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The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is a fictional character from the Dune universe created by Frank Herbert. He is primarily featured in the 1965 novel Dune, but is also a major character in the Prelude to Dune prequel trilogy (1999-2001) by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The character is brought back as a ghola in the Herbert/Anderson sequels which conclude the original series, Hunters of Dune (2006) and Sandworms of Dune (2007).
The Appendix IV: The Almanak en-Ashraf (Selected Excerpts of the Noble Houses) in Dune says of him (in part):
VLADIMIR HARKONNEN (10,110-10,193) Commonly referred to as Baron Harkonnen, his title is officially Siridar (planetary governor) Baron. Vladimir Harkonnen is the direct-line male descendant of the Bashar Abulurd Harkonnen who was banished for cowardice after the Battle of Corrin. The return of House Harkonnen to power generally is ascribed to adroit manipulation of the whale fur market and later consolidation with melange wealth from Arrakis.
In Dune, Herbert notes that the Baron possesses a "basso voice" and is so "grossly and immensely fat" that he requires anti-gravity devices known as suspensors to support his weight. It is implied by Margot Fenring that the Baron has allowed himself to become obese.
As ruthless and cruel as he is intelligent and cunning, the Baron's greatest skill is his talent for the subtle and clever manipulation of others through their weaknesses or his understanding of human nature. His sexual preference for young men is implied in Dune and Children of Dune. It is noted, however, that he "once permitted himself to be seduced" in the liaison which produced his secret daughter.
As Dune begins, a longstanding feud exists between the Harkonnens of Giedi Prime and the Atreides of Caladan. The Baron's intent to exterminate the Atreides line seems close to fruition as Duke Leto Atreides is lured to the desert planet Arrakis on the pretense of taking over the valuable melange operation there. The Baron has an agent in the Atreides household: Leto's own physician, the trusted Suk doctor Wellington Yueh. Though Suk Imperial Conditioning supposedly makes the subject incapable of inflicting harm, the Baron's twisted Mentat Piter De Vries notes:
It's assumed that ultimate conditioning cannot be removed without killing the subject. However, as someone once observed, given the right lever you can move a planet. We found the lever that moved the doctor.
The Baron has taken Yueh's wife Wanna prisoner, threatening her torture and death unless Yueh complies with his demands. Harkonnen also distracts Leto's Mentat Thufir Hawat from discovering Yueh by guiding Hawat toward another suspect: Leto's Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica. The Atreides are soon attacked by Harkonnen forces (secretly supplemented by the seemingly unstoppable Imperial Sardaukar) as Yueh disables the protective shields around the Atreides palace on Arrakis. As instructed, Yueh takes Leto prisoner; however, suspecting that the Baron has already killed Wanna, Yueh provides the captive Leto with a fake tooth filled with poisonous gas as a means to kill the Baron (though Leto would die as well). De Vries kills Yueh but he also dies with Leto in the assassination attempt; however Harkonnen survives. The Baron then manipulates Hawat into his service, insuring his control over the Mentat by secretly administering to him a residual poison invented by De Vries; to avoid death, the antidote for this poison must be taken regularly and continuously.
Leto and Jessica's son Paul Atreides flees into the desert with Jessica, and both are presumed dead. Paul's prescience helps him determine the identity of Jessica's father, the "maternal grandfather who cannot be named" — the Baron himself. Over the next two years, Harkonnen learns that both of his nephews Glossu Rabban and Feyd-Rautha are conspiring against him to obtain his throne; he lets them continue to do so, reasoning that they have to somehow learn to organize a conspiracy. As punishment for a failed assassination attempt against him, Harkonnen forces Feyd to single-handedly slaughter all the female slaves who serve as Feyd's lovers. He explains that Feyd has to learn the price of failure.
