Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Interlude: Ways of the Fremen

This week we’re breaking out of the main series of posts on the Fremen Mirage (I, II, IIIa, IIIb) to answer a brewing discussion that has been running in the comments: does Dune exist within the literary trope of the Fremen Mirage as we’ve described it?

Now, I should clear about exactly what we’re doing here. The question here is does Frank Herbert deploy the tropes of the Mirage to contextualize the Fremen? Note that this is not a question about a possible Fremen society consistent with Herbert’s words, but a question about his words themselves. I know that a great part of the joy of science fiction is taking the societies on the page and letting your imagination fill out the remaining details, but we’re not asking if we can construct a Fremen society that is or is not within the Mirage, we’re asking if Herbert uses the Mirage. Consequently, no amount of fan theory, one way or the other, can impact the argument either way – if it isn’t in the text of the book, it doesn’t matter because – wait for it – Herbert didn’t put it in the book.

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The Fremen

There has been some wondering in the comments as to how we might understand the Fremen, if they fit the mold of the Mirage, or if their strength comes from something closer to asabiyah, or if they fit into the mold of another way of understanding the success of the Arabs or Mongols and so on. But here is the thing: the Fremen are not like a real society (present or historical): rich, complex and multifaceted, with a near infinite variety of experiences, each its own reality. One may spend a lifetime immersed in a historic culture – even one that, like Rome, is bounded by a finite corpus of literature – and still not necessarily grasp the whole of it.

No, the Fremen are a fictional culture. They are finite, contained in just a handful of books, which are bounded: they consist of just so many words, and no more. Indeed, for discussing the Fremen, we are really limited to just the 180,000 or so words of Dune itself, since by Dune Messiah, Fremen society has fundamentally changed (indeed, anxiety about this change is foundational to both Dune Messiah and Children of Dune). I should note also that the subsequent books by K.J. Anderson and Brian Herbert don’t bear much on the problem either – few of them deal with the Fremen, and even if they did, being written 55 years after the fact, they offer little insight into Frank Herbert’s original creation. For this question, Dune stands almost entirely alone – the unaltered Fremen society exists only within its pages. There is no need for theory, we may confine ourselves to the text. All that matters is what the text says and the direct implication of those words, not what we might wish it to say, or imagine might lurk between the lines.

The Atreides in Arrakeen. The contrast between the durable, solid construction of the Arrakeen palace and the fragile, spindly looking imperial palace on Kaitan strikes me as a visualization of the decadence of imperial court; as we’ll see here, that translates the book just fine.

(Note: I am not saying you may not enjoy the Fremen of your imagination, of course. Doing so is a great part of the joy and challenge of science fiction. I enjoy imagining what sort of society might exist between the lines of a good science fiction book quite a lot myself. My point is that such imaginings are simply not germane to this question, just like the composition of a particular fantasy football team isn’t germane to the question of who will win the Superbowl – the actual NFL is a bounded, finite universe and our fantasy football team – however much it may rightly bring us glorious office bragging rights – exists outside of that universe.)

Let’s begin by quickly recapping what qualities fit into our Fremen Mirage. The societies of the Mirage – like Caesar’s warlike Gauls and Tacitus’ Germans – have several key qualities. I want to remind you, these aren’t true things about any real society, but parts of a literary trope. The Fremen are:

  1. Unsophisticated and poor. They lack access to both material wealth and learning, either of which might be understood to ‘effeminate’ male warriors and thus reduce their combat prowess. They will not value or understand the decadent complexity of more settled societies. The key here is the contempt for wealth and sophistication, bred by poverty, not the poverty itself.
  2. Morally Pure, often framed in gendered and sexual terms. They abstain from luxuries, hold wealth in contempt, and maintain a high degree of sexual purity (e.g. Tacitus’ assertion that the Germans are strictly monogamous and harshly punish adulterers). Likewise, while their religion is often treated very patronizingly, it is typically presented as wholesome as well. Societies in the Mirage have manly men – and often manly women too, in contrast to the effiminization supposedly wrought to decadent societies.
  3. Ruthless and Clever. This is something that perhaps needed to be clearer: these societies are presented as unsophisticated, but not necessarily stupid. Instead, they are often present as tricky and clever, combined with an amoral ruthlessness (something far more pronounced in the late-19th, early 20th centuries versions, where such societies are effectively Nietzschean in their contempt for ‘decadent’ Christian morality).
  4. They are superior fighters and also ‘warlike’ (that is, quick to war, typically taken as a sign of moral virtue, since both ancient and modern Mirage-writers idolize martial valor) typically as a consequence of 1-3.
  5. There is a basis for all of the peculiarities. In the classical version of the Mirage, that basis is found in place; Greek and Roman ethnographers from Herodotus on down tended to think that individual humans were shaped quite profoundly by the place they lived in (e.g. the very literal softness of the Roman legions stationed in Syria was a commonplace, despite a lack of any reality to it – see E. Wheeler, “The laxity of Syrian legions” in The Roman Army in the East ed. David Kennedy (1996)). In the modern version of the mirage, that basis is placed on genetics and race, becoming a core part of the Mirage in the 19th century and bringing with it an attendant interest in ethnic ‘purity.’
  6. Finally, the society is contrasted with ‘decadent’ civilized life, which is everything the Fremen are not: wealthy, book-learned, effeminate, and morally bankrupt, a rotting edifice waiting to be overturned by the morally pure super-warriors of the Mirage.

So to see if Dune employs the Fremen Mirage, we may simple ask: do the Fremen fit these component parts? We’ll go one by one, looking carefully at what the text of Dune tells us about Fremen and Fremen society, checking these off, or crossing them out, one by one.

Brief Methodological Aside: This approach is actually a great opportunity to show some of the historian’s craft. I think one misconception about what historians do is that most of what we do is mass-memorize historical data; I often find that folks are disappointed that professional historians sometimes don’t have encyclopedic recall of such details (that is what we have standard reference works for). But one thing historians do train quite a lot at is how to read and analyze written texts. Of course a wide base of data is essential for this, to understand the context of the text and its place in a broader tradition. But the fact is, a lot of our evidence for the past is locked up in texts of one sort of another, so learning how to read those sources carefully and critically, drawing out the maximum of information and being wary for misinformation or deception is a key skill for a historian.

In this case, what we’re going to do is a form of close-reading. In close-reading, a text is read intensively, noting patterns, themes and arguments, both those intentionally placed by the author, and those that emerge unintentionally (We’re going to just dance right around arguments about the important of authorial intent and ‘death of the author.’ Let’s just say we’re dealing with Schrödinger’s author – at once dead and alive – and leave it at that for today). Normally, close-reading an entire novel would take a long time – you’d move page by page, taking notes on patterns and marking key words and ideas. The results of reading a single source of this length alone might even make for a valuable book project (indeed, Hartog’s Le Miroir d’Hérodote is just such a work). In this case, since I’m already very familiar with the book and also already know what themes I’m looking for, the process was much more rapid. This kind of intensive reading is a tool in the toolbox of pretty much all historians, but I find that pre-modern historians tend to use it more often, because they have fewer sources which they thus have to read a lot more closely. When it comes to evidence, the modern historian’s problem is how to sip a useful conclusion from a fire-hose, whereas the pre-modern historian’s problem is more often how to find water in the desert. Oddly appropriate for today’s topic.

I should also note that when close-reading a novel, you want to be careful to distinguish whose voice is coming out of a given passage. We might, for instance, readily disregard Rabban’s opinion on the Fremen, since the rest of the text is clear that we’re meant to regard him as a muscle-headed fool. By contrast, characters shown to be wise or intelligent in the text – Jessica, Leto, Paul, Hawat, Stilgar, etc. – are far more likely to point us towards the overall tone and meaning of the work. In this sense, the most impactful passages are those delivered by the narrator themselves, especially since Dune features a reliable, third-person omniscient narrator – the narrator is, in essence, the voice of Herbert himself.

Note that all of my citations below (unless they are noted to be another author) are from my print copy of Dune: F. Herbert, Dune (New York, Ace Books, 1995). I don’t know how consistent pagination is between printings. Of course the original was published in 1965.

(1) Wealth and Sophistication

Let’s start with wealth. It’s clear from the text that, for the most part, the native population of Arrakis is quite poor, and the Fremen especially so. This is a society, after all, where even water, so necessary for survival, is a precious commodity. Hawat’s words to Paul, “you’ll see the pressures of thirst all around you” (30) are borne out through the rest of the book. Stilgar’s Fremen are stunned by the wealth implied by the two ‘literjons’ of water in Jessica’s pack, a luxury so trivial Jessica “never before had to think of it this way” and Jamis immediately accuses her of trying to “buy us off with water” (299). “On Arrakis, water was money” (311) – and note the contrast between its conspicuous waste in the Atreides banquet, compared to the careful hoarding of it by the Fremen. They are poor in the way that is most important.

