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One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 24 Aug 2019 06:53
by leto247
First of all, I apologize in advance for uploading such a long post but I honestly think the matter is worth a detailed consideration.

A couple of months ago I stumbled upon an article called "The Secret History of Dune" ( in which the author looked at how Dune (first published in 1965) had taken a lot of inspiration from a book called The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus, written by Lesley Blanch in 1960.

Needless to say, this piqued my interest, so I decided to get hold of a used copy and start a thorough reading to check if what the article was saying was indeed true. Much to my surprise, my expectations were exceeded when I started finding, in almost every other page, terms such as Padishah, Shaitan, Naib, Chakobsa or kanly, among others, that would also be used in Dune a few years later with the same exact meaning and in the same context. For example, with regard to kanly, The Sabres of Paradise reads:

In the Caucasus, kanly – vendetta − was the whole creed of these people, often pursued through three or four generations. Sometimes whole families were destroyed, fighting for days and nights, till the last man or boy fell.

And Chakobsa is described as:

The ‘Hunting Language’, which the rulers and Princes used when they wished to converse in secret and of which no more than a few words have been discovered.

Regarding the kindjal, or two-edged dagger, it mentions:

May thy kindjal rust was a malediction.

While, of course, in Dune we find a very similar assertion:

Jamis called out in ritual challenge: "May thy knife chip and shatter!"

And regarding its use, we are told:

‘The cut’ was de rigueur. To kill with the point lacked artistry.

While in Dune we can read:

"Gurney says there's no artistry in killing with the tip, that it should be done with the edge."

Even the origin and meaning of terms such as tabr or Sietch are explained:

[…] the Cossack camps, or tabr […]
[…] Their Sietch, or base camp […]

Does this mean that Sietch Tabr means literally “base camp camp”? Not necessarily. After all in Dune we are told that Sietch means “a meeting place in time of danger”, so I found it funny when later in the book by Lesley Blanch I spotted this other sentence:

In the Tartar language, Akhulgo signifies ‘a meeting place in time of danger.’

This means that Herbert just took a sound he liked —Sietch — and gave it the meaning of another word he probably found in Blanch´s book.

So far, the most skepticals could yet argue that all these references are nothing more than circumstantial coincidences, so it may be time to dig in a little deeper to reveal some more bulletproof evidence. For example, when at the beginning of the book we read something like this:

Thus, in writing of Shamyl, we must place him first in his time − the first half of the nineteenth century, and then in his place − the mountains – […]

It´s really difficult not to think about the quote with which Herbert begins the very first chapter of Dune:

To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis

Or when Blanch refers to:

Shamyl, the embodiment of his land, was at once warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, foxy and innocent, chivalrous and ruthless.

This is repeated almost verbatim in Dune:

He was warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, the fox and the innocent, chivalrous, ruthless, less than a god, more than a man. There is no measuring Muad'Dib's motives by ordinary standards.

And an ancient saying in the Caucasus, such as this one:

‘Polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills’ easily transformed into:

'Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert.'

In fact, the true reason for an episode in Dune that I had always found disturbingly out of character for Paul Atreides:

Remember, we speak now of the Muad'Dib who ordered battle drums made from his enemies' skins.

...may lie in this sentence from The Sabres of Paradise:

[…] they had flayed one of his generals […] and used his skin for a drum.

Even a religious quotation from Mohammed:

When Allah hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place, he causeth his wants to direct him to that place. later used quite appropriately in Dune:

Without turning, Kynes said; "When God hath ordained a creature to die in a particular place. He causeth that creature's wants to direct him to that place."

Poetry was not spared, either, since, in all probability, these verses:

O mountains of Gounib, O soldiers of Shamyl,
Shamyl’s citadel was full of warriors,
Yet it has fallen, fallen forever …

... inspired these ones by Herbert:

O Seas of Caladan,
O people of Duke Leto--
Citadel of Leto fallen,
Fallen forever. . .
-from "Songs of Muad'Dib" by the Princess Irulan

Sometimes we find and exact phrase used in different contexts, for example, what originally was:

O! You who know what we suffer here, do not forget us in your prayers.’ It was the voices of those other Georgian captives, soldiers and people of no consequence, who had not been ransomed and would never again see their homeland.

