Classics Review: The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

Three MusketeersFirst I should confess that I have never had sufficient interest in swashbuckling even to sit through one of the many film versions of The Three Musketeers. So what in the world could have induced me to read this book now, at this point in my life? Well I have run across quite a few references to Alexandre Dumas in my reading; so perhaps all the notes-to-self to read something by him had accumulated into an urge to do that. And then The Three Musketeers popped up in one of my book deal notices at a moment when I really needed a break from the intensity of Tolstoy’s theology. I needed something new and different; and this novel is about a time and place about which I knew practically nothing: 1625 France, starring King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, and Cardinal Richelieu, powerful adviser to the king who apparently became insanely powerful by the force of his own personality.

"Cardinal Richelieu by Robert Nanteuil 1657" by Robert Nanteuil - Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cardinal Richelieu by Robert Nanteuil 1657” by Robert Nanteuil – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I did some background research and found that this Richelieu has retained a fairly good reputation as a great statesman despite having murdered, plotted, executed, and condemned people to the Bastille left and right. Several other major characters are based on real historical figures, so this qualifies as a historical novel, and because it inspired me to read up on the people and the period, I found it fascinating and educational.

Before I embarked upon this novel I had the impression it was going to be an action-oriented heroic adventure story, and I suppose on a surface level that is what is supposed to be. But the novel takes place in a culture where the ideas of what constitutes heroism and even what is meant by good and evil are vastly different from my notions of those concepts. I expected to at least like the heroes of the story; but I was surprised and little shocked to discover that all three of the title characters and their friend and aspiring musketeer D’Artagnan are, essentially, assholes.

Well, Aramis is somewhat likable. But even he began his career in the action hero business by murdering some dude over a mild insult. Okay it was a duel. It seems Aramis, who was a seminary student studying for the priesthood at the time, nursed such a grudge over a comment this guy made about him in front of a girl that he took fencing lessons for a year just for the chance to kill him. That’s what I mean about moral standards being different. In my day such behavior would be considered premeditated murder. And Aramis is the sweet one of the bunch! Porthos is a vain loutish braggart whose dishonesty crosses the line into criminality; and Athos, the brains of the operation, has a dark secret, that, when you find out what it is, does not exactly make him more likable.

So these Musketeers are apparently an elite military unit in the King’s service. There are more than three of them of course, but as young men often seem to do, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos have formed a tight little inseparable threesome. And yet outside of their interest in drinking and brawling with the forces of Cardinal Richelieu they don’t seem to know a whole lot about each other. They might brag about their romantic escapades but they never go out on group dates and they don’t seem to engage in a lot of deep philosophical discussion.

Along comes a new guy to town, an 18-year old kid from the sticks of Gascony named D’Artagnan. By immediately offending all three of the three of the musketeer buddies and arranging duels one after the other he makes a favorable impression and is soon one of the gang. Strangely, although Dumas says D’Artagnan is 18 years old at the beginning of the novel, his age seems to advance more rapidly than one birthday per year. Suddenly he is 19 and a few chapters later he is 20. And even though only about a year passes in the course of the novel, by the conclusion he is 21. It seems like Dumas sort of forgets how old his hero is. Maybe this quirk has to do with the fact that this novel was written as a serial for a periodical. He must have been writing at lightning speed to meet those deadlines.

A few chapters into the book I really thought I was going dislike The Three Musketeers. The characters seemed to be violent bootlickers whose main purpose in life is to please the king while treating their own lackeys badly. The most respected character in the book, instrumental D’Artagnan’s rise to prominence is Monsieur de Tréville, Head of the King’s Musketeers and a father figure to the young musketeers under his command. De Tréville is based on a real historical person names Jean-Armand du Peyrer, Comte de Troisville. He  is portrayed as being in competition with Cardinal Richelieu for the King’s favor, which is why his guys are always brawling with the Cardinal’s guys.  It seems the Cardinal, a Catholic bishop and adviser to the king, has his own military force. So apparently does the Pope and pretty much everybody else who has a lot of power in Europe. Apparently de Tréville has made his own exalted reputation by being clever and political – pleasing the right people and not pissing off the wrong people. The ability to maintain such a balance seems to invoke the highest level of respect “at court.”

