Dumas was sometimes an ass to his heroes. They became better men for it.
Judge it by its cover, so long as it’s this one: Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers contains within its pages a gallantry offset by buffoonery, and each quality falls to perfect measure.
Though called The Three Musketeers, there are, of course, four heroes – it’s just that one must first prove himself of mettle. That one is Monsieur’ d’Artagnan, freshly arrived in Paris from the provinces with a paltry 11 écus and a yellow horse that Dumas readily pronounces the equal to Rocinante.
But Dumas did d’Artagnan a poor turn when he introduced his hero in the likeness of Don Quixote. Don Quixote and his antics couldn’t sustain the length of Cervantes’ novel: comedic swashbuckling to no purpose is fun until it’s cute until it’s just plain dull.
But Dumas endowed his d’Artagnan with true heroism and combated his tilting of swords and his quick-tempered duels with a soft spot in his youthful desire for the pretty Madame Bonacieux and in giving him an intelligence best suited for working at cross purposes with le Cardinal de Richelieu, a man history has credited with a most sagacious mind.
Add to this young heart his three musketeer friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, and know that theirs is a friendship strong as blood on blood.
Dumas wrote some snappy dialogue for his musketeers and a persuasive prose for Milady, a woman who would falsely paint herself Lucretia when her portrait ought better to be that of Judith.
La Rochelle, Richelieu, the Catholics and the Huguenots and the clandestine affair of Buckingham and Queen Anne…but above all of this, in reading Dumas’ tale we are reading, in fact, a tale of friendship.
Ever the same three…ever the same d’Artagnan!
Athos is a taciturn man with a lordly air whose handsome features goad dear Porthos to envy.
Porthos, vain, gilded not gold, is a connoisseur of the finer luxuries.
Aramis awaits holy orders and is only an interim musketeer (as he’s ready to tell you). He’s a ladies’ man who takes up the pen to write passionate verse.
And d’Artagnan, youthful and at first impulsive with the hot blood of Gascony in his veins, is an idealistic, optimistic and ambitious man of 20. He thwarts Milady and gets off on febrile plays of innuendo.
The strengths and weaknesses of these four friends fit together in complement and provide an endless perspicacity in action that gets the job done and always with a little extra flair for style and, more often, for passive insult.
The four are eternally short on money – as indeed Dumas himself was, and for the same reasons: mistresses and cards – and they’re only too willing to pawn each other’s horses and harness if instead of a steed to mount there’s intrigue to heed.
Oh, there’s always intrigue to heed; she’s the favored child of Milady.
You, like me, are searching for a woman. She must have passed this way, for I see a dead body!
Milady provides the main conflict in The Three Musketeers. Wherever she is, there’s sure to be scandal because for all Porthos’ gambling, it’s the women in Dumas’ novel who hold all the cards. Cardinal Richelieu, though despised and ridiculed, is not the first enemy, for he has a politician’s pragmatism, and if he can’t kill his enemies he will take them to his side. Like any politician worth his salt, he knows they may be of use.
Milady is the primary devil. Add to this woman’s machinations the full purse of Porthos’ mistress, the independent and intelligent mind of Madame Bonacieux, a certain handkerchief whose monogram carries weight and the generosity of Queen Anne, and Dumas’ musketeers are quite diminished, for they can little act without their lady loves mounting the generalship from afar.
The Three Musketeers is a classic in swashbuckling adventure and with more than a dash of romance, but it’s become a dear book long down the years because it can’t be defined in only these close terms. Two centuries separate its subject from its publication. Dumas had what Cervantes lacked when he wrote Don Quixote: the benefit of two hundred years of literary experiment and a political upheaval or three that gave him leisure to write without an Inquisition bearing down upon him.
The Three Musketeers is not adventure after adventure, a windmill of stupid antics, but a story of great breadth and feeling, the most pronounced of which is an exuberant joy, even – and especially – in the bastion of Saint-Gervais. One for all…and all for one! – it’s good to know that your friends have your back.
It’s a novel, too, that reminds us that though Richelieu is past, his mold is cast iron and stamps out many of his likeness. Luckily, our four heroes lend us some advice:
From Athos, never compromise your name.
From Porthos, enjoy vittles with your virtues.
From Aramis, be discreet and make sure your word counts for something.
And from d’Artagnan, take stock of the pleasure in adventure and of the love of your truest friends, for they may slip away like the possessions they never could hold onto for long.
The Three Musketeers · Alexandre Dumas · 1844
Richard Pevear translation · Penguin, 2007 · 704 pages, paperback
“The Musketeers…I always promised myself that, when I was old, I’d decide if it was worth anything.”
“Well, where are you?”
“At the end.”
“And what do you think?”
– An exchange between Alexandre Dumas and his son in 1868, as recounted in Richard Pevear’s introduction