You could nearly establish the entire Mirage merely by a close-reading of this one scene: the banquet (which is far more involved in the book than it is in the miniseries), using Liet-Kynes as a stand-in for the Fremen at large.

They are poor in other ways too. The description of all of Jamis’ goods (312) is limited and pragmatic, the one luxury, an instrument (the baliset) is out of place enough that Paul immediately notes it (313). The rest is humble – and note the adjectives (emphasis mine): a battered literjon, a kerchief with a small book in its center…an assortment of what looked like small rocks within a fold of cloth, a clump of bundled feathers” (313). And yet we find that Jamis was a fairly successful Fremen, who had won duels before (343).

What the Fremen do have is practical – they make paper, plastics and explosives out of the spice (341). But the sietch is a humble affair – “the odor of the place assailed him: unwashed bodies, distillate esthers of reclaimed wastes, everywhere the sour effluvia of humanity…” (341). The teacher’s simple chalkboard (346) is a stark contrast from the high-tech information devices we saw before, like Yueh’s bible (itself both more advanced than book and already antiquated, 39-40), or the Harkonnen library (13-14), or most especially Paul’s educational filmbooks (66). Most crucially, the Fremen lack shields. While shields can be a liability on Arrakis, not having access to them at all is a tremendous disadvantage, as Tuek notes, “they [the Fremen] are being hunted down like animals – with lasguns, because they have no shields” (258). Like insurgents and guerillas the world over, the Fremen simply lack access to their universes’ equivalent of industrialized military machinery.

But most importantly, this poverty has bred the contempt for wealth we expect from the Mirage. While the Fremen are quick to conserve water, most of it is held communally. Meanwhile, one Fremen asserts, “the Harkonnens have not water enough to buy the smallest child among us” (211) and Liet-Kynes quips, “Is it said in the desert that possession of water in great amount can inflict a man with fatal carelessness” (131). Being ‘water fat’ is a epithet (showing up especially in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) and Liet-Kynes’ absolute contempt for the wealthy men at Duke Leto’s banquet is pronounced. In contrast, the Duke setting more store in men than spice (=wealth) earns his admiration and that of the Fremen (126).

Sietch Tabr, from the miniseries. Both the miniseries and the David Lynch film, I think, tend to downplay the technology the Fremen do have – we never seen the windtraps or the spice-plastic, for instance. At the same time, it’s clear that sietchs are small (c. 10,000 people), so any industry they do have must be very small scale by our standards. Sietch Tabr’s stillsuit ‘factory’ is described as something that can be packed up and moved on foot – hardly a modern factory in our sense.

Moving from wealth to sophistication, the Fremen – while not stupid – simply do not understand anything about the wider universe. They do not understand that their religion is a sham meant to manipulate them, something that even Leto – who knows nothing of the Missionara Protectiva – grasps at least partially almost immediately (50-1; 54-5; 105; 284). I struggle to communicate the import of this: everyone we meet from the noble houses knows that the Bene Gesserit are not to be trusted; the Fremen, conditioned by savvier customers than themselves, trust Jessica implicitly (and she abuses that trust with abandon). They seem to know of the Sarduakar, but cannot recognize them, even though it Paul, Gurney, Hawat and apparently rank and file Atreides soldiers can (213, 418-420). Likewise, even wise Fremen characters, like Stilgar, often reveal information to the more sophisticated Atreides without meaning to (basically every scene in which Stilgar talks to Leto or Jessica). And, of course, Stilgar just flatly declares “I don’t understand” when the emperor sends up a CHOAM flag, needing to have the matter explained by Gurney – hardly the most politically astute of the Atreides (452). But, as Stilgar notes – practically making my point for me – “I’ve no experience with these offworld things” (452). We’ll see ‘Herbert simply has a character state his theme’ turns out to be a trend.


(2) Moral Purity

In both the ancient and modern versions of the Mirage, moral purity often circles tightly around sexual ethics. For instance, Tacitus declares “no part is more praiseworthy” of the Germans than their marriage customs and the harsh punishments they meet out for adultery (Tac. Ger. 18). This is in no small part because both versions of the Mirage are expressing anxiety about masculinity: decadence effiminates, whereas Mirage societies are so masculine even their women perform masculine acts (e.g. Tac. Ger. 8). This all funnels directly into the intense concern about masculinity and sexuality inherent in fascism, as bought out by Umberto Eco’s famous essay “Ur-Fascism.

Which means we need to talk about Dune‘s sexual ethics. That’s going to be tricky for two reasons: first because the evidence is not nearly so neatly packaged and concentrated as the evidence for wealth, and second because Dune‘s is making judgments on sexual ethics based on the standards of the 1960s and many of those value judgments are likely to make us more than a little uncomfortable.

I won’t bury the conclusion: Dune presents every sexual relationship outside of the Fremen one of Paul and Chani as dysfunctional to at least some degree, fitting neatly with the Mirage. Crucially, they are all dysfunctional in ways that imply that the men in them are not fully men in some way (this becomes more obvious when you view these relationships from the perspective of American mores in the 1950s and 1960s). In short, the sort of sexual relationship the book approves of can only exist within the Fremen and indeed, once it must exist beyond the strict confines of the sietch, is immediately tainted by the association with ‘civilization.’

I’ve found a number of people harshing on the costumes for the miniseries, but I actually think – in light of the very limited budget – it was quite good, if one assumes that much of it is supposed to be overdone and outlandish. But Duke Leto’s formal dress, which mixes and military uniform with scale armor (sensible, for a society that fights mostly with swords and knives) works well for me.

Let’s start with the most functional relationship that isn’t Fremen: that of Duke Leto and Jessica. It’s a warm relationship and has produced a child (something of a marker of successful relationships, as we’ll see the novel doesn’t seem fond of childless marriages). We may dismiss the tension of the traitor plot – the reader is informed about the identity of the true traitor very early on, so we know that rift is not real. But the non-marriage is embattled by the civilized world. Leto regards his failure to actually marry Jessica as his defining moral failing (104) and reflects bitterly on how the pressures of politics threaten to destroy his family (52). Of course, the civilized world will rob his son of a father and a son. Meanwhile, of course, this domestic arrangement is only possible because Jessica has disobeyed the orders of her order, another way that the civilized world threatens to destroy the non-marriage. So the least decadent relationship outside of a sietch finds itself besieged on all sides by the more decadent society around it – and all this without the perverse irony that Jessica’s true parentage (198) renders the Harkonnen-Atreides dispute a grotesque family affair, where the Baron murders his son-in-law, attempts to have his daughter and grandson killed, and is then murdered by his own granddaughter.

Meanwhile, outside of the Atreides, we have a set of relationships that the book, I think, quite clearly views as fundamentally broken, if not deeply perverse. Let’s start with the obvious: the Baron Harkonnen embodies an old and ugly stereotype of the ‘devious’ and sexually perverted gay villain. Many such figures in fiction are coded gay, but the Baron’s sexual preferences are made explicit in his incestuous lusting after his own, much younger, nephew along with other young boys (186, 240-1). While we may not see Harkonnen’s homosexuality as a sign of damaged sexual morality (quite apart from his predilection towards pedophilia and incest), the book clearly does, presenting all of these things together as if they were all parts of the same ruined whole.

Many of the Imperium’s characters, such as Piter deVries here, speak in the miniseries with accents that would read, I suspect, to the miniseries’ viewers as effeminate sounding. I’m not sure if this was intentional, or just a product of the miniseries’ more European cast (itself, I suspect, a product of its limited budget).
Either way, here are two thoroughly loathsome characters, being thoroughly loathsome.

The Harkonnen Mentat, Piter deVries is presented as a perverse sadist who would be delighted to see even his own cities pillaged by the Sardaukar and demanded and was apparently promised Jessica as a captive (16). Feyd-Rautha is promiscuous, sleeping with both the enslaved women that the Harkonnen hold (372) and Margot Fenring (338-9). We may safely conclude that the text disapproves of slavery in general, and sexual slavery in particular, and also of adultery, given its withering vision of the Harkonnen (and also its insistence over this book and the next that Paul does not ever cheat on Chani, not with Harah or with Irulan, ever). But then it might be argued that the Harkonnens are all villains and this is just villainous cover.

The text gives us few other off-world relationships, but they follow the pattern, if, perhaps, not as dramatically as the Harkonnen. The Emperor’s closest confidant, Hasimir Fenring and his wife Margot Fenring, seem to have a functional relationship, but the text drips with disapproval of it. We find out why when Paul sees Fenring and understands his nature, “Fenring was one of the might-have-beens, an almost-Kwisatz Haderach, crippled by a flaw in the genetic pattern – a eunuch, his talent concentrated into furtiveness and inner seclusion” (487). Fenring is described in gendered terms, as one literally not manly enough to be Paul. Note that such furtiveness is the Bene Gesserit way – clearly coded as feminine through the novel – in which Fenring has some training by way of his wife. He’s “a small man, weak-looking” with a face repeatedly described as “weaselish” (323). It is thus little surprise that – unlike the more manly Paul or Leto – Fenring is made the cuckold by Feyd and in his lack of masculinity simply lets it pass (339 – again, note above that the morality of the book is quite invested in monogamy). That the book views him negatively is obvious in his role as the failed Kwisatz Haderach – he is explicitly lesser than Paul.

