Paul Atreides was the last Duke of House Atreides, the leader of the Fremen, and the first Atreides Emperor. He was the Kwisatz Haderach: the powerful prescient being long sought by the Bene Gesserit. He was known by many names throughout his life, including Muad'Dib, Usul, and The Preacher.
Paul was a product of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, which had brought together his parents with the intention of producing a female who could mate with the heir to House Harkonnen, and produce the fabled Kwisatz Hadarach. However, the plans of the Bene Gesserit were thrown into turmoil by the Lady Jessica's longing to give her beloved partner a male heir to his House.
From an early age Paul displayed ample talent, both physically and intellectually. Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, Paul's father, the Duke, revealed to him that Paul's training, through Thufir Hawat, Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, had been geared toward turning Paul into a mentat. The theory was that when Paul succeeded his father as Duke of House Atreides, one of the most respected and moral Great Houses of the Imperium, a mentat-duke would truly be a formidable force in the Landsraad. Paul's latent talents also earned him the attention of the Bene Gesserit, who hoped to salvage their breeding program.
Transformation on Arrakis
Paul Atreides accompanied his parents when House Atreides was relocated to the desert world Arrakis to manage mining operations of the Spice Melange. However, when the deception of House Harkonnen and the Emperor Shaddam IV was revealed, he escaped into the desert with his mother and joined the Fremen. Upon joining the desert people he took the name Muad'Dib.
This experience, coupled with significant exposure to the Spice Melange triggered dormant prescient abilities within Paul's bloodline. These abilities, coupled with his leadership skills, his military training, and an ancient prophecy of the people of Arrakis, enabled Paul to become the leader of the formidable Fremen. It is on Arrakis that he discovers that his grandfather - the father of Jessica - was the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He also drank the Water of Life and survived, expanding his consciousness bringing his prescience near to perfection. He is the first and last male to drink the Water of Life and survive, showing himself to be the Kwisatz Haderach.
During this period Paul met and fell in love with Chani, the daughter of planetologist and native Fremen Liet Kynes. Their first son, Leto Atreides II the Elder was murdered by Glossu Rabban Harkonnen, further fueling the existing enmity between House Atreides and House Harkonnen.
After spearheading a highly effective campaign of guerilla warfare against the House Harkonnen and Sardaukar forces that had taken control of Arrakis, Paul conquered the powers in Arrakeen and, thanks to the presence of Emperor Shaddam IV, successfully negotiated the end of the long-standing Corrino Empire and his own ascendancy to Emperor.
The New Empire
Upon crowning himself Emperor, Paul enacted a strategy that had been revealed to him through his prescient abilities. This decision saw the theology (and many customs) of the Fremen thrust into the whole of the Empire.
A result of this was that Paul Atreides himself became a revered god-head on many worlds in the Known Universe. After a bloody Jihad that lasted more than twelve years, Emperor Paul Atreides eventually subdued all outright rebellion through military and diplomatic coercion. The order of the Known Universe was maintained through the replacement of Corrino imperial power, which was supported by Sardaukar military strength, with Atreides imperial power, supported by Fremen military strength.
Paul's interpretation of his prescient visions also necessitated that Arrakis be transformed from a barren desert planet into a lush and fertile world, with the exception of a small desert for the sandworm to remain alive and keep producing spice. By the end of his rule this plan was well on its way to succeeding. This program had begun under Pardot Kynes as an attempt to harness a planet; however, under Paul, it became part of a plan to save humanity.
Final Days as Emperor
Despite his strong leadership and formidable prescient abilities, Emperor Paul Atreides began to feel building pressure from discordant groups within the Empire: notably the Bene Gesserit, Bene Tleilax, fringe groups within the Fremen, and the dethroned but still powerful House Corrino. Among the schemes of his enemies were the detonation of a stone burner near where Paul and his forces stood in Arrakeen, which resulted in his physical blindness. Upon Paul's recovery from this incident, he shocked all by his ability to 'see' despite not having eyes. His perfect prescient abillties allowed him to perceive the world around him.
Despite being able to 'see' through prescience, Doubts began to surface in Paul's mind regarding his interpretation of the future. Feeling increasingly frustrated and out of control, he began to seek a way out. That escape route emerged through the combined treachery of his enemies, and became even more enticing following Chani's death during childbirth. Upon the birth of his children, Ghanima and Leto, Paul became convinced he had lost his prescient abilities; he did not forsee the birth of his son, only his daughter. Therefore, as a no more than a blind Fremen, Paul disappeared into the desert, offering himself up to Shai-Hulud, as was the Fremen custom for the blind.
This action made a powerful statement: it signified to the Fremen that Paul's interest was for the tribe, and that even he, Usul, Paul who was Muad'Dib, was not above Fremen law.
Many years after his apparent death alone in the desert, and while the Atreides Empire was under the regency of his younger sister Alia Atreides, a new figure, The Preacher, appeared from the deep desert.
By urging civil disobedience against the Atreides Empire, and warning of the consequences of a green Arrakis, The Preacher attracted an ever increasing number of followers. Many believed this thundering blind stranger to be Paul Atreides, as he was blind and led by a boy.
The Preacher eventually revealed himself to his son Leto, and the two of them travelled throughout Arrakis, breaching the water storage of every sietch so that it would spill out onto the sand. Eventually Leto and the Preacher returned to Arrakeen to confront Alia, who had clearly shown herself to be Abomination by this time. Eventually rising tensions saw Alia commit suicide in front of her mother and Duncan Idaho. Dring the ensuing chaos, The Preacher was assassinated in Arrakeen, but not before he had revealed beyond a doubt to Gurney Halleck and Jessica that he was indeed Paul Atreides.
Thus, the great Paul Atreides, son of Leto the Just and the first Atreides to ascend to the Golden Lion Throne since its inception more than ten thousand years prior, was dead, passing into legend for eons to come, laying the way forward for his son to take the Golden Path to its logical conclusion.
While Paul envisioned the Golden Path, the ultimate transormation that would see his humanity dissolve into a sandworm frightened him. Upon revealing himself to his son, Paul confessed that his desire to maintain his humanity, and the fear of abject loneliness that the Golden Path would bring, were too much for him. He related that he walked away from what he knew he had to do, and admired but lamented for his son who had taken on the mantle that would see humanity restored, but at the cost of his own.
Behind the Scenes
In the 1984 movie Dune, the role of Paul was played by long time Dune fan Kyle MacLachlan. In interviews, McLachlan related that when reading Dune for the first time as a teenager, he imagined himself as being Paul Atreides, and to be provided the opportunity to portray him in a big budget film was a dream come true for him.