Reading Children of Dune, Entry 2: Law & Modernity; Biblical Beasts & Jacurutu Origins; Herbert, Republican? (pp. 29–66)

Haris Durrani
25 min readJun 6, 2021

I dissect the relationship between law and modernity in the context of Fremen customs and ecology. I make a wild discovery (hitherto unacknowledged, as far as I’ve found — kull-wahad!) about Herbert’s esoteric Biblical references to the “Beast from the Earth” in The Book of Revelation, and speculate on the beast’s relationship to Pascoal Naib’s (Duna Arrakis Brasil) incredible findings (also hitherto unacknowledged — kull-wahad!) on the likely origins of Herbert’s “Jacurutu” in an account from the Mura people of indigenous Brazil. I contemplate Herbert’s conservative politics, legal realism, and anti-liberalism in the appearance of the Baron as Abomination. I ponder Herbert’s potentially Islamic and/or Buddhist references to divine unity. And more.

Previous: Entry 1 | Next: Entry 3| Table of Contents for my essay series on Dune.

Note: Page numbers refer to the 1987 Ace edition of Children of Dune (CoD).

Law, Ecology, Modernity

A few observations when Leto and Ghanima first discuss the changes to Arrakis:

(1) Law and modernity: Leto refers to the maxim “Nous avons changé tout cela,” from the French “We have changed all that” (p. 30). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable contextualizes the meaning of the phrase: “A facetious reproof to someone who lays down the law on everything and talks contemptuously of old customs, old authors, old artists and the like. The phrase is taken from molière’s Le Médecin Malgré Lui (II, iv (1666))” (link via Infoplease, but I checked the e-book via my academic access). Not sure if Herbert knew the origins (which are about medical knowledge), but the general use of the phrase is to suggest a modernization process from custom to law. In fact, Brewer’s tags the “key concept” of the phrase as “law,” and Broadway director Donald Pippin’s 1995 version of the play changes the line to “That’s been modernized.”

(2) Old Fremen ways and ecological change: Continued description of the twins as fundamentally Fremen, e.g. “Leto found himself thinking now in the Old Fremen manner, wary of change, fearful in the presence of the new” (p. 31). One could read this as denigrating the Fremen, but I think Herbert, or at least Leto/Ghanima, appears empathetic toward the Fremen wariness of change.

I wonder if there’s an inconsistency here when Leto says “The tribes must be warned,” but simultaneously suggests his wariness of the destruction of Arrakis by terraforming comes from thinking in “that Old Fremen manner.” I also recall that there were Fremen who were upset about the terraforming back in Dune Messiah (beginning with Farok, and the conspirators) and felt the old ways of the Fremen were being lost. The way I’m reconciling this is that many of the Fremen are lost, but there are still rebels out and about, and Leto is here expressing views in line with the Fremen rebels.

(3) Another point on ecological change: I don’t think Herbert’s suggesting that the Old Fremen ways are resistant to change because the Fremen (of which the twins count themselves among) are simply savages or fools, but because of particular environmental conditions. I’m intrigued by the fact that this scene contains descriptions of the technological innovations inherent in the old customs. For instance, Leto describes how the sandtrout were introduced to Dune and interacted with the water. Throughout the scene, Leto and Ghanima observe the qanat (lit. “channel” in Arabic), which was a customary form of water transportation in the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia. I wonder if Herbert was also thinking about similar water systems in the American west/midwest, given his interest in sand dunes, water scarcity, and ecology in Oregon — there is an enormous body of legal, historical, and environmental literature on riparian rights in the American west. The qanat here seems to be used for the greening of Arrakis, but the older uses of it (e.g. predator fish to ward off sandtrout) are described as well. I see all of these “old” forms of technological/ecological innovation as displaying the epigraph which opens this scene (Book of Diatribes, From the Hayt Chronicle, p. 28):

I give you the desert chameleon, whose ability to blend itself into the background tells you all you need to know about the roots of ecology and the foundations of a personal identity.