Hasimir Fenring with Shaddam IV. The miniseries doesn’t quite capture Fenring’s speech affect as described in the books, but gives him a bit of a lisp instead.

And that leaves Shaddam. We see relatively little of his family, but the verdict – from the pen of his daughter – on his home life is devastatingly delivered (emphasis mine), “You must remember that he was an emperor, father-head of a dynasty that reached back into the dimmest history. But we denied him a legal son. Was that not the most terrible defeat a ruler ever suffered? My mother obeyed her Sister Superiors where the Lady Jessica disobeyed. Which of them was the stronger? History has already answered” (296). Shaddam’s own wife delivers his most terrible defeat, tearing away his father-headship by refusing to bear him a son and Irulan quite clearly condemns her own mother for making the decision.

In contrast, the book presents Fremen home-life as ‘appropriately’ male dominated (remember, this book was published in 1965 and we do not need to share its values), domestically tranquil and productive of children. While Fremen women are often more ‘manly’ than offworld men (see below), the sietch is a male-dominated place. Paul’s defeat of Jamis entitles him to Jamis’ wife Harah, as either his wife or his servant – and when the women in question attempts to voice an opinion, she’s swiftly silenced by Stilgar, “Be silent…if a thing has merit it’ll be” (343). Harah extols her virtue in her youth and ability to bear children (342-3), noting that she has children now from both Jamis and his predecessor (345). I feel I should note that Harah, like everyone in this book and the book itself privileges males over females as children (remember that the Kwisatz Haderach must be male because, in the universe of Dune, a female is simply incapable of utilizing that power; this isn’t an equal-halves thing either – the right male has all of the power, a power Paul’s sister and daughter will both be unable to achieve. Dune is a pretty patriarchal book – again, 1965). Indeed, the sietch – unlike Paul’s upbringing or Shaddam’s, both of which were notably lonely and friendless – is full of children (346, 348). The Fremen are quite frankly fertile, while the ‘civilized’ society is presented as both feminine – note just how many daughters there are about because of the Bene Gesserit’s ability to selectively conceive – and childless. Both parts of the Mirage dating back to (male) Roman authors wringing their hands about unmarried elite Roman women with insufficient children.

And then we have Paul and Chani’s relationship, which is sufficiently unsubtle that I think I may simply note that, while it remains in the sietch, it is the only truly functional such relationship (and produces one of the very few sons in the setting, a son which is – metaphor alert – stolen away by the intrusion of the civilized society!) The only thing to blemish the relationship is that the ‘civilized’ world and its politics forces Paul to “make the same mistake [his] father made” (according to Jessica, 471). Herbert gives the book’s closing line, of course, to a declaration by Jessica that “history will call us wives” (489); given the prominent placement as the final line of the novel, this is practically Herbert speaking to us and rendering a judgment.

To all of this, we may add the Fremen’s incorruptibility (211) and their routinely demonstrated piety, carefully observing their own religion in contrast to the decadent aristocrats with their apparently toothless Orange-Catholic Bible (itself represented as an ecumenical thing with all of the hard edges basically sanded off) doing nothing to stop their plotting and villainy.

So let’s just say…Check.

(3) Ruthlessness and Cleverness

This is an element of the mirage that I think requires some explanation. Societies in the Mirage aren’t generally portrayed as stupid, just unsophisticated. What they lack in book learning and sophistication is made up for by ingenious and practical cleverness and a ruthless disregard for ‘decadent’ morality. This is more pronounced in the modern version of the Mirage (but not entirely absent from the ancient one, cf. Herodotus’ Scythians). For the German Fremen, Arminius (or Hermann) stood in for this sort of ingenious cleverness, ambushing the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest (9 AD), and was one of the consistent heroes of 19th century German nationalism. The same trend in French nationalism focused on the Gallic Fremen is demonstrated at exhaustive length in the Astérix le Gaulois comics, with the clever Gauls outwitting the ‘decadent’ Romans (if it seems unfair to pull out a comic as such an example – it has been continuously published since 1959 and I think we may safely say it is a staple of French culture; that Astérix and his Gauls represent national French resistance, particularly against Nazi occupation, is an observation so common as to have become boring). And, of course, the idea of the superiority of a figure or society that rejected the constraints of Christian morality in favor of an unfettered will to power arises out of Nietzsche and was quite popular among German nationalists (and in particular the Nazis), where it was woven into this trope.

What of the Fremen? They have this in spades.

We are told they have a saying that “Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert” (38) which is essentially this element of the Mirage as a thesis statement. Paul wonders at the Fremen that “They know how to live here! They know how to outwit the worm” (125). We see the cleverness of Fremen ambushes over and over again (e.g. 217, taking a shielded ‘thoper with only knives). Such furtive cleverness is on display at the banquet with Kynes’ careful managing of the other guests and even his discrete packaging away of the dinner water (134). Jessica quite flatly declares them a “practical people” (290) as Stilgar describes Fremen customs.

Again and again, off-worlders (mostly Leto, Paul and Jessica) are impressed by the ingenuity of Fremen solutions: the stillsuit (109-110; note that we are repeatedly told non-Fremen stillsuits are quite inferior), windtraps (317), manufacture (341), the ecological education (346), and clever ruses (413).

Or we could just quote Stilgar, “Muad’Dib tells us…that his first collisions with Arrakeen necessities were the true beginnings of his education. He learned then how to pole the sand for its weather, learned the language of the wind’s needles stinging his skins, learned how the nose can buzz with sand-itch and how to gather his body’s precious moisture around him…” (340). The practical cunning of the Fremen is a point on which Herbert is not subtle.

Nor is their ruthlessness and contempt for the ‘civilized’ morals of the great houses. The Fremen have a casual and uninhibited approach to violence and killing. Jamis, Paul realizes, had killed others, before being himself slain by Paul (343). Jessica notes of Liet-Kynes “there was an offhand attitude towards killing in Kynes’ manner. He was a casual killer, and she guessed that this was a Fremen quality” (183, emphasis mine). Chani and Harah are also, evidently, casual killers (381). As Tuek notes, “you might find the line between life and death among the Fremen to be too sharp and quick” (257). As an aside, I feel I should note that, as should be quite obvious, a culture of casual killing directed internally (as with the Fremen) in a sharply resource constrained society is unlikely to work very well. Raising a child to adulthood requires significant resources (food and water, in this case, but also care and time). I think in many cases, this trope arrives in fiction as the extrapolation of attitudes or practices among pre-modern warrior-aristocracies, carelessly extrapolated to the entire population.

Liet-Kynes, one of my favorite characters in the book and the miniseries, and one I am always sad to see go so soon. His ability to smoothly code-switch between being the Imperial Planetologist (‘we prefer the old title here’) and the charismatic Fremen leader has always drawn me in.

Likewise, the ruthless treatment the Fremen mete out to the wounded or infirm – even their own – shocks their ‘civilized’ contemporaries (and is meant, I think, quite clearly to shock the reader), while at the same time being meant to showcase the practical cunning of the Fremen. Thus Liet-Kynes shocks the dinner when talking frankly of the water reclaimed from the Fremen dead (138). The same is true when the ‘water-decision’ – whether to take the water of his own wounded in order to survive – is put to Thufir Hawat, something he concludes “There’s sense in that” even while the ruthlessness of the custom catches him off-guard (210-12).

Even at the end of the book, Paul is able to shock Jessica, when she asks were Alia is and Paul responds, “Out doing what any good Fremen child should be doing in such times…she’s killing enemy wounded and marking their bodies for the water-recovery teams” (470).

All of which is largely without touching the fact that the Fremen have been secretly preparing their program of ecological change (but note how the scientific, sophisticated knowledge for this has to come from outside) in secret for decades under the Harkonnen, remaining concealed in the deep desert. Ruthless cunning, indeed.


(4) Fighting Prowess

No one who has actually read these books is in any doubt that the Fremen are presented as superior fighters, so I want to address the one argument I’ve seen – that the Fremen aren’t superior fighters innately, but only become so under Paul’s leadership. Quite frankly, the text does not support this interpretation.

The first part of the novel – before Paul has any chance to change the Fremen one way or another – overflows with references to their combat prowess:

[Paul] “The Fremen must be brave to live at the edge of that desert.”

“By all accounts,” Yueh said. “They compose poems to their knives. Their women are as fierce as the men. Even Fremen children are violent and dangerous.” (39)

Just a few pages later, Duke Leto observes, “We have there [in the Fremen] the potential of a corps as strong and deadly as the Sarduakar. It’ll require patience to exploit them secretly and wealth to equip them properly. But the Fremen are there…” (44-5). Note, that is no reference to training them – that part is already done by their lifestyle. Duke Leto is merely thinking that they’ll require shields and equipment for the sort of warfare he knows (the Atreides do not, at this point, know that shields are largely useless on Arrakis).

