"A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct."
So begins a saga that has spawned many books (some hotly contested), a movie, a TV series, and now, another movie. But what is this story? Who are these people? What, exactly, is the Butlerian Jihad? Suspecting that the new movie will resonate with new, untried fans, I thought a primer, a quick "beginner's guide to Dune" if you will, might be needed. I have attempted to assemble a short index of who/what/where/when with just mild spoilers for those that are going to need a program. Hopefully this is the jumping off point for your long, long love of DUNE.
Now that the new movie is out, there isn't a lot that needs to be added over the content of the book. The 1984 Lynch movie added a bit and I will try to point out differences where the distinction is notable.
When does this take place?
The timeline is murky and varied; There are a few different opinions on this but I'll use the one I like the best. The year the story opens is 10,191 AG where the beginning of the current dating system begins the year the Spacing Guild was founded (AG = After Guild). This year (1 AG) is somewhere around 100 years after the end of the Butlerian Jihad which itself takes place roughly 14,000 years from our present day.
The Butlerian Jihad?
Around 12,000 years ago, mankind had become complacent and depended on their "thinking machines" (robots, computers, etc.) for everything in their life. In the series of books co-written by Frank Herbert's son (and as good an explination as any), these "thinking machines" had eventually enslaved mankind. One day, a woman named Serena (or Jehanne or whatever ) Butler rose up and began what would eventually become a jihad against the thinking machines that would eventually overthrow their enslavers. After their victory, a basic stricture of their new life and religions was that man would not ever make another machine that could think like a man. The various schools that came after this event (Spacing Guild, Swordmasters, Bene Gesserit, Mentats, etc.) were efforts to replace the need for and dependence on thinking machines.
Bene Gesserit and their breedling plan
One of the schools to establish itself in the wake of the Buterian Jihad. Mostly women, they have perfected control of their bodies down to the atomic level. The "Water of Life" that Paul talks about often in the 1984 Lynch movie is a process where the Reverend Mother (a Bene Gesserit title of high rank), takes the poisonous last breath of a sandworm and converts it inside herself into a drug that the Fremen use to party. They are also adept at martial arts, the "Voice" (something Lynch's Dune got right), the "weirding way" as described by the Fremen of Jessica's abilities when they first meet her (something Lynch's Dune got wrong) and others. Their Grand Breeding Plan is to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach, a kind of male Bene Gesserit/Messiah figure. They have been selectivly breeding people from the Great Houses for thousands of years to bring this about. Jessica was supposed to give birth to a girl with the Duke Atreides that would then be bred with Feyd Rautha but she spoiled the plan by having a boy instead. This was Paul who was an unexpected and unperfect Kwisatz Haderach ... much to the dismay of the Bene Gesserit.
A Bene Gesserit of unknown rank, concubine to Duke Leto Atreides and Paul's mother. The Bene Gesserit finagled her into the Duke Atreides bed but the Duke will not wed her using the prospect of a possible marriage alliance with another Great House as a barganing tool.
Son of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine, Jessica. After his testing by the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Mohaim and his escape to the desert of Dune and the Fremen, he comes to believe that he could be the Kwisatz Haderach
Kwisatz Haderach? WTF is that?
The Bene Gesserit are able to use melange to awaken a limited prescience and ability to access memories of prior Reverend Mothers. However, all of them have only been able to access the female side of their ancestry. They believed that their Kwisatz Haderach would be able to access all memory, male and female, have perfect prescience and be able to "bridge space and time," kind of a male Reverend Mother that would make the Bene Gesserit the top power in the Imperium allowing them to supplant the Spacing Guild, name the emperors, etc.
Also known as "the spice." A drug sold in the Imperium and very popular for its effects on extending a person's lifespan. Unknown to the universe at large, it also, in large doses, awakens latent prescience abilities which the Spacing Guild has developed extensively and the Bene Gesserit use for a similar but limited capacity. Constant exposure to melange also turns the scelera of the eyes blue as seen in the Fremen. The drug can only be found on Arrakis/Dune and is mined at considerable cost but at the same time, making the Great House that holds the fief of Arrakis very powerful. It is actually a by-product of the lifecycle of sandworms.
Called Shai'halud by the Fremen. The large fauna native to Arrakis/Dune and only found there. Attempts to move sandworms elsewhere have failed. Sandworms are very territorial and will come to destroy anything in its territory making a regular rhythm in the sand.
The desert natives of Arrakis. They were a wandering people escaping from persecution and finally settled on Arrakis long ago. The harsh climate of the desert planet has turned them into fierce fighters. Having the spice Melange as a major part of their diet has turned the sclera of their eyes blue.
The planet actually named Arrakis; nicknamed and more well known as Dune. The only planet in the known universe where melange can be found. At the beginning of the first book, the planet is held in fief by the House Harkonnen but a plan is afoot and the fief is transferred to House Atreides. The planet is basically one giant desert with only a few areas that offworlders are able to eke out an existence. The Fremen, however, have established sietches, or camps, hidden all over the planet.