Leto expands on this idea later in the scene (p. 33):

Human interplay with that environment had never been more apparent to them. They felt themselves as integral parts of a dynamic system held in delicately balanced order. The new outlook involved a real change of consciousness which flooded them with observations. As Liet-Kynes had said, the universe was a place of constant conversation between animal populations. The haploid sandtrout had spoken to them as human animals.

It’s interesting that Leto almost reduces the thinking of the tribes by then saying “The tribes would understand a threat to water.” Ghanima politely rebukes him (pp. 33–34):

“But it’s a threat to more than water. It’s a — ” She fell silent, understanding the deeper meaning of his words. Water was the ultimate power symbol on Arrakis. At their roots Fremen remained special-application animals, desert survivors, governance experts under conditions of stress. And as water became plentiful, a strange symbol transfer came over them even while they understood the old necessities. “You mean a threat to power,” she corrected him.

The description of Fremen as experts in the field of ecology is especially notable. However, the way the twins speak of “the Fremen” in this exchange makes them appear, perhaps concerningly, apart from the Fremen (despite their mother, Chani, who receives no mention), and thus able to comment about them with “objective distance.” Three readings of that: (a) Herbert and/or the twins themselves still see them as coded white/outsider. (b) They’re simply speaking about the topic of Fremen generally, even if they consider themselves Fremen. (c) Their vast memories place them in a unique position of slight alienation from any particular community, or to put it another way, in a unique position to opine in the abstract about their community, having absorbed its cultural memory. My guess is closer to the latter two, but I think some of (a) remains.

Anyhow, we also see Herbert’s fascination with power symbols. The conversation continues in a way that suggests the tribes are willing to listen to reason:

“Of course.”

“But will they believe us?”

“If they see it happening, if they see the imbalance.”

“Balance,” she said, and repeated her father’s words from long ago: “It’s what distinguishes a people from a mob.”

The reference to balance, and the contrast with the mob, is notworthy. It reminds me of a 1981 interview, in which Herbert, discussing his novel Soul Catcher, says that people tend to romanticize (he doesn’t quite use that word) indigenous cultures as perfectly aligned with their ecologies. He adopts a different view:

HERBERT: Many people, for instance, think that the Indians were the best ecologists this land has ever seen. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Some native American cultures were actually quite hard on their environments. They were just slower — because their populations were small — at causing damage than the whites were.

PLOWBOY: Really?

HERBERT: Some tribes practiced several forms of massive kill — such as driving buffalo off of cliffs — which were sure to improve the lot of the people doing so at the expense of those who didn’t. But since the rate of the environmental change resulting from such acts was too slow to be encompassed by most people’s awareness of time, many men and women think that the native American societies could have lived in harmony with their environment forever if they’d just been left alone.

PLOWBOY: I must admit I’ve always believed that to be true. How do you perceive humanity’s relationship with the environment today?

HERBERT: I look upon our involvement with the environment — and by the way, all of man’s intrusions into the environment are totally natural phenomena — as a continual learning process in which there are no absolutes. Whatever we do causes changes, and we can cause gross disruption to our surroundings as a result of small-order determinations.

Now, I don’t know how true these claims are (I welcome those who know more to chime in!). But I am reminded a little bit of historian Alan Greer’s recent book, Property and Dispossession, which also makes some efforts to de-romanticize indigenous environmental practices. It’s hard for me to situate where Herbert is offering a really nuanced take on indigenous practices that refuses to romanticize and where he is just proffering a racist critique. Speaking from my closer knowledge of Islam and MENA cultures, I tend to feel that he is so sympathetic if not empathetic to indigenous practices that he is more likely attempting to engage with nuance and avoid romanticization. But with respect to his engagement with Native American practices, that’s not my domain of lived experience or expertise (his close ties with indigenous communities in the United States would indicate he’s trying for nuance over crude critique, but I don’t want to speculate more at the moment — I recommend this excellent talk by Daniel Immerwahr on the subject).