Paul amongst the Fremen, doing what they do.
One limitation, I thought, of the miniseries, was that it ‘modernized’ (‘de-futurized’?) the combat, bringing in a great deal more firearms, whereas in the book it is quite clear that most combat is done hand to hand due to the presence of shields.

During the combined Harkonnen-Corrino attack on House Atreides the Fremen captured a Harkonnen artillery piece and Hawat wonders, “This desert madman speaks casually of losing only two men against Sarduakar” (213) before witnessing that same prowess directly (217). Such performance is clearly stunning, even to the hardened mentat. Jessica observes much the same, noting “They travel as a military company- even the girl, Chani” (287) and that “All of them, she thought, an entire culture trained to military order. What a priceless thing is here for an outcast duke!” (288). Paul even confirms that, in fact, even the children fought ferociously (348).

And of course, as we’ve come to expect with the Mirage, these traits are put into explicitly gendered terms, most notably by Shaddam IV, bitterly complaining that his own Sarduakar were roughly treated by “a force composed mostly of women, children and old men” (460-1). And don’t worry, we’ll touch on the theme of decadence in a moment.

But for this element of the Mirage, I think we may safely say, Check.

(5) The Source

And now things get complicated. As I noted above, the two versions of the Mirage generally imagine difference sources for the Fremen. The ancient version of the Mirage – which you will remember, was not nearly so uniformly positive as the modern version (Tacitus and Caesar certainly imagine the lack of humanitas – we might say ‘culture’ – among the Gauls and Germans as a flaw, whereas 19th century nationalists understood it as a virtue) – they understood the nature of these societies as a product of place. The Scythians, the Germans, the Gauls (and a half-dozen other examples elsewhere in the ethnographic tradition) are presented as a product of their environments. Certain places – especially Syria (see Wheeler, cited above) – are imagined to make those who inhabit them soft, and unmanly, as a product of the natural environment, while other places (Scythia, Germany, Gaul, the rough country of Spain, the deserts of Arabia, etc.) have the opposite effect.

In contrast, the 19th century version of the Mirage imagines – as we discussed last time – that this superiority is genetic, the product of a lack of ‘racial mixing’ and some kind of inherent genetic advantage. Consequently, the Mirage became both an expression and a supposed ‘proof’ of deeply flawed 19th century racist assumptions, put into the service of militant nationalism which – as Krebs (2012) so adroitly demonstrates – led fairly directly into Europe’s near-total self-immolation.

Where do Herbert’s Fremen fall? Well…a little of column A and a little of column B.

The influence of environment is everywhere in Herbert’s treatment of the Fremen. As noted above, Paul realizes, ‘The Fremen must be brave to live at the edge of that desert” (39). And then there’s:

[Paul] “But every report on Salusa Secundus says S.S. is a hell world!”

“Undoubtedly. But if you were going to raise tough, strong, ferocious men, what environmental conditions would you impose on them?”…”Consider Arrakis,” the Duke said. “When you get outside the towns and garrison villages, it’s every bit as terrible a place as Salusa Secundus.”

Paul’s eyes went wide. “The Fremen!”

“We have there the potential of a corps as strong and deadly as the Sardaukar…” (44-5).

Gurney makes a similar assessment, speaking to Tuek, noting that “you said I might find life with the Fremen too tough. They live in the desert, in the open, is that why?” to which Tuek contrasts “We live the lives of civilized men” compared to the hardships of the Fremen (258). Even Duke Leto notes of the Atreides that “Arrakis makes us moral and ethical” which again, is the Mirage as a thesis statement, set baldly in the text (104).

On the flip side, well, Herbert sure does love his genetics, in ways that, viewed from 2020, are deeply uncomfortable. Selective breeding and even open eugenics exist and work within the fiction of Dune. The Bene Gessert attempt and succeed and producing a human with radical new abilities through a slow process of genetic manipulation. This is, after all, a universe where (as we see more clearly in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) one may look back up the genetic memory of their own family true. A work where the phrase ‘race consciousness’ is used not as a metaphysical concept but as a description of an actual, factual phenomenon:

“thinking with the race consciousness he had first experienced as terrible purpose. He found that he no longer could hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or even the Harkonnens. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this – the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad” (199; bold emphasis mine).

To be fair, that is not the exact same formulation of ‘race-science’ that we discussed last time, but I think it is also impossible to argue that it does not borrow from it. But what of the Fremen?

Yueh notes of the Fremen “There’s some intermarriage, I’m told. The women of the pan and sink villages prefer Fremen husbands; their men prefer Fremen wives” (38), which might seem to push against an ‘ethnic purity’ angle for the Fremen. Except that unlike most of what we’re told of the Fremen, we see little evidence of the truth of Yueh’s statement and – more to the point – note the direction of that intermarriage: Fremen sometimes marry out of the sietch into the villages, but we see no sign that the village folk ever marry into the sietch. Indeed, the withering contempt the Fremen hold them in argued against it, as Stilgar notes: “My duty is to the strength of the tribe…The child-man [Paul] interests me. He is full-fleshed. He has lived on much water. He has lived away from the father sun. He has not the eyes of the ibad. But he does not speak or act like a weakling of the pans. Nor did his father” (280, emphasis mine). We meet no village recruits in Pauls army, or any trace that entry into Fremen society is common; if anything, the unique circumstances of Paul and Jessica’s situation (and the only other known late-entrant, Pardot Kynes) suggests against it ever being common.

Meanwhile, Jessica, observing Stilgar later thinks, “He has stature, she thought. Where did he learn such inner balance?…What is his ancestry? She wondered. Whence comes such breeding?” (293, bold emphasis mine, italics original). The Bene Gesserit apprendix also points this way, “that the rigors of such a planet as Arrakis with its totality of desert landscape, its absolute lack of open water, its emphasis on the most primitive necessities for survival, inevitably produces a high proportion of sensitives” (509). We might take this for environmental conditioning, had not the text made abundantly clearly that such sensitivity is a genetic, rather than a learned trait. It seems that the assumption being made here is about natural selection. Here we might argue that both Jessica and the Bene Gesserit are intended here to be wrong about the Fremen, but this is a difficult argument because, after all, the Bene Gesserit have been successfully breeding for supernatural abilities for thousands of years. It is difficult to overstate how radically the fact of the Bene Gesserit success alters the interpretation of the narrative. Imagine if the Nazis had actually produced an Aryan Superman capable of feats beyond the abilities of normal humans; that is, in essence, the universe of Dune (though of course Herbert has little love for his Bene Gesserit eugenicists, as shown above; I am not accusing him of being a closet-Nazi). And indeed, some folks in my own comments have suggested this hybrid approach: that the harsh environment of Dune forced intense natural selection on the Fremen, producing a genetically superior people – this is not an uncommon reading of the text, though it is not the only one. I don’t think we can rule it out.

In practice, Herbert seems to draw on both of these ideas – environmental conditioning and genetic superiority – and occasionally conflates them (the fact the Arrakis’ spice-infused environment can activate Paul’s genetic superiority is a point where the conflation of tone in the text is made a literal part of the universe’s mechanics!). Because both strands are there, I think different readers will tend to come away feeling one or the other is dominant, at least until the two – environmental and genetic – are quite fully merged in the person of Leto II. For my part, I think the ancient-style environmental explanation is the dominant one of the two in the text, but they’re both present.

So, for both types, check.

(6) Decadence!

We’ve already seen elements of the decadence argument scattered throughout, especially in the Fremen’s superior sexual mores and fighting prowess compared to Imperium’s elite. But, continuing our theme that Frank Herbert is not subtle, this trope is actually laid on in some very direct passages.

For instance:

[Of Shaddam IV] He brings pages, the Baron thought, and useless court lackeys, his women and their companions – hair-dressers, designers, everything…all the fringe parasites of the Court. All here – fawning, slyly plotting, “roughing it” with the Emperor…” (458).

Which is pretty much a flawless reproduction of Roman criticisms of Hellenistic courts as decadent and unmanly. Note the gendered tone (remember that this is 1965 when reading the gendered content of ‘hair-dressers’ and ‘designers’) implying that the court is an insufficiently masculine place! And indeed, the Appendix informs us, “His [Shaddam IV] reign is noted chiefly for the Arrakis Revolt, blamed by many historians on Shaddam IV’s dalliance with Court functions and the pomp of office…appropriations for Sardaukar training went down steadily in the final thirty years before the Arrakis Revolt” (511), which transforms the Baron’s subjective judgment into some objective ‘verdict of history,’ investing it with the narrator’s authority. And the emperor’s frustration at the Sarduakar being out-fought by women and children (and old men, 460-461) neatly parallels Tacitus on the bellicose ways of German women (Tac. Ger. 7-8, cf. also Tacitus on Boudica, Tac. Agricola 16ff).

The visual of the imperial palace like this – delicate and impractical – fits quite well with what we are told about Shaddam IV’s court in the books.

