Dune: An Analysis of the Atreides-Harkonnen War

(Warning: Dune Spoilers Aplenty)

In Frank Herbert‘s novel Dune, the feud between the Atreides and the Harkonnens was “kanly” – no holds barred.  The word appears early in the novel, when the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is discomforted by the Duke Leto Atreides‘ usage of the word in their final correspondence, in which the Duke refuses to meet with the Baron for a peace negotiation.  It is within this context that the story of Dune begins.

This feud reached its climax in a Harkonnen surprise attack on the Atreides home on Arrakis, in which House Atreides was virtually wiped out, with the exception of a handful of Atreides survivors, including the Lady Jessica Atreides and her son, Paul Atreides, the ducal heir.

The extent of the Harkonnen victory gives the impression that the Duke was outmatched.  Even the Lady Jessica thought of the Baron Harkonnen as “too potent an adversary” when she encountered him the aftermath of the Baron’s victory.  However, the Duke Leto may have been the greatest tactician alive in the universe at the time, superior to the Baron.  He was aware that Arrakis was a trap, and even that the Padishah Emperor had secretly sided with the Harkonnens.  He knew that the spice harvesting equipment would be damaged, and that he would be blamed for a poor harvest.  But he walked into the trap knowing also that the spice melange was the most precious commodity in the universe, and that control of Arrakis would give him tremendous power and wealth.  He also knew that the native Fremen would make potent allies on the planet.  He was supported by talented people, some “legends in their own lifetime”.  The Duke came to Arrakis as prepared as one could be under the circumstances.

How then, did the Duke allow himself to fall victim to the Harkonnen attack?  Leto made several critical errors.  A direct attack by the Harkonnens, even one aided by the Emperor, might not have succeeded, and a failed attack on the Duke could be disastrous for both the Baron and the Emperor.  The attack must involve treachery.

The Duke knew this, of course.  The Lady Jessica had received warnings of treachery through her Bene Gesserit sisterhood, in a message hidden in the Bene Gesserit way: written in a form of braille on a leaf in the royal gardens on Arrakis.  His son Paul heard similar warnings from the Fremen, whom the Atreides were already courting as allies, after saving the life of his Fremen housekeeper.  The Duke, while aware of the danger, still did not know, however, “which hand held the knife”.

The Harkonnen master stroke, most likely devised by the Baron’s advisor, mentat Piter De Vries, came in the form of a “scrap of a note”, with the Baron’s own seal, implicating the Lady Jessica as the Atreides traitor, falling into the hands of the Atreides mentat, Thufir Hawat, the Duke’s “Master of Asassins”.

In the moment that Hawat, shaking, approached the Duke with news of the note, the Duke made a fatal error.  The Duke decided to pretend that he believed the note, in the hopes that the real traitor might lower their guard.  As part of this decision, he pulled his best man, Swordsmaster Duncan Idaho, from a critical mission recruiting the Fremen to keep the Lady Jessica under surveillance.  Hawat was similarly distracted from detecting other threats, especially the real traitor, Paul’s tutor, Dr. Wellington Yueh, who betrayed the Atreides by deactivating the Atreides House shields immediately before the Harkonnen attack.

Why did the Duke weaken himself so?  Why play out a charade of distance from his partner when he most needed her counsel, trained as she was as a Bene Gesserit?  Why, when he must have known in his heart that the Lady Jessica, whom he hadn’t married in hopes of making an alliance with another Great House, not only had his best interests in mind, but loved him, and their son?

One factor may be that Leto relied overly on Hawat, a human computer, and one of the best mentats in history.  Hawat had virtually complete control of security in House Atreides, and when the evidence alleging Jessica’s involvement with the Harkonnens reached his hands, he was overwhelmed by the possibility, as intended by De Vries.  To Hawat, the Lady Jessica was a much more obvious suspect than Yueh, who was Imperially conditioned not to harm the Atreides.  Only the twisted mind of De Vries could imagine the possibility of breaking such conditioning, and Hawat could not.

The Baron understood the limits of a mentat well.  The Baron saw De Vries only as a dangerous tool to be used.  He instructed his nephew, the presumed heir to the barony, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, on the limits of a mentat (in the presence of De Vries) before making his attack.  The Duke failed to understand Hawat’s limitations.  Jessica, by contrast, realized that Hawat was vulnerable, and that the note was aimed at him.  She even presented this possibility to Hawat, making him realize that he himself was a target of Harkonnen intrigue, something he had left out of his computations, thus exposing the mentat’s blind spot.  But too late.

Leto’s more fundamental error was to deny the love that bound himself and Jessica, love that he should have realized transcended any of the intrigues that the Harkonnens had put against them.  It was only when Leto denied this love that he was lost.  Shortly before the Harkonnen attack, Leto made the decision to change his strategy and marry the Laddy Jessica.  But too late.  The Harkonnen attack was already upon him.

Would the Atreides have prevailed had the Duke married the Lady Jessica?  Given the disastrous results of Leto’s decision to instead follow Hawat’s plan, it is likely that the marriage would have raised morale and strengthened House Atreides at a critical time, focused Hawat’s energies more productively, and allowed Idaho to cement his bond with the Fremen.  Yueh might have been exposed in time, and Harkonnen attack, stripped of a critical element, might have been postponed, giving the Atreides enough time to recruit the Fremen, allowing them to repel virtually any attack.

Jessica herself, always completely loyal to the Atreides, had been ignorant of her parentage until her extraordinarily gifted son noted the genetic markers in her and himself shortly after the attack.  The fact that Jessica actually was a Harkonnen, and the daughter of the Baron, no less, should be considered among the great ironies in modern fiction.