The Caucasians wrote love poems to their daggers

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

The Sabres of Paradise by Lesley BlanchWith the new Dune movie about to come out, I started reading one of the books that inspired it, Lesley Blanch’s 1960 novel, The Sabres of Paradise, a book I’ve discussed before:

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.

The introduction to the novel uses “Caucasian” literally, in its original sense, to unintentionally comedic effect:

The Caucasians wrote love poems to their daggers, as to a mistress and went to battle, as to a rendez-vous. Fighting was life itself to these darkly beautiful people — the most beautiful people in the world, it was said. They lived and died by the dagger. Battle-thrusts were the pulse of the race. Vengeance was their creed, violence their climate.


The baby prince Georghi Melikov, at an age when he might have been sucking his thumb, was running it over the blade of his kindjal, or two-edged dagger, lisping that it had been made for him by Mourtazali the celebrated armourer.


Severed enemy heads or hands were always good coinage in the Caucasus. A Tousheen girl’s dowry was reckoned in these trophies. The more dashing a young Caucasian delikan, or brave, the more severed hands dangled from his saddle bow. Right hands, of course; left hands hardly counted and the loss of one never stopped a Caucasian from fighting. Sliced-off ears, a less cumbersome method of indicating the number of heads taken, were usually strung along the whip thong. When one Chechen chieftain found his son dead of wounds, he cut his body into sixty pieces and sent out horsemen across the mountains and valleys, each with a fragment, to be given to his kinsmen and vassals. For each piece, an enemy head was returned. Thus was his son’s death avenged. Vengeance, vendetta or kanly, was often pursued through three or four generations, decimating whole families, till there was no-one left. A household was only reckoned poor, only pitied, when there was no-one fit to fight.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I read Dune, and it didn’t really work for me, but I did find it oddly compelling, and I think back to it more than I would have expected.

At the very least, it will teach you how to overthrow an empire and launch a new religion.


  1. Szopen says:

    Tabr actually is tabor, from Polish tabór, from Czech tabor (popularised during Hussite wars), from Hungarian tabor, probably from…Turkish (obviously, Muslim) tabur — meaning not military camp per se, but camp made from military wagons.

  2. Borepatch says:

    There are not many novels that I go back and re-read. Dune is on the list.

  3. Sam J. says:

    Dune is fantastic character development but a bit short on technological believably. You just have to bite it an assume some sort of tech exists that really doesn’t make sense.

    Some of Herbert’s other works are really good and don’t have this problem.

    Anomaly UK commented,”…Yes, Herbert’s big-picture vision has a lot of value, even though the details are often unconvincing.

    Other “sword-and-sorcery SF”…”

    Yes that sums it up nicely “sword-and-sorcery SF”.

    I’ve, possibly, seen the Dune movie, downloading it on I2P.

    I would say the movie is the same. Excellent but you have to keep the same “sword-and-sorcery SF” attitude.

  4. Slovenian Guest says:

    In case anyone is disappointed with the new Dune movie they can watch a fan edit of the 1984 movie converted to 4K right here on YouTube!

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