The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 29 Apr 2024

Hawat! Hawat! Hawat! A million deaths are not enough for Hawat!

[ Content warning: Spoilers for Frank Herbert's novel Dune. Conversely none of this will make sense if you haven't read it. ]

Summary: Thufir Hawat is the real traitor. He set up Yueh to take the fall.

This blog post began when I wondered:

Hawat knows that Wellington Yueh has, or had a wife, Wanna. She isn't around. Hasn't he asked where she is?

In fact she is (or was) a prisoner of the Harkonnens and the key to Yueh's betrayal. If Hawat had asked the obvious question, he might have unraveled the whole plot.

But Hawat is a Mentat, and the Master of Assassins for a Great House. He doesn't make dumbass mistakes like forgetting to ask “what are the whereabouts of the long-absent wife of my boss's personal physician?”

The Harkonnens nearly succeed in killing Paul, by immuring an agent in the Atreides residence six weeks before Paul even moves in. Hawat is so humiliated by his failure to detect the agent hidden in the wall that he offers the Duke his resignation on the spot. This is not a guy who would have forgotten to investigate Yueh's family connections.

And that wall murder thing wasn't even the Harkonnens' real plan! It was just a distraction:

"We've arranged diversions at the Residency," Piter said. "There'll be an attempt on the life of the Atreides heir — an attempt which could succeed."

"Piter," the Baron rumbled, "you indicated —"

"I indicated accidents can happen," Piter said. "And the attempt must appear valid."

Piter de Vries was so sure that Hawat would find the agent in the wall, he was willing to risk spoiling everything just to try to distract Hawat from the real plan!

If Hawat was what he appeared to be, he would never have left open the question of Wanna's whereabouts. Where is she? Yueh claimed that she had been killed by the Harkonnens, and Jessica offers that as a reason that Yueh can be trusted.

But the Bene Gesserit have a saying: “Do not count a human dead until you've seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.” The Mentats must have a similar saying. Wanna herself was Bene Gesserit, who are certainly human and notoriously difficult to kill. She was last known to be in the custody of the Harkonnens. Why didn't Hawat consider the possibility that Wanna might not be dead, but held hostage, perhaps to manipulate Duke Leto's physician and his heir's tutor — as in fact she was? Of course he did.

"Not to mention that his wife was a Bene Gesserit slain by the Harkonnens," Jessica said.

"So that’s what happened to her," Hawat said.

There's Hawat, pretending to be dumb.

Supposedly Hawat also trusted Yueh because he had received Imperial Conditioning, and as Piter says, “it's assumed that ultimate conditioning cannot be removed without killing the subject”. Hawat even says to Jessica: “He's conditioned by the High College. That I know for certain.”

Okay, and? Could it be that Thufir Hawat, Master of Assassins, didn't consider the possibility that the Imperial Conditioning could be broken or bent? Because Piter de Vries certainly did consider it, and he was correct. If Piter had plotted to subvert Imperial Conditioning to gain an advantage for his employer, surely Hawat would have considered the same.

Notice, also, what Hawat doesn't say to Jessica. He doesn't say that Yueh's Imperial Conditioning can be depended on, or that Yueh is trustworthy. Jessica does not have the gift of the full Truthsay, but it is safest to use the truth with her whenever possible. So Hawat misdirects Jessica by saying merely that he knows that Yueh has the Conditioning.

Yueh gave away many indications of his impending betrayal, which would have been apparent to Hawat. For example:

Paul read: […]
"Stop it!" Yueh barked.
Paul broke off, stared at him.
Yueh closed his eyes, fought to regain composure. […]
"Is something wrong?" Paul asked.
"I'm sorry," Yueh said. "That was … my … dead wife's favorite passage."

This is not subtle. Even Paul, partly trained, might well have detected Yueh's momentary hesitation before his lie about Wanna's death. Paul detects many more subtle signs in Yueh as well as in others:

"Will there be something on the Fremen?" Paul asked.

"The Fremen?" Yueh drummed his fingers on the table, caught Paul staring at the nervous motion, withdrew his hand.

Hawat the Mentat, trained for a lifetime in observing the minutiae of other people's behavior, and who saw Yueh daily, would surely have suspected something.

