The epigraph in Princess Irulan’s text “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” discusses the idea of progress. Muad’Dib describes progress as a shield that protects people from “the terrors of the future.”
Muad’Dib practices the Bene Gesserit philosophy that progress, no matter the accompanying sacrifices, is essential to avoid humanity’s future annihilation.
On the planet Giedi Prime, it is Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen’s seventeenth birthday. In celebration he kills his one hundredth slave-gladiator in the public arena. Count Hasimir Fenring and his Bene Gesserit wife Lady Margot Fenring have been invited to the special occasion, and the day is declared a holiday across the planet. There is an illusion of good spirits painted across the House Harkonnen stronghold city of Harko, with banners and new paint decorating the buildings.
Feyd-Rautha shares his uncle’s fondness for earning respect and power by inspiring fear, and therefore regularly kills slave-gladiators to display his elite fighting prowess. This ties into the novel’s broader idea that violence is crucial to securing and maintaining political power in the Imperium. However, because the novel also posits that violence breeds more violence, it seems that Feyd-Rautha’s cold-hearted killings will come back to bite him.
However, when Count Fenring and Lady Fenring walk through Harko, they can see the city is also marked by “rubbish heaps,” “scabrous brown walls” and “the furtive scurrying of the people.” Harkonnen servants are always watching the two nobles, who speak in a secret language for privacy.
Count Fenring and Lady Fenring are visiting Giedi Prime at the Padishah Emperor’s command and see through the gaudy celebrations, clearly finding the planet’s corruption distasteful. The trashed environment is inhabited by a scared populace, with widespread oppression binding the land and the people in misery.
At the Harkonnen keep, Count Fenring and Lady Fenring are met by Baron Harkonnen. The Head of House Harkonnen is quite a sight as he glides towards them with the strange pace of a man who wears anti-gravity suspensors to hold up his enormous weight. Rings bedeck his hands and he is robed in an orange cloak sewn with “opafires.”
The Baron’s obesity and his opulent dress sense suggests he is a gluttonous, pleasure-seeking man. As the rest of the novel shows, he is also gluttonous for power and influence.
Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen accompanies Baron Harkonnen in a sullen mood. Lady Fenring is conscious of the young man’s prime physical conditioning. Unlike his uncle, it is clear that Feyd-Rautha will not let his body go to fat.
Feyd-Rautha always seems to be surly when in the Baron Harkonnen’s company—perhaps because the Baron tries to tightly control his nephew’s political future.
The Baron Harkonnen introduces his nephew Feyd-Rautha to Count Fenring and Lady Fenring. Feyd-Rautha is disconcerted by the Bene Gesserit Lady’s calm manner. He is also attracted to her beauty. The Baron thinks to himself that his nephew should be observing Count Fenring, whom the Baron considers to be one of the most dangerous individuals alive.
Although Count Fenring is humble and slight in appearance, Princess Irulan and now Baron Harkonnen have identified that he is one of the most dangerous beings in the Imperium. Like Paul Atreides, the Count is rife with hidden talents.
Feyd-Rautha sees that despite Count Fenring’s slight stature, he is a man who commands respect. The Harkonnen is frustrated to observe that Count Fenring behaves almost disrespectfully to the Harkonnen nobility, although the Count covers his actions through a superficial veneer of formal courtesies.
Feyd-Rautha is not merely a brilliant fighter; he shows sharp perception in recognizing Count Fenring’s hidden power. Feyd-Rautha acts in a similar manner to Paul Atreides when he becomes frustrated by the lack of respect afforded to his Harkonnen family as should befit nobility.
Feyd-Rautha speaks out of turn in the group by suggesting that he will make a kill in the gladiator ring dedicated to Lady Fenring. She firmly rebukes this offer. As Feyd-Rautha strides away to prepare for his fight, she wonders as to whether this is the young man that the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother has asked the order to look out for—Feyd-Rautha’s Harkonnen bloodline is important for the sisterhood’s genetic breeding program.
Feyd-Rautha reveals his brash personality by boldly attempting to dedicate his fighting prowess to Lady Fenring—an obvious act of flirtation in front of the Lady and her Count. The Bene Gesserit order surfaces again, looking to preserve certain bloodline for the benefit of humanity’s survival.
Baron Harkonnen continues on to a special area of privacy with a “cone of silence” between two pillars. He and his guests, Count Fenring and Lady Fenring, are watched by the Minor Houses present, but now they cannot be overheard. Count Fenring tells the Baron that they are not happy about the way that he ordered the Padishah Emperor’s Sardaukar soldiers off Arrakis after their victory over House Atreides. Furthermore, the Emperor wants to know how the Harkonnens are dealing with the troublesome Fremen on Arrakis. The Count also comments that it is “unfortunate” that the Imperial planetologist Dr. Kynes is dead.
The Baron’s “cone of silence” suggests that private spaces are often required by the Imperium’s nobility for political purposes. The Padishah Emperor, having previously allied with Houses Harkonnen to overpower House Atreides, has become unhappy with the Baron’s conduct. Count Fenring is the dangerous messenger who delivers news of the Emperor’s displeasure.