I’ll also just add that the notion of balance between change and custom, or reason and tradition (which are not always the same) is often thought of as fundamental to Islam. (I think the historian and theorist of shari’a, Wael Hallaq, calls this the “Great Synthesis,” although there is much disagreement within Islamic studies on the subject.)

A later epigraph reflects on this theme: Leto’s Vow after Harq al-Ada (p. 55):

I hear the wind blowing across the desert and I see the moons of a winter night rising like great ships in the void. To them I make my vow: I will be resolute and make an art of government; I will balance my inherited past and become a perfect storehouse of my relic memories. And I will be known for kindliness more than for knowledge. My face will shine down the corridors of time for as long as humans exist.

Related note, which gets at this theme of the balance between tradition and change: Harq al-Ada (aka Farad’n as scribe of Leto II) is literally “the one who changes customs” in Arabic.

(4) The Queen of Sheba: Finally, the Leto/Ghanima conversation ends with a reference to the Queen of Sheba (p. 32):

Her words called up their father in him and he said: “Economics versus beauty — a story older than Sheba.”

I’m not sure how that fits in with the above themes. In my understanding of the Qur’anic account, the queen was a powerful and intelligent leader, and a sun-worshipper (perhaps Zoroastrian), who eventually converted to Judaism in her interactions with King Solomon (PBUH). (I understand Jewish accounts are similar.) However, I think Herbert is referring to the Biblical and Christian accounts, which, from what I gather, focuses on both her exchange of goods with Solomon and her beauty, including her possible marriage to Solomon. That all makes sense with respect to “economics versus beauty,” but I’m yet to make the connection to the discussion of “balance” which preceded it. I suppose the “balance” between ecological stability and change is like the balance between Sheba’s wealth and her beauty? If so, not a great comparison. But perhaps I’m missing something.

Also note that the queen was likely Ethiopian and black. As I write this entry, I’m about 2/3rds through the book and notice lots of Biblical references to what appear to be people or places from Ethiopia and/or Yemen, as well as to sun-worship. I’ll dig into that when I get there.

Biblical Beasts & Eschatology

Herbert draws on some wild Biblical eschatology. I suspect I’ve come across an aspect of the Dune novels that’s gone unnoticed to most readers — I have yet to find any discussion of the following.

Epigraph from the Revised Orange Catholic Bible (p. 38):

And I beheld another beast coming up out of the sand; and he had two horns like a lamb, but his mouth was fanged and fiery as the dragon and his body shimmered and burned with great heat while it did hiss like the serpent.

This is indeed Herbert’s “revision” from The Book of Revelation 13:11:

Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon.

My knowledge of Christian theology is thin, so I welcome others’ insights. From what I can gather, The Book of Revelation is esoteric, subject to multiple readings, perhaps a description of the past, of ongoing events, or of the apocalypse. 13:11 refers to “the Second Beast” — from Wikipedia:

The second beast is primarily described in Revelation chapter thirteen. This second beast comes out of the earth whose overall appearance is not described, other than having “two horns like a lamb”, and speaking “like a dragon”.[4] His purpose is to promote the authority of the first beast with the ability to perform great signs, even making fire come down out of Heaven. This second beast is also called the false prophet.[5] He speaks like a dragon commanding the people of the Earth to make an image “to” the beast that was wounded by a sword. It is declared that anyone who does not worship the beast or its image would be killed.[6] The lamb-horned beast from the earth also causes all people to receive the mark of the beast “in their right hand or in their forehead.”[7]

The Revelation of St John: 12. The Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lamb’s Horn. A woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

The fact that the Second Beast is referred to as a false prophet would seem to fit with the Dune series’ themes of prophethood/false messiahs. The Second Beast seems to have been interpreted in a few different ways — the ones that jumped out to me: (A) as a literal beast, (B) as a symbol of the “Roman imperial cult,” and (C) as a symbol of the economic, cultural, and religious powers which compel people to plead allegiance to the state (possibly also materialism). Also, Baha’is read the beast as the Ummayad Caliphate in its wars against the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Ali — having read a bit further in the book, this may be relevant to the Dune mythology. (There are a host of other, perhaps less palatable views, such as that the beast represents Muhammad himself, labor unions, etc. I’m skeptical that’s what Herbert was going for.) If you peruse Wikipedia and more serious scholarship, there is so much to mine about this passage.