So, Hawat knew the Harkonnens’ plot: Wanna was their hostage, and they were hoping to subvert Yueh and turn him to treason. Hawat might already have known that the Imperial Conditioning was not a certain guarantee, but at the very least he could certainly see that the Harkonnens’ plan depended on subverting it. But he lets the betrayal go ahead. Why? What is Hawat's plan?

Look what he does after the attack on the Atreides. Is he killed in the attack, as so many others are? No, he survives and immediately runs off to work for House Harkonnen.

Hawat might have had difficulty finding a new job — “Say aren't you the Master of Assassins whose whole house was destroyed by their ancient enemies? Great, we'll be in touch if we need anyone fitting that description.” But Vladimir Harkonnen will be glad to have him, because he was planning to get rid of Piter and would soon need a new Mentat, as Hawat presumably knew or guessed. And also, the Baron would enjoy having someone around to remind him of his victory over the Atreides. The Baron loves gloating, as Hawat certainly knows.

Here's another question: Where did Yueh get the tooth with the poison gas? The one that somehow wasn't detected by the Baron's poison snooper? The one that conveniently took Piter out of the picture? We aren't told. But surely this wasn't the sort of thing was left lying around the Ducal Residence for anyone to find. It is, however, just the sort of thing that the Master of Assassins of a Great House might be able to procure.

However he thought he came by the poison in the tooth, Yueh probably never guessed that its ultimate source was Hawat, who could have arranged that it was available at the right time.

This is how I think it went down:

The Emperor announces that House Atreides will be taking over the Arrakis fief from House Harkonnen. Everyone, including Hawat, sees that this is a trap. Hawat also foresees that the trap is likely to work: the Duke is too weak and Paul too young to escape it. Hawat must choose a side. He picks the side he thinks will win: the Harkonnens. With his assistance, their victory will be all but assured. He just has to arrange to be in the right place when the dust settles.

Piter wants Hawat to think that Jessica will betray the Duke. Very well, Hawat will pretend to be fooled. He tells the Atreides nothing, and does his best to turn the suspicions of Halleck and the others toward Jessica.

At the same time he turns the Harkonnens' plot to his advantage. Seeing it coming, he can avoid dying in the massacre. He provides Yueh with the chance to strike at the Baron and his close advisors. If Piter dies in the poison gas attack, as he does, his position will be ready for Hawat to fill; if not the position was going to be open soon anyway. Either way the Baron or his successor would be only too happy to have a replacement at hand.

(Hawat would probably have preferred that the Baron also be killed by the tooth, so that he could go to work for the impatient and naïve Feyd-Rautha instead of the devious old Baron. But it doesn't quite go his way.)

Having successfully made Yueh his patsy and set himself up to join the employ of the new masters of Arrakis and the spice, Hawat has some loose ends to tie up. Gurney Halleck has survived, and Jessica may also have survived. (“Do not count a human dead until you've seen his body.”) But Hawat is ready for this. Right from the beginning he has been assisting Piter in throwing suspicion on Jessica, with the idea that it will tend to prevent survivors of the massacre from reuniting under her leadership or Paul's. If Hawat is fortunate Gurney will kill Jessica, or vice versa, wrapping up another loose end.

Where Thufir Hawat goes, death and deceit follow.


Maybe I should have mentioned that I have not read any of the sequels to Dune, so perhaps this is authoritatively contradicted — or confirmed in detail — in one of the many following books. I wouldn't know.

Addendum 20240512

Elliot Evans points out that my theory really doesn't hold up. Hawat survives the assault because he is out of town when it happens (“Aha!” I said, “how convenient for him!”) but his thoughts about it, as reported by Herbert, seem to demolish my theory:

I underestimated what the Baron was willing to spend in attacking us, Hawat thought. I failed my Duke.

Then there was the matter of the traitor.

I will live long enough to see her strangled! he thought. I should’ve killed that Bene Gesserit witch when I had the chance. There was no doubt in his mind who had betrayed them — the Lady Jessica. She fitted all the facts available.

Mr. Herbert, I tried hard to give you an escape from this:

"So that’s what happened to her," Hawat said.

but you cut off your own avenue of escape.

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