The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

I’ve talked a lot about books that are somehow powerful enough in their presence in the cultural landscape that I feel familiar with them even though I haven’t read them yet. For me, it is always interesting to end up reading those books and see how the actual text compares with the impressions that were already formed in my mind. Today we do this again, this time with the famed adventure novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

Athos! Porthos! Aramis! Kind of D’Artagnan too (he of course not being part of the original, inseparable trio and only becoming a musketeer partway through the book)!

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Arthur Phillips.)

I can’t imagine anyone is unfamiliar with the overall concept of this book at this point, given its reach into such far afield areas as Slumdog Millionaire and Tom and Jerry. But, in short, young (but strong, brave, and skilled) D’Artagnan comes from the countryside to Paris to become a musketeer and seek his fortune. He meets up with the three musketeers (Athos, Porthos, and Aramis) and adventures begin. You’d think after I already knew this that all that would be left would be seeing how it all came about. However, there was a bit more than that. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was some of the aspects of the characters of the heroes.

For one thing, D’Artagnan is a bit more of a hothead at the beginning than I expected him to be. Granted, his father told him to get into fights at the slightest provocation, but still. His very first fight of the book doesn’t go so well for him and it ends up making him seem kind of dumb:

He had scarcely finished, when d’Artagnan made such a furious lunge at him that if he had not sprung nimbly backward, it is probable he would have jested for the last time. The stranger, then perceiving that the matter went beyond raillery, drew his sword, saluted his adversary, and seriously placed himself on guard. But at the same moment, his two auditors, accompanied by the host, fell upon d’Artagnan with sticks, shovels and tongs. This caused so rapid and complete a diversion from the attack that d’Artagnan’s adversary, while the latter turned round to face this shower of blows, sheathed his sword with the same precision, and instead of an actor, which he had nearly been, became a spectator of the fight–a part in which he acquitted himself with his usual impassiveness, muttering, nevertheless, “A plague upon these Gascons! Replace him on his orange horse, and let him begone!”

“Not before I have killed you, poltroon!” cried d’Artagnan, making the best face possible, and never retreating one step before his three assailants, who continued to shower blows upon him.

“Another gasconade!” murmured the gentleman. “By my honor, these Gascons are incorrigible! Keep up the dance, then, since he will have it so. When he is tired, he will perhaps tell us that he has had enough of it.”

But the stranger knew not the headstrong personage he had to do with; d’Artagnan was not the man ever to cry for quarter. The fight was therefore prolonged for some seconds; but at length d’Artagnan dropped his sword, which was broken in two pieces by the blow of a stick. Another blow full upon his forehead at the same moment brought him to the ground, covered with blood and almost fainting.

It was at this moment that people came flocking to the scene of action from all sides. The host, fearful of consequences, with the help of his servants carried the wounded man into the kitchen, where some trifling attentions were bestowed upon him.

Of course, he generally has more luck after that (though he does end up with the musketeers after challenging each of the three to successive duels on the same day). Still, it wasn’t exactly how I expected D’Artagnan to start out.

Even more confusing for me is the moral makeup of the heroes. I know morality was different then, and the heroes were supposed to be men of arms and therefore different than the average person, but I didn’t expect to see D’Artagnan pretend to be another person in order to sleep with a woman. Moreover, I didn’t expect him to sleep with her maid in order to be able accomplish the deception. All this time, D’Artagnan was supposed to be in love with yet another woman. This is the hero of the book?

(This is to say nothing of the lesser foibles of the musketeer trio, such as the habit of Aramis to talk about taking up orders every time he thinks his mistress has abandoned him or how Porthos barricades himself in his hotel room and steals the innkeepers booze when he can’t pay his hotel bill).

I’m also confused by the fact that the musketeers are supposed to be loyal to the king and enemies of the sinister and powerful Cardinal Richelieu. I thought that was supposed to be the whole point. However, if that is the case, then why does so much of the intrigue in which the musketeers are involved concern keeping the king from finding out what has passed between the queen and her lover, the Duke of Buckingham? Granted, the queen isn’t schtupping the Duke during this time and isn’t trying to, but doesn’t this seem like they are more loyal to the queen than the king? Admittedly again, they are really just supporting the queen against the cardinal, but she still cheated on the king and the musketeers are helping cover up what he doesn’t already know about. What can I say? Their loyalties confuse me.

All in all, though, I enjoyed finally reading The Three Musketeers. There were some aspects of the characters that I didn’t expect (and which didn’t seem to fit the story entirely), but it’s not like it’s the first time something about a book has puzzled me. Regardless of any confusion on my part, the book was fun and it was a lot more readable than I expected from mid nineteenth century French literature.

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