Herbert’s reference to the Second Beast is fascinating. I wonder to whom it’s referring. There are a few possible readings:

(A) The Second Beast is Paul/Muad’Dib. Muad’Dib had serious antichrist/dajjal vibes in Dune Messiah (as I wrote elsewhere), and, as mentioned above, CoD opens on how Muad’Dib has been deified to terrible ends. Moreover, this epigraph opens the first introduction to the Preacher, aka Paul. (But perhaps the epigraph is in reference to that which the Preacher speaks against or portends — which could be either (B) or (C) below.)

(B) It’s his son Leto II, as he is about to become the God Emperor, who will literally become a dragonlike beast risen up from the sand who will be worshipped as a god. This is probably the most obvious answer.

(C) It’s the followers of the “religion of Muad’Dib” (which I interpret to be many Fremen, but also others throughout the empire, given the pilgrims who travel to Arrakis on Hajj), including Alia’s priests. This would align with the Roman imperial cult reading of the Second Beast, and perhaps with the Arabic/Greek roots of the Qizarates (“preach” from the New Testament). It may also align with the idea that the beast represents materialism or the forces which compel obedience to the state (the priests/Qizarates are described in this way throughout Dune Messiah and CoD).

My two cents is that the passage refers to Leto II/the God Emperor. If that’s the case, that’s revealing, because it suggests that Herbert is saying that the God Emperor is an antichrist (or in Islamic eschatology, dajjal) like figure… meaning that his Golden Path is actually a bad thing, in Herbert’s view (counter to some people’s view that Herbert was a right wing nut who IRL wanted to promote the Golden Path as a Thanos-like purge of the universe…although Herbert can still be a right wing nut regardless, ha).

However, my gut reading could be wrong. Some scholars view the Biblical Second Beast as the same as the Islamic “Beast of the Earth” (Dabbat al-Ard), which is interpreted by some, like the Second Beast of the New Testament, as a symbol of materialism. It’s referred to in the Qur’an, Surah An-Naml (the Ant), Ayah 82 (Muhammad Asad trans.):

Now, [as for the deaf and blind of heart-] when the word [of truth] stands revealed against them, We shall bring forth unto them out of the earth a creature which will tell them that mankind had no real faith in Our messages.

17th-c Mughal depiction of Dabbat al-Ard

This gives rise to a few observations:

(1) The Islamic Beast of the Earth is connected to the death of the believers prior to the end of the world. From my recollection, the God Emperor’s reign will lead to the destruction of most of the Fremen — who Herbert seems to describe throughout the series as the true believers (against later innovations by the “religion of Muad’Dib,” etc.).

(2) As the above passage from the Qur’an states, the beast in Islamic eschatology will speak to those who remain (the wrongdoers) and admonish them. My recollection of God Emperor of Dune is faint, but I do recall there is a lot of Leto II speaking political philosophy into the ether.

(3) No idea if Herbert was actually aware of this, but some accounts state that the beast will carry Solomon’s seal. Maybe some connection to the Sheba/Solomon reference made earlier? (I doubt it.)

If anyone has any theories or readings on how the Christian or Islamic eschatology here matches with what’s happening in the books, I’m all ears.

A final note: The Book of Revelation is thought to be narrated by “John,” one of the possible identities being John the Apostle, a disciple of John the Baptist, to which Leto makes later reference — more on that when I get there.

As far as I have found, few if any have caught or speculated about this aspect of Children of Dune. However, I found a detailed analysis in Sanjana Singh’s master’s dissertation at University of South Africa, Messiahs and Martyrs: Religion in Selected Novels of Frank Herbert (2012), although Singh does not seem to directly identify or discuss the excerpts from The Book of Revelation regarding the beast in CoD. (See also this and this, generally talking about the Second Beast and The Book of Revelation, but not discussing the revision of it in CoD.) Overall, I don’t think anyone has really picked out this element of the Dune series — although I welcome others to correct me.