Of course we’ve already covered the decadence of House Harkonnen at some length here (and hardly need do so again). But I think the neat cap on this theme is actually about House Atreides, as Duke Leto himself notes –

“I am tired,” the Duke agreed.”I’m morally tired. The melancholy degeneration of the Great Houses has afflicted me at last, perhaps. And we were such strong people once.”

Paul spoke in quick anger: “Our House hasn’t degenerated!”

“Hasn’t it?”

The Duke turned, faced his son, revealing dark circles beneath hard eyes, a cynical twist of mouth. “I should wed your mother, make her my Duchess. Yet…” (103-4; emphasis mine).

I should note that degeneration – that word, specifically – was often the term applied by 19th century racists for the supposed ‘decadent’ results of race-mixing; again, I am not saying that is why Herbert uses it (he gives no sense that the Great Houses suffer from any such problem and I’d point out that the books seem to imply that it is actually through genetic mixing that a people is rejuvenated). But that word is absolutely a part of the discourse around decadence. Leto follows this statement with a series of points: his failure to wed Jessica, his reliance on propaganda and cultivation of a false air of ‘bravura.’

We meet three Great Houses in Dune. Two are obviously ‘decadence’ societies and the third – the least obviously ‘decadent’ of the bunch – just up and proclaims its decadence, before providing a bill of the evidence! Right before it falls apart militarily against a slightly less hard-edged Mirage-society than the Fremen, the Sarduakar (who again, we must note the quote above – we honed on a different hell-world).



Now, I hope that part of this has served as a bit of a sample of how a historian might interact with a text. Often, I find that there is a tendency to treat the analytical results of this kind of analysis as a sort of ‘hocus pocus’ trickery – I wave my hands over the text, say a few academic buzzwords (deconstruction! structure! gender! problematic!) and the text just vanishes into a smoke-cloud of confusingly overwritten sentences and tendentious conclusions. And, to be fair, there is a fair bunch of such verbal prestidigitation in literary criticism (mixed in, I must protest, with some truly excellent textual analysis!).

But done properly, this kind of close-reading and analysis of a text can yield something very valuable: it can pull all of the strands of a particular idea in the text, normally dispersed here and there, and pull them together so that we can see them all at once and thus see the broader implications of their presence. Patterns of thinking, repeated again and again in the text steadily become the themes that animate the text and define its underlying message. And – as I hope I’ve shown here – this analysis can be done mostly in plain language, with no trickery or obscurantism required. Done properly, this kind of analysis reveals what is in the text, allowing what is there to be understood more deeply.

In this case, we asked if we might find the Fremen Mirage in Dune itself: does Frank Herbert’s novel use this trope of ancient and modern literature to characterize the Fremen and explain their world. And we have our answer: yes. It’s also fairly clear that the novel mixes both the ancient and modern forms of the Mirage, but given the unvarnished admiration it expresses for the Fremen, is more of a piece with the modern form than the ancient one. And, as we know from last week, some of that inheritance is quite troublesome.

Now, let me say clearly I am not here to bury Frank Herbert or Dune.

Like all works of literature, Dune is grounded in its time (this is perhaps most obvious in the gender dynamics of the books, which I have touched on only briefly here). But there is more to it than just the Mirage; there is, I’d argue, quite a lot of value to be had once one gets past the troublesome elements. So I want to be clear that my purpose here is not to ‘cancel’ Dune or anything so silly. If anything, I would think that the scope and care of this analysis might communicate first that I think Dune is a serious work deserving of serious criticism and second the degree to which I just plain like it quite a lot and enjoy reading it. And while we’re here, I think it is notable the degree to which Dune does not import some of the most troubling aspects of the 19th and 20th century Mirage – other science fiction was not so fortunate (watch TNG‘s “Code of Honor” or “Up the Long Ladder” sometime…or don’t).

Nevertheless, I didn’t chose the Fremen as the namesake of the Mirage by accident. Mostly banished from respectable history and anthropology (again, because it doesn’t accord with the evidence, not because it was politically incorrect), the Fremen Mirage largely lives in pop-history, internet discussions and in speculative fiction, as the residue of the ugly revival of this ancient literary trope in the 19th century. Judging by my comments and my social media presence, quite a lot of my readers are, in fact, very attached to it and have struggled quite a bit with the evidence that it is, in fact, a Mirage. It was something they thought they knew.

For those reading these works, a genealogy of the idea and a more detailed assessment of its historical validity is something of considerable value. When viewed just through the pages of Dune, reinforced by the loose smattering of historical details one gets out of cultural osmosis, the Mirage looks terribly solid – a great tree firmly rooted. History seems like a long list of Fremen victories and so it makes perfect sense for Herbert’s vision of a human future to have just one more. But when you look more closely, with a historian’s eyes at the foundation of the idea, you see that the tree has no roots. These ideas were not born from dispassionate analysis of historical events but from internal social criticism in both the ancient world and the modern world neither of which cared much for, nor bothered much with any sort of accuracy when describing supposedly Fremen societies. And when the military record of such societies is investigated, it proves profoundly mediocre.

Dune is a wonderful book, but the Fremen are no more real than the Bene Gesserit or the Spacing Guild or the Spice Melange itself – all exist only in the pages of the novel. And that’s fine. Whoever said science fiction had to be real?

Next week, we’re going to look at the apparent exceptions: steppe nomads and modern non-state actors (insurgents, terrorists and freedom fighters).

58 thoughts on “Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Interlude: Ways of the Fremen

  1. Another excellent post which pretty much proves the case for Dune!

    I think for Asterix, “The Mansions of the Gods” (“Le Domaine des Dieux”) is the best example, where the Indomitable Gauls are deliberately corrupted by the wealth and luxury of Rome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought Mansion of the Gods was a satire of the Banlieus – the new mass suburbs?

      The most direct decadence I’d see in “Obelix and Co.” where the smart young advisor to Caesar explicitly points out how the hard, trained officers of former battles have grown fat and lazy on decadence, and that by making the Gauls spend lots of money, they will likewise soften.

      But the (genetic?) Gaulish morality comes through with a brawl at the end.


  2. Regarding Asterix, having read the comics, I don’t think the romans are usually portrayed as decadent. There are some instance of it (Obelix and Co., with the added bonus of presenting the decadence influences of commerce and civilisation), but roman are shown as powerful and the last free Gauls needing actual magical powers to have a chance.


  3. As an aside on the Bene Gesserit breeding program, one of the later Herbert books reveals that the breeding program uses extremely illegal computers, rather than giant caverns of file cabinets full of index cards or something. Deception and cheating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bret Devereaux goes out of his way to prove he’s progressive. I’m surprised he doesn’t criticize how much Bene Gesserit are a caricature of women as a whole. It’s an entire order of women who do nothing more than scheme, manipulate, weave lies, and subdue. That’s something very common in 50’s science fiction and fantasy literature. For example, Fritz Leiber’s “Gather, Darkness” is commonly described as proto Star Wars. It goes so far as to say all women are witches. Likewise in Dune, almost all female characters are associated with BG.

      I’m actually a little bothered by his progressive chest-beating. I would expect a little more distance from a historian. Social norms change. Currently feminist pendulum is going so far in one direction you can find “misandrist” movie list recommendations, and that’s stated openly and as something good. But do we really want to replace one kind of -riarchy with another? I wouldn’t be surprised if in near future feminine adjectives were used to mean exclusively positive things. You don’t hear the term “toxic feminity”.

      Also, such exploitation movies are made that would cause massive outrage if you flipped the roles. Imagine a movie like Django Unchained, but where the protagonist goes on a killing spree to kill people of color, leaving caucasians alone. Imagine a movie genre where women are routinely kicked in crotch. Imagine if beating women by men was used in movies for comedic effect.

      Fremen society isn’t described in detail, but one can get an impression that it’s more egalitarian than that of the great houses. Bene gesserit “serve” as advisors. Fremen women are fierce and fight well, just like men. Shadout Mapes acts as a servant, but she’s also a spy, which is a responsible role. It’s not much, but on the non-Fremen side we have Irulan and the order of witches. One can read Fremen as a society where women are “put into their place”, unlike great houses where BG pull the strings. But note that Chani was made a guide of protector of Paul long before he became known as M’uad Dib. Later on, Chani duels a Fremen challenger who comes to fight Paul for leadership (when he’s meditating). Wives of killed Fremen are taken as wives or servants, but I think it has more to do with fertility and “good of the tribe” than male supremacy. Stilgar says Fremen women are not taken against their will.


      1. > Stilgar says Fremen women are not taken against their will.

        Sure, but this is one where you often can’t trust people in a society like that. There’s a lot of pressure that can be applied, and a lot of denial that can happen. There doesn’t need to be a lasgun to someone’s head for it to be coercion.


