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Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

When I began this book it was with the clear freshness of one who views pleasant scenery in an unfamiliar place. Alexandre Dumas, though known to me by name, was an unfamiliar author and I found myself quite quickly drawn into the era he writes of. In the opening chapter of The Three Musketeers one can feel as a person appearing by magic in the town of Meung. The citizens are all rushing to some sort of uproar in various states of armament. Dumas explains that such occurrences were common in that French town in those days. There were battles between nobles, there were robbers and Huguenots and so on. They all caused trouble so it was not an unusual site to see the citizens in their current defensive posture.

The cause of the commotion was the arrival in Meung of a young man, one Monsieur D' Artagnan. This young man, from Gascony, was on his way to Paris seeking Monsieur de Treville and a position with the King's Musketeers, of whom the said Monsieur de Treville was commander. His father had sent him on the journey with the advice that he should waste no chance of facing an opponent in a duel. He was to take all insults as an affront to his honor and avenge them with the sword. This advice he took quite seriously and had put it into practice against an insolent gentleman at the inn of Meung who had mocked his steed. A crowd convened because of the fighting which was over shortly with the result that D' Artagnan was taken to an inn room unconscious.

The hero of the story recovers, of course, but Dumas has already cast the edge of a shadow over the Gascon. It is the shadow of the Cardinal and his agents with whom he will strive against more courageously (and effectively) later.

Despite having witnessed his father's injunction to make no hesitation concerning dueling, it is somewhat comic how readily D' Artagnan got into such situations. After arriving at the headquarters of the King's Musketeers he promptly schedules a duel with three of these worthy gentlemen, specifically: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Athos because he was lectured on manners (among other offenses), Porthos for a quite similar reason, and Aramis for an indelicacy concerning a handkerchief. The duels were never fought since the Cardinal's Guards intruded on the event, though only to their own hurt. This circumstance, however, bound the four men together as friends for the rest of the narrative.

Though fiction, this work is also partly history. The author sets the characters in the past and gives them a part to play in the events we now call: “history.” D' Artagnan and his friends become deeply involved in covert court matters working on the side of the Queen (Anne of Austria) who was persecuted by Cardinal Richelieu and distrusted by King Louis XIII. The shadow of the Cardinal's agents, introduced in the first pages, returns seeking to trap the Queen and her admirer, the Duke of Buckingham . The arrogant man D' Artagnan had seen in Meung reappears, along with the vicious Milady (also known as Lady de Winter) who D' Artagnan becomes dangerously fascinated with.

Dumas explains that those times were morally different than the times in which he was writing. It becomes very apparent around midway through the book as things become quite treacherous. All the friends, excepting Athos, have mistresses. Since D' Artagnan's mistress is in the Queen's service they are in peril of the Cardinal's spies which leads the young Gascon to play the double-agent with Milady. I was rather glad to be through with the double-crossing of this section. In truth I was getting exasperated with D' Artagnan since after Madame Bonacieux, his first mistress, was kidnapped, he went on to become perilously associated with Milady who was a conspirator in the kidnapping. He was on the brink of a chasm and was destined to walk along that brink through the remainder of the chronicle.

Historical events interfered with the proceedings in Paris. Huguenots and other rebels were entrenched at La Rochelle and the English were engaging in the fight. The musketeers and other soldiers (D' Artagnan was actually not yet a Musketeer) left for battle. The friends are imperiled by Milady's attempts at revenge besides the intermittent fighting with the enemy. Athos reveals his past associations with Milady and they all strategize ways in which to defeat the schemes she and the Cardinal develop. Since this is historical fiction not everything can end happily ever after. The musketeers succeed in getting out a warning, but Milady is able to bring about the Duke of Buckingham's death despite efforts in opposition. After this the rebelling elements are suppressed by the forces of the King and Cardinal.

As I said previously, unlike many books by Dickens or other writers the conclusion doesn't bring joy to all the heroes and woe to the evil characters. This, of course, is not the end of the story of the four friends so the comparison is not complete. There is some degree of retribution on “the evil side”, in other words: on the adversaries of D' Artagnan and friends. However, the men also suffer some tragedy to themselves.

Alexandre Dumas was able to write in a way that, for myself in any case, is quite engrossing to read. The historical aspect is also pleasing since I like to familiarize myself with those occurrences besides just enjoying the narrative. As I mentioned when I began, one is drawn into the story until you “see” both the characters and the culture which forms their environment.

The Three Musketeers @ Wikipedia

The Three Musketeers @ The Online Literature Network


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