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.
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. Here it is:
So please subscribe!
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.
(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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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.
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).
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
[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).
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!”
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).