A couple of months ago I stumbled upon an article called "The Secret History of Dune" (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/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’
...is 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.
...is 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.
...it´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.