... in Dune reads:

Over the exit of the Arrakeen landing field, crudely carved as though with a poor instrument, there was an inscription that Muad'Dib was to repeat many times. […] The words of the inscription were a plea to those leaving Arrakis, but they fell with dark import on the eyes of a boy who had just escaped a close brush with death. They said: "O you who know what we suffer here, do not forget us in your prayers. "

Even, at the end of the book, when we are told (and I hope you don't mind a spoiler about a historical figure from the 19th century):

There had been a legend in the mountains, that on the night of Shamyl’s death a strange light was seen in the sky.´s almost impossible not to think about this other sentence:

"There is a legend that the instant the Duke Leto Atreides died a meteor streaked across the skies above his ancestral palace on Caladan."

These are most of the references I was able to detect in my reading, but I'm sure that someone with a sharp eye for detail could find even more.

Once I confirmed with my own eyes that what I had read was actually true, my reaction could have been to feel concerned about what seems to be an excessive number of unaccredited citations in my favorite work of fiction ever, but I'd rather see it from another angle. I remembered how the first time I read Dune I yearned to be able to actually get my hands on those volumes that were quoted at the beginning of each chapter and of which we were offered only mere fragments. And then I noticed that a high percentage of these direct quotations from The Sabres of Paradise were used by Frank Herbert as citations from works written by the Princess Irulan and that made me feel like I was finally having the chance to read one of those texts after all this time.

For all these reasons, reading The Sabres of Paradise has been an invaluable experience for me, since it has allowed me to discover the origin of many key aspects of the most important science fiction novel ever written. And I must admit that, in my mind, the author —Lesley Blanch— will always be a real-life Princess Irulan.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 24 Aug 2019 11:52
by Serkanner
A superb post Leto. It made me order a copy of the book because I really need to read this myself. I have to think about how I feel about the many similarities and obvious borrowing of whole sentences, phrases, words et cetera. Does anybody know Frank ever mentioned Lesley Branch or The Sabres of Paradise?

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 25 Aug 2019 05:50
by Cpt. Aramsham
Thanks for that post, leto! This is the kind of thing I live for, and I may have to check out the book for myself.

leto247 wrote:Dune (first published in 1965)

Well, in book form. It was first published in Analog starting in the issue marked December 1963.

The San Francisco Examiner, where Frank had started working that summer, published a glowing review of The Sabres of Paradise on October 9, 1960, under the byline Phyllis Seidkin and titled "Killers with a Kindjal". According to Dreamer of Dune:

Brian Herbert wrote:After he had been on the job a while, he went to the paper’s book review editor and made an interesting proposition. In exchange for free books, Dad offered to write book review outlines in his spare time, which could then be fleshed out by the editor.
“I’m a fast reader,” Frank Herbert said, “and when I’m at the typewriter it goes like a machine gun.”
The offer was accepted, and Dad received his pick from carloads of books received by the book review staff.

So that's almost certainly how he got his hands on it.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 25 Aug 2019 11:55
by leto247
Thanks, Cpt. Aramsham, It´s my pleasure. And great catch with the review! The connection is there without any doubt.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 26 Aug 2019 11:57
by georgiedenbro
Wow! I'm going to have to get the book myself. There's something sad in a way of finding the origins of a thing. It's like, you could ask where you come from, and the answer comes back to "from your parents", which sounds humdrum and yet still mysterious because of the whole chain of ancestry thing. But then go more in-depth and you also have to say "also from the bad tortilla your mom ate that helped form you in the womb" and the literal details of your origin get less and less glamorous and also less the type of things you'd want to know.

In this case I do want to read this other book, because as mentioned above maybe it could be seen as Irulan's source-book (she's the thief, not Frank!). But then again there's a limit to what I really want to know about how a book was written. Some of it may come out of the magic of Frank's imagination, some from research, some from stealing, some from someone else giving him ideas that aren't credited. There can be lots of sources. His whole life, basically, is a source, down to the bad burritos he might have eaten once. I guess as a writer there is some interest knowing how much you can borrow without being sued. Or at least, could at that time in history. And I do have a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on my shelf which I'll eventually get around to reading as well (T.E. Lawrence's book; e.g. Lawrence of Arabia, aka Paul).

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 26 Aug 2019 21:16
by pcqypcqy
Cool find.

I don't think it's a huge issue, because a work of fiction isn't meant to have citations, and the concepts are all real-world things. I think that's one of the things I've really enjoyed about FH's writing in dune, is that there is a connection to modern day cultures and languages. Makes it all feel a bit more believable.

