leto I’s, Paul’s, or Sheeana’s “olive skin.” Maybe he merely had a tan. But, when I came upon the later passage, in which Halleck remembers the colonization of his people, it clicked. The proliferation of textual pointers is hard to ignore: The later passage, in combination with the repeated description of his skin, suggests that Halleck is probably not white.

It is unclear if “dark” means brown or black. But it seems that Halleck is a man of color.

And that is not the end of the story.

Halleck, the Moor

Not only is Halleck likely a man of color, but he also appears to be a Moor. Early in Dune, a series of passages connects Halleck to Andalusia (Moorish Spain):

In the pivotal scene in which Paul hears Reverend Mother Mohiam tell his mother, Jessica, of Leto I’s doom, the Reverend Mother provides an aphorism about “four things” that support the world (p37):

“Do you see no hope, Your Reverence?”

“Not for the father.” And the old woman had waved Jessica to silence, looked down at Paul. “Grave this on your memory, lad: A world is supported by four things . . . .” She held up four big-knuckled fingers. “. . . the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave. But all of these are as nothing . . . .” She closed her fingers into a fist. “. . . without a ruler who knows the art of ruling. Make that the science of your tradition!”

Later, Paul and his father have a conversation in which Paul uses that aphorism to describe Halleck (p52):

“Duncan, the moral,” Paul said, “and Gurney the valorous.”

“You name them well,” the Duke said.

And Paul thought: Gurney’s one of those the Reverend Mother meant, a supporter of worlds — “the valor of the brave.”

Yet later, the following description appears, from Leto I’s perspective (p86):

The Duke watched Halleck, admiring the ugly lump of a man, noting the glass-splinter eyes with their gleam of savage understanding. Here was a man who lived outside the faufreluches while obeying their every precept. What was it Paul had called him? “Gurney, the valorous.”

The aphorism appears to be taken from a line written in Arabic above the “gate of every college” in Granada during Moorish rule:

The world is supported by four things only: the learning of the wise, and the justice of the great, the prayers of the good, and the valour of the brave.

I have taken the above description from page 570 of the Indian Muslim jurist Syed Ameer Ali’s A Short History of the Saracens: Being a Concise Account of the Rise and Decline of the Saracenic Power and of the Economic, Social and Intellectual Development of the Arab Nation From the Earliest Times to the Destruction of Bagdad, and the Expulsion of the Moors From Spain, first published in 1899 (available at https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.279429/page/n611/mode/2up).

However, it is more likely Herbert directly got this description from Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, Vol. VI: The Reformation, first published in 1957 (available at https://archive.org/details/in.gov.ignca.15170/page/n1011/mode/2up). On page 202, the Durants provide the exact same aphorism, with the Andalusian context, citing to the above passage from Ameer Ali. In fact, all eleven volumes of The Story of Civilization are held in the same library where Herbert’s personal collection is held:

(To peruse Herbert’s collection, go to this link:
https://sprp.sirsi.net/uhtbin/cgisirsi/?ps=yysevHy7Rh/SIUSLAW/X/60/1180/X and search "Frank Herbert
Collection” in the Siuslaw Public Library. Credit to Martin Nguyen for locating this excellent resource.)

The origins of this phrase likely trace to the 10th century book, Nahj al-Balagha (“The Peak of Eloquence”), a group of stories, sermons, and sayings from Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, as collected by Al-Sharif Al-Radi (available at http://www.qul.org.au/library/nahj-ul-balagha/sayings). Al-Radi writes:

When Imam Ali was asked about Faith in Religion, he replied that the structure of faith is supported by four pillars endurance, conviction, justice and jihad [struggle].

The entire passage is much longer (see link above).

(Some attribute the quote to the Prophet Muhammad, but I have found no source for this. Meanwhile, the Dune Wiki states the origins of the “four pillars” aphorism is from an “Islamic code” written in Muslim Spain, and that Jessica made this connection. I have found no evidence in the novels for the description provided in the Wiki, which states: “[Jessica] recalled in him [Halleck] an epigram written on the wall of a Muslim palace in the country of Spain, which once existed on Old Earth. She called him Gurney The Valorous from that Islamic code: ‘There are four pillars which support the world…the wisdom of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave.’ ”)

At any rate, these references reveal a deeper truth about Halleck’s identity — that is, his Moorishness. One could read Herbert’s use of a phrase from Ali as part of the novels’ exploration of Shi’i narratives. However, given that Herbert was likely reading the Durants’s use of Ameer Ali’s description of the phrase as it was written in Arabic above the college gates in Andalusia, it is likely that Herbert wanted to draw a connection between Halleck and the Moors. (Of course, one can always do away with authorial intent and simply analyze the text on its own.)

