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Updated question with summary:

Why does Baron Harkonnen agree to exterminate the Atreides family when asked by the Emperor?
In "Dune", the Emperor tells the Harkonnen family to leave Arrakis and cede it to the Atreides family, that is a given. Then as far as I can tell the Emperor tells the Baron that he can regain control of Arrakis once the Atreides family is removed.

Is there an origin story of why Baron Harkonnen came to despise the Atreides family or is Harkonnen simply a mercenary that does what the Emperor asks?

So in summary from answers/comments given:

In the Battle of Corrin during the final push to kill off Skynet, umm sorry Omnius, an officer Abulurd (Harkonnen) in an army led by Vorian (Atreides), disables military equipment thinking to save the lives of human-shields being used by the enemy. The battle is none-the-less successful (Omnius is defeated), but Abulurd (Harkonnen) is branded a coward by Vorian (Atreides) and exiled.

When the exiled Abulurd Harkonnen dies of sickness, his family essentially mounts a mis-information campaign to blame the Atreides family for "bringing the fever" that killed a Harkonnen. This hatred is taught down through generations of Harkonens and we, as readers, are then plopped in the middle of the feud between Baron Harkonnen and Leto Atreides that is the book "Dune".

There seems to be a lot of pulpy-paperback elements in these prequel books. Thanks for all the comments and answers. Since I read the word "execrable" in one comment I'm thinking that I should just stick with the remaining books written by Frank Herbert as I complete the series.

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    It isn't just between them, its a thousands of years old grudge between their families. Jul 9 at 2:27
  • Not a complete answer, as I don't have all the quotes at hand, but I believe in the original Dune novel that, centuries ago, an Atreides had accused a Harkonnen of cowardice or treachery in a key battle. The "Legends Of Dune" novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand on this by having the Abulurd Harkonnen character sabotage weapons in order to stop the forces of humanity scoring an easy victory over the evermind Omnius at the cost of human hostages, earning him the ire of his commander, Vorian Atreides.
    – user25730
    Jul 9 at 3:31
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    @user25730 - If you're going to delve into the (execrable) Brian Herbert books, their personal enmity is far more recent.
    – Valorum
    Jul 9 at 6:41
  • @Valorum I was tempted to add something in regards to their disputed canonicity (and yes, the quality is most definitely nowhere near as high as Frank's books), but the beginnings of the feud Brian and Kevin describe doesn't actually go against what Frank wrote, since he wrote so little about it (so long as you can excuse Dune going all Skynet, which I cannot believe Frank intended at any point).
    – user25730
    Jul 9 at 6:53
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The old feud

Here's Yueh's summation of what he refers to as 'The old feud'. From his discussion with Lady Jessica:

"There'll be much bloodshed soon," she said. "The Harkonnens won't rest until they're dead or my Duke destroyed. The Baron cannot forget that Leto is a cousin of the royal blood--no matter what the distance--while the Harkonnen titles came out of the CHOAM pocketbook. But the poison in him, deep in his mind, is the knowledge that an Atreides had a Harkonnen banished for cowardice after, the Battle of Corrin."

"The old feud," Yueh muttered. And for a moment he felt an acid touch of hate. The old feud had trapped him in its web, killed his Wanna or-- worse--left her for Harkonnen tortures until her husband did their bidding. The old feud had trapped him and these people were part of that poisonous thing.
[all emphasis mine]
-Dune, 1969, Herbert. F.

