You need to read this book.
The movies are so weak in comparison, even the Douglas Fairbanks version.
Alexandre Dumas isn’t limited by the two dimensions of the silver screen. He shows us a very real, harsh world in 4D (time is always the fourth dimension) and then describes with camera-like clarity the complex interactions among the very human men and women who live there.
None of these people are saints, or even particularly humane, and most seem to be afflicted with mental illness of various sorts, but they keeping going anyway.
Especially, Dumas gives us one of the most likable and badass fictional characters ever – d’Artagnan – who is much more famous than the real-life Musketeer he was based on.
I think Dumas put a lot of himself into d’Artagnan – they were both sons of impoverished aristocrats and yet made it to the top of Parisian society.
It’s also a very exciting tale. You see, Dumas liked money. He had already discovered that newspaper serializations of his work were quite profitable, so he also made The Three Musketeers a character-driven page-turner that kept readers coming back for more between March and July of 1844.
That’s right – it’s old, it’s French and it’s very long. So was Les Vampires, and that was a lot of fun.
Just read The Three Musketeers, if you can get hold of a copy that hasn’t had the sex, violence, chauvinism, Protestant-bashing and occasional cruelty bowdlerized out of it. (I haven’t read Richard Pevear’s 2006 translation, but it comes highly recommended all around – unfortunately, the excerpts below of necessity come from one of the more stilted English versions.)
Sure, the plot is familiar: “A young swordsman comes to Paris and faces villains, romance, adventure and intrigue with three Musketeer friends” (source: more than one IMDb plot summary for “Three Musketeers” movies).
However, Alexandre Dumas turns that simple idea into a satisfying thriller and action adventure story that still works for today’s readers.
D’Artagnan (who’s actually just a wannabe Musketeer) is the hero, of course. We first meet him in the town of Meung during the story’s opening pages:
A young man–we can sketch his portrait at a dash. Imagine to yourself a Don Quixote of eighteen; a Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses; a Don Quixote clothed in a woolen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure; face long and brown; high cheek bones, a sign of sagacity; the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected, even without his cap – and our young man wore a cap set off with a sort of feather; the eye open and intelligent; the nose hooked, but finely chiseled. Too big for a youth, too small for a grown man, an experienced eye might have taken him for a farmer’s son upon a journey had it not been for the long sword which, dangling from a leather baldric, hit against the calves of its owner as he walked, and against the rough side of his steed when he was on horseback.
For our young man had a steed which was the observed of all observers. It was a Bearn pony, from twelve to fourteen years old, yellow in his hide, without a hair in his tail, but not without windgalls on his legs, which, though going with his head lower than his knees, rendering a martingale quite unnecessary, contrived nevertheless to perform his eight leagues a day. Unfortunately, the qualities of this horse were so well concealed under his strange-colored hide and his unaccountable gait, that at a time when everybody was a connoisseur in horseflesh, the appearance of the aforesaid pony at Meung – which place he had entered about a quarter of an hour before, by the gate of Beaugency – produced an unfavorable feeling, which extended to his rider.
There is no doubt whatsoever that despite his obvious disadvantages d’Artagnan is going to end up owning the hard town of Meung, where people will riot on you if they don’t like your “wheels,” or he’ll die trying.
He doesn’t die. Indeed, basically the rest of the book is how this remarkable youth/man faces down and changes the world and then grows up.
Milady de Winter almost thwarts him, though. She’s the villain, and the most dangerous challenge d’Artagnan will ever face. She lets him sleep with her but never ever lets him win.
Milady is where the movies and the book really diverge. Modern versions make Cardinal Richelieu the villain and only allow Milady either to be nasty in a sexy sort of way or a tool and a victim. This really waters down the story as well as infringing on a woman’s basic right to be evil, as Milady de Winter most certainly is.
Cardinal Richelieu, while the most politically powerful bad guy in The Three Musketeers, exists beyond d’Artagnan’s reach. Milady, however, fits perfectly into the young man’s world. She’s also as wicked as our hero is good, and the story turns into quite a contest between them.
Then there is an amazing plot twist, which none of the films mentions because its denouement is quite shocking.
Here she is in action:
…[T]his woman was young and beautiful; and her style of beauty struck him more forcibly from its being totally different from that of the southern countries in which d’Artagnan had hitherto resided. She was pale and fair, with long curls falling in profusion over her shoulders, had large, blue, languishing eyes, rosy lips, and hands of alabaster.
The eyes of Milady darted such flashes that although [her brother-in-law Lord de Winter] was a man and armed before an unarmed woman, he felt the chill of fear glide through his whole frame. However, he continued all the same, but with increasing warmth: “Yes, I can very well understand that after having inherited the fortune of my brother it would be very agreeable to you to be my heir likewise; but know beforehand, if you kill me or cause me to be killed, my precautions are taken. Not a penny of what I possess will pass into your hands. Were you not already rich enough–you who possess nearly a million? And could you not stop your fatal career, if you did not do evil for the infinite and supreme joy of doing it? Oh, be assured, if the memory of my brother were not sacred to me, you should rot in a state dungeon or satisfy the curiosity of sailors at Tyburn. I will be silent, but you must endure your captivity quietly. In fifteen or twenty days I shall set out for La Rochelle with the army; but on the eve of my departure a vessel which I shall see depart will take you hence and convey you to our colonies in the south. And be assured that you shall be accompanied by one who will blow your brains out at the first attempt you make to return to England or the Continent.”
