SEPTEMBER 16, 2017
FRANK HERBERT’S Dune (1965) is a science-fiction classic in part because it’s such brilliant pastiche. Drawing inspiration from the midcentury United States’s nascent environmental movement, European feudalism, Middle Eastern oil politics, and Zen Buddhism, Herbert created a universe that is at once exotic and familiar. Not all of the book’s success is a result of inspired borrowing, but much of the richness and depth in Herbert’s imagined future of religious fanaticism and aristocratic intrigue can be traced to its creator’s talent for appropriation.
Melange, the hallucinogenic drug at the heart of Herbert’s book, acts as a prerequisite for interstellar travel and can only be obtained on one harsh, desert planet populated by tribes of warlike nomads. 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.
There are even some interesting echoes of Blanch’s writing style and tendencies in Herbert’s book. Both authors traffic in evocative descriptions of stark, unforgiving landscapes and equally unforgiving peoples. And their shared tendency to describe their protagonists in raptor-like terms may not be a coincidence. (For Blanch, the Caucasus was a land of “eagle-faced warriors” and Imam Shamyl was possessed of “handsome eagle features.” Naturally, the Atreides are also notable for their “hawk features.”) Even Dune’s colors owe something to Blanch’s history. The banners of House Atreides are green and black. The first is, of course, the color of Islam and the second was adopted by Imam Shamyl’s Murids, holy Islamic warriors pledged to fight Russian imperialism to the death.
Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradise languishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development.
Great travel writing makes no pretense of objectivity, and The Sabres of Paradise owes more to Blanch’s background as a travel writer than any traditional history. Blanch traveled and wrote extensively about the Middle East and Russia, and she doesn’t bother hiding her affection for her subject matter. She was clearly captivated by the culture and peoples of the Caucasus, and it’s difficult not to be swept away by her enthusiasm.
The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.
In strategic terms, this entire episode held little importance: the audacity of Shamyl’s raiders and the drama and pageantry of the exchange would not change the fact that the Russians had more men and more guns. Indeed, the comparative insignificance of the Caucasus campaign is thrown into stark relief by the fact that the implacable Russian advance was barely slowed by the disastrous Crimean War. But Blanch’s account, aside from being brilliantly written, captures the essential tragedy of Imam Shamyl’s struggle. Just as his son was overawed and then seduced by the Czarist court, only to wither away in one of his father’s mountain citadels after reluctantly returning to the land of his birth, Shamyl’s support among the Caucasian tribes was gradually being eroded by a combination of overwhelming force and strategic conciliation. It was only a matter of time until the Russians prevailed.
Occasionally, The Sabres of Paradise creaks under the weight of its author’s ambitions. While the story remains unfailingly interesting, Blanch’s detours into the habits of the Russian aristocracy and European power politics, and the memorable personalities that populate the period occasionally detract from the book’s narrative momentum. Of course, a ruthless editor may have also excised Blanch’s wonderful asides about Pushkin and Tolstoy’s connections to the Caucasus. These narrative detours give testament to the staggering research required for such a comprehensive history. Blanch was no academic, but her command of military facts and her impressive array of primary sources, including her interviews with Shamyl’s exiled great-granddaughter, should disabuse skeptics of the notion that she didn’t do her homework.
Science fiction and fantasy have always been syncretic genres. The extravagant world-building that fires the imagination of so many readers would be nearly impossible if authors refused to seek inspiration in our own histories, religious traditions, and myths. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was famously inspired by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. J. R. R. Tolkien’s background in medieval languages helped shape the mythology of Middle Earth. Frank Herbert’s Dune is no different, and rediscovering one of the book’s most significant influences is a rewarding experience. At a time when our most popular science fiction sagas have been reduced to cannibalizing themselves, we would do well to celebrate genre pioneers who were more ambitious in their borrowing.