The Beast & Jacurutu’s Origins in Indigenous Brazil

An addendum to the previous section: I wonder if the Second Beast/Beast of the Earth has some relation to the Jacrutu legend which is indigenous to Brazil — the likely origins for Herbert’s use of the term. I’d asked on Twitter about the origins of Jacurutu, and — kull-wahad! — the Dune community is a bounteous sietch: Many thanks to Pascoal Naib (Duna Arrakis Brasil) for doing the anthropological deep dive and finding the origins for Herbert’s use of Jacurutu. Pascoal posted about it on Medium, with further comments on Twitter:

The description is from Altino Berthier Brasil’s Amazônia Legendária (ed. Posenato Arte & Cultura, 1999). The similarities between the indigenous legend and Herbert’s use of Jacurutu are striking on multiple levels, as Pascoal discusses.

In the legend, Jacurutu was a chief who ate the children of his own people, the Muras, thinking they were from another people, the Arawak. The Muras send an old turtle with a sticky shell to trap Jacurutu; long story short, the turtle tricks the chief into resting a foot on his shell, and the turtle subsequently drags the chief such that he eventually drowns in a river. Before drowning, Jacurutu expresses his mistake, suggests he was tricked by a devil (Anang), and asks that his people avenge him against their enemies, the Arawak. He then adds, according to Altino Berthier Brasil’s account:

Since I cannot restore your children’s lives, I will leave them an inheritance, capable of perfecting their weapons. My corpse will turn into a plant. My arms will generate the red stick of the ipe, for the bows; the bamboo, for the arrows, and the paracuuba, for the arrowheads. From my nerves will come the tucum to the string of bows; from my hair, the thread of carauá to tie the feathers, and from my fat, the oil to lubricate and soften the rope.

I’m going to hold off on any detailed discussion of the Jacurutu legend until I reach the chapters where Leto actually gets to the Jacurutu sietch, and I won’t opine on the reasons this legend from the Mura people is probably the source from which Herbert got the term “Jacurutu.” (Except to note that the use of this story may align with Herbert’s relationship to indigenous practices, which was extensive, particularly with respect to the Quileute and Hoh Tribes in North America.)

Rather, I bring up Jacurutu only in reference to the identity of the “Second Beast”/“Beast of the Earth,” as the Mura legend of Jacurutu may shed light on it. I wonder whether Herbert was trying to map the Biblical (and perhaps Qur’anic references) to the Beast onto the Jacurutu legend. On the one hand, the conflict between the Mura and the Arawak may be a reference to the earlier schisms among Fremen tribes that accompany the origins of the Jacurutu sietch in the Dune novels, and Jacurutu’s mistaken consumption of the children of his own tribe is quite similar to the Jacurutu sietch’s stealing of the water from the other tribes. On the other hand, there are a few other possible interpretations:

(A) The turtle, which is referenced in Dune (more on that when I get there!), is supposed to refer to Leto II as the coming Beast / God Emperor? (Or alternatively Muad’Dib and/or the Preacher?)

(B) Leto / the God Emperor as Beast is supposed to be a stand-in for Jacurutu himself — Jacurutu’s description of becoming a tree might be read as similar to Leto becoming the God Emperor out of the environment of Arrakis. Maybe Leto absorbing all the spice on Arrakis, once he becomes God Emperor, is like Jacurutu eating the Mura children. And Perhaps there is something to be said about Leto’s revival of cultural memory that is like Jacurutu’s “death” and persistence (a word used in Dune with respect to the Jacurutu sietch — I’ll flag that when I get there) as nature.

In my view, both interpretations are a stretch. The use of the Jacurutu legend in Dune establishes the backdrop for the Jacurutu sietch. But (B) may have some credibility. I figure it is worth flagging this theory.