Knowing FH, I'm sure the book was a starting point, and he did his own research to flesh out his ideas.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 15 Sep 2019 07:43
by leto247
It seems that The Sabres of Paradise not only influenced Dune on it´s origins but it may also influence it´s future, one of the showrunners for the Bene Gesserit TV show posted on twitter this reference material being used for the show:


Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 15 Sep 2019 11:39
by Serkanner
It is a good sign the people involved actually read up on the series. I am getting slightly more enthousiastic. My copy of Sabres of paradise arrived last week and when I have finished my current stack of books I'll dive into it.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 24 Sep 2019 13:45
by Naib
What a great post. Just ordered Sabres of Paradise for myself. Well done Leto!

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 04 Oct 2019 07:18
by leto247
I´ve kept thinking about that picture that the showrunner posted on Twitter, wondering about the reasons that may have led them to pick those specific books in particular.

We have already talked about why Lesley Blanch´s book is relevant to Dune, the books about Zen and Sufism are self-explanatory if you think about the fremen, and I suppose The Upanishads may be useful to reflect the religious syncretism of something like the Azhar Book of the Bene Gesserit.

But I was honestly puzzled by the choice of “Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling”, so after a little research online I found out, to my surprise, that all the Chakobsa that is spoken in Dune is in fact Romani language that Herbert got from this book.

So I decided to have a look at a copy of the book that is available for free ( and I suppose that I could share my findings here instead of opening a new thread.

First, we have the following passage in Dune:

"I know the Dark Things and the ways of the Great Mother," Jessica said. She read the more obvious signs in Mapes' actions and appearance, the petit betrayals. "Miseces prejia," she said in the Chakobsa tongue. "Andral t're pera! Trada cik buscakri miseces perakri --"

Mapes took a backward step, appeared poised to flee.

As far as I remember, nowhere in Dune does Herbert offer an explanation or a translation for this exchange. However, in the book by Charles Godfrey Leland we can read:

Another protective charm is common among the Southern Hungarian gypsies. The dung of a she-goat dried and powdered is sifted on a horse’s back and this spell recited:

Miseçes prejiá,
Andrál t’re perá !
Tráda êik busêákri
Miseçes perakri.

Evil be gone
From thy belly !
Drive away she-goat’s dung
Evil from the belly.

Later on, also in Dune, we can read:

"Cignoro hrobosa sukares hin mange la pchagavas doi me kamavas na beslas lele pal hrobas!"

It was the man to their right calling out across the basin.

To Paul, the words were gibberish, but out of her Bene Gesserit training, Jessica recognized the speech. It was Chakobsa, one of the ancient hunting languages […]

In this context, it does indeed appear to be gibberish considering the explanation that we find in the source book:

There is a belief allied to this of the power of the dead in graves to work wonders, to the effect that if any one plucks a rose from a grave, he or she will soon die. In the following song a gypsy picks a rose from the grave of the one he loved, hoping that it will cause his death:

Cignoro hrobosa
Hin sukares rosa
Mange la pchagavas,
Doi me na kamavas.
Bes’las piranake,
Hrobas hin joy mange,
Pchgavas, choc zanav
Pal lele avava
Te me ne brinzinav.
The me pocivinav.”

“ On her little tomb there grows
By itself a lovely rose.
All alone the rose I break,
And I do it for her sake.
I sat by her I held so dear.
Now her grave and mine are near,
I break the rose because I know
That to her I soon must go,
Grief cannot my spirit stir,
Since I know I go to her ! ”

We find more examples of this later on in Dune:

Stilgar glanced at the man Paul had subdued--Jamis. The man stood at one side, head lowered, breathing heavily. "You are a difficult woman," Stilgar said. He held out his left hand to a companion, snapped his fingers. "Kushti bakka te."

More Chakobsa, Jessica thought.

...which seems to be inspired by this:

“It’s kushti bak to wellan a Rom,
When tute’s a pirryin pre the drom.”

“ When you are going along the street
It’s lucky a gypsy man to meet.”

Some other times, the borrowing has exactly the same meaning as in the source, like in this case:

"Duy yakha bin mange," Chani whispered. "Duy punra bin mange. I have two eyes. I have two feet."

A sentence that comes directly from:

Duy yákha hin mange
Duy punrá hin mange […]

“ I have two eyes,
I have two feet, […]

Other times, we read things like this:

"Ima trava okolo!
I korenja okolo!"

