THE THREE MUSKETEERS ROMANCES—-FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Alexandre Dumas is one of the great mythmakers of modern Western Literature. The Three Musketeers saga is of course a thrilling tale of adventure known to almost everyone through film if not by firsthand reading, and its over one-hundred film adaptations testify to its grip on the popular imagination. Having read the entire Musketeer saga of D’Artagnan Romances, from the “Three Musketeers” onward to include “Twenty Years After,”The Vicomte de Bragalone,” “Louise de la Valliere” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” I have revised my evaluation of Dumas’ work upward repeatedly.
There is far more to the Musketeers saga than presents itself on first impression. The Three Musketeers is a stirring tale of adventure and of the bonds of “One for All and All for One” brotherhood, but is also a historical epic saga, a macabre chiller, a thriller, a romance, an allegorical quest and even a detective novel. It has all the strengths of classic story-telling. Yet it is more even than that. It is a vast historical canvas not only of French history in the time of Louis XIII and XIV, but also a revisiting of the intertwined links to English history from the Puritan Revolution to the Restoration, similar in its dual focus to Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” and additionally via Dumas’ personal and family history read between the lines, a repersptectiving of later French history through the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration and the First and Second Empires. But even beyond its force as an action adventure and a popular history lesson, the saga is bouyed even further in its instinctive feel for the hopes and fears that lie hidden in the collective unconscious of its public.
For many years I balked at reading the Musketeers saga, put off by both the bulk of the works and the stigma of its “lightweight” escapist-melodramatic action orientation derived from the cinema versions I had seen, and passed it by on the storeshelves, contented with having seen the movie. Finally, out of a “professional interest” in wanting to have authentically read “The World Classics” I decided to give it a try. First of all I experienced what most Dumas readers do, the thrill of being caught up in the hands of a great popular storyteller. To my own surprise I was carried along in the narrative current and eager to go on to the next books of the saga. Later, as I accumulated the historical sweep, vision and perspective of the multi-book epic I was drawn more and more into the historical links with eras of English and American history that still perplexed me, such as the Puritan Revolution and Restoration, Cromwell, the French Revolution, First Empire, Bourbon Restoration, Second Republic and Empire, and even the French contribution to the American Revolution, the history of Haiti, its contradictory participation in the French Revolution and Empire and its later independence under Toussaint L’Ouverture, the forgotten “Second Revolution of the Americas,” all implicated either in the Musketeers saga or by the personal and family history of Dumas himself as the son of a mulatto Haitian-born French General under Napoleon, making Dumas one-fourth black, and his personal participation in the later events of the French Second Republic and Second Empire. In the end I found Dumas an invaluable introduction to these historical periods and dimensions, and for those of you who find the tomes of straight history too soporific a pill to swallow, Dumas has the great advantage of sugar-coating the lesson with action, intrigue and heroic enthusiasm.
Perhaps it would be a useful orientation for potential readers to quickly summarize some of the links of the D’Artagnan saga’s books with some of the prinicpal events of the above history. The D”Artagnan saga begins in the first book, “The Three Musketeers” under the reign of Louis XIII and his queen, Anne of Austria, who comes from the Habsburg dynasty ruling also Spain. The book begins with the youthful D’Artagnan journeying to Paris seeking to enter service of the King as a royal Musketeer. The entanglement in English history and politics become immediately apparant with D’Artagnan’s humiliation en route by “Milady” and Rochfort, both renegade English expatriates in league with the sinister Cardinal Richelieu, and enemies to the beautiful and good Queen Anne. Next, the British prime minister the Duke of Buckingham is found to be desperately in love with Queen Anne, despite looming war between the two nations rooted in the Protestant/Catholic divisions that have plagues all of Europe in addition to the British and French. The most dramatic heroism of the Musketeers in the first book lies in their mission to England in the “Affair of the Diamond Studs” which threatens to bring down Anne, but is happily resolved in through their heroic rescue of her. Later the Musketeers are caught up in Richelieu’s seige of La Rochelle, the Protestant French stronghold allied with the Protestant English. Buckingham, however, is asassinated by a Puritan zealot recruited by the evil “Milady” to prevent his aiding the French Protestant cause.
The intertwining of the histories of the two nations is again emphasized in the second book of the saga, “Twenty Years After” as history fastforwards to the time of the Puritan Revolution in England, and the Musketeers attempt, loyal to all royal causes, but ultimately fail to rescue Charles I from beheading by the Puritan Parliament. Meanwhile, France undergoes its own semi-revolution, the Fronde rebellion, weaker than its English counterpart allying the feudal nobles and the popular masses in resistance to the growing autocratic centrastate evolving under Cardinal Richelieu and later Cardinal Mazerin. Once again the heroes melodramatically struggle against the Machiavellian power of the Cardinals and new agents of evil. Ultimatly the autocratic state prevails in France, culminating with the ultimate autocrat Louis XIV, while in England after the failed republican experiment of Cromwell’s Commonwealth a much weaker sovereign king is restored under Parliamentary supremacy. Again, Dumas does Dickens one better in telling a deeper and more complex “Tale of Two Cities” with dramatic action, political and religious intrigue and influences moving back and forth across the English English channel.