(I also welcome any scholars of indigenous Brazil to chime in to correct me on anything I’ve written. I don’t want to normalize orientalist accounts of the Mura and Arawak, the latter of whom are also indigenous to one of my countries of diasporic origin, the Dominican Republic. I’m always wary of those anthropologists!)

Frank Herbert, Republican?

The Abomination scene, in which the Baron first appears in Alia’s head, may be revealing about Herbert’s politics.

The Baron welcomes Alia’s invocation of the Bene Gesserit “precept”: “The purpose of argument is to change the nature of truth” (p. 62). Gets at Herbert’s themes on power and symbols, the double-edged tool of mythmaking.

In their final exchange, the Baron comforts Alia for having ordered Paymon’s execution (p. 64):

“You did right! Your judgments cannot be based on any such foolish abstract as that Atreides notion of equality. That’s what kept you sleepless, not Paymon’s death. You made a good decision! He was another dangerous tool. You acted to maintain order in your society. Now there’s a good reason for judgments, not this justice nonsense! There’s no such thing as equal justice anywhere. It’s unsettling to a society when you try to achieve such a false balance.”

The Baron’s language is quite similar to Herbert’s statement in the essay “Dune Genesis (July 1980, Omni Magazine):

Reevaluation raised haunting questions. I now believe that evolution, or deevolution, never ends short of death, that no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle, that all humans are not created equal. In fact, I believe attempts to create some abstract equalization create a morass of injustices that rebound on the equalizers. Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability.

This is where the question of Herbert’s conservative politics enters the picture. Most accurately, I read Herbert as anti-liberal and as a legal realist, and his position in those respects sometimes dips into conservative or libertarian ideology but can also sway into socialist, anarchist, or anti-imperial ideology. It’s especially intriguing that Herbert raises what seem to be his skeptical views about “equal justice” through the lips of the Baron. I recall an interview somewhere (or perhaps a line from Brian Herbert’s biography) in which Herbert said that as a debater and political speechwriter he enjoyed taking the views of those with whom he disagreed, or pretending to say one thing when he meant another (very Bene Gesserit of him, eh?). This may be an instance of it. Herbert famously thought of Paul as demonstrating the dangers of a charismatic liberal figure like JFK.

Indeed, the next line of the Abomination/Baron scene with Alia makes the connection between equal justice and the Atreides (p. 64):

Alia felt pleasure at this defense of her judgment against Paymon, but shocked at the amoral concept behind the argument. “Equal justice was an Atreides… was…” She took her hands from her eyes, but kept her eyes closed.

Herbert leaned conservative, but I also read him as critiquing the entire political spectrum. There is that infamous dinner scene in Dune, about which Herbert stated that he wished to show that “the House Atreides acts with the same arrogance toward ‘common folk’ as do their enemies,” the Harkonnens. “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it. The arrogant are, in part, created by the meek.” (I tweeted about this here).

In Dreamer of Dune, Brian Herbert describes Herbert’s work at Congress for the conservative Senator Guy Gordon (Oregon) and his interactions with his cousin, Senator Joseph McCarthy (yes, that McCarthy), as well as another Kennedy — RFK (pp. 90–93):

It’s clear from this passage that Herbert became disillusioned with both sides of the political spectrum as equal participants in McCarthyism, and that this experience directly influenced how he approached the politics of the Dune books. I read the dinner scene as a recreation of the Cordon/RFK/McCarthy interactions in the Senate. Also, the presence of the Puerto Ricans is fascinating and suggests a possible influence for the role of empire in Herbert’s understanding of politics. (The first scene that came to mind as a potential comparison to the Puerto Ricans was Stilgar’s first entrance in Dune, although the final battle/destruction of the capital is probably the more appropriate comparison.)

