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les trois mousquetaires

28 july 2023

I first read The Three Musketeers in a children's English-language abridgment, about 55 years ago. That is also the last time I'd read The Three Musketeers, unless you count the Classics Illustrated comic-book version, and that too was in the late 1960s.

The book made a big impact on me, though (as did The Man in the Iron Mask), and I can still remember the way that d'Artagnan and his friends looked in the illustrations, and Richelieu, and Milady. The story … it was all a lot of skulking conspiracies broken up by the occasional en garde! But that was fine.

Having now read Les trois mousquetaires at its 822-page original length, I am happy to report that my original impressions hold up. Striking characters, wonderful dialogue, much incident, lots of poignarding.

As Simone Bertière points out in numerous footnotes to her edition, Les trois mousquetaires is also among the most sloppily-written of the great classics. Characters change their names within a few pages; plot holes open up beneath the reader; d'Artagnan gets appointed to the musketeers twice, several chapters apart, by different people. Dumas was writing four or five other books at the same time, including The Count of Monte Cristo, and Excel spreadsheets to keep things straight were not yet a thing. Consistency sometimes suffered.

It doesn't much matter, and not just because of the narrative drive of Les trois mousquetaires. The novel holds people's imagination because of the panache of its characters, and also because of their subtlety. The musketeers have simple character notes: Athos is a great nobleman in disguise, Porthos a sensualist, and Aramis a priest in training. Yet at a crucial juncture in the novel,

Porthos pleura, Aramis montra le poing au ciel, Athos fit le signe de la croix. (838)

Porthos wept, Aramis shook his fist at the heavens, Athos made the sign of the cross.
Les trois mousquetaires moves from simple good entertainment into considerable-novel territory by continually making characters more complicated than they first appear.

D'Artagnan, the principal reflector-character for much of the novel, is of course the best example. He begins the story explicitly as a kind of callow Don Quixote. He is violent, impulsive, mendacious. (For all their talk of honor, all the characters constantly lie, to the point where carrying off a good lie is itself a type of honorable behavior). D'Artagnan's great love for Constance is a major generator of plot in the novel, yet he is continually unfaithful to Constance along the way. And for all that, Athos realizes early on that d'Artagnan is smarter and more effective at getting what he wants than any of the three musketeers, and a match even for the great schemers of the novel: Buckingham and Richelieu.

The latter is the best-drawn character of all. Cardinal Richelieu is the sworn enemy of all musketeers: Athos et al. are in the service of the King, and constantly brawl with the Cardinal's guards. Yet d'Artagnan has been well-taught by his father to respect the Cardinal. By being respectful yet holding his ground, d'Artagnan fascinates Richelieu, who shows himself capable of manipulating the young man even as he finds his plots frustrated by d'Artagnan's counter-plots. Richelieu of course is an inveterate Machiavel. But as the novel develops, we get the sense that he is the only one who holds the national interest at heart. The Cardinal, as opposed to all the foreign agents at court (who include the Queen), is "lui Richelieu, le ministre français, le ministre national par excellence" (607): the French prime minister, the national statesman par excellence. Yes, he likes pissing contests and he likes a fine woman in his bed and he loves riches and arbitrary power; but Richelieu (in Dumas' mythology) is inseparable from the interests of his country. He and the (eventually four) musketeers end up warily making common cause.

Milady, by contrast, is the great villain of the novel, and its reflector-character for a considerable stretch late in the going. She'll sell anybody out, and if she can poison or stab them in the process, so much the better.

At the heart of Milady's story, though, is a long tale she tells to the pliable Felton, the cat's-paw she will use to strike at the Duke of Buckingham. (There was a real-life Felton, who really did kill the real Buckingham, though probably not under the circumstances suggested by Dumas.) To gain the sympathies of the puritanical Felton, Milady tells him an involved story about being held as a sex slave by the Duke, debauched from her natural piety and made into a sullied outcast.

It's a very interesting story. On the one hand it's complete bullshit, improvised to strike at Felton's most vulnerable sensibilities. It's a model for Verbal Kint's stories in the film The Usual Suspects: as Milady tells the story, she weaves in elements of her current surroundings (Felton is holding her as a prisoner at the behest of her quasi-kinsman Lord de Winter, who is fed up with her act). But somewhere within all that malice, one gets the sense that Milady is telling a psychological truth. She has been used and abused by men, her whole life spent as a unit of currency passed between the grand noblemen of France and England – one of whom is Athos, her ex-husband, who has treated her very badly, if with technical justification. Milady is a bad woman who comes to a bad end, but she is not inexplicable; she is not just a melodramatic caprice on the part of her author.

And my gosh, is this book iconic, if you think about it. The word is overused, but here it really applies. Every supermarket checkout in America has an impulse-buy stock of Three Musketeers bars. I can't think of another literary work with that kind of reach, even the Bible and Harry Potter.

I read Les trois mousquetaires over the course of two and a half weeks, which included some long plane and train journeys. It is the perfect travel book. Next summer, on to Vingt ans aprés.

Dumas, Alexandre. Les trois mousquetaires. 1844. Edited by Simone Bertière, 1995. n.p.: Librarie Générale Française, 2023.