Baron Harkonnen, of Finland?

There’s something in Dune, Frank Herbert’s book, one of the most famous works of science fiction ever written, that I did not notice the first time I read it. That was in Finnish; I’ve read it at least twice in English since.

It’s that one of the main characters, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, has a surname that sounds eerily Finnish.

Not quite Finnish, mind you: but whenever I’ve heard Harkonnen said out loud, it’s not Har-konn-en, stress on the “konn”, as my Finnish mind hears it, but Har-ko-nen, emphasis on “Har”, with the double N much shorter than seems obvious to me. (See here for a few words apparently by Herbert himself.) And “Harkonen” is a whisper, mere two easily and sensibly dropped diacritical marks, mere two easily altered vowels away from “Härkönen”, a very common Finnish surname.

No doubt this unobvious double-n is why the similarly eluded me for so long; also, I didn’t exactly expect anything Finn-like after a few Caladans and gom jabbars had been dropped.

To investigate the matter, I could go straight to looking if the Harkonnen homeworld, Giedi Prime, was a cold place of forests and gloom; but that wouldn’t be very useful. Let me try reason instead. (Paranoia would be easy: Harkonnens are the bad guys; Finland’s capital is Helsinki. Hell-sin-ki. Coincidence?)

Frank Herbert was a smart man; and a surprisingly large part of Dune’s world is borrowed, whole or in part, from obscure real sources. The Fremen are brimming with Arabic loanwords, and many Duneverse names are recycled: the House Atreides recalls Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, the real House Atreides. Did Herbert then have some real-like Finnish Härkönen, whose name he used for the infamous Baron?

It’s possible; but “possible” isn’t much.

Wikipedia tells Herbert began research for the novel that would become Dune in 1959 as a result of getting magnificently distracted while writing an article about desert reclamation in Oregon; Dune was published in 1965. If I can find find some Härkönen, a Finn or an emigrant, that would have been likely to come across Herbert as he was living in California or Oregon, researching a novel about ecology, biology, terraforming and deserts, during the years 1959–65… well, then I would have something a smidgen better than a mere “possible”.

The Finnish and English Wikipedia don’t have anyone likely; a painter and a politician turn up, but neither seems likely to have been known outside Finland. (It’s always possible that Herbert had a neighbor called Harkonen, of Finnish descent — or that he made the name up; but speculation is more entertaining.)

I find a picture of the tombstone of Peter and Rita Harkonen of Michigan; the latter died in 1960; but it seems a stretch that Herbert in California would come across an eulogy of someone dead in Michigan. As far as I know, America ain’t that small, and not all Americans know each other. What Finns moved into America mostly did so decades before Herbert began to write; and they mostly went into Minnesota and Wisconsin, which had the proper lakes, woods and temperatures sane people need.

I find, a bit closer, two Härkönens in California, both born in the Thirties and dead just a few years ago; but Herbert was born in 1920, and neither Härkönen was (by residence at death) an inhabitant of Santa Rosa, CA, where I think Herbert’s in when he wrote Dune. (Though one, a Barbara Elaine Harkonen (1939–2007), died in Vacaville, Solano County, bare forty miles away — but honestly, how likely are you to know a random person that lives forty miles from you? If you do, that’s the wrong random person.)

I find a biologist, doctor or neurochemist Matti H. A. Härkönen (Dept. of Medical Chemistry and Clinical Chemistry, University of Helsinki, Finland), who did publish several papers about rats during the early Sixties, in English, obviously. He was also an academic visitor to America at least once in the late Sixties, which is outside our time period but suggestive. But a “histochemical demonstration of fluorogenic amines in the cytoplasm of sympathetic ganglion cells of the rat” does not seem immediately relevant as a thing Herbert would have come across researching Arrakis, the desert mouse Muad’dib notwithstanding. I’d be happy to find a famous-in-those-circles late-Fifties or early-Sixties ecologist Härkönen instead; but I don’t.