Baron Harkonnen replies that the Fremen are of no concern, with only small pockets of them left in the desert. He also argues that the Sardaukar troops could not have remained on Arrakis any longer to help eliminate the Fremen because the other Great Houses would have discovered the Padishah Emperor’s secret support of the Baron’s attack on Duke Leto’s household. Count Fenring does not seem swayed by his arguments, remarking on more of the convenient accidents that occurred in the Harkonnen attack on Arrakis—Lady Jessica and Paul Atreides are presumed dead after being lost to a desert sandstorm.
Baron Harkonnen underestimates the Fremen—they are greatly more powerful and numerous than he believes, hidden and training in the Arrakeen deserts. Count Fenring and the Padishah Emperor also see through the Baron’s political manipulations in covering up his murders as accidents.
When Count Fenring tells the Baron Harkonnen that the Emperor wants to audit the Baron’s financial affairs, the Baron is quick to agree. The Count deduces that the Harkonnen finances will therefore seem in order on paper. He is worried to learn Baron Harkonnen has made a comparison between Arrakis and the mysterious prison planet Salusa Secundus. The Count warns the Baron to steer away from trying to turn Arrakis into a prison planet like Salusa Secundus, for the Arrakeen spice production is too valuable to endanger by altering the environment successfully.
Baron Harkonnen is an expert in ensuring that his political leadership appears to comply with the Padishah Emperor’s rule. Count Fenring’s concern at the Baron’s comparison of Arrakis to Salusa Secundus is later revealed to stem from the Padishah’s Emperor desire to keep the prison’s planet’s harsh ecology and Sardaukar training regime a secret so it cannot be replicated on a similar inhospitable planet such as Arrakis. The Emperor fears any challenge to his elite Sardaukar troops.
Count Fenring continues to interrogate Baron Harkonnen about his concerning political decisions. He wants to know why the Baron lied about Thufir Hawat’s death, when Duke Leto’s former Mentat is actually now in the Baron’s employ. Count Fenring advises the Baron to kill the Mentat immediately, but the Baron is loath to do so because this would leave him without the services of a talented Mentat.
Once again, the Baron treats Mentats as commodities rather than real people—echoing his lack of compassion for other people more generally. Meanwhile, Count Fering’s many questions suggest that the Baron is increasingly in hot water, building suspense for the events to come.
The tension between Count Fenring and Baron Harkonnen increases when the Baron learns that the Padishah Emperor is so concerned at his maneuverings and lies that the Emperor may consider having his Sardaukar forces deal with House Harkonnen. The Baron actually hopes this will occur so that he can gain the support of the other Great Houses. He knows that in such a situation the Great Houses will fear that the Emperor could also turn on them, banding together to take on Imperial forces. This civil war would enable the Baron’s plot to put Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen on the Imperial throne.
Baron Harkonnen is a master manipulator who plots to benefit from great misfortune to turn it into an advantage. The Baron’s high-risk plan to instigate a successful political coup by goading the Emperor into attacking House Harkonnen suggests he is a leader willing to put everything on the line—including his own life and those of his people—for increased personal gain.
The nobles begin walking to the arena where Feyd-Rautha’s combat will take place. Count Fenring remarks that the science of humankind is one of “discontent.” Baron Harkonnen, already on high alert at the Count’s many insinuations on behalf of the Emperor, is appalled to learn that he may not be able to name Feyd-Rautha as his heir—the Emperor may withhold his official sanction if House Harkonnen continues to displease him.
Count Fenring adeptly manages Baron Harkonnen’s aggressive political maneuvers by threatening to destroy a desire that the Baron holds dear—for Feyd-Rautha to succeed him as the head of House Harkonnen to continue gathering power via his ancestors.
Feyd-Rautha enters the arena’s fighting pit. He is dressed for combat and wears a traditional black glove and long knife in one hand, with white glove and poisoned short blade in the other. As he observes the loud and cheering crown around him, the young man thinks on his secretly poisoned long blade that he plans to use for an extra special fight today. Accompanied by ceremonial music, he parades in front of the crowd and declares that his fight is dedicated to his uncle, the Baron Harkonnen.
Feyd-Rautha demonstrates a flair for the dramatic in his fashion sense and parade. He knows how to play a crowd to his advantage. In this vein, he wisely dedicates the fight to his uncle rather than causing political objection in dedicating it to the married Lady Fenring as he earlier suggested.
Baron Harkonnen and the crowd are unaware that Feyd-Rautha has colluded with Mentat Thufir Hawat to ensure a unique gladiatorial fight takes place today. The slave has not been drugged as is usual; the heightened danger for the heroic Feyd-Rautha will whip the crowd into a frenzy when they realize this truth. In case the slave begins to get the upper hand on the Harkonnen noble, Hawat has imprinted a key word into the slave’s mind that will paralyze him when uttered, leaving the slave open for an easy kill.