Moreover, other passages point to Halleck’s connection with what seem to be non-white characteristics. He is described, as above, as having a “gleam of savage understanding” (p86). Despite this, he has “blonde” hair (p86) — perhaps a reference to some of the unique, sometimes mixed, features of the Moors (not to mention many peoples across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)).

One could even read his romance and military leadership with Jessica, in Children of Dune, as something like the relationship between Desdemona and Othello, the Moorish prince turned general in Shakespeare’s play. (This is not to say Othello isn’t racist, by the way.)

The Psyche of the Subject

Stilgar, the Fremen leader, is one of my favorite characters in the novels, largely because he is given a full and complicated internal life across the first three, one which nicely parallels Paul’s. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, I was often concerned that Stilgar’s “Fremen loyalty” to the Atreides bears the mark of the noble savage trope (although Jeff Carefoot astutely notes that the other Atreides friends are portrayed similarly). When I considered this issue, I thought to myself: “All the other members in the Atreides ‘court’ are also loyal, but their loyalty is not tied to Fremen culture in the way Stilgar’s loyalty is. Halleck, Duncan Idaho, and Thufir Hawat are cool on their own terms.”

And then I realized that Halleck is a Moor. I was floored to see that a character who was probably a man of color had been read, by myself and most others (by all accounts), as the white, badass warrior-poet. In lesser hands, Halleck, a formerly enslaved and colonized man, who also plays a baliset and recites songs and poems, would have been reduced to a jester character, a minstrel. And yet any reader of Dune knows that he is far from it. Halleck is noble, ugly, and “savage” in character — but he is not quite a noble savage, a simple-minded brute who is naively obedient to the Atreides (although, yes, there are hints of it, as my reference to Othello suggests). Neither is he solely defined by his enslavement and colonization; he is as much identified by his skill with weaponry, strategy, words, and music.

This raises questions about Halleck’s internal life. It is clear, even in the first book, that his enslavement was formative to his psyche (Dune, p42–43):

[Paul] felt a sense of wonder at the uncharacteristic seriousness in Halleck’s manner, the sobering intensity. He looked at the beet-colored inkvine scar on the man’s jaw, remembering the story of how it had been put there by Beast Rabban in a Harkonnen slave pit on Giedi Prime, and Paul felt a sudden shame that he had doubted Halleck even for an instant. It occurred to Paul, then, that the making of Halleck’s scar had been accompanied by pain — a pain as intense, perhaps, as that inflicted by a Reverend Mother. He thrust this thought aside; it chilled their world.

I wonder if the reference to “chill[ing] their world” is a callback to the aphorism about the four things that “support the world,” which appears only six pages earlier.

In Children of Dune, Halleck’s experience with the Harkonnens is cast in a specifically colonial light. Allow me to pick up where I left off with the passage that opened this essay (p205):

He saw it clearly, recalling the mannerisms of the city Fremen, the pattern of the suburbs, and the unmistakable ways of the rural sietch which rubbed off even on this smugglers’ hideaway. The rural districts were colonies of the urban centers. They’d learned how to wear a padded yoke, led into it by their greed if not their superstitions. Even here, especially here, the people had the attitude of a subject population, not the attitude of free men. They were defensive, concealing, evasive. Any manifestation of authority was subject to resentment — any authority: the Regency’s, Stilgar’s, their own Council . . .

When Halleck makes these observations, they are not out of the haughtiness of a white outsider who finds native mendacity in a colonized people. Rather, he observes with the profound empathy of someone whose people suffered the same experience. Perhaps it is an instance of what scholars call “South-South” connection: A moment of solidarity between subject peoples.

At the same time, Halleck recognizes that his identity is not the same as the Fremen’s. All brown people are not same! Observing a tree that he believes does not belong in Arrakis’s indigenous landscape, he remarks, of himself and the tree: “Both of us are alien here” (p205). He is both insider and outsider to the Fremen.