Milady listened with an attention that dilated her inflamed eyes.
“Yes, at present,” continued Lord de Winter, “you will remain in this castle. The walls are thick, the doors strong, and the bars solid; besides, your window opens immediately over the sea. The men of my crew, who are devoted to me for life and death, mount guard around this apartment, and watch all the passages that lead to the courtyard. Even if you gained the yard, there would still be three iron gates for you to pass. The order is positive. A step, a gesture, a word, on your part, denoting an effort to escape, and you are to be fired upon. If they kill you, English justice will be under an obligation to me for having saved it trouble. Ah! I see your features regain their calmness, your countenance recovers its assurance. You are saying to yourself: ‘Fifteen days, twenty days? Bah! I have an inventive mind; before that is expired some idea will occur to me. I have an infernal spirit. I shall meet with a victim. Before fifteen days are gone by I shall be away from here.’ Ah, try it!”
Milady, finding her thoughts betrayed, dug her nails into her flesh to subdue every emotion that might give to her face any expression except agony.
Lord de Winter continued: “The officer who commands here in my absence you have already seen, and therefore know him. He knows how, as you must have observed, to obey an order–for you did not, I am sure, come from Portsmouth hither without endeavoring to make him speak. What do you say of him? Could a statue of marble have been more impassive and more mute? You have already tried the power of your seductions upon many men, and unfortunately you have always succeeded; but I give you leave to try them upon this one. PARDIEU! if you succeed with him, I pronounce you the demon himself.”
He went toward the door and opened it hastily.
“Call Mr. Felton,” said he. “Wait a minute longer, and I will introduce him to you.”
There followed between these two personages a strange silence, during which the sound of a slow and regular step was heard approaching. Shortly a human form appeared in the shade of the corridor, and the young lieutenant, with whom we are already acquainted, stopped at the threshold to receive the orders of the baron.
“Come in, my dear John,” said Lord de Winter, “come in, and shut the door.”
The young officer entered.
“Now,” said the baron, “look at this woman. She is young; she is beautiful; she possesses all earthly seductions. Well, she is a monster, who, at twenty-five years of age, has been guilty of as many crimes as you could read of in a year in the archives of our tribunals. Her voice prejudices her hearers in her favor; her beauty serves as a bait to her victims; her body even pays what she promises–I must do her that justice. She will try to seduce you, perhaps she will try to kill you. I have extricated you from misery, Felton; I have caused you to be named lieutenant; I once saved your life, you know on what occasion. I am for you not only a protector, but a friend; not only a benefactor, but a father. This woman has come back again into England for the purpose of conspiring against my life. I hold this serpent in my hands. Well, I call you, and say to you: Friend Felton, John, my child, guard me, and more particularly guard yourself, against this woman. Swear, by your hopes of salvation, to keep her safely for the chastisement she has merited. John Felton, I trust your word! John Felton, I put faith in your loyalty!”
“My Lord,” said the young officer, summoning to his mild countenance all the hatred he could find in his heart, “my Lord, I swear all shall be done as you desire.”
Milady received this look like a resigned victim; it was impossible to imagine a more submissive or a more mild expression than that which prevailed on her beautiful countenance. Lord de Winter himself could scarcely recognize the tigress who, a minute before, prepared apparently for a fight.
“She is not to leave this chamber, understand, John,” continued the baron. “She is to correspond with nobody; she is to speak to no one but you–if you will do her the honor to address a word to her.”
“That is sufficient, my Lord! I have sworn.”
“And now, madame, try to make your peace with God, for you are judged by men!”
Milady let her head sink, as if crushed by this sentence. Lord de Winter went out, making a sign to Felton, who followed him, shutting the door after him.
One instant after, the heavy step of a marine who served as sentinel was heard in the corridor–his ax in his girdle and his musket on his shoulder.
Milady remained for some minutes in the same position, for she thought they might perhaps be examining her through the keyhole; she then slowly raised her head, which had resumed its formidable expression of menace and defiance, ran to the door to listen, looked out of her window, and returning to bury herself again in her large armchair, she reflected.
She seduces Felton and escapes – she is truly the Devil incarnate, as the baron says. D’Artagnan has finally met his match…and then, plot twist!
If I haven’t convinced you yet that this book is worth reading, just take a look at its author:
You might get nervous if he was sitting nearby on public transport, but don’t worry – Alexandre Dumas, as a Haitian-French aristocrat, had a credit line high enough so that he didn’t have to bother with public transport.
Dumas just looks like someone who was a lot of fun at parties, doesn’t he? You know a story told by him is going to be very entertaining.
However, there’s still one more thing to address concerning The Three Musketeers.