      2. I don’t think Bret tries to “prove he’s progressive”.

        What I think he’s doing is trying to avoid accusations of supporting or promulgating horrible ideas because we live in a time when not spewing invective at certain things will mark you, in certain circles, as a supporter of those ideas. Most of the things he goes out of his way to remind us are repugnant or questionable concepts, are things that anyone living after the 20th century should already understand are repugnant or questionable concept.s


        1. “…live in a time when not spewing invective at certain things will mark you, in certain circles, as a supporter of those ideas…”

          The underlying cause of this is that the supporters of those ideas aren’t cardboard cutouts. They aren’t just gibbering idiots believing that the true hallmark of an admirable people is its ability to enslave other societies and rape their women, or that black people are a natural midpoint between white people and gorillas, or something similarly appalling, Just Because.

          No see, they know, as you say, that “anyone living after the 20th century should already understand [that those ideas] are repugnant or questionable.” Except that they interpret this as a sign that 21st century modernity has somehow gone ‘wrong,’ has been (in an echo of the Fremen myth) somehow *emasculated* and made decadent, or corrupted and made crazy, or SOMETHING. That they are the handful, the chosen elect who have the good sense to see the Real Truth, which they believe is that… basically all development of human philosophy and culture since World War Two and the fall of fascism is wrong, I guess?

          But they know they’re not going to get anywhere by just openly proclaiming “I think brown people are intermediate between white people and apes, and have equal similarities to both groups.” Because, as you point out, almost everyone already knows better than to accept that when it’s stated directly. Or, from their point of view, because somehow Civilization Gone Wrong, Gone Soft, Led Astray By Ess Jay Double Yous, has blinded everyone to the ability to accept this truth.

          So they’ve gotten very, VERY good at being subtle about it. About *implying* that oh, no no no, they’re just being *realistic* about the idea that there are major genetic differences between people at opposite ends of the same continent that cash out as enormous differences in average IQ, and anyone who brings up another explanation is just spreading propaganda designed to Lead You Astray. About how oh no no no, they’re not denigrating women, they’re just *saying* that modern society is designed to Lead Men Astray and turn them into beta cucks.

          They’ve also gotten very good at passive-aggressively exploiting democratic society’s natural tendency to grant extra protections to the ‘underdog,’ to the person whose views are disapproved of by society. “How dare you call me racist, stop persecuting me” is the kind of thing a man only figures out how to say after he’s spent a lot of time thinking about how to take advantage of protections, when he himself wants to take those protections away from others. Though once a few people start saying it, a lot of others will emulate it.

          So this is a real issue that our society faces. The proponents of some truly appalling ideas (racism, sexism) have become skilled at the art of deflecting responsibility for how obviously bad their ideas are. They instead prefer to introduce those ideas indirectly and rely on minority protections, often crafted to protect people FROM their own selves.

          This has made a lot of the opponents of these ideas (and you can’t even perceive the Fremen myth as a myth without being, on some level, antiracist) a bit trigger-happy with the denials.

          Because when you live in an era where evil shapeshifters routinely eat faces, you end up doing some pretty screwy things to avoid being mistaken for a face-eating evil shapeshifter.


  4. I’m feeling this kind of post could easily be expanded into investigating the “Mighty Whitey” or “What These People Need Is A Honky” trope – sure, the Fremen are pretty great on an individual and tribal level, but what they _really_ need is a white guy to show them how to get things done properly!

    (Also, isn’t it interesting how Tolkien absolutely [i]doesn’t[/i] go to Fremeninism?)


    1. To expand, Gondor is somewhat degenerated and benefits both from getting a king who is used to living rough and the occasional injection of Northman blood, but their big problem is (actual) nativity and vitality, not moral degeneracy. With Elves, it’s more that they have troubles caring – they’re excellent warriors when pushed into it, and they’re obviously at peak moral status. Even over-civilized hobbits are great people, just a bit slow to get started and requiring outside pushes.

      The Northmen and Rohirrim are semi-civilized, but they’re neither better warriors nor more morally pure, and when you get to the true people of the fringes like Hillmen, Easterlings and Southrons, they’re weak-willed Sauron-worshipers who often can’t win even with enormous numerical advantages.

      And then there are the orcs, of course…


      1. Tolkien was drawing more on the Northern European, and medieval, past than the Roman or Greek. (“The Matter of Rome” was one of the great three themes of medieval literature, to be sure, but it got thoroughly filtered, down to actually having very little Rome in it compared to — Alexander the Great.)


      1. It’s racist, but interestingly the exact opposite plotline can also be super racist: the one where a single member of a foreign society teaches exotic wisdom to a bunch of white people.

        Mister Miyagi is a hilarious and lovable character, and one who is portrayed very positively… but he’s also a blatant oriental stereotype.

        Squanto from the mythologized version of the Thanksgiving story (as distinct from Tisquantum the real man) is a blatant Native American stereotype to the point where the character’s very existence is basically a mechanism for justifying a racial narrative of white Englishmen ‘inheriting’ North America from kindly, benevolent natives.

        I think the problem with the story comes in large part from the inherent fact that any story involving racial interaction in our society is at best tap-dancing through a minefield and likely to go “boom” unless the authors are very careful. This is as true of stories where “character of one race teaches valuable tricks to character of another race” as it is of anything else.


    2. That’s because Tolkien is straight-up racist, right there with H.P. Lovecraft. His racial ratings are even quantified. Three rings for elves, seven for dwarves, nine for humans. Tolkien’s races get inherent ability and morality bonuses. Tolkien’s legacy can be viewed as a gateway drug to racism. It lives on in computer and pen&paper RPG games. Who hasn’t heard of goblins, orcs, ogres and dozens of other sub-races?


      1. His racial ratings are even quantified. Three rings for elves, seven for dwarves, nine for humans.

        And one for the Dark Lord. Is this an argument that the elves are least of those three, or that the Dark Lord really is the greatest?


      2. @Mary

        I think there’s a relation between “how noble a race is” and how many rings they got. Sauron could have made more rings because he thought humans would be easier to corrupt.

        Or how easy to corrupt. The appendix says the only power One Ring had over dwarves was to make them more greedy, and wrathful.

        As for elves, “As soon as Sauron set the One Ring upon his finger, the Elves became aware of him and perceived that he would become their master. In anger and fear, they immediately took off the rings. Sauron, filled with betrayal and wrath, desired the Three Rings the most and demanded them to return the rings to him.”

        Note 0 for hobbits. I think Tolkien hinted that hobbits were newcomers to Middle-Earth. Bilbo and Frodo were Gandalf’s wildcard. Something outside his plans.


      3. Noble != good. It isn’t difficult.

        Plus any statement about Elves and Orcs is automatically rendered nonsense by the fact those are the same thing.


      4. Quibble: As I recall, the sixteen rings were not designed for a particular race. Giving seven to the dwarves and nine to men was a decision he made after he made the one ring and grabbed them. Which still may have been based on his estimate of corruptibility.


      5. It’s the short humble little hobbits who are the most resistant to the One Ring. The dwarven kings weren’t controlled or corrupted by their rings, other than a heightening of their greed. Etc.

        Tolkein wasn’t racist, he wasn’t basing the decline of men on race or quasi-genetics, but on moral and spiritual decay over time. There’s a lot that’s questionable about “the world is inherently corrupted and corrupting”, but that idea is the underlying thought for so much of what happens to the various cultures of men.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Tolkien was an Elvish supremacist to the point that the Edain & Númenóreans use Elvish names almost exclusively, and when the Númenóreans finally decide to reduce their cultural dependence and use their own native, vernacular language, it’s treated as part of their impious decline.
        (On the other hand, after Quenya & Sindarin, Adunaic is Tolkien’s most developed language.)


  5. I suppose the two other groups that attract Fremen mythologisation in European history are the early Muslims and the Vikings / Normans. We’ve already seen Ibn Khaldun’s take on Arab history, but not what’s wrong with the Fremen take. (I assume it’s common to underestimate the social complexity of both groups, and that the Vikings’ military success was not actually hurt by acquiring the social organisation to equip knights with heavy armour and warhorses.)


  6. There’s a saying “For a man with a hammer, everything is a nail. Bret Devereaux is a historian. He seeks to explain the pervasiveness of the mirage with literary and historic tools.

    I’m going to attempt to describe it in psychological terms, but that doesn’t mean I’m a psychologer :-).

    Spartan, Fremen, Noble Savage, Mongol archetype is popular because it is inherently seductive. Purity, strength and simplicity is seductive. I think this stems from 3 reasons, some of which may be related:

    1. Human memory has a tendency do discard bad events, and remember only the good things about our past. This is why we glorify our youth and childhood. This is why cuneiform tablets and hieroglyphics complain about corrupted youngsters.

    2. Complexity is stressful and distressing. We have limited amount of willpower per day. Stress itself is a failed metaphor from the world of physics. Mental endurance doesn’t work like that. We don’t break after certain threshold. Mental endurance is more like physical training. To train properly, you need to exert yourself AND THEN you need a rest so your body can rebuild itself stronger. Rest is part of training.