Halleck believes that he can use his experience to aid the Fremen. The rest of this passage seems to confirm this reading (p205):

I can’t trust them, Halleck thought. He could only use them and nurture their distrust of others. It was sad. Gone was the old give and take of free men. The old ways had been reduced to ritual words, their origins lost to memory.

Alia had done her work well, punishing opposition and rewarding assistance, shifting the Imperial forces in random fashion, concealing the major elements of her Imperial power. The spies! Gods below, the spies she must have!

Halleck could almost see the deadly rhythm of movement and counter-movement by which Alia hoped to keep her opposition off balance.

If the Fremen remain dormant, she’ll win, he thought

Halleck’s approach here roughly tracks the Martiniquan psychiatrist and anti-colonial fighter Frantz Fanon’s writing, particularly in his classic Wretched of the Earth. Fanon’s description of the “lumpenproletariat” seems to closely mirror Herbert’s depiction of the Fremen through Halleck (and elsewhere): Rural peasants far away from the urban metropoles, key figures in anti-colonial revolution, but somewhat uneducated and thus capable of being used as a colonizing or counterrevolutionary force. Hence, they require guidance from radical leaders who can help show them their bonds so that they might break them. They are also natural-born fighters, fighting being instinctive to them as part of their belonging to the “earth” and their adherence to a lifestyle beyond the cities. (That said, Fanon and Herbert are more generous than that, but not too much more generous, and Fanon’s description of the lumpenproletariat is a subject of much debate, see https://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5311 and https://newleftreview-org.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/issues/ii66/articles/michael-denning-wageless-life. Some of the essentialism is there in both Herbert and Fanon, I think, which is as much praise of Herbert as a dish on Fanon.)

Paul somewhat fulfills the “radical leader who guides the lumpenproletariat” mold, but he merely reinstates the empire. Leto II fills that role perhaps more precisely, since his Golden Path is an attempt to return to a pre-colonial, pre-modern, perhaps specifically Islamic and MENA condition (those abovementioned “brown-skinned mothers”).

And, most importantly here, the radical leader mold fits Halleck: A Moor and a general from the city who wants to help guide the Fremen in an anti-colonial revolution, and who, perhaps like Fanon in Algeria, compares their condition to that of his own colonized and enslaved people. To put it more crudely: It’s one brown dude helping other brown dudes liberate themselves from Fanonian psychological colonization!

At the same time, Halleck does not regard the Fremen as entirely lost. He recalls events from the first book (p206):

[H]e thought of Esmar Tuek, for whom this sietch had been named. Esmar, long dead of someone’s treachery, would have slit the throat of this Melides [the Fremen to whom Halleck is speaking] on sight.

Esmar Tuek, readers may recall, was a Fremen smuggler in Dune. He seems to have regarded Paul skeptically in the infamous dinner banquet scene, toasting him in jest (p150). After Esmar is killed in the attack on the Atreides, Halleck and his men escape and eventually meet with Esmar’s son, Staban Tuek.

While some of Herbert’s portrayal of the Fremen bears the orientalist hallmarks of essentialism and romanticization, the conversation between Halleck and Staban reveals one of the ways in which Herbert complicates that portrayal. As Halleck tries to get Staban to rally his men to support Halleck’s troop, Staban refers to himself as separate from the Fremen (“Me or the Fremen,” p267), despite the fact that he “wore Fremen robes” (p264). Staban even distinguishes his smugglers as more “civilized” than the Fremen (p267):

Do you wish to choose now between me and the Fremen? We have a measure of security, our own sietch carved out of the rock, our own hidden basins. We five the lives of civilized men. The Fremen are a few ragged bands that we use as spice-hunters.

When Halleck counters that the Fremen “can kill Harkonnens,” Staban replies (p267):

And do you wish to know the result? Even now they are being hunted down like animals — with lasguns, because they have no shields. They are being exterminated. Why? Because they killed Harkonnens…

Me or the Fremen. I will promise you sanctuary and a chance to draw the blood we both want. Be sure of that. The Fremen will offer you only the life of the hunted.