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    You forgot to mention that according the chronology in the Dune books, the novel Dune opens in the year 10191 AG (After Guild) and the Battle of Corrin was fought in the year 88 BG (Before Guild), 10,279 years earlier. That is a very long time to keep up a feud, or even remember who your ancestors were that long ago! Jul 9 at 14:48
  • @Möoz Your answer is wonderful, but the Yueh/Jessica conversation just states that a coward exists. Over generations the Atreides lineage apparently accepted that billions of humans could be sacrificed to exterminate what they deemed as a threat to humanity. A single Atreides then marked one Harkonnen as a coward, and then millenia later Harkonnens want to exterminate Atreides. How is such hatred passed down through millenia? Jul 11 at 3:50
  • @CookiePolicy, I recommend you head over to eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, and ask around. There are numerous thousand-year-old feuds still active there.
    – Mark
    Aug 31 at 9:09
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Dune, Appendix IV: The Almanak en-Ashraf (Selected excepts of the Noble Houses) says that:

"Vladimir Harkonnen is the direct-line male descendant of the Bashir Abulurd Harkonnen who was banished for cowardice after the Battle of Corrin".

Mooz's answer quotes Jessica telling Dr. Yueh, early in Dune, and in the year 10,191 AG (After Guild):

But the poison in him, deep in his mind, is the knowledge that an Atreides had a Harkonnen banished for cowardice after, the Battle of Corrin.

My copy of Dune is an edition which omits at least one of the appendixes. One of the appendixes had a statement that the Imperial Dynasty had the name of House Corrino after the planet Corrin where the battle of Corrin was fought, that put them on the Imperial throne.

The Original Dune timeline puts the end of the Butlerian Jihad in 108 BG (Before Guild) and the Battle of Corrin in 88 BG, 20 years after the end of the Butlerian Jihad.

So the novel Dune begins 10,279 years after the Battle of Corrin. That is a very long time for a family to retain a grudge. That is also a very long time for a family to remember who their ancestors were.

Of course if a family sat on the imperial throne for 10,000 years, or ruled an entire planet as a fief for 10,000 years, they would know who their ancestors 10,000 years ago were.

But apparently the Baron Harkonnen in Dune was the first member of his family to have a planet as a fief in 10,000 years.

I am sure that, for example, many of your closest friends are descended from people who were bitter enemies of your ancestors 500 years ago, or 5,000, or 10,000, but you and they don't even remember who those distant ancestors were, let alone their feuds.

So I find that reason for The Atreides-Harkonnnen feud a little hard to believe. But that is the official story, which characters in Dune seem to believe and think is plausible i their society.

And now back to the main topic.

The answer given by A Rogue Ant contradicts this, making the Battle of Corrino the last conflict in the war against the thinking machines, the Butlerian Jihad, instead of being the decisive battle in the conquest of known space by the House Corrino from Salusa Secundus.

And any Dune novels which tell that story are clearly inconsistent with the original Dune novel and so are not valid as explanations of Vladimir Harkonnen's motives in the original novel Dune.

And I don't care whether Frank Herbert himself wrote any of the novels which have such a retconn. The story of the Atreides-Harkonnen feud as given in the books A Rogue Ant used as his sources is valid in those books, but it is not valid in the original novel Dune. If Frank Herbert himself wrote any Dune books which deliberately contradicted Dune, as an experienced science fiction writer he should have realized that he was writing those books in an alternate universe with an alternate history than the universe in which Dune itself is set.

So the Dune series is actually at least two different Dune series, and if there are more contradictions between novels it may be several different Dune series.

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  • Well, Dune: Battle of Corrin was co-written by Kevin J. Anderson. There's half the problem right there... I do agree though, that a discussion of character motivations in Dune shouldn't take into account later, secondary, derivative writings by lesser authors.
    – DavidW
    Jul 9 at 15:30
  • These are characters that typically live over 200+ years. 10000 years = 4-5000 years (relatively speaking). Plus they have access to reliably transcribed records from the time until the present day.
    – Valorum
    Jul 27 at 18:06
  • @Valorum Well nobody could possibly know all of their gazillions of ancestors even 4,000 or 5,000 years back. But people could trace a single line, such as their agnatic (male only) line, back that far, which is what the Baron is said to do. In the present, claimed pedigrees going that far back are legendary or mythical for the majority of generations. Even the descendants of Confucius may be in error in claiming that he was descended from the Shang Dynasty and thus from the Yellow Emperor almost 5,000 years ago. Jul 28 at 16:58
  • @M.A.Golding - And while that's true, the record in question are patchy at best. In the 1300s it was almost impossible to claim lineage without reams of witness statements. Nowadays a £13 gene test will do the trick and you can immortalise the results by putting them onto a storage media rated to last a thousand years or more. In the future, I'd expect record-keeping to be even better, especially if we reach a technological plateau and the technology for reading data remains fairly static
    – Valorum
    Jul 28 at 17:04
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At the start of the machine war (what became known as The Butlerian Jihad), a former guardian of the Cymeks, Iblis Ginjo rebelled against them.