    There are even recent studies by *behavioral* psychologists showing that *less choice* often makes people more comfortable. If there are 24 kinds of jam in a supermarket, people are uncomfortable choosing because they worry they might make a suboptimal choice. In contrast, if you have only 6 kinds of jam, people choose with confidence and – plot twist – BUY MORE. This may explain why (youtube) influencers are popular. They reduce your choice and, with confidence, tell you what to prefer.

    Behavioral psychology is supposedly different in the way that it uses scientific method and repeatable experiments.

    3. For rank and file soldiers, world becomes a great deal simpler. Yes, PTSD, trauma, death and crippling injuries are real. But you’re placed in one trench with a banker, a car salesman, a farmer and a waiter. They are the good guys. There are also bad guys, and they wear different uniforms. Hierarchy in military is simple and explicit. The objective is just to stay alive and kill the bad guys.

    I read a fascinating account arguing that fighting in a war provides a massive adrenaline rush, and that terrible (anti)war movies are actually incorrect. That it’s such a rush that it causes men – and women – to be super horny and rape civilians. They don’t really try to cope with the brutality. They wield the power of life and death, they are liberated from social norms, they can throw civilians around and police has no power. The author said that THAT is the real reason behind Guantanamo prison abuse. To feel like a boss.

    Found it!


  7. I think that for (5) source Dune is very heavily weighted towards place rather than race, the environmental factor rather than genetic.

    In the passage quoted about “race consciousness” my recollection is that Herbet makes it very clear that this is the human race, the entire species, that wants/needs to mix things up.

    For the Fremen, I’m not surprised that we don’t see any recruits or immigrants in the Fremen army. (But I’m pretty sure there are some by the time of Dune Messiah – will have to read again.) At the time when the Atreides arrive, the Fremen are, materially, the poorest people on the planet. We’re told that for the past 80 years the Harkonnens have placed no value on Fremen at all, hunting them for sport. Yes it sucks to be ruled by Harkonnens no matter where you live, but the village people are better off.

    Jessica is going to wonder about Stilgar’s genes because she’s both a Bene Gesserit who are obsessed with breeding, and a member of an aristocratic nobility also obsessed with breeding. Same for the Bene Gesserit report in the Appendices: these are not people comfortable admitting that genetics might not be that important.

    And for me the strongest evidence that it’s the environment that matters is Salusa Secondus, the prison planet that produces the best soldiers in the Imperium. We’re not told much about the prisoners sent there, but I don’t remember it being a selective process. Throwing together prisoners from the entire Imperium doesn’t seem what race nationalists would come up with to produce “superior” speciments.

    Enjoying this series very much, and inspired to watch the miniseries again. Second Johan: awesome headgear!


  8. How does the book treat Paul being married to Harar while also taking Chani as his concubine? That all occurs within the Sietch – so outside of the corrupting influence of wider society. Unfortunately it’s been a while since I read Dune and my copy is at my parents so I can’t look myself.


    1. Paul is not married to Harrah. He takes her as a servant to her indignation. She apparently gets over it because she continues in Paul’s household as a servant, specifically Alia’s nanny, for far more than the required year. She then married Stilgar which is definitely a good match socially and maybe personally as well.
      The basic principle seems to be that a man is responsible for the dependents of any man he kills. A woman is only bound to him for a year, giving her plenty of time to make other arrangements. It is possible, since Stilgar claims women aren’t forced, that she can refuse to become wife to her new provider but Harrah suggests that most women prefer that option.


  9. Point well proven. In particular, it’s clear that my earlier hypothesis (Fremen have the *potential* to be great human cannonballs) is wrong. According to the book, the harsh conditions of Arrakis are sufficient to make them supersoldiers.

    I would view their religiousness as a downside. Paul, on several occassions, worries about his ability to contain them (the Jihad). Fremen are fanatical.


  10. Quibble: This may be somewhat unfair to Fenring. While the text dismisses him in some places, it builds him up as superior to Paul in others, in explicitly manly ways – Irulan refers to him as “one of the deadliest fighters in the imperium”, and in the climax it’s made quite clear that he could have defeated Paul in a duel, had he gone challenged him.

    Also on that point, the Fremen are polygamous (Stilgar mentions having multiple wives), which should count against them on sexual purity.


    1. “the Fremen are polygamous” – This is the 60s – sexual purity = female ‘chastity’. Also true in any patriarchal society. In this view, corrupt societies are those where women sleep around. Or – horrors – wield power while sleeping around.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There are no non-patriarchal humans (nor any other non-lemur primate).

        And in societies where women own all the property and descent is in the female line (which is about as close to matriarchal as humans ever get), the view of sexual “purity” covers essentially the same range as in patrilineal, patrilocal ones—the only major difference is women usually decide when divorces happen, in those ones. How many matrilineal, matrilocal cultures’ sexual mores are you actually acquainted with, on a scholarly basis?


      2. Polygamy is not men sleeping around. It’s when men have more than one wife.

        They may even have strict rules that he has to sleep with each wife in turn.

        And for all the talk about fierce Fremen women, there are going to a disproportionately large number of women per man, especially since there is no talk about female infanticide.


    2. @Tony in AZ
      No matriarchal societies? How about Italians? You can see adult sons living with theirs mothers in Fellini’s Rome. Modern studies also show adult Italians are known for living with mothers. This is exactly why ‘macho’ culture was invented by Italians – it’s a compensation mechanism for not having much say in things and not being independent.


      1. Tell me you’re joking. If Italians are matriarchal because mothers have great influence over sons, then so are the Chinese and Hindus, and many sub-units of the Arab world. At which point we have apparently defined patriarchy out of existence.


    1. Yeah, RSS has been my go-to since back when it was popular. I use a simple browser plugin, and when I want to start following a site, I just open it up, hit “add feed”, and I get notified. Then I get a full list of updates, with no further intervention or spam.

      I genuinely do not understand how it fell out of use. It’s just perfect for its role.


  11. Re: Asterix, is your idea of identifying the Romans in the comics with the Nazis based on an analysis like what you did about Dune, or is it based on hearsay ? Because based on my perusing of the first original material when I was young (I’m French) this identification seems utterly ludicrous. In 1965 France was led by General De Gaulle, a character identifying with Resistance against Nazis yes, but at the time he was mainly opposing the USA and was very much trying to get Germany in his bandwagon, and as such the French story at the time was to oppose the Nazis (ultimate evil) with the German soldiers, who where mainly all right – indeed most German soldiers stationed in France before 1944 were reservists, as such older men who where rarely fanatics. As I remember it, In the comic the Roman soldiers are mainly seen as morons.
    In fact, if you factor in the author, Goscinny, he was not in any way someone glorifying heroics. He was trying to make people laugh, and to sell well his stories. Making the Nazis appear like bumbling idiots, not really ruthless, would have considerably harmed his commercial success at the time. He was also very probably adverse to it since some of the members of his extended family who had not emigrated before the war had been killed by the Nazis – but he had no personal experience of the Nazi occupation.
    However the admitted fact about Goscinny is that he was very sensitive to critic and he hated that people were not liking his stories. And before succeeding in France, Goscinny tried to make it in the USA where his ambitions were met with abject failure. That’s why I think that Romans are not a metaphor for Nazis, but for another power more relevant at the time. I dimly remember having heard a radio show where it was said about Goscinny that at the time of his US adventures, there used to be in Washington an event where high ranking US politicians where dining in the Roman way, dressed in togas. Indeed even today there is in the USA a tendency to identify with the Roman Empire, Mussolini was too, but never Hitler – he was rooting for ancient Germans.


    1. Being French too, I agree that Romans in the Asterix comics don’t seemed to be framed as Nazis. I think the portrayal took more inspiration from how the Gallic resistance was presented in the XIXth century, when the Republics and 2nd Empire were using a gallic identity as a base for a national identity detached from the French monarchy (“Nos ancêtres les Gaulois” and all the concept related to this).
      Though I think you’re right when you were saying last time “a symbol of resistance against the Germans, everyone’s favorite French comic: Astérix le Gaulois”, but it’s more WW1 than Nazis: “One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders” don’t go very well with a conflict where the government signed an armistice with the invading force.


    2. I can’ speak for Bret, but I think you (and baud) are being too literal.

      Metaphors are not alternate history or exact parallels. The Gauls are French, but the Romans are not Nazis. To us Anglo Saxons what is being portrayed as admirable is continued French resistance against invasion, “résiste encore et toujours”. Doesn’t matter who the invaders are.

      If Asterix were nothing more than a rewrite of World War 2 it would have got tiresome very fast. The books have survived, and spread worldwide, because Goscinny was a really good writer and satirist who did not discriminate, making fun of everyone across the modern world. (And yes I’m aware that some of his humour is considered inappropriate today – standards change.)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s just disagree with “Astérix and his Gauls represent national French resistance, _particularly against Nazi occupation_”, it doesn’t seem to have ever been in particular about the Nazi occupation.