Not only do the Fremen differ among themselves — even in naming themselves as Fremen — but they also exercise different strategies in the resistance to colonial power.

When Halleck recalls Esmar Tuek at the end of Children of Dune, he is also remembering the kind of Fremen who might bring about anti-colonial resistance. And it is Halleck’s experience and memory of enslavement and colonization that allows him this insight. His recollection of Tuek also reminds readers that his role as teacher to Paul is not his only characteristic, as it might be of a noble savage — for he is also marked by his cunning military strategy and tact as a negotiator.

(See Addendum on points of similarity between Dune and Wretched of the Earth, with a caveat.)

The Moor’s Legacy

Soon after Halleck’s observations about the Fremen, he aids Leto II’s rise to power, because he thinks this will bring about the change he sees as necessary to restore the Fremen tradition. In part, this seems to be a specifically Muslim tradition. Halleck sees the Cast Out as worshipping Leto II as a god (p212):

The Cast Out worked like men driven by a devil, and perhaps they were. Before every meal, they faced the Tanzerouft and prayed to Shai-Hulud personified. That was how they saw Leto and, through their eyes, Halleck saw a future where most of humankind shared that view. Halleck wasn’t sure he liked the prospect.

In part, the passage fits with Herbert’s ongoing critique of saviors and myths. But it also, and simultaneously (because that critique is tied up with Islamic approaches to prophethood and divine revelation), seems to reflect a notion familiar to many Muslim traditions: That no person or animal (aka worm!) is God. Perhaps this has to do with Halleck’s Moorish roots.

On the other hand, Herbert narratively places Halleck in a way that is uncomfortable to me. In the last few scenes of Children of Dune, several Fremen characters with Arab and Muslim names are killed, and Halleck is part of that process (even if they are worshipping Leto II — Herbert chose to write it that way).

More significantly, the scenes from Children of Dune that I have discussed in this essay are readers’ last taste of Halleck. His farewell is a stirring evocation of his experiences with enslavement and colonialism. But it is also a sad reminder of what the novels might have been if readers had seen more of the Moor from outer space.

Conclusions

It is not entirely clear whether Halleck really was meant to be a brown or black man, let alone a Moor. But there is enough evidence in the text of the novels to suggest that reading. And, if they haven’t already, readers should welcome it.

I applaud the race-swapping of Liet Kynes (although we will see how it is portrayed on screen — I haven’t yet seen the film). But what might a cinematic adaptation look like if Halleck were portrayed as he seems to be in the books: A Moor wreaked by the traumas of enslavement and colonization, who uses those experiences to help others in a similar position, and yet who is not defined by his oppression?

What if, instead of this:

Or this:

Or this:

We got this?

Leo Africanus, sometimes speculated to be the inspiration for Othello.

NOTE: I was going to write this up as one of my Children of Dune reading entries, but had to put that on pause due to other obligations. I will return to the entries later. There is a lot more to uncover.

Addendum: Fanon & Dune

I recently revisited Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and noticed a few points of similarity with Dune. This is not to say Herbert is anywhere as close to Fanon in his understanding of subaltern experiences and anti-imperial resistance. It is simply interesting to locate a few shared lines of thought, and to ask how someone like Herbert, with his orientalist and conservative leanings, could share something with Fanon:

(1) Relationship between mountain guerillas (like the Jacurutu), rural areas, and urban elites in the cities.

(2) Role of indigenous elites (political and religious leaders, and businesspersons).

(3) Idea of resentment of the indigenous people toward both each other and the colonizers.

(4) Fanon’s idea of the lumpenproletariat is quite similar to Herbert’s portrayal of the “new Fremen.”

(5) Use of spies to sow chaos and inform on insurgents (Alia does this).

(6) Effect of colonizers “going native” and of collaborating colonized peoples in disrupting the colonized’s sense of a clear “black and white” as to who is the actual oppressor.

(7) Fanon’s focus on strategic nationalism over pan-African solidarity and negritude is different but shares some similarities with Herbert’s idea of local community over the imperium as a centralized system (but I also think Fanon’s critique of essentialism can be easily levelled at Herbert).

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Haris Durrani

Author, Technologies of the Self. | PhD student @Princeton. JD, BS @Columbia. Law, history, technology. Outer space. Postcolonialism. Modernity. Dune.