The best I can do for “fame” is that I find an Armas Härkönen, a member of the Finnish Parliament from 1958 to 1962, from 1959 (the year Herbert started thinking of Dune) in the crowd of a bitter splinter group off a Leftist party: TPSL off SDP. I have no idea if the split would have been likely to be a tiny item in an American West Coast newspaper; even less if Herbert would have been likely to come across it and notice an euphonious name in a list of thirteen defecting politicians. (I’d be more hopeful if this Armas Härkönen was the leader of this split; but no.)

Over on the side of Dune fandom, I notice that: i) it’s useless to Google for “ecology dune Härkönen”, as the last word is automagically mutilated to Harkonnen, giving no useful information whatsoever, and ii) I’m not the first to notice the possible Harkonnen-Härkönen connection. This quote occurs often: “The name itself came from a region of Earth called Suomi, also Finland.” To me this smells like Finnish fan speculation accidentally turned into assumed fact. No-one seems to have anything concrete; but I’m not aware of any big Herbert biography or memoir, so it’s possible there is a connection, just not a well known one.

Several fan sites mention the icon of House Harkonnen is an ox; I don’t recall this. Indeed, I recall a Harkonnen griffin; but no ox. However, if there was a literal ox symbol of the Harkonnens, it would be either a monstrous coincidence or then a clue, because “Härkönen” translates as “Oxley” or “Ox-related-person” or the like. That’s a connection that no ecologist Härkönen could have inspired; but how likely is it that Herbert would have come across the etymology of a (common) Finnish surname? Would there even exist a book of name origins, in English, that he could have have consulted on a Finnish surname? (Then again, the “neighbor Härkönen” theory would fit this — possibly a fat, obnoxious neighbor that just won’t shut up about his damned precious Finnish roots.)

If the Harkonnen ox is not from the original books (and I strongly suspect it isn’t), it could be a carelessly absorbed bit of fanon, or the semi-official addition of a later writer (of a game or an inferior novel?) with more Finnish connections.

(For an example of whimsical ethnic innovation, compare the 1997 Star Wars fighting game “Masters of Teras Kasi”; number 3 on a list of 5 worst Star Wars games, so far. Teräs Käsi is “Iron Hand” in Finnish and as the game introduces a martial artist of Teras Kasi with a huge metallic right arm there’s no fucking way that’s an accident. Finns are big in programming.)

Fandom also opines that the Harkonnens are much more Russian than Finnish, which is quite obviously true. Those sources that fly the Harkonnens-came-from-Finland-flag seem to be Finns or influenced by bare naked Fennophilic speculation. And Vladimir, ah, Vladimir’s a pretty Slavic name. (If Herbert took Harkonnen from Härkönen thinking that Finns are Slavs, then my towering burning ETHNORAEG on you Frank Herbert Finns are not Slavs THAT IS WRONG.)

Some places even note that Finnish “rauta” (iron) may be connected the name of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen; to me this sounds like utter far-fetched rubbish.

(One particular forum goes on to note Harkonnen sounds Finnish, like the Finnish rally car driver Hakonnen. Which a helpful soul corrects as being “Hakinnen, not Hakonnen”. Which is when I think of poor Mika Häkkinen, and laugh.)

So: I titled this post “Baron Harkonnen, of Finland?”, which was a fair question when I started writing it — but based on what mediocre googling turns up, I’m unable to say if it’s really anything more than a bit of biased Finnish hopefulness. If made to guess, I’d say Herbert ass-pulled the name out of thin air (to horrendously mix a metaphor, that is); my second guess would be he pulled a random and badly chosen neighbor’s name for his possibly Slavic-Commie-like baddies, Finns being neither Slavs nor members of the Commie block. (Not that I’m all that impressed with any simple Space Commies or Space Nazis identity for the Harkonnens, despite a rumor of Herbert himself suggesting the second.) The third guess, the neighbor Harkonen hypothesis, would be nice, though.

Because no matter old Vladimir being a fat murderous pederast, it would be kind of cool to have a “countryman” in one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time.

Though now I will, for the rest of the day, be stuck with the decidedly uncharitable image of Herbert laughing evilly and writing on as his obnoxious fat bastard neighbor drives off to work, unaware that his doppelganger is going to be a star.