Jessica translated silently: These are ashes! And these are roots! "

The funeral ceremony for Jamis was beginning.

However, it seems that Jessica´s Chakobsa is a little rusty:

[…] roots with magic power grew under ash trees,” and quotes a song of a maiden who, having learned that her lover is untrue, replies:

Ima trava u okolo Save,
I korenja okolo jasenja,”

“ There are herbs by the Save,
And roots around ash trees,”

Finally, many of the terms we see here:

"Jamis carried thirty-three liters and seven and three-thirty-seconds drachms of the tribe's water," Chani said. "I bless it now in the presence of a Sayyadina. Ekkeri-akairi, this is the water, fillissin-follasy of Paul-Muad'Dib! Kivi a-kavi, never the more, nakalas! Nakelas! to be measured and counted, ukair-an! by the heartbeats jan-jan-jan of our friend . . . Jamis."

... seem to have their origin here:

HERE is a meaningless rhyme very common among children. It is repeated while “counting off” —or “out”— those who are taking part in a game, and allotting to each a place. […]:

Ek-keri (yekori) akairi, you kair an,
Fillissin, follasy, Nákelas jan
Kivi, kávi—Irishman,
Stini, stani—buck !

This is, of course, nonsense, but it is Romany or gypsy nonsense, and it may be thus translated very accurately:

First—here—you begin !
Castle, gloves. You don’t play !
Go on !
Kivi—a kettle. How are you ?
Stáni, buck.

It's already been mentioned that Chakobsa was an actual language spoken in the Caucasus of “which no more than a few words have been discovered”, so when Herbert decided to call his fictional language by that name, taking inspiration from it was simply not an option. So he decided to borrow sounds —and, in many cases, also the meaning of the words— from the language of the Romani people discussed in this book.

I must confess that I was almost expecting to find some exciting Easter eggs hidden in some of the translations of this obscure language, but, alas, that was not the case.

However, after realizing that most of the inspiration that Herbert took from “The Sabres of Paradise” referred to Muslims from the Caucasus and seeing just now that the language spoken by the fremen is based on Romani from Eastern Europe, I have come to reconsider how I see the fictional origin of the Zensunni Wanderers on planet Earth, because until now I had just assumed their origin to be in the Middle East, as I guess most fans do.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 04 Oct 2019 10:12
by georgiedenbro
Very interesting! I guess the possibility that the Fremen at least in part have a Romani origin fits in with the use of the Dune tarot in Messiah, and the notion that they have a history of mysticism. But we might also suppose a joint history, especially since Sayyadinas carry all ancestral memories and would be able to recall both lines of ritual and belief. The very fact of Zen-sufi already shows us that the blending or merging of cultures happens over long periods of time (which I think is very accurate), so I see no reason why Muslim-Romani should also not be a merger that took place to eventually form the Fremen. The desert dwelling of the Fremen and the roaming tribes of the Romani would seem to mix well into the Fremen, although in theory the Bedouins alone would be enough to suggest a nomad lifestyle. Perhaps that's the linkage: both Bedouin and Romani are famous for living roaming or nomadic lives, so perhaps that's the thing in common that allowed the cultures to merge into the Fremen eventually.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 07 Oct 2019 03:36
by Cpt. Aramsham
leto247 wrote:But I was honestly puzzled by the choice of “Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling”, so after a little research online I found out, to my surprise, that all the Chakobsa that is spoken in Dune is in fact Romani language that Herbert got from this book.

Yes, this was apparently discovered by Dr. Simon Olivier and documented in an article he wrote. Unfortunately, however, he decided to write that article in his own made-up language (conlang), Sambahsa, so it is very hard for anyone else to read (I'm impressed with the Wikipedia editor who was able to extract and enter the relevant information and citation).

So, thanks for writing your post in English! It's good to have this documented in a more widely understood tongue.

As to what this tells us about how to understand the Fremen cultural background, I'll copy-paste something I wrote on Reddit:

Dune is written in English with a bunch of invented and foreign (primarily Arabic) words, but we know that in-universe that's not what they are actually speaking. The official language of the Imperium is Galach, a "Hybrid Inglo-Slavic" tongue, and the secret Fremen language, Chakobsa (which is explicitly stated to be the source of some words that are in fact Arabic), is said to chiefly derive from "the hunting language of the Bhotani, the hired assassins of the first Wars of Assassins" (i.e., some far-future society and event, unlike the real Caucasian language by the same name). And this makes sense: twenty thousand years into the future, we would expect languages to be unrecognizable.

