Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ was one of my favourite books during my pre-teens and early teens. I read the abridged edition at that time, and I read it many times. Later when I went to work, I got my first copy of the unabridged version of the book. It was still wonderful, but the magic seemed to have waned a little bit. This month our book club decided to read this book. I was quite excited but also a little worried – excited because I wanted to enter the world of D’Artagnan and his friends and Milady and Cardinal Richelieu again, and worried because I wasn’t sure how my re-reading experience was going to be and whether it will disturb my original pleasant memory of the book. I finished reading it during the weekend. Here is what I think.
I think the story told in ‘The Three Musketeers’ must be known by everyone and so I will just summarize it in a few sentences. It is about a young man who travels from his village to Paris in search of fame and fortune. He meets strangers on the way, gets into skirmishes, makes some wonderful friends, ends up being in the king’s service, gets caught in political intrigues and he and his friends weather all storms and beat the baddies at their game. If you want to know more and you haven’t read the book, you should read it soon. It is filled with action and humour and suspense and is a page turner.
I thought I will write more about my re-reading experience here. I thought that I might have problems with the book and I might not like the book as much as I did before because I have changed as a person since the last time I read it. I was also looking forward to finding out whether that might be true. Well, my re-reading experience was interesting. After so many years, the book was still enjoyable. The action was fast-paced and there was a lot of dialogue. I read the Richard Pevear translation which came out a few years back and in his introduction Pevear says this :
“We think of The Three Musketeers as a novel of action and adventure, of duels, skirmishes, galloping horses, and yet it is nine-tenths dialogue. The suspense comes most often not from what the characters are about to do to each other, but from what they are about to say to each other. It is based not so much on narrative action as on dramatic confrontation.”
I loved what Pevear said and when reading the story one realizes that what he says is true.
There are many stylish scenes in the book. For example, in one scene where there is a battle going on between the King’s troops and their enemies, the three musketeers (Athos, Porthos and Aramis) and D’Artagnan are having lunch and holding council in a place between the two warring parties, in no-man’s land. The enemy sends a troop of twenty-soldiers to capture this bastion on no-man’s land. Seeing the enemy troops marching towards them, Porthos says : “How about returning to camp? It strikes me as an unequal match.” To which Athos replies : “Impossible for three reasons. First, we haven’t finished lunch.” It looks like a scene straight out of a Bruce Willis or a Jason Statham movie and it makes one smile
One thing that I discovered during my re-reading was that the characters were more complex than I initially thought. I couldn’t remember much about the minor characters from my earlier readings. But when I read the book again now, I discovered, for example, that the lackeys of our four heroes had interesting personalities of their own. Planchet, D’Artagnan’s lackey, is quite an interesting character, who is brave in important ways but is also wise enough to shy away from confrontation and danger when that is the right thing to do. I also had always pictured that out of the main characters, the good guys were D’Artagnan, the three musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis, Monsieur de Tréville, the Queen and Madame Bonacieux while the baddies were Cardinal Richelieu, Rochefort and Milady. Though this simplification is true to a certain extent (for example, Madame Bonacieux is really the angel that she is made out to be), Dumas also makes some of the characters flawed and complex and though we might like them or otherwise, we are able to appreciate that they are more complex human beings. For example, our hero D’Artagnan appears to be noble and brave and helps his friends and his Queen and those on his side. But there is another side to him. Though he is in love with Madame Bonacieux, after her disappearance, he doesn’t really go in search of her. He has got madly attracted to Milady and even after he discovers that she is responsible for Madame Bonacieux’ abduction, he chases Milady. He seduces Milady’s maid Kitty and uses her to get to Milady and after sleeping with her he makes her realize her that he has betrayed her. This is definitely not the behaviour of a noble hero. On the other hand, Milady, who is portrayed as the black-hearted villain, has more to her than meets the eye. When we learn the truth about Milady’s past, we feel sad for her and even sympathize with her. She was a nun who fell in love with a priest. When she tried running away with the priest the law caught up with them and both of them were branded. When she and her lover move to a village and live their life peacefully, the local lord falls in love with her and marries her. Then he discovers that she is branded and ties her up and hangs her. Milady somehow survives all this. And possibly her heart changes after this. And she becomes the cynical villain that she turns out to be. Even then there are some touching scenes where we can feel her heart softening, first towards the Count de Wardes and later towards Lieutenant Felton who saves her and helps her escape when she is imprisoned. Unfortunately, she is so far down the line that she doesn’t have any chance at redemption. But looking at Milady’s story, one feels that she was a strong woman who wanted to be free and the circumstances of her time did not permit her to be that way. I don’t know whether Dumas intended readers to think that way or whether it is my 21st century self reading between the lines and inserting my own interpretation there where none exist. But this is what I think. However, I would give credit to Dumas for one thing. There is a part of the book, where for a straight hundred pages, Dumas describes the story from Milady’s perspective and ignores our hero and his friends. For a hundred pages it is just about Milady and her life and the dangers she faces and how she comes out of them using her strength and determination. I don’t think the villain of a novel has got this much coverage in any book. Definitely not in a classic novel. Dumas must have been a brave man to do that and deserves kudos for that.
