Monday, January 17, 2011

Book #43 - The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

If you stopped the average man in the street and asked him about some of the books I read last year for this blog, such as "The Good Soldier" and "Sister Carrie", you'd probably be met with some blank stares before he slowly became convinced you were one of those "elites" and began to beat the living crap out of you. But "The Three Musketeers" pretty much everyone has heard of this book, and pretty much everyone has an idea of what it's about. Of course, it helps that this is perhaps the only work of literature with a candy bar named after it (and a good thing too, because "Bleak House Nougat Roll" doesn't have such an appealing name). Yet despite everyone knowing about this book, and maybe having seen one of the movie versions, I'm not sure how many people have actually read the book. Well, now you can count me among those who have. And I suggest you do to, if you haven't already, because this book is a lot of fun.

Note that I said this book is "a lot of fun", not "pregnant with symbolism and character development and deep insights into the human condition". Dumas is not Flaubert. Which isn't to say that he's not a great novelist (note the use of the double negative here, no doubt facilitated by the Little King's Cream Ale I'm drinking...a tasty beer from Cincinnati, Ohio which comes in 7 ounce bottles, thus allowing high schoolers to brag that they "drank a six pack last night". But in my case I can brag that the beer name is fitting for someone blogging about a novel of royal intrigue. But I digress...a lot. Sorry about that.), it's just that he's great for a different reason. The greatness of this book is the plot and the's like the greatest pot-boiler and page turner ever. It's funny, it's exciting, it's fun. But, as I said, it's not Flaubert.

When the novel starts, we meet the protagonist, D'Artagnon, who at first glance is similar to Julien Sorel of "The Red and the Black" and Frederic Moreau of "A Sentimental Education", in that all three are young men from the boonies who come to the big city to seek their fame and fortune. But Julien and Frederic are complex, richly drawn characters, while D'Artagnan is not. D'Artagnan comes from the countryside ready to kick some ass, and he proceeds to do so. He gets into swordfights, fights duels, joins the King's guards, saves the queen's honor, and later becomes a musketeer. He's a character, and lots of stuff happens to him, but there's no development. This is not a bildungsroman. In Dumas everything is about the plot. And that's not a bad thing, because in this book Dumas is the master of plot.

After joining the King's guard, D'Artagnan quickly befriends three members of the King's musketeers: Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. Well, that is, after he challenges them all to duels. The three of them are brave, honorable men, and expert swordsmen and musketeers. They are loyal to the king, and are thus enemies of Cardinal Richelieu, who is the power behind the throne. And they are fiercely loyal not just to the king, but to each other as well. If one of them gets in a fight, they all get in a fight. They've got each others' backs. Oh, and they seriously like to party. Seriously. Yes, they eat and drink in abundance, gamble to reckless excess, and chase after/pine over women. They're honorable, sword fighting, partying slackers. If they had dope back then they'd probably be stoners too. They get along famously with D'Artagnon, who rapidly becomes the fourth member of their circle, but he's a bit of an odd fit because he's more uptight than the others. He's younger and he has ambition. The others don't...well, at least they don't have ambitions to get ahead in the military...they do have ambitions to marry rich (Porthos) or to go into the priesthood (Aramis).

The novel quickly throws these four characters together and then they start to have adventures. And it's here that it becomes a bit obvious that this novel was published serially. I say that because the novel's structure becomes a bit meandering. That's not to say that it isn't fun and exciting, because it's both of those things, but when the reader takes a step back it's clear that the novel has two main parts, both of which are rather independent of each other. It's like Dumas was making it up as he went along. The first part of the novel revolves around a plot by Cardinal Richelieu to trap the queen into revealing she's been having an adulterous affair with the Duke of Buckingham. The details of the politics are a bit obscure, but the queen is a foreigner and the Cardinal doesn't like her. So when he finds out she's having an affair with Buckingham and that she's given him two diamond tags that the King gave to her, he convinces the hapless King to have a ball and to ask the Queen to wear the diamond tags he gave her. Since she doesn't have them, she'll be trapped and the Cardinal can tell the King of her adultery. The Cardinal insures his plan will succeed by having an accomplice who lives in England, Lady de Winter, to steal two tags from the Duke. The musketeers get wind of all this, and D'Artagnon saves the day by going to England and informing the Duke of the situation. The Duke has new tags made and sends them with D'Artagnon to the Queen, who is very grateful. She wears the tags to the ball, the day is saved, and the Cardinal is freaking pissed. So is Lady de Winter, who becomes the main villain in the second part of the novel.

When the tags episode is over, a new adventure begins. It's not unrelated to the first part of the novel, but it really could stand alone. Basically, D'Artagnon sees Lady de Winter, also known as Milady, in a church and falls in love with her. After dueling her brother-in-law but sparing his life (long story) the brother-in-law introduces them. Soon D'Artagnan tricks her into sleeping with him when it's dark and she thinks he's her lover, the Count de Wardes. After they "do the nasty" she's so satisfied that she tells him to kill D'Artagnon (it's still dark so she still thinks she's with de Wardes). This pisses off D'Artagnon for some reason, who gets his revenge by forging a nasty letter to her and signing it with Count de Wardes' name. Lady de Winter, never one to suffer an insult, is furious and she asks D'Artagnon to kill de Wardes and he agrees to but only if she sleeps with him. So she does and then D'Artagnon, like an idiot, tells her it wasn't the first time he slept with her. Ha Ha! This REALLY pisses her off and she then tries repeatedly to have D'Artagnon killed.

The character of Milady, or Lady de Winter, is pretty awesome. She's SO evil that it's almost a caricature. I won't say what happens, for fear of spoiling the book for anyone who might not have read it, but she's bad bad bad, and kills, or has killed, a number of people before the book ends. She reminds me a bit of a 19th century female version of Lex Luther. She's so evil, and so powerful, and yet so irresistibly uses her feminine wiles to seduce, manipulate, and often kill men, that she's practically a comic book character. In real life no one could be that terrifically bad. Yet Dumas pulls it off. There's a reason this book has been continually read for over 100 years.

As the book progresses towards its conclusion, it gets progressively darker and darker. Again, I won't spoil the plot, but several characters unexpectedly are murdered, causing the reader to think "WTF? Isn't this supposed to be a fun, chivalrous novel?". By the end the novel becomes quite black and frankly somewhat disturbing. And when all is finally resolved, and the bad are brought to justice, the other musketeers eventually retire and D'Artagnon gets a promotion and becomes loyal to the Cardinal. Seriously? The Cardinal? Well, I guess it makes sense, because D'Artagnon and his friends are really just loyal to adventure and chivalrous values. Who they are officially fighting for probably doesn't make all that much difference. Still, the ending is bleak and one raises an eyelid. D'Artagnon has been turned and all innocence is lost.

Dumas wrote two sequels to "The Three Musketeers": "Twenty Years After" and another one that's like 5000 pages long. I probably won't be reading these. But despite that, I highly recommend this book, especially if you're just in the mood for some swashbuckling escapism. It may end darkly, but it never fails to entertain. Maybe that's why it's a classic.