In this context, I read the Abomination scene as Herbert’s attempt to demonstrate the dangers of catering to a crude critique of “equal justice” as an ideal — as I read it, by putting these words in the Baron’s manipulative metaphysical lips, he’s suggesting that one ought not “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” During this period (if not today), the idea of the critique of “equal justice” as too idealistic was often laid against liberals and socialists on the left end of the spectrum in the United States, as well as against “Third World” socialist movements who fought for global redistribution of resources in the name of equal justice. There’s no doubt that Herbert is riding this wave of conservative critique. But his choice to have the Baron say it suggests to me that he remains sympathetic to “equal justice” as an ideal — in fact, he says exactly this in the above-quoted line, which I’ll repeat: “Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability.” This seems to be a realist critique of liberalism and bureaucracy, rather than a prescription — i.e., he’s saying we live in an unequal world of haves and have-nots, and political ideals such as equal justice ought to be achieved at the same time as the flaws of human institutions and power relations are taken into account. Indeed, socialist, anarchist, and anti-imperialist movements on the left end of the spectrum, in the mid-twentieth century and today, remain critical of liberalism and the language of “equal justice” or “human rights,” as well as of the welfare state (and law and the state in general) as an instrument of power.

Anyhow, the Abomination scene continues (p. 64):

“All of your priestly judges should be admonished about this error,” the Baron argued. “Decisions must be weighed only as to their merit in maintaining an orderly society. Past civilizations without number have foundered on the rocks of equal justice. Such foolishness destroys the natural hierarchies which are far more important. Any individual takes on significance only in his relationship to your total society. Unless that society be ordered in logical steps, no one can find a place in it — not the lowliest or the highest. Come, come, grandchild! You must be the stern mother of your people. It’s your duty to maintain order.”

This generally aligns with my readings of what Herbert’s trying to say politically here. The entire Dune series thus far, and especially Dune Messiah and CoD, is all about the problem of attempting to rule by “the science of the law,” i.e. by a regime of absolute order. Herbert definitely is not one for “the natural hierarchies” of the world. His universe is not a “logical” one of “maintain[ing] order” — and I don’t read CoD as promoting Alia’s reign in this fashion. Hence, again, it seems to me that Herbert is trying to show the dangers of falling all the way into the crude critique of “equal justice” — that such a view is as dangerous as those who uncritically worship at the alter of equality as a political ideal. Both lead to political absolutism. Maybe this tension is what Leto and Ghanima meant to address in their abovementioned discussion of “balance.”

Don’t get me wrong — there is still room, within this worldview, to say Herbert is a conservative. I honestly don’t think Herbert came to a clear resolution on these issues, and the Dune novels are his way of thinking through them. There is a significant debate right now among historians about whether leftist radicals in the twentieth-century embraced or rejected ideals such as civil or human rights, the state, and the rule of law. Herbert’s playing in that ideological sandbox, and locating him within its shifting topology is a mess (bad pun, ha, I know). In my view, the fact that Herbert could not take a clear side on particular issues is what is indicative of some of his conservatism. (e.g. I get that the welfare state and liberal thinking have been instruments of empire for Native Americans in the US, as well as “abroad,” and for various other forms of oppression against working class people, women, and people of color in the US— but they’ve also brought great benefits, and I’m not sure Herbert ever fully confronted that fact. Yes, bureaucracy has its pitfalls — but that doesn’t mean Reagan is your answer, as it was his, however ironically.)

Divine Unity

This epigraph from the Commentaries from the C.E.T. (Commission of Ecumenical Translators) stuck out to me:

The Universe is God’s. It is one thing, a wholeness against which all separations may be identified. Transient life, even that self-aware and reasoning life which we call sentient, holds only fragile trusteeship on any portion of the wholeness.

I imagine there is a Buddhist reading. From an Islamic perspective, this language is redolent of the idea of tawhid, or the unity/oneness of God and God’s Creation. Monotheism is a central aspect of Islam, and part of the message of the Qur’an was that prior faith traditions, particularly some aspects of Christianity, had strayed toward deification of people and objects, particularly Jesus (PBUH). In fact, as Martin Nguyen pointed out in our Dune book club with respect to Stilgar’s Qur’an-infused inner monologues in Ch. 1 (see Entry 1), Stilgar’s wariness of the deification of Muad’Dib reads like the Islamic approach to Jesus.