Feyd-Rautha plots further to offer such a spectacle to the crowd that they will admire and support him even more due to his skill and courage in besting a truly dangerous opponent. The crowd will remain unaware that he has a treacherous deceit up his sleeve that means the fight is not equal after all—like the Baron, Feyd-Rautha makes complicated, multilayered plans to ensure his success.
The slave enters the pit and some of the crowd immediately realize he is not drugged. The slave has also used his own blood to draw a symbol on his clothing. It is the red hawk ensign of House Atreides, indicating that the slave is one of Duke Leto’s captured soldiers and likely a formidable fighter.
The claim of allegiance to House Atreides is particularly significant because the slave is fighting in a Harkonnen stronghold—the entire Imperium knows of the fierce enmity between the two Great Houses.
Feyd-Rautha has a brief moment of concern that Thufir Hawat may be trying to secretly have Feyd-Rautha killed. But he can see the sense in Hawat’s plan that the slavemaster will be blamed for betraying House Harkonnen by entering a dangerous slave into the ring, while Feyd-Rautha will gather accolade and respect for besting such a menacing opponent. Baron Harkonnen will read the threat to his nephew as a threat to his own person. Feyd-Rautha also backs his own fighting talents to win the match, with the extra security of nobody knowing he has switched the blade that is tipped with poison.
Feyd-Rautha easily calms his brief moment of concern with the knowledge that he has made every arrangement to ensure that Hawat’s plan will succeed. He is also thrilled at the public acclaim he will receive upon killing the Atreides gladiator. Like the Baron, Feyd-Rautha is willing to use violence to secure political power and respect.
The fighting begins and only Feyd-Rautha’s combat training and youthful agility see him clear the slave’s blows while managing to bury drugged barbs into the slave. He is thrilled by the cheers of the crowd at his daring success. However, Feyd-Rautha makes a mistake in engaging the stronger slave in close quarters. The nobleman has to use the key word to render the slave immobilized for but a second, which is enough time for Feyd-Rautha to scratch him with his poisoned black blade.
Feyd-Rautha has overcommitted himself but escapes the perilous situation by cheating in the match. Harkonnens are well known for their treachery, and Feyd-Rautha’s fight is no exception.
The poison works immediately and the slave is crippled. He kills himself on his own knife point rather than letting Feyd-Rautha take the glory. The Harkonnen fighter is frustrated at this move, but is pleased that the crowd, cheering madly for him, have witnessed such a spectacle of a fight. His enemies will always wonder which hand he carries poison in now.
The Atreides gladiator’s suicide robs Feyd-Rautha of some of his glory, echoing Duke Leto’s death in preventing Baron Harkonnen the pleasure of killing his enemy.
In a calculated move to win over the crowd, Feyd-Rautha also refuses the tradition of cutting off a dead slave-gladiator’s head and instead affords him an honorable warrior’s burial. Baron Harkonnen is annoyed until Lady Margot Fenring shows him how much the rest of audience adores Feyd-Rautha’s gesture. The Baron orders an immediate fete in his nephew’s name for the energized crowd to celebrate together.
Feyd-Rautha once more proves his cunning in a calculated move to win more glory and admiration from the crowd.
The Baron Harkonnen excuses himself. The Count Fenring and Lady Fenring discuss what they have witnessed. They know that Feyd-Rautha intentionally planned to fight an undrugged slave and conclude that Thufir Hawat must have helped plan the spectacle. The Count admits that his earlier instruction for the Baron to kill Hawat was a mistake. He and Lady Fenring have deduced that Hawat is likely trying to eliminate the Baron by elevating Feyd-Rautha to Head of House Harkonnen. The Fenrings would prefer this, as Bene Gesserit Lady Fenring knows that she can control Feyd-Rautha through his physical attraction to her.
Like the Baron, Count Fenring and Lady Fenring reveal that they can enact plans within plans to neutralize their political threats. Lady Fenring cannot control the Baron using the sway she holds over Feyd-Rautha because the Baron is attracted to young men.
As per Bene Gesserit order, Lady Fenring is planning to become pregnant with Feyd-Rautha’s child in the near future, securing the future of the Harkonnen bloodline. Count Fenring accepts this necessity despite his jealousy. The couple also comment on the similar talents shared by Feyd-Rautha and Paul Atreides, although their behaviors are worlds apart due to the two men’s different training. The Count wishes that they could have saved Paul’s life from his apparent death on Arrakis; Lady Fenring quotes a Bene Gesserit saying that a person is not dead until one sees their lifeless body—and even then all may not be as it seems.
Lady Fenring is a model Bene Gesserit sister—she is willing to birth a child to a man she despises in order to preserve a bloodline that the sisterhood desires. Count Fenring proves a loyal bene Gesserit ally by supporting his wife in her plan to bear a child to another man. Notably, Fenring himself is unable to produce a child with his wife, as he is a genetic eunuch. The pair’s conversation draws an explicit parallel between Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen and Paul Atreides, setting up tension for their later showdown at the novel’s conclusion.