There is a long standing feud between the House Atreides and House Harkonnen that dates back to the Battle of Corrin. The House Harkonnen has gone to the Padisah Emperor and put together a plan with him to eliminate the House Atreides in a double-cross once House Atreides has moved to Arrakis. Because of the popularity of the Duke and his house in the Landsraad, the Emperor is eager to join this plan as long as they are not complicit in overthrowing a Great House. The Emperor is concerned that should his help be discovered, the other Great Houses could join together against him.
The emperor of the known universe. Shaddam IV, Shaddam Corrino, is the 81st Emperor of the Imperium. His wife, Anirul, is a Bene Gesserit of Hidden Rank and has only borne the Emperor daughters. Padishah Emperor is a hereditary title given to all the Emperors. Padishah is an old word meaning "chief ruler."
The elite military troops of the Emperor, they are known as "The Emperor's Hand" and, like the Freman, they are raised and trained in a harsh climate, Salusa Secondus. This planet was long ago the seat of the Empire before it was destroyed by atomics and the seat was moved to Kaitain.
Battle of Corrin
The final, decisive battle in the Butlerian Jihad which established the basics of the Imperial fiefdom, the Great and Minor Houses, and founded House Corrin from which all emperors have come.
Very simply, the ruling body of all the Great and Minor Houses comprised of the nobility of the Imperium.
One of the Great Houses led by Duke Leto Atreides. The Duke's progressive thinking, modern and revolutionary training methods and his reputation for being fair and just have made him very popular in the Landsraad and has lent respect to his mility forces. Not all, however, like the "Red Duke." He has some of the best men in his employ including Gurney Hallack, the House's Warmaster, the Mentat Thurfir Hawat, their Master of Assassins and the house's Swordmaster, Duncan Idaho.
Dr. Yueh and Suk Doctors
Dr. Yueh is a Suk Doctor, supposedly the best and most trusted of all doctors in the Imperium because of their Imperial Conditioning. This conditioning, which is indicated by the diamond tattoo on the forehead, is supposed to train the doctor to not harm their patients, among other things, and are supposed to make them safe to even administer to the sitting Emperor. Dr. Yueh, however, is subverted as part of the Harkonnen plot by the simple act of kidnapping his wife (and, of course, doing who knows what to her). His wife is a Bene Gesserit and I've seen it said that Bene Gesserit training she gave him wormed it's way into setting the foundation for subverting the Imperial Conditioning. Personally, I think it's a weak plot point but this explination is as good as any.
Another of the schools established after the Butlerian Jihad. The product of this school is a person that could, simply, think like a computer. Mentats are capable of extordinary feats of mental abilities and use of the Juice of Sapho is used to increase those abilities. Long time use of the juice produces a stain on the lips by which Mentats can be identified on sight.
Another of the Great Houses led by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Baron is morbidly fat and without scruples. He wears a null-gravity belt that allows him to walk around in a bouncing gait (not fly, as in Lynch's 1984 movie) and occasionally float low over the floor. He hates the Duke Atreides (and by extension, his whole House) because of their long-standing feud. He has two nephews, Glossu Rabban (also known as "The Beast") and Feyd-Rautha (Feyd-Rautha is the one that battles Paul at the end of the book and Lynch's movie). The Baron has a twisted Mentat, Piter De Vries who seems to have actually come up with their Great Plan but, of course, the Baron has claimed that honor for himself.
Nominally, a regular Mentat but one developed with other characteristics not normally produced in regular Mentats. The Harkonnen Twisted Mentat, Piter De Vries, for example, was a psychopath and fit perfectly with the Baron Harkonnen's personality. The Twisted Mentats are a product of the Bene Tleilax.
Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles. The company that manages all trade and economic activity in the Imperium. The Emperor and the Landsraad control the Directorships of the Board which in turn control the company itself. All products bought and sole in the Imperium are managed through the company.
The secretive Spacing Guild controls all travel, shipping and banking in the Imperium. They use melange extensively to mutate humans and turn them into Steersmen, a being that "swims" in a cloud of spice gas in a mobile tank and which uses it's prescient ability to plot a path through subspace for their Heighliners, their passenger and cargo ships which have the ability to travel through foldspace. The weird fish-guy in the beginning of Lynch's Dune is a full Steersman. You can see various forms of mutations on the attendants accompanying the Steersman's tank in various scenes.
Wait, wait. What about the "Weirding Module" from the 1984 movie?
I personally enjoy David Lynch's movie, many do. Many don't because of many of the things changed for the movie. However, this one really makes be groan every time I see it on screen. In the book, and very briefly in the movie, there is talk of the "Weirding Way" which is how the Fremen describe how Jessica and Paul move and fight because of their Bene Gesserit training. Later, in the book, Paul teaches some of this to the Fremen armies that fight back against the Harkonnen on Arrakis/Dune. So naturally, in order to create a "tangible" object that people could see on screen, the "Weirding Way" became the "Weirding Module," something completely made up for the movie and something that I feel they could have done without if they had just tried a bit harder. I'm hoping they do better for the upcoming movie.
What the hell is the weird, black, six-limbed thing that is a Harkonnen "pet" in the new movie? It's just a visual to show the lack of regard for his people and other people in general. You notice that the limbs appear to be human arms and it has a very human-looking butt.