April 4, 2012

Knives and Swords in Chapters 4 (Pg 28-37) of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

In this chapter, Herbert adds a little dimension to the relationship between past, present, and future that he established in the previous two sections.  In chapter 4, we see Paul practicing fencing and knife-fighting.  In a future so technologically advanced, it seems a little odd that anyone would bother learning to defend themselves with a sword.  For an example, look at Star Wars. 

Luke Skywalker uses a light-saber to fight a number of enemies, but guns work every bit as well for everyone else because swords aren’t great distance weapons.  Swords and knives are made for the close intimate kinds of combat that happen within arm’s-length of the people you’re trying to kill (or who are trying to kill you.)  Guns are far less personal and take a lot less effort to use effectively because someone with a gun can kill things much further away.  Presumably the reason fighting with light-sabers is considered a sign of skill is because it’s a hell of lot harder.
Back to “Dune” though, Herbert makes clear that fencing is the primary form of self-defense because Paul is trained almost exclusively in how to stab, thrust and parry.  It seems like an odd choice, except that Herbert also makes clear that fencing is generally the only way to penetrate an opponent’s shields.  The irony here is that technology has progressed so far in the invention of shielding that the art of combat regresses to forms even our culture considers somewhat primitive.  Frank Herbert seems to portray progress as going forward only by going backward, and relearning things less advanced cultures valued. 

In some ways, it’s a little like what happened in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.  Farmers using new automotive technology actually managed to strip the soil of all the necessary nutrients that allowed crops to grow, turning fertile farms into fields of dust (you know, like a desert.)  In order to repair the damage, our whole culture had to re-learn the farming concepts perfected in feudal times hundreds of years earlier.  Frank Herbert seems to understand how technology that’s often meant to make things easier can end up making other things harder.  Paul has shields now, which protects him from bullets, but it also makes it necessary for him to learn a much more difficult form of self-defense and also know a great deal about poisons as the Reverend Mother observed in chapter 1. 

Also throughout chapter 5, Herbert begins to emphasize the relationship of the future and the past.  Paul speaks with Dr. Yueh about a very old copy of the Orange Catholic Bible, but Paul eventually feels that it is somehow related to the premonition of his terrible purpose in the future.  Here we find Paul interacting with essentially an ancient artifact as an omen of things to come.  Herbert seems to imply that even future progress somehow involves further regression into the past.  Even in Dr. Yueh’s seemingly linear case of being motivated by his past toward a specific future, there is still an element of time-reversal because Dr. Yueh’s future actions also affect people from his past. 

In addition to continuing to develop the impending doom awaiting Paul and his family on Arrakis, Frank Herbert also stages the progression of time in a way which can (like so many other complex ideas) be summarized by lyrics from a Clash song:

Are you taking over
Or are you taking orders?
Are we going backward
Or are we going forward?
 

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