Herbert doesn't go into detail about how the translation convention works within the novel. However, other writers have provided more or less rigorous explanations for how the "real" languages spoken by the characters in their books have been translated into English — most famously JRR Tolkien, who even provided the "real" names of the hobbits ("hobbit" itself supposedly being a "translation" of the word kuduk in their own language). Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun poses as a manuscript from the distant future, imperfectly translated from "a tongue that has not yet achieved existence" into English, with unfamiliar concepts replaced by the best-fitting archaic words, and with Latin standing in for a language considered obsolete within the setting.

If we adopt a similar perspective on Dune, how much of what we read should be considered "authentic" and how much is translated? If the English is translated from Galach, that means that invented words like plasteel or lasgun must have been calqued — created by analogy with the corresponding Galach terms — right? (We're told that a few words are actual Galach, presumably rendered literally: e.g. chaumas, chaumurky and richece.)

And when we get some phrases in French (regarding fencing, etiquette, and cuisine, for example), that probably isn't actually French that has miraculously been preserved unchanged for twenty thousand years while English has changed beyond recognition, but a representation of some particular technical jargon or way of speaking perceived as more refined, yes?

Going further, should we assume that other words taken from contemporary languages (such as kindjal from Russian, shai-hulud from Arabic or kwisatz haderach from Hebrew) stand in for words in other future languages, rather than having been borrowed seemingly as they are today, having resisted any language change for tens of thousands of years?

tl;dr – Do the Fremen really use all these Arabic terms, or has Herbert just translated the fictional future language "Chakobsa" into Arabic? And do the Bene Gesserit actually use Latin, or is that just Herbert translating what they're like (scholarly, vaguely religious, steeped in ancient history) into familiar terms? Is Paul really called Paul, or is that just a reader-friendly substitution, the way Banazîr Galbasi is presented to us as "Samwise Gamgee"?

To sum up:

  • We know there is a translation convention in effect, where most of the dialogue is (notionally) being translated from a future language (Galach) into a modern one (English).
  • Given the setting, and the fact that people (aside from the Bene Gesserit) barely even seem to know about the existence of French and Latin as languages (in Children there's a reference stating that melange is "thought to derive from ancient Terran Franzh" but that the origin is uncertain), there's good reason to suppose that the same extends to at least some of the words and phrases borrowed from non-English languages.
  • While most of the Arabic more or less makes sense, there are some instances where Frank Herbert uses words to mean something completely different, in ways that are hard to rationalize through language change. (The most obvious is ibn qirtaiba, which Herbert uses to mean "Thus go the holy words," but is in fact the name of a person.)
  • The language background of the Fremen appears to be that they are bilingual, speaking the "common tongue" of Galach as well as a dialect of Chakobsa among themselves. We're therefore led to believe that the "Arabic" phrases (which evidently are not Galach) are from this Chakobsa-based language. But the history we're given of Chakobsa is not that it's a future version of Arabic passed down through the Zensunni religion, but that it comes from the "hunting language" of the Bhotani hired assassins in the first Wars of Assassins—apparently an artificially constructed, obfuscated code-language. (Also, if we assume that these exotic words and names are not translated or substituted, we have to grapple with the fact that Chakobsa is an historical "secret language" unrelated to Arabic.)
  • The snatches of "Chakobsa" given in Dune are neither Arabic nor real Chakobsa, but in fact unrelated, garbled versions of Romani incantations (taken from Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling by CG Leland), with a few Arabic words inserted to bridge the narrative. There's no plausible way to account for this as something that would be part of any future Arabic language.
  • It is wildly implausible on its face that Arabic would survive for 20,000 years without changing so radically as to render it unrecognizable. I don't think people realize what an immense stretch of time that is. By comparison, the mutations that made us capable of proper language are thought (by many scientists) to only have occurred about 50,000 years ago, and all Indo-European languages, from English to Russian to Greek to Hindi, developed from one common origin within the last 5000–6000 years or so.

Re: One of the books that influenced Dune the most

Posted: 07 Oct 2019 12:05
by georgiedenbro
Cpt. Aramsham wrote:Reddit:

I just replied to something you wrote in that thread. Let's see if you can find it :)