The movies turn this tale into a series of sword fights, but as Dumas tells it, d’Artagnan, while a bold and skilled fighter, uses his head more often than his sword.
After all, Dumas wasn’t a swordsman and couldn’t speak with any authority so he did what all writers do – threw around some technical terms to get the feel right and then added some drama but mainly used the action to build and show off his characters.
Here’s one last excerpt to show how well that all worked out.
D’Artagnan, now in Paris, has managed to run afoul of the city’s three best swordsmen (the titular three Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis). He wants to survive the upcoming duels with them and yet also needs to gain the Musketeers’ admiration because he wants to join the company – he can’t run away.
First we’ll see how D’Artagnan achieves his goal of survival; next, let’s watch him earn his rep and then wriggle his way into the ‘teers.
D’Artagnan … was not an ordinary man; therefore, while repeating to himself that his death was inevitable, he did not make up his mind to die quietly, as one less courageous and less restrained might have done in his place. He reflected upon the different characters of men he had to fight with, and began to view his situation more clearly. He hoped, by means of loyal excuses, to make a friend of Athos, whose lordly air and austere bearing pleased him much. He flattered himself he should be able to frighten Porthos …. As to the astute Aramis, he did not entertain much dread of him; and supposing he should be able to get so far, he determined to dispatch him in good style or at least, by hitting him in the face, as Caesar recommended his soldiers do to those of Pompey, to damage forever the beauty of which he was so proud.
“But what are you going to fight about, Athos?” asked Aramis.
“Faith! I don’t very well know. He hurt my shoulder. And you, Porthos?”
“Faith! I am going to fight–because I am going to fight,” answered Porthos, reddening.
Athos, whose keen eye lost nothing, perceived a faintly sly smile pass over the lips of the young Gascon as he replied, “We had a short discussion upon dress.”
“And you, Aramis?” asked Athos.
“Oh, ours is a theological quarrel,” replied Aramis, making a sign to d’Artagnan to keep secret the cause of their duel.
Athos indeed saw a second smile on the lips of d’Artagnan.
“Indeed?” said Athos.
“Yes; a passage of St. Augustine, upon which we could not agree,” said the Gascon.
“Decidedly, this [d’Artagnan] is a clever fellow,” murmured Athos.
… [Just before the duels start, the Cardinal’s guards, commanded by Jussac, show up and try to arrest all four men.]
Athos, Porthos, and Aramis instantly drew near one another, while Jussac drew up his soldiers.
This short interval was sufficient to determine d’Artagnan on the part he was to take. It was one of those events which decide the life of a man; it was a choice between the king and the cardinal – the choice made, it must be persisted in. To fight, that was to disobey the law, that was to risk his head, that was to make at one blow an enemy of a minister more powerful than the king himself. All this young man perceived, and yet, to his praise we speak it, he did not hesitate a second. Turning towards Athos and his friends, “Gentlemen,” said he, “allow me to correct your words, if you please. You said you were but three, but it appears to me we are four.”
“But you are not one of us,” said Porthos.
“That’s true,” replied d’Artagnan; “I have not the uniform, but I have the spirit. My heart is that of a Musketeer; I feel it, monsieur, and that impels me on.”
“Withdraw, young man,” cried Jussac, who doubtless, by his gestures and the expression of his countenance, had guessed d’Artagnan’s design. “You may retire; we consent to that. Save your skin; begone quickly.”
D’Artagnan did not budge.
The heart of the young Gascon beat as if it would burst through his side–not from fear, God be thanked, he had not the shade of it, but with emulation; he fought like a furious tiger, turning ten times round his adversary, and changing his ground and his guard twenty times. Jussac was, as was then said, a fine blade, and had had much practice; nevertheless it required all his skill to defend himself against an adversary who, active and energetic, departed every instant from received rules, attacking him on all sides at once, and yet parrying like a man who had the greatest respect for his own epidermis.
This contest at length exhausted Jussac’s patience. Furious at being held in check by one whom he had considered a boy, he became warm and began to make mistakes. D’Artagnan, who though wanting in practice had a sound theory, redoubled his agility. Jussac, anxious to put an end to this, springing forward, aimed a terrible thrust at his adversary, but the latter parried it; and while Jussac was recovering himself, glided like a serpent beneath his blade, and passed his sword through his body. Jussac fell like a dead mass.
The [victorious three Musketeers and d’Artagnan] walked arm in arm, occupying the whole width of the street and taking in every Musketeer they met, so that in the end it became a triumphal march. The heart of d’Artagnan swam in delirium; he marched between Athos and Porthos, pressing them tenderly.
“If I am not yet a Musketeer,” said he to his new friends, as he passed through the gateway of M. de Treville’s hotel, “at least I have entered upon my apprenticeship, haven’t I?”
Well, all these excerpts have made this a very long post.
Suffice to say, you need to read The Three Musketeers – here’s the last and greatest reason why.
It has one of the best endings ever.
Strong readers weep along with d’Artagnan when Athos tells him, “You are young…and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances.”
That won’t make any sense until you’ve read the whole thing. Enjoy!
Categories: Thursday Lit