After I got into the story a little more I did not hate the book as much as I thought I would. It is a well written story and I really wanted to find out what happened next. Besides, the novel can be read as an entertaining social commentary on the horrors of Statism, with everyone rising or sinking and living or dying according to how well they can access and please and play those in power. The war described in the novel happens because the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, is in love with the Queen of France, Anne of Austria, and finds he needs a war to arrange things to his liking.

Most of the actions of our heroes are done to A) please their lovers; B) show off to their buddies (or save face); or C) avenge someone’s supposed honor, either their own or that of a friend. I suppose the underlying hope is that through all their bravery, clever plotting, and adventuring, they might somehow do something to please the King or Queen enough to gain some recognition or perhaps some money and a better position in the social hierarchy. But they know they are just as likely to die before being rewarded for their efforts and seem to a have a cavalier attitude* toward staying alive.

Writing in 1844, Dumas seems perfectly aware of the craziness of these people and their culture. Throughout the novel He frequently mentions that customs were different in those times and morals were strangely loose. For example, early in the novel d’Artanian gets an audience with the King for having severely wounded one of the Cardinal’s soldiers. Instead of being angry about the incident, both de Tréville and the King are tickled and take a “Boys will be boys” attitude. When D’Artagnan makes a favorable impression, King Louis hands him a fistful of gold amounting to 1000 pistoles. Dumas tells us that back then it was a common thing for the King to simply give hard money to people who pleased him.

Rewards and favors were very direct and the reasons very open: if you want to get ahead in life you make the powerful people happy. If you make a mistake, if one of your schemes goes awry, or if the King or the Cardinal simply decides he doesn’t like you anymore, you go to the Bastille or get your head chopped off. The underlying principle was simple but the resulting politics were an intricate web of loyalties, plots, suspicions, and vengeance. At least within the plot of this novel. But my initial research indicates the real history was probably like that and more so.

This review would not be complete without some attention to the female characters. Our friend D’Artagnan quickly falls madly in love with Madame Constance Bonacieux, a highly placed lady in waiting to the Queen and through her gets sucked into royal politics. In the guise of helping his beloved, he gathers his friends Athos, Aramis, and Porthos, and embarks on a secret and dangerous mission to help the Queen out of a scrape involving her affair with the Duke of Buckingham.

Lots of actresses have played the plumb role of Milady de Winter. Here's my favorite picture of her.

Lots of actresses have played the plumb role of Milady de Winter. Here’s my favorite picture of her.

Madame Bonacieux seems like a spunky resourceful girl at first but later becomes little insipid. Of course her insipidity only shows up when she comes into contact with Milady de Winter. I won’t go into the plot around Milady because I don’t want to give the story away. Let’s just say that Milady is one of the most evil literary villainesses I have ever encountered. The male characters for the most part seem pretty psychologically shallow (simple motivations, not a lot of deep thought). Not so with Milady. At first I thought she had just been mistreated and gotten a raw deal but by the end I was convinced she is a true psychopath, as sinister, clever, and relentless a villain as you are likely to find. Lady Macbeth, the White Witch of Narnia, and Cinderella’s evil stepmother are sweethearts compared to Milady de Winter!

In the end I enjoyed the book more than I expected I would. In the guise of an adventure story it is really a dark but unfortunately realistic portrait of human nature. I enjoyed the peaks behind the curtain of the official historical narrative, even if they are fictional peaks – how movements of armies and the ruin of individual lives are set in motion by the personal desires and decisions of the people in power.

The characters in this book do not question how their world works. They just live in it with vigor, doing their best to work things to their own advantage. Dumas leaves it entirely to the reader to marvel over the corruption and stupidity of the early 17th century and perhaps feel grateful and superior that things are so much better now. Or perhaps, on second thought, to wonder if anything substantial has changed after all.

* * * * * * *

* I think that term cavalier attitude – as meaning “arrogant or offhand disregard; dismissive”(according to is somehow related to the Cavaliers who were supporters of King Charles I,  monarch of England during this time period of this novel.


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