Paul Atreides is the main man, the head honcho, the tour de force, the principle actor, and the big cheese. That's right, he's the protagonist. So, why wait around here at the introduction? Let's dive into this character analysis.
In many ways, Paul is the archetypal hero. Fair enough, we hear you say, but what's that? The archetypal hero is a concept attributed to two guys: Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. The basic idea is that every culture around the world has a hero whose journey fits a set of key circumstances (source). Those criteria are:
There are other circumstances that can be added to the list, and not every archetypal hero must get 100% on the test to pass, but when a hero can check off most of these, he or she can be labeled archetypal. King Arthur, Superman, Luke Skywalker, Hercules, Simba, Moses, Buddha, and even Shrek can be considered archetypal heroes.
So, how does Paul Atreides measure up?
Naturally, Paul's not going to be a carbon copy of every archetypal hero. For example, Superman was born with his special powers, and Spider-man received his through a scientific accident. But Paul's got his fighting skills because he is a "fighting machine born and trained to it from infancy" (33.118). In other words, he had to work for it. Also, whereas most heroes receive a weapon in the form of a sword (or a lightsaber), Paul receives his special weapon in the form of "his knowledge and the computation […] centered in his awareness" (22.7). Again, Paul's weapon is less about him getting the power and more about him earning it for himself.
But, for all intents and purposes, Paul's journey follows the archetypal hero's to a T.
When we say Paul is an anti-hero, we don't mean he's got a villain locked away in his heart of hearts. What we mean is that Paul serves as a deconstruction of the archetypal hero while at the same time being that hero. As William Touponce put it: Herbert saw heroes as painful for society and superheroes as a catastrophe, because their mistakes involve so many of us in disaster (source).
See, Paul is everything a hero is supposed to be. People admire his strength, skills, and cunning. He decides on a particular goal, and he meets every challenge standing between that goal and victory. He defeats an evil Baron. Then he marries the princess, and he brings peace to the land under his protection. Well, except for that last part. Instead of peace, Paul sets the plague of jihad across the universe. Oops.
Throughout the story, Paul often sees the future jihad and vows to stop it (33.188). But as he takes steps toward preventing the jihad, Paul becomes a hero to the Fremen people. This means he "cannot do the simplest thing without its becoming a legend" (40.124). By the time he defeats the Harkonnens and the Emperor, the legend of Muad'Dib has grown far more powerful than Paul the man. The "jihad would be" (48.262). There is nothing Paul can do to stop it anymore.
The warning of Paul's heroism is that sometimes the hero and the person can be two totally different things—and when people worship the hero, rather than follow the person, the mistakes can grow exponentially to fit the size and scope of the legend. Although Dune seems to want you to admire the hero Paul Atreides, the superhero and legend Muad'Dib is a source of catastrophe rather than hope for the universe.
Paul Atreides. All right, let's break it down.
Atreides is a name from Greek mythology. It's given to the descendants of Atreus, and the most famous of these descendants was Atreus's son, Agamemnon. Agamemnon would go on to make a name for himself by going medieval all over Troy during the Trojan War. Things get a little complicated when Agamemnon returns home after the war: his wife Clytemnestra axes him to death for killing their daughter Iphigenia (he sacrificed her for good winds to sail to Troy). An anti-hero if there ever was one.
Paul, on the other hand, seems a tad run-of-the-mill, especially with characters like Vladimir Harkonnen running about the novel. But it's a name heavy in allusion all the same.
In the Bible, there once was a guy named Saul. On his way to Damascus, Saul saw a vision of Jesus Christ, which blinded him (source). When his eyesight returned, Saul became Paul and converted to Christianity. He was later instrumental in the conversion of gentiles (non-Jewish peoples) into the Christian faith.
So, within these two names, we get hints about Paul's purpose in the novel. The allusion to Atreus and Agamemnon shows that Paul will be a conqueror (and one with a questionable moral compass). Meanwhile, the allusion to the Bible character shows Paul's eventual spiritual awakening and his destiny as a religious figurehead.
And that's how you play the name-breakdown game.