Becoming a quasi-religious leader in the fight against them, he accrued considerable personal power and after the war was over continued to consolidate his power. His ambitions overcame any moral sense he'd once (putatively) had.

Xavier Harkonnen, Primero (supreme commander of the battle-fleet) discovered his treachery and took the honorable course of plunging their ship into a sun killing them both. Iblis Ginjo was hailed as a martyr and Xavier Harkonnen as a traitor to humanity.

Abulurd Butler (Nee Harkonnen, grandson of Xavier - changing his name to distance himself from the disgrace) later discovered the error, and obtained the evidence to clear his family name, changing his name once again to Harkonnen.

Before being able to clear his name, during the very last stages of wiping the machines and Cymeks out in the Battle of Corrin, Abulurd and his Supreme commander Vorian Atreides were faced with a terrible mission: proceed and finish the machines-off but in the process kill thousands of human slaves. At the last minute Abulurd Harkonnen hesitated and turned aside.

Being branded a coward, it became impossible for him to clear the Harkonnen name of the double-disgrace. He and his wife were exiled to the backwater planet of Lankiveil, where his sons and further descendants grew up learning of battles and of the hateful name Atreides.

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    But Dune, Appendix IV: The Almanak en-Ashraf (Selected excepts of the Noble Houses) says that: "Vladimir Harkonnen is the direct-line male descendant of the Bashir Abulurd Harkonnen who was banished for cowardice after the Battle of Corrin". Mooz's answer quotes Jessica saying: "But the poison in him, deep in his mind, is the knowledge that an Atreides had a Harkonnen banished for cowardice after, the Battle of Corrin." The Battle of Corrin was a century after the Butlerian Jihad & established the Empire instead dune.fandom.com/wiki/Timeline_(Original_Dune) Jul 9 at 14:57
  • I don't see any contradiction between that and my answer, even the 100 years can be explained - Teg lived to 300 odd years with a minimal intake of spice. That being said Herbert did retcon some things, Scytale being a face-dancer, then the cast system between Face-Dancers and Masters emerging in later books. @M.A.Golding Jul 9 at 15:10
  • Oh, and Corrin was blockaded for a long time, it was only when the machines figured a way to bypass this that the war kicked-in again and the Humans finished it. @M.A.Golding Timeline (The "official" scholarly Hungarian version, in English) Jul 9 at 15:23
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In addition to the presented answers, there is one more reason for the Harkonnen-Atreides feud presented in the prequels, that is much more recent than the battle which has taken place over 10,000 years prior:

The House Atreides/Harkonnen/Corinno trilogy tells the history almost up to the original Dune.

First, in the House Atreides Harknonnens try to frame Leto into murder of a Tleilaxan envoy, a ploy that is only averted with the help of Bene Gesserit.

In House Harkonnen, they manage to turn Leto's concubine, Kailea Vernus (from the formerly ruling house of Ix) against him, which ends with Kailea trying to murder her partner. She fails, but in the attempt, she kills her and Leto's son and gravely wounds her brother. Driven by grief, she commits suicide shortly after.

Both of those events are much more recent than the Battle for Corrino during the Butlerian Jihad.

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