7 Responses to “Baron Harkonnen, of Finland?”

  1. Akheloios Says:

    Finnish Karelia: An International Borderland
    Author(s): W. R. Mead Source: The Geographical Journal, Vol. 118, No. 1 (Mar., 1952), pp. 40-54

    JStor has this, It’s a paper from 1952, the opening paragraph mentions G. A. Wallin, an explorer with an interest in Arabia. The paper is about Finnish Karelia, discussing how it is another ‘terra incognita’. In the footnotes they mention I. Härkönen. So it could be an early example of a surfing discovery, Herbert was looking up Wallin for his knowledge of Arabia and just happened upon an interesting name to use.

    It’s tenuous, but there is a direct link there between Arabia and the name Härkönen.

  2. alex Says:

    Thanks for investigating this. I’m currently listening to the audio version of Dune and found myself similarly wondering about the origins of the Harkonnen name, which led me here.

    Anyone having grown up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (as I did), where people of Finnish heritage comprise a large fraction of the population, would instantly recognize Harkonnen (as typically pronounced, not as spelled) as a candidate Finnish name. I don’t know the language apart from a few simple phrases and words, but the “ox” connection seems like more than coincidence. Whether it figured in Herbert’s own work or was introduced later on, who knows…


  3. Toni Harkonen Says:

    Since my last name is Harkonen, I can verify that it is indeed Finnish, as my father-in-law came to America from Finland in the 1940’s. His family was originally from the Karelia region but was made to leave because of the war and they settled in Turku.

    And yes, we live in Michigan.

  4. Losha Says:

    Harkonen is a bad ass name. You should be proud.

    Certainly you strike fear into some people.

  5. Susa Says:

    I personally believe that Herbert completely intentionally and deliberately made the Harkonnens and their names a COMBINATION of Finnish, Scandinavian and Russian cultures, languages and ethnicity. They are based on northern europeans. In the movie they are all red/blond haired and very pale skinned, just like we Finns, Scandinavians and Russians are for the most part.

    The name Harkonnen of course is obviously inspired by a Finnish name but so is in my opinion Rautha too. You have to only remove the letter H from the name and you get “rauta” which means iron in finnish. Definitely can’t be just a “coincidence”. Feyd on the other hand sounds more swedish or norwegian. And Vladimir is obviously a Russian name.

    Herbert just basically made the “bad guys” in his books a mix of different northern european ethnic backgrounds, cultures and languages/names.But mostly he based them on finnish and russian just like the fremen are clearly arabs and Atreides are Greek. That was his intention. These different groups in the story are all based on and inspired from real world peoples and cultures in Europe and the Middle East.

    It is a well known fact that J.R.R Tolkien was also heavily inspired by Finnish language too when he created Lord Of The Rings and the elf languages. It’s the same kind of thing with Frank Herbert. Except that LOTR is of course pure and simple Good Vs Evil fantasy compared to Dune and makes northern europeans the undisputed and only Good Guys and the dark skinned Easterlings and other Mordor groups are just pure evil.

    Dune is far more complex,sophisticated and interesting and is based on REAL world politics,sociology and cultures and how different societies use power. There is no PURE Good vs Evil in Dune…But the Harkonnens come closest to being considered just evil.
    In general there is a lot more grey areas in Dune than just pure moralistic black & white idealism unlike in LOTR, Star Wars or Harry Potter. But that is because unlike those other stories Dune is not just some kind of simple fantasy or sci-fi story. It is very much based on complex real world politics and cultures much more than any of the others.

  6. Finnish in Science Fiction | In the Brake Says:

    […] number of Finnish names end with the distinctive -nen suffix. Looking around just now, I found a fascinating blog post about it — the closest Finnish name is Härkönen; a Finnish immigrant to North America would […]

  7. inthebrake Says:

    I just found and linked this post (which is fascinating!) while writing my own post ‘Finnish in Science Fiction’:

    There I point out another Finnish connection in Dune: the word he uses for poison is chaumurky, also called murky (similar to the Finnish ‘myrkky’). Pretty sure Herbert referenced an English-Finnish dictionary for that one…

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