The Baron's plan to assure Feyd's power is to install him as ruler of Arrakis after a period of tyrannical misrule by Rabban, making Feyd appear to be the savior of the people. However, a crisis on Arrakis begins when the mysterious Muad'Dib emerges as a leader of the native Fremen tribes against the rule of the Harkonnens. Eventually, a series of Fremen victories against Beast Rabban threaten to disrupt the trade of the spice. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV decides to intervene himself and arrives on Arrakis along with five legions of Sardaukar forces. Shaddam and the Baron are shocked to learn that Muad'Dib is, of course, a very-much-alive Paul Atreides. The Imperial forces fall prey to a surprise attack by the Fremen. Part of the Fremen/Atreides strategy is to wait until a sandstorm shorts out the force field shields of the Harkonnen/Imperial transport ships, disable them with projectile weapons, and then attack with a vast assault force, using giant sandworms under cover of the severe weather to break the enemy lines. The Sardaukar and Harkonnen forces are trapped on the planet, astonished at the sandworm mounts and vast numbers of their attackers. Their past ruthlessness gives them little hope of quarter from the enraged Fremen.
Rabban dies in the initial part of the battle; the Harkonnen army is massacred to the last man and almost all the Imperial Sardaukar are killed. Baron Harkonnen himself is poisoned with a gom jabbar by Paul's young sister Alia Atreides, his own granddaughter, and dies at the age of 83. Paul then kills Feyd in ritual combat. House Harkonnen's virtual extermination removes it as a galactic power, but Paul's ascension to the Imperial throne in Shaddam's place guarantees that Vladimir's descendants will long reign as the Imperial House Atreides.
Children of Dune
Alia had been born with her ancestral memories in the womb, a circumstance the Bene Gesserit call Abomination, because in their experience it is inevitable that the individual will become possessed by the personality of one of their ancestors. In Children of Dune, Alia falls victim to this prediction when she shares control of her body with the ego-memory of the Baron Harkonnen, and eventually falls under his power. Alia eventually commits suicide, realizing that Harkonnen's consciousness has surpassed her abilities to contain him.
Prelude to Dune
In the Prelude to Dune prequel series by Brian Herbert and Anderson, it is established that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is the son and heir of Dmitri Harkonnen and his wife Victoria. Harkonnen's father had been the head of House Harkonnen and ruled the planet Giedi Prime. Trained since youth as a possible successor, Vladimir had been eventually chosen over his half-brother Abulurd (namesake of the original). Unhappy with his brother's doings, Abulurd eventually marries Emmi Rabban and renounces the family name and his rights to the title. Under the name Abulurd Rabban, he reigns as governor of the secondary Harkonnen planet Lankiveil. Abulurd and his wife have two sons: Glossu Rabban (later nicknamed "Beast Rabban" after he murders his own father) and Feyd-Rautha; Vladimir later adopts the boys back into House Harkonnen, and Feyd becomes his designated heir.
The Baron's most prominent political rival is Duke Leto Atreides; the Harkonnens and the Atreides have been bitter enemies for millennia, since the Battle of Corrin that ended the Butlerian Jihad. When Emperor Shaddam IV orchestrates a plot to destroy the "Red Duke" Leto, the Baron eagerly lends his aid.
The young Baron Vladimir is described as an exceedingly handsome man, possessing red hair and a near-perfect physique. The Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam is instructed by the Sisterhood to collect the genetic material of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (through conception) for their breeding program. As the Baron's homosexuality is something of an open secret, Mohiam blackmails him into having sexual relations with her and conceives his child. When that daughter proves genetically undesirable, Mohiam kills it and returns to Harkonnen for a second try; at this point he drugs and viciously rapes her. She exacts her retribution by infecting him with a rare disease that later causes his obesity. Mohiam's second child with Harkonnen is Jessica.
In Dune: House Harkonnen, the deteriorating Baron at first walks with the assistance of a cane, then relies on belt-mounted suspensors to retain mobility. He consults numerous doctors in the expanse of time between the Dune: House Atreides and Dune: House Harkonnen, up to and including his future instrument Dr. Yueh, all of whom are ultimately no help. To conceal this debilitation, he pretends that his obesity is due to intentional overindulgence, lest the Landsraad remove him from power. When he determines that Mohiam inflicted him with the disease, he attempts to coerce her into revealing the cure, but soon discovers that there is none.
The Baron, Duke Leto, and Jessica herself are unaware that Jessica is secretly the Baron's daughter or that he has even fathered one; in the year 10,176, the Baron's grandson Paul is born to Leto and Jessica.
