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I recently watched "Dune" and was intrigued by the final scene where Paul, instead of his mother, Lady Jessica, accepts the challenge of fighting Jamis. This scene raised several questions for me:

Considering Lady Jessica's Bene Gesserit training and combat skills, why didn't she step up to fight Jamis, especially given her protective nature towards Paul?

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    In plain terms, it's a plot device. It's Paul's first kill, represents a kind of becoming for Paul (he changes his name even), and a rite of acceptance among the Fremen. It's not mentioned in Villeneuve's Dune 1, but (IIRC) Paul inherits Jamis' things - his house and wife, even.
    – AdamO
    Jan 18 at 13:28

2 Answers 2

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There are a few things happening in this scene that aren't immediately clear in the film. The source novel is somewhat more straightforward.

For starters, you need to be aware of a few bits of background info;

  • Jamis has a grudge against Stilgar from events that have happened in the past. Notably, Jamis thinks he should be in a leadership position and Stilgar has repeatedly bested him in sparring sessions to discourage him from issuing the formal challenge of leadership.

  • Jamis is sore about the fact that Paul was able to sneak up on him earlier as this has made him look weak in front of his followers.

  • Stilgar has vouched for Jessica and Paul.

  • Jessica's organisation has been seeding religions throughout the Galaxy in places where Reverend Mothers may need to hide in an emergency. She is pretending to be someone foretold in legend.

Jamis realises that this is an opportunity that he cannot afford to miss. If he challenges Jessica to prove her place in the legend (that she's a true Reverend Mother from outer space), the Fremen rules mean that she will not be able to fight him directly. She will need to provide a champion and that champion has to be Paul, someone that he feels confident of beating.

If he beats Paul, not only does it restore his self-worth (and improve his standing with his faction) but it also humiliates Stilgar.

“You know the rule, Stilgar,” Jamis said.
“Who knows it better?” Stilgar asked, and she heard the tone of placation in his voice, the attempt to smooth something over.
“I choose the combat,” Jamis growled.
Jessica sped across the cave, grasped Stilgar’s arm. “What is this?” she asked. “It is the amtal rule,” Stilgar said. “Jamis is demanding the right to test your part in the legend.”
“She must be championed,” Jamis said. “If her champion wins, that’s the truth in it. But it’s said….” He glanced across the press of people. “…that she’d need no champion from the Fremen—which can mean only that she brings her own champion.
He’s talking of single combat with Paul!

Jessica attempts to take on the challenge herself, but Jamis points out that she could have been coached on what to say by Stilgar.

She released Stilgar’s arm, took a half-step forward. “I’m always my own champion,” she said. “The meaning’s simple enough for….”
“You’ll not tell us our ways!” Jamis snapped. “Not without more proof than I’ve seen. Stilgar could’ve told you what to say last morning. He could’ve filled your mind full of the coddle and you could’ve bird-talked it to us, hoping to make a false way among us.”

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    For the record, nothing in this book is straightforward.
    – Valorum
    Jan 16 at 18:02
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    "repeatedly bested him in ritual combat" ... I don't think those Jamis has had a proper leadership duel with Stilgar yet (which is what ritual combat implies here, to me) because he is still alive. Those are, AIUI, to the death, just like this duel was. This is made clear later on, when Stilgar says it is a waste to kill young, strong members of the tribe; and when pressure builds for someone to actually duel Stilgar for leadership, Stilgar himself seems resigned to his fate.
    – muru
    Jan 17 at 2:18
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    @muru - The line from Stilgar is "Stilgar nodded. “Then, if the boy does not carve you down, you’ll answer to my knife afterward. And this time I’ll not hold back the blade as I’ve done before.” - He's humiliated Jamis in the past by not killing him, basically treating his challenges as a joke fight.
    – Valorum
    Jan 17 at 7:45
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    So not ritual fights for leadership. I don't think he'd have the option to hold back like that in an actual leadership duel.
    – muru
    Jan 17 at 7:50
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    @muru - My impressions that Jamis has been fighting to kill and Stilgar hasn't.
    – Valorum
    Jan 17 at 7:51
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There are a couple of reasons for this.

In the Dune universe, the Bene Gesserit are considered a mysterious sect who are not always trusted. There are "myths" around their abilities that they downplay to prevent people from openly calling them witches. Jessica may be considered an unfair opponent to Jamis for her ability to use magic (using the voice to make him stab himself, for example)

As protective as she is of him, Paul is still the last member of his House and should be able to defend himself. He has been communicating with her about his dreams and visions. He may not have told her specifically about the premonitions he had about this encounter but she may trust his confidence in wanting to duel to mean he has a positive interpretation of the outcome.

Of course, she doesn't know that

He initially had a vision that he would die from the encounter. This was just an interpretation that in taking a life, he was essentially killing the old version of himself. Sort of killing his childhood self to emerge a man, ready to represent his house in the battles to come.

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    I think I remember the term "Bene Gesserit witch" coming up a lot, so if they were trying to avoid that I don't think it was working.
    – nasch
    Jan 17 at 17:27
  • Even in modern colloquialism, a woman can be called a witch without actively meaning a practitioner of witchcraft. Likewise, one can suspect a member of the "Bene Gesserit" of having witch powers (as rumored in the high classes, who are the only ones I recall referring to them as such) vs actually confirming supernatural abilities in front of a new tribe whose culture you've only now encountered.
    – m1gp0z
    Jan 17 at 20:08
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    @nasch (From the books) The Bene Gesserit wants it both ways. They want to be feared as witches. Fear gives power. But they don't want to be officially known to be withces, as that would be politically difficult. Some of their many allies might turn their backs on actual witches. They generally do a good job of maintaining this balance. Jan 18 at 9:38

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