        1. I’m not sure you can write a story about brave Frenchmen/Gauls resisting a foreign invader using their wits and (chemically enhanced) national spirit in the face of overwhelming enemy military power in 1959 without it being, in some way, about WWII. Of course you have the obvious anti-German tone of Astérix et les Goths, but also note the ‘allies in Britain’ in Astérix chez les Bretons, complete wit a Winston Churchill stand-in.


      2. There’s a difference in saying that it can be read, in some ways, as about WW2 and saying that’s in particular about resistance against Nazi occupation. There are a few elements, as you noted (though ‘allies in Britain’ is just as valid to WW1 as to WW2), that are applicable, but I think the theme ‘Resistance against foreign power’, as written in Astérix, is not specific to the Nazi or WW2.


  12. “Also, I have been getting questions as to if there is some way to get updated when the blog updates, and it turns out, there is! WordPress just kind of hides the button.”

    For what it’s worth, when it comes to getting updates, a normal news aggregator works just fine! (I use The Old Reader.) They’re lovely if you don’t want to go check up on various websites manually and also don’t want to be inundated with emails.


  13. Good series of essays! I liked your essay series about Sparta too!

    Something that occurred to me re: this:

    “Fremen sometimes marry out of the sietch into the villages, but we see no sign that the village folk ever marry into the sietch … We meet no village recruits in Pauls army, or any trace that entry into Fremen society is common…”

    That makes a certain sense. The Fremen lifestyle is skill-intensive, or at least the impression I got from reading the books was that a big part of the Fremen “awesome factor” is that every adult Fremen is a very skilled desert survival expert. Outsiders would not know these skills, would have to be taught these skills, and would be economic burdens on the community until they learned these skills. So assimilating outsiders would probably be inconvenient to the Fremen, and given that and their thin margins of survival it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to accept outsiders.

    Also, I got the impression that Fremen desert survival skills are thickly integrated into their general culture, i.e. if you went to some Fremen and said to them “I want you to teach me how to survive in the desert like you” and they accepted, the education would consist of them doing their best to turn you into another Fremen. That’s probably going to lengthen the time it takes to turn outsiders into net-positive contributors to the sietch economy, because the education will be a holistic process of cultural assimilation where the really relevant knowledge is mixed with a lot of tangentially and orthogonally relevant stuff and good manners trivia. On Monday they teach you how to walk in a way that doesn’t attract worms, on Tuesday they teach you how to duel, on Wednesday they teach you about the complex code of honor that determines what kinds of non-monogamy and/or homosexuality are permitted and what kinds are forbidden, on Thursday they teach you about still-suit maintenance, on Friday they teach you how to cut and style your hair like a proper Fremen, on Saturday they teach you about finding sip-wells in the desert, and so on.

    From the other end, this would mean outsiders would join Fremen society at an initially low social status, which would make joining them less attractive. You’d probably spend years as “that ridiculous foreigner who doesn’t know extremely basic skills that the rest of us literally learned as children,” taking a lot of your lessons alongside Fremen children. It’d probably be kind of unpleasant and humiliating (and a position of vulnerability) even if they were relatively nice about it, and given that we’re talking about a society that exiles blind people into the desert to die, I’m not sure they’d be nice about it. Combine this with the general unpleasant features of the Fremen lifestyle and the hostile terrain a person would have to cross to reach a seitch, well … it’s not really a surprise that it’s rare for outsiders to join the Fremen.

    Paul and Jessica didn’t seem to have much trouble, but then Paul and Jessica were very exceptional people. Some middle-aged woman with a smoothie stand who ran into the desert cause she got in trouble for punching a bored Harkonnen mercenary who thought it’d be funny to pour bleach into her water tank is probably going to have a different experience from a defeated high noble who’s trained in esoteric Bene Gesserit skills and is also the Kwisatz Hadderach.

    Also, the Fremen have secrets: they are concealing their numbers and their terraforming project from the Harkonnen and Imperial authorities. I figure the Fremen are probably indoctrinated for strong social solidarity from childhood, so they can usually trust their own to not talk to the wrong people, but it’d be risky to trust outsiders.

    None of this is disagreeing with anything the essay says, I’m just making an observation.

    It’s interesting to think about this in relation to James C. Scott’s “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” which talks about porous the line between “barbarians” and “civilized” state subjects was historically. The Fremen fit Scott’s analysis of “barbarians” in some ways (they were originally a persecuted “civilized” people who fled to Arrakis, and their great leader is a noble who lost a power struggle), but not in others (they do not seem to recruit heavily from “civilized” Arrakeen fleeing Harkonnen oppression, which is what would be happening if they fit Scott’s “barbarian” paradigm).

    Also: re: intra-Fremen violence: yeah, I know you said you just wanted to stick to the text, but I’m inclined to headcanon that in-house death duels are fairly rare cause they’ve got strong social mechanisms to resolve or quelch in-house drama before it gets to that point (as an outsider, Paul would be outside those social structures). Anything else just seems wasteful and corrosive to social solidarity. I’d guess that raiding the villages, fighting Harkonnens, and maybe inter-seitch tribal warfare is where the Fremen got most of the experience that gave them their fighting skills.

    Whew, sorry if this is a bit long!


    1. An actual Arab saying about how asabiya actually works (as distinct from Ibn Khaldun’s ideological co-optation of the concept): “I am against my brother; I and my brother are against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin are against the stranger.”

      The mechanisms to “resolve or quench in-house drama”, include the death-duels, because otherwise it would be constant free-for-all fratricidal blood-feud. Whereas if they fight on formal terms, and one of them dies, the clan sub-branch that the dead guy belonged to has to take the matter as being settled (in practice even that doesn’t always work).


  14. Oh, something I meant to mention in my previous post but forgot: another way the Fremen do fit James C. Scott’s “barbarian” paradigm is that they’re institutionally state-repelling. They live in isolated and hidden communities in hostile terrain, they have limited interactions with outsiders and a strong in-group/out-group consciousness, and they bribe the Spacing Guild to not put up satellites that might be used to watch them. All of these cultural and institutional features make it basically impossible for the state to effectively count, tax, or control them.


  15. Although the Fremen are portrayed as superior warriors and can easily win battles from the beginning of Dune, they do not win wars without Paul’s imported tactics. This is seen in two places in the text:

    Hawat’s analysis: “And he thought about Halleck’s reports on Fremen battle tactics. The tactics smacked of Halleck himself … and Idaho … and even of Hawat.” (p.390)

    Halleck’s reunion with Paul: “Gurney took a deep breath. ‘So you’re why the Fremen have grown so wise in battle tactics. I might’ve known. They keep doing things I could’ve planned myself.'” (p.423)

    This doesn’t undermine your claim that the Fremen are archetypal of this myth, but the distinction between winning battles vs winning wars seems like something that you would care about. It could also be a way for this myth to explain its poor track record: the Gauls / Germans / … were more manly than the Romans, but lost because of tactics. I don’t think that this version of the myth is valid either, but it is harder to knock down.


  16. A bit late on this one, but the Fremen and Sarduakar aren’t purely generic; their direct historical cognates are the Caucasians and Cossacks respectively of the 19th century, specifically that portion of it chronicled by Lesley Blanch in The Sabres of Paradise. Princess Irulan seems pretty straightforwardly to be an expy of Blanch herself, made contemporaneous with her subject matter.


  17. Brilliant post.

    What’s kind of scary is that a Fremen Mirage narrative is everywhere in politics — and I don’t just mean contemporary American politics, though we have that in spades — but there are shades of it in Communist depictions of the working class versus the capitalist/bourgeois class (it’s a cliche to have a Soviet character denounce an American as a “decadent imperialist”) and various agrarian political movements.

    It goes to show how succesful Herodotus (and subsequent employers of the Mirage) were in constructing their identities as contrasted with their rivals.


    1. EV-ery-where, yeah.

      Communists regularly denounced capitalism as decadent… and capitalists, amazingly, returned the favor!

      You got people comparing the Soviet Union to “oriental despotism.”

      Which has an interesting history in its own right. “Oriental despotism” is a form of government that exists largely in the imagination of people besotted with the Fremen myth, and can best be described as “whatever conceivable form of government would be most easily defeated by Fremen, and which would be the most diametrically opposite to the Fremen, given the core premise of the myth.”

      Fremen are virile and live simple lives, so the oriental despotism must figuratively (or literally, with court eunuchs) emasculate its people, and be centered in a palace of baroque opulence. Fremen are individualists, so oriental despotism must be tyrannical and absolutist. Fremen are brave, so an oriental despot and most of his troops outside some small Praetorian Guard will be cowards. Fremen live off the land and can support themselves in harsh environments, so oriental despotism must be a society that centralizes the means of survival and becomes a ‘hydraulic despotism’ that somehow rules over others by threatening to cut off the means of survival (e.g. irrigation works).

      Any given ‘oriental despotism’ in fiction is usually a pastiche of features from real societies, re-imagined features from those societies, and (importantly) complete bullshit made up by people who’d never seen real examples.


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