Alexandre Dumas

 

The Three Musketeers

 

Interesting coming at this again. I was more conscious of something my Dad pointed out when I recommended this to him as someone who enjoys action novels. He said it was hard to care about the constant death-defying activity given that it was frequently about nothing more than whimsical court romances and intrigues: D’Artagnan’s desperate body-strewn dash over the channel and back, for example, to save the French Queen’s potential embarrassment over a gift to her English (courtly) lover. I take his point, although to me that’s part of the fun/interest.

 

While I’m not suggesting that Dumas is writing as an historical purist – he’s wildly inventing and embellishing to make a good story the whole time – it still does say something about the time to find what he idealises as heroic. Moreover there is that alien medieval perspective that assumes that the whims of royalty are noble and vastly more important than those of the populace (much as celebrities today have thousands fawn over the minutia of their daily lives).

 

It’s also interesting to think of how these guys are still in some ways archetypes of cool, particularly the tortured but unflappable Athos. While being a dab hand with a sword is vital, what separates these Musketeers from the rest is how much grace they show under fire: not, in some ways, like the comparable James Bonds of today (who are blithe because they know they’re just too damn good to lose), but because they hold their lives cheaply. What makes Athos such a paragon of valour is that he really isn’t fazed by death – honour means so much more to him. His companions reflect this, which is why they are worthy of inclusion, and friend and foe alike admire this more than anything else. Dumas vividly conveys the whole tortured system of honour that says you can only admire someone who is prepared to kill you at the slightest provocation. While completely appalling in reality, it’s bags of fun in fiction.

 

I suspect Dumas is aware of this in his over the top Duke of Buckingham, who unblinkingly hurls nations into war for the same (or even less) cause than the demigods of the Illiad. He’s a egomaniacal monster, but in Dumas’ world he’s a picture of the aristocratic courtly lover in his utter single-minded devotion to his mistress (cf. Gene Wolfe’s fabulous Sir Able's worship of his faery queen. Sir Able, however, while influenced by some of the notions of honour here - (‘A Knight does not count his foes’ – is dead in line), was a world more aware of the duty of the powerful to the powerless than the dazzlingly arrogant Duke). The romance, the courtly romance, is an odd mix of worldly and juvenile. The pedestals women are put on based on the most fleeting impressions of a pretty face or form is not mocked, although we see glimpses of the shallowness of the angels here and there. But that’s part of the courtly game: if the lover was to spend too much time actually getting to know his mistress in the humdrum of her everyday life she would lose all the mystery that idealises her in his mind. Maybe a lesson there for all of us in the joys and perils of infatuation. Aramis’ absurd blushes come from a love fuelled by absence, and by the constant fear of losing the fragile attention of his never seen lady.

 

Milady de Winter is the self-conscious epitome of beauty in a she-demon (and, incidentally, a character the Dumas disciple Perez-Reverte has transplanted whole into the excellent ‘The Fencing Master’, and the not so excellent Captain Alatriste). Curiously, and I dare say feminists would have noticed this, if she was a man and therefore able to use her considerable skills towards plying a sword, she would be another admirable friend/foe like the Duke, the Cardinal, or even the nemesis ‘Man from Meung’ – her right hand man, utterly complicit in her evil, but ultimately D’Artagnan’s friend after a few gentlemanly near-death exchanges.

 

I haven’t given much time here to how well or poorly written the book is, and, frankly, I’m not in the mood for that sort of analysis today (word is crashing constantly: newer computer with office 2007, but less reliable to do the exact same job. Microsoft, a pox upon thee). All I’ll offer for the moment is that while Dumas can be verbose at times, his characters and world are so rich and vibrant that this is a minor thing.

 

February 2009