Friday, July 3, 2015

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

You probably all know about The Three Musketeers--or think you do. The story has, of course, achieved a kind of pop-cultural osmosis. Callow young D'Artagnan arrives in late Renaissance Paris determined to join the King's Musketeers, but accidentally picks a fight instead with three of the most distinguished of the musketeers--scholarly Aramis, brawny Porthos, and mysterious Athos. Their duel is interrupted by the Cardinal Richelieu's guards, the sworn enemies of the musketeers, dedicated to law, order, and prevention of fun, and the four young men become inseparable friends. Meanwhile, D'Artagnan falls in love with his landlord's wife (yes, it's that kind of book), who also happens to be a dressmaker-come-spy for Anne of Austria, the Queen of France, who is in love with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (I did say it's that kind of book), whose footsteps are dogged by Milady Countess de Winter, scheming servant of the Cardinal, who desires to compromise and ruin the Queen in order to go on controlling the King.

Kidnappings, murders, poison, war, seduction, intrigue, stolen jewels, assassinations, wagers, spies, horrifying revelations, and lots of swordplay ensues.

In some ways, it's no wonder people have been reading and enjoying this book for years. In other ways, my hair stood on its end the first time I read it years ago, and when I went to re-read it a couple of months ago my hair stood on its end again. The Three Musketeers is even more outrageous than Dumas's other classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. In that novel, though its hero redefines morality to suit himself, having awesome fun in the process, Dumas flings a sop to morality by rounding off the story with the hero discovering that revenge isn't as fulfilling as he expected. In The Three Musketeers, on the other hand, Dumas doesn't even try to be profound. This is a book about bad men doing bad things--killing, seducing, lying, drinking, brawling, and generally treating people like dirt--and having a ripping good time doing them.

Similarly to The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas depicts his heroes as demigods, somehow above the ordinary run of people, bending morality to suit themselves. This comes out most clearly at the end of the novel, in which they define and administer justice on their own initiative. Men have become gods, knowing the end from the beginning, doing what pleases them.

Dumas gets away with this by providing his "heroes" with the indispensable foil of one character more villainous than themselves. The nadir of the whole novel occurs when Milady, the wily villainess, is captured halfway through her mission to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham, and in order to escape, attempts to corrupt the righteous but naive young man assigned to guard her. It's a really uncomfortable segment of the book; and yes, partly that's because no one should feel comfortable reading about the deception and destruction of goodness and innocence, but it's made worse by the author's cavalier attitude toward such things; he writes the passage well, but one comes away with the impression that he couldn't care less--to be good is to be foolish.

So yes, you would be correct in assuming that I didn't enjoy this book--in fact, I think I was even more offended by it this time around. That said, I want to point out two things.

The first thing is that a few months before, I attempted reading another novel set in the French court around roughly the same time period, with much the same morals--Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens, which deals with the origin of the fairy tale of Rapunzel. I forget whether it was three or four chapters in that I abandoned it in distaste. What struck me was the extraordinary contrast in tone between The Three Musketeers and Bitter Greens. The former book is, as I mentioned above, about bad people having fun doing bad things. Bitter Greens, on the other hand, appeared to be about bad people having an absolutely rotten time doing bad things. The narrator was deeply bitter, and the wages of sin appeared to be no fun at all. In some ways, that's an encouraging sign--if The Three Musketeers was born to a society which could imagine sin being tremendous fun, Bitter Greens appears to have been born to a society that can no longer imagine anything being fun, a society suffering burnout. And that is deeply sad. But also, perhaps, hopeful.

The Three Musketeers, by contrast, throws itself into everything with an infectious enthusiasm which is the novel's chief charm--and perhaps also a real strength. I defy anyone not to feel stirred by Aramis informing the cardinal's guards that--

“We shall have the honor of charging you,” replied Aramis, raising his hat with one hand and drawing his sword with the other.

Or the multiple occasions upon which D'Artagnan or one of his friends insists that an authority figure "tell me how I can get myself killed for Your Grace". In amongst the killing and what-not there is a great deal of courage, courtliness, and verve--which are real virtues. And those, I think, not the vices, are what make the novel at all fun.

Find The Three Musketeers on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...