Hunters of Dune
In Hunters of Dune (2006), the continuation of the original series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the Baron is resurrected as a ghola (5,029 years after the death of Alia) by the Lost Tleilaxu Uxtal, acting on orders from the Face Dancer Khrone. Khrone intends to use the Baron ghola to manipulate a ghola of Paul Atreides, named Paolo. Khrone tries various torture techniques for three years to awaken the 12-year-old Baron's genetic memories; these methods fail due to the Baron's masochistic/sadistic nature. Khrone finds with success when he imprisons the Baron in a sensory deprivation tank for a prolonged period; the Baron's memories for his former life return. Ironically, the reincarnated Baron is soon haunted by the voice of Alia in his mind.
In David Lynch's 1984 film, Baron Harkonnen was portrayed by Kenneth McMillan. In this characterization, he is grotesquely overweight, dressed in filthy garments and covered in large, black pustules which require constant draining and treatment. This version of the character is more overtly unstable than in the novel, screaming and laughing incoherently at any given moment and even drinking the blood of a servant after removing a "heart plug."
British actor Ian McNeice's interpretation of the Baron in the 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Frank Herbert's Dune (and its sequel, 2003's Children of Dune) is, though dramatic, somewhat lighter and more eloquent in comparison to Lynch's version, and therefore more consistent with the novel. Though the Baron still takes sadistic enjoyment in the suffering of others, he is portrayed as somewhat flamboyant, pompous and self-indulgent, with a tendency to speak in rhyme when the mood strikes him.
Though Herbert's novel Dune seems to describe Harkonnen's suspensor belt as simply enabling him to stand and walk upright rather than actually "fly,"  both the 1984 film and the 2000 miniseries feature the Baron utilizing the suspensors to levitate off the ground and float through the air in a flying-like manner. The later Prelude to Dune prequels also employ this floating ability. Herbert does, however, note Harkonnen floating slightly off the floor after he is killed.
The video game Emperor: Battle for Dune, whose in-game cut scenes are visually inspired by David Lynch's film, features a character named Baron Rakan Harkonnen, portrayed by Michael McShane. This Harkonnen is nearly identical to the film's version of Vladimir in both appearance (minus the belt-mounted suspensors) and personality, and also dies by poisoning.
Notes and references
- From Dune: "As [Baron Vladimir Harkonnen] emerged from the shadows, his figure took on dimension — grossly and immensely fat. And with subtle bulges beneath folds of his dark robes to reveal that all this fat was sustained partly by portable suspensors harnessed to his flesh. He might weigh two hundred Standard kilos in actuality, but his feet would carry no more than fifty of them."
- From Dune: "Lady Fenring, noting [Feyd]'s poise and the sure flow of muscles beneath the tunic thought: Here's one who won't let himself go to fat."
- From Dune: "I'll be in my sleeping chambers," the Baron said. "Bring me that young fellow we bought on Gamont, the one with the lovely eyes. Drug him well. I don't feel like wrestling."
- From Dune: "Why haven't you ever bought a Bene Gesserit, Uncle?" Feyd-Rautha asked. "With a Truthsayer at your side —" "You know my tastes!" the Baron snapped.
- The Baron says to Feyd in Dune: "This old fool saw through the shielded needle you'd planted in that slave boy's thigh. Right where I'd put my hand on it, eh?"
- Paul says to Jessica in Dune, "And, mother mine, there's a thing you don't know and should — we are Harkonnens ... take my word for it. I've walked the future, I've looked at a record, I've seen a place, I have all the data. We're Harkonnens ... You're the Baron's own daughter," he said, and watched the way she pressed her hands to her mouth. "The Baron sampled many pleasures in his youth, and once permitted himself to be seduced. But it was for the genetic purposes of the Bene Gesserit, by one of you."
- According to the authors, the revelation that Mohiam is Jessica's mother was pulled directly from Frank Herbert's working notes for the original Dune series. See: SciFi.com Interview with Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
- From Dune: "He rolled sideways in his suspensors, a sagging mass of flesh supported inches off the floor with head lolling and mouth hanging open."
- Baron Vladimir Harkonnen at the Internet Movie Database
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