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What’s inside that box in Dune?

PAIN, YOUNG ATREIDES

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The box from Dune 2020 with Paul’s hand in it feeling pain Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Denis Villenueve’s Dune is here, and it paints a compelling picture of the newest cinematic incarnation of the legendary sci-fi novel. It’s also a fairly sparse picture; long on dunes, short on story.

But for Dune fans, it’s full of the book’s most indelible moments. One of the most famous being that creepy green box — you know, the one that Timothée Chalamet has his hand inside — and what it contains.

[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Dune the movie and Dune the half-century old novel.]

A test of humanity

What’s inside the box? Only what you take with you.

No, wait, wrong sci-fi franchise.

Technically, there’s nothing inside the box. When Chalamet’s Paul Atreides places his hand inside it, it allows the person holding the box — in this case the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) — to focus their “energy” into creating a sensation of incredible pain.

In Dune, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood is an ancient society of women openly dedicated to shaping the destiny of humanity through political power and eugenics. They’re particularly interested in Paul because of how his existence throws a wrench into their multiple-millennia plan to breed their own pet messiah.

Gom jabbar? I barely know ’ar

Paul and Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam in Dune 2020 during the box test Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Early on in the plot of Dune, the Reverend Mother — basically the Bene Gesserit pope — visits the Atreides household to make an appraisal of Paul’s character.

Her appraisal comes in the form of a Bene Gesserit test of humanity. She places a ritual poisoned pin called a gom jabbar by Paul’s neck, and orders him to put his hand in the box. If he removes his hand, she’ll prick his skin, killing him. To survive, he must resist the instinct to withdraw his hand, no matter how much it hurts. The idea is to see if Paul’s intellect can win out over his base instincts.

OK, so, there is one thing inside the box: PAIN.

During the test, as Herbert wrote in the Dune novel, Paul feels the distinct sensation of his flesh being slowly burned away, as his limb is reduced to charred bones — but better to lose a hand than his life. So he recites a Bene Gesserit calming mantra, the Litany Against Fear. In the film, Villenueve allows Jessica to say the fateful words instead, to calm herself as she waits for Paul’s test to be over. The Litany is the most memetic set of words in Dune, and here are the words:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

In both the book and the film, Paul keeps his hand in the box until the Reverend Mother’s energy is exhausted. In the book, she lets him know that he held out longer than any one else who’s taken the test, because Dune wants us to know that Paul is a very very special boy at all times. And when she finally lets him take his hand out of the box, it’s totally fine! The pain was an illusion! Ha ha! What a fun game to play with a 15-year-old boy!

Fear is the mind-killer

But this scene isn’t just a memorable instance child torture. It also pulls together some of Dune’s biggest themes in one of its earliest moments. The Bene Gesserit ethos is all about how macro events can be swayed by tiny moments of change. If a person can recognize those hinge points, perceive their potential directions, and take instant action, they can consciously change the course of history. But, of course, they have to be able to set aside their short term instincts — like avoiding pain — for longer term goals — like staying alive.

Dune is a catalog of those hinge points. Small personal decisions — some made from logic, others from love — that snowball into a massive change in human history.

Well, future human space history.

Well, future human space history, with sandworms.