September 17, 2017

THE CAUCASUS PRODUCED TOLSTOY'S BEST TOO:

The Secret History of Dune (Will Collins, SEPTEMBER 16, 2017, LA Review of Books)

Even a casual political observer will recognize the parallels between the universe of Dune and the Middle East of the late 20th century. Islamic theology, mysticism, and the history of the Arab world clearly influenced Dune, but part of Herbert's genius lay in his willingness to reach for more idiosyncratic sources of inspiration. The Sabres of Paradise (1960) served as one of those sources, a half-forgotten masterpiece of narrative history recounting a mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus.

Lesley Blanch, the book's author, has a memorable biography. A British travel writer of some renown, she is perhaps best known for On the Wilder Shores of Love (1954), an account of the romantic adventures of four British women in the Middle East. She was also a seasoned traveler, a keen observer of Middle Eastern politics and culture, and a passionate Russophile. She called The Sabres of Paradise "the book I was meant to do in my life," and the novel offers the magnificent, overstuffed account of Imam Shamyl, "The Lion of Dagestan," and his decades-long struggle against Russian encroachment.

Anyone who has obsessed over the mythology of Dune will immediately recognize the language Herbert borrowed from Blanch's work. Chakobsa, a Caucasian hunting language, becomes the language of a galactic diaspora in Herbert's universe. Kanly, from a word for blood feud among the Islamic tribes of the Caucasus, signifies a vendetta between Dune's great spacefaring dynasties. Kindjal, the personal weapon of the region's Islamic warriors, becomes a knife favored by Herbert's techno-aristocrats. As Blanch writes, "No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal."

Herbert is ecumenical with his borrowing, lifting terminology and rituals from both sides of this obscure Central Asian conflict. When Paul Atreides, Dune's youthful protagonist, is adopted by a desert tribe whose rituals and feuds bear a marked resemblance to the warrior culture of the Islamic Caucasus, he lives at the exotically named Sietch Tabr. Sietch and tabr are both words for camp borrowed from the Cossacks, the Czarist warrior caste who would become the great Christian antagonists of Shamyl's Islamic holy warriors.

Herbert also lifted two of Dune's most memorable lines directly from Blanch. While describing the Caucasians' fondness for swordplay, Blanch writes, "To kill with the point lacked artistry." In Dune, this becomes "[k]illing with the tip lacks artistry," advice given to a young Paul Atreides by a loquacious weapons instructor. A Caucasian proverb recorded by Blanch transforms into a common desert aphorism. "Polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills," an apt saying for a mountain people, becomes "Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert" in Dune.

Dune's narrative, however, owes more to The Sabres of Paradise than just terminology and customs. The story of a fiercely independent, religiously inspired people resisting an outside power is certainly not unique to the Caucasus, but Blanch's influence can be found here, too. The name of Herbert's major villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is redolent of Russian imperialism. Meanwhile, Imam Shamyl, the charismatic leader of Islamic resistance in the Caucasus, describes the Russian Czar as "Padishah" and his provincial governor as "Siridar," titles that Herbert would later borrow for Dune's galactic emperor and his military underlings.

Posted by at September 17, 2017 8:40 AM

  

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