For a book which was supposed to be a nonstop action story, it holds some interesting surprises. Once in a while a contemplative passage leaps at the reader and surprises the reader with its beauty. One of my favourites was this :
Nothing makes the time pass or shortens the way like a thought that absorbs in itself all the faculties of the one who is thinking. External existence is then like a sleep of which this thought is the dream. Under its influence, time has no more measure, space has no more distance. You leave one place and arrive at another, that is all. Of the interval in between, nothing more remains in your memory than a vague mist in which a thousand confused images of trees, mountains, and landscapes dissolve.
The edition I read had notes which explained many of the historical and cultural references in the story – for example the Bartholomew massacre (on the night of which, Rafael Sabatini’s love story ‘The Scapulary’ takes place, and which I liked very much), the Edict of Nantes, the French wars of religion, the arquebus the first portable firearm, Madame de Sévigné (whose letters I want to read very much), the story of Judith from the Apocrypha, the illustrious family of Montmorency (I didn’t know that the dog Montmorency from Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ had an illustrious background), Peter Paul Rubens (one of my favourite painters). The notes section was quite informative and fascinating to read.
There were also some quirky odd things in the story which I had fun spotting. For example, on page 65 there is a line which says that Athos had planned to spend the afternoon playing tennis with Porthos and Aramis. I wondered whether tennis was really played in the 17th century (the story narrated in the book happens from 1625 onwards). I did some research in Wikipedia and discovered that lawn tennis (the popular version today) gained popularity only in the 19th century, at the time Dumas wrote this book. The game which was prevalent at the time the story was told was real tennis which was an older version. On page 86 there is a sentence which says that Aramis looked at his watch. It made me wonder whether watches were prevalent in the 17th century, at the time the events of this story happened. Again I took the help of our old friend Wikipedia and discovered that pocket watches with glass covering the face were used from around 1610. Quite interesting!
Another thing that I noticed was that when the story starts Dumas tells us that the King has musketeers while the Cardinal has guards, who are the musketeers’ competitors. M. de Tréville tells D’Artagnan that he has to work for two years and needs to have a distinguished service before he can become a musketeer. In due course, D’Artagnan becomes a musketeer. In the last scene of the book, Cardinal Richelieu promotes D’Artagnan from a normal musketeer to a lieutenant. How did the cardinal get the power to promote a musketeer when it was really under the domain of M. de Tréville and the King? It looked to me that Dumas slipped up there.
I also did my favourite thing – check the book and find out where it stood on the American vs British spelling debate. Richard Pevear is American and so the book is generally consistent and uses American spelling (I read the American edition), but in one place Pevear slips up. In page 69, M.de Tréville says “I don’t advise you to risk it.” So far so good. But the next sentence goes like this – “The advice was too reasonable…” – this is the kind of fine distinction between the verb advise and the noun advice which only a British writer will make and which British spelling demands. I felt happy when I spotted this. I would have made a good editor, I think
Dumas ties up all the loose ends at the end of the story – the good guys win and the baddies are either defeated or come over to the good side. But I was unhappy about one thing. While through most of the story, Cardinal Richelieu, Rochefort and Milady conspired together, in the end it is Milady who pays the price while the Cardinal and Rochefort get away with it. I wanted to ask Dumas – “If the bad guys are all men, then they can change in the end and get together with the good guys and redeem themselves and everything is hunky dory for everyone, while if the bad person is a woman then she doesn’t have any redemption and she should be executed – is that what you are saying? What kind of sexist ending is that?” I even got a little bit angry when I thought about it. I can’t remember the last time I felt so sympathetic for a villain.
I have watched the Gene Kelly movie version of the novel before. I want to watch it again. I also want to watch the other versions – the version where Charlie Sheen plays the role of D’Artagnan (I think he would be perfect for that role) and the more recent one where Christoph Waltz plays the role of Cardinal Richelieu (isn’t he the perfect person to play that role? Has Hollywood found its perfect villain?) I also wonder who plays the role of Milady in these three versions. I can imagine Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck playing it in the original version. I have to watch it again to find out.
I enjoyed reading ‘The Three Musketeers’. The re-reading was quite interesting, because I discovered complex depths in some of my favourite characters which I didn’t notice during my previous readings. Pevear’s introduction describes an anecdote from Dumas’ life, which I will quote here. It goes like this :
In 1868, Dumas’s health began to fail. One day his son came to see him and found him absorbed in reading. When he asked what book it was, Dumas replies, “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?”
Indeed it is – to the joy of countless generations of readers.
That anecdote made me smile. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment.
If you haven’t read Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’, I would encourage you to do that. It is not a slim novel – at 673 pages the edition I read was bigger than the typical novel I read – but it is fun to read and gives hours of reading pleasure. I always knew that ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ also features our heroes from ‘The Three Musketeers’, but recently while doing some research, I discovered that there are two sequels to ‘The Three Musketeers’ – ‘Twenty Years Later’ and ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’. And the chunksterish ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’ is itself divided into three volumes – ‘The Vicomte de Bragelonne’, ‘Louise de la Vallière’ and ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. I hope to read these sequels one day soon and follow the subsequent adventures of D’Artagnan and his friends.
Have you read Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’ or seen any of the movie versions? What do you think about it?