I wonder if this passage came from somewhere specific. I suspect it did, given it’s from the Orange Catholic Bible commentaries, a compendium of multiple traditions’ texts. If anyone knows, please chime in.

Critiques of Prescience

The Preacher scoffs at this remark by a “mummer” (p. 40):

Bah! The universe can be grasped only by the sentient hand. That hand is what drives your precious brain, and it drives everything else that derives from the brain. You see what you have created, you become sentient, only after the hand has done its work!

I read this as again showing Herbert’s critique of prescience, and the related use of law and science as tools of absolute mastery over society and nature.

This view is literally stated in an epigraph from Lectures on Prescience by Harq al-Ada (p. 49):

Either we abandon the long-honored Theory of Relativity or we cease to believe we can engage in continued accurate prediction of the future. Indeed, knowing the future raises a host of questions which cannot be answered under conventional assumptions unless one first projects an observer outside of time and second,, nullifies all movement. If you accept the Theory of Relativity, it can be shown that time and the observer must stand still in relationship to each other or inaccuracies will intervene. This would seem to say that it is impossible to engage in accurate prediction of the future. How, then, do we explain the continued seeking after this goal by respected scientists? How, then, do we explain Mua’Dib?

We also get the Baron’s words, via Alia: “From one viewpoint, child, each incident of creation represents catastrophe” (p. 60). I think this is referring to Buddhist teachings. It’s also very similar to the concept of fana in Islam, in which the universe is not subject to natural law/causality but rather is the result of God destroying and creating the world in every infinitesimal instant. This view is often associated with the ash’ari school of theology, who were proponents of the maxim “bi-la kayfa,” which appears in Dune. The ash’aris may have had connections to Buddhism as well. (I’m planning on writing a longer essay on these topics in Dune at some point. The implications for the series are intriguing.) Fun note: The ash’aris’ theological position tends to say that God’s destruction/recreation of the universe merely follows a divine “habit” or “custom,” which is “ada” in Arabic — as in Harq al-Ada! I doubt Herbert had this connection in mind (although you never know!).

More Biblical Passages

Javid reports Paymon’s quotation of the Orange Catholic Bible: “Maleficos non patieris vivere” (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”) (p. 58). That’s from Exodus 22:18. I read this as a reference to Paymon’s distaste for those Bene Gesserit “witches,” or at least Alia in this context.

Some Terms / Brief Lines

“Galach” (p. 40) — apparently, a Yiddish word for priest, since it literally means “shaven” (and rabbis were traditionally bearded)

“outrine” (p. 40) — apparently from German “rinnen” (central flow of a stream of water) (thanks Reddit; see also Jacurutu). Cool to see Herbert’s obsession with water extend to his play with language.

“the spring month of Laab” (p.56) — not sure where this came from. Any ideas?

“Choda” (p. 56) — also not sure of the origins. Any ideas? … It’s used to describe “Choda’s admonition to the Zensunni: “Leaving the ladder, one may fall upward!” I’m curious if anyone knows the origins here. It reminds me of the idea of the “drunk sufi” — one who falls so deeply into a state of spiritual intoxication (as the Zensunnis may be inclined to do in Dune) that they may lose themselves in it. (This is sometimes the accusation levelled, fairly or otherwise, on Al-Hallaj.)

Bu Ji” and “Book of Kreos” (p. 58) — not sure of the origins. I found a source saying “bu ji” is Mandarin for unlucky, but not sure if that’s right. I suspect Kreos is in reference to the Latin “creo” (“creation”), so that would be “Book of Creation” (which would sound about right). Alia recites from the Book of Kreos the line “Nothing occurs! Nothing occurs!” My guess is this is pulled from Buddhist teachings, but that is not my expertise. I welcome any insights here.

Bahada” (p. 58) — a geographical formation related to slopes/sand dunes. Wiktionary traces it to southwestern US, but is used to describe such formations all over the world. Origins are probably in the Spanish bajada.

Ovid/John Bartlett’s Ibid line (p.60) — thanks to Reddit for explaining that one!



Haris Durrani

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