In the third installment, “The Vicomte de Bragalone” time again fastforwards ten more years to 1660, the time of the English Restoration. Here D’Artagnan once again undertakes a critical mission to England, this time to successfully assist the restoration of the Stuart king Charles II, son of the beheaded Charles I. We are now thirty years on from the opening of the saga in the first book, and we see the corrosion and deterioration of the “brotherhood” of the four heroes, in which divergent interests and fates are pulling them apart. The gentle thick giant Porthos has left the Musketeers, married a rich widow and retired to his new estates, dreaming only of acquiring a title of nobility. D’Artagnan has alone continued in the Musketeers, rising to command, but without the promotions and rewards he has aspired to, leaving him despondent enough to quit, though later to be reinstated by a resurgent Louis XIV resolved to draw all power into his personal autocratic control after so many years languishing as the pawn of the Cardinals. Athos has retired to his estate and composes his memoires while sponsoring his son, Raoul, the Vicomte de Bragalone to carry on the family fame to higher levels in Louis XIV’s service. Aramis, however has retired from the Musketeers to take a religious calling, yet is even more ambitious, seeking to become Cardinal himself and even Pope by aiding the king’s adversaries such as the powerful and extravagant Fouquet, which draws him into conflict with his old friend D’Artagnan. “All for One” is slowly warped into “One for One, and the Devil take the Hindmost.” Nonetheless, the brotherhood still persists in the deeper recesses of each man’s heart.
In “Louise de la Valliere” the love of Raoul’s life, Louise, is taken from him by the despotic hand of Louis XIV himself, who sends him on a mission to get him out of the way to—where else?—England!—involving arrangement of the marriage of England’s Charles II’s sister to Messieur, the King’s homosexual brother, all to clear the way for Louis’s courting and keeping Louise. Once again the destinies of the two lands are entwined. Buckingham’s son comes to Paris and causes havoc with his wild love for the intended bride Princess until persuaded back to sanity and his home country by Queen Anne, his dead father’s great love. Louise becomes the long-term mistress of Louis XIV and mother of his illegitimate children, forever breaking Raoul’s heart.
In the final installment of the saga, “The Man in the Iron Mask” Aramis plots the overthrow of Louis XIV and must duel wits with D’Artagnan who remains loyal to the crown. I shall not spoil the ending by revealing the mystery of the plot, but suffice it to say the iron brotherhood of the four Musketeers corrodes and is sundered, each meeting his own end without the others.
Yet our concerns with history do not end with the tale itself, as they continue on with our infatuation with the teller and his life. A century after the saga ends Dumas appears on the scene as the son of a mulatto Napoleonic General fallen into disfavor. Dumas’ the writer’s sympathies are republican, but he has an affection for the trappings and privileges of royalty. His life is caught in the same contradictions as the history of Europe. The French Revolution comes and goes, succeeded by the dictatorship of Napoleon’s First Empire and then the Bourbon restoration. Dumas supports the republican cause, sometimes standing as a liberal candidate, but the Second Republic is overthrown by the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon III. Haiti, the place of his father’s illegitimate birth to a French aristocratic father and black mother, defeats Napoleon’s attempt to reimpose French rule and slavery after the French Revolution had initially abolished it, becomes independent under Toissant L’Overture, the second nation in the Americas after the USA to acheive independence, but sinks into corruption, superstition and despotism, declining from perhaps the richest French colony producing 40% of all Europe’s sugar and 60% of its coffee before the revolution to abject poverty, while the Spanish ratake the eastern half of the island, leaving its revolutionary hopes annihilated and reducing it to chronic poverty and hopelessness. Dumas becomes immensely rich and perhaps the most famous Frenchman in the world, but squanders it all in fast and high living, dying indebted on the eve of the Third Republic and German invasion, having forewarned France of the Prussian threat. A tale indeed of more than two cities!
Stylistically, for those who have looked down on Dumas as a melodramatic action and adventure writer, it is helpful to note that his writing deepens in the psychological complexity and the mature reality of its characters with each new book of the saga, along with his observations of the world and the human condition. While not a great mind in terms of intellectual depth, he reveals himself to have a deep and firm grip on human motivations in the conventional sphere of social ambitions and personal affairs, often with a worldliness and solidity of judgment that leaves more inwardly introspective writers behind in their relative social unsophistication. His books are carefully researched and grounded in mostly accurate history, and he possesses a quite respectable store of scholarship and learning which he weaves into the action of his books. He sustains continuous power in a more extroverted and dramatic sense, reflecting his early origins as a playright, and he never fails to power the narrative forward, like Dickens, with endless characters, turns of plot, dramatic cum melodramatic energy and narrative momentum.
All in all, I highly recommend reading through the several books of the D’Artagnan Romances, both for their enjoyment and for the invaluable history lesson en passant which leaves the reader with a much greater feel for European history and its dynamics of the last three centuries. Dumas’s characters have also acheived the status of popular icons of World Literature and cinema, and in so doing have proven the depth of their appeal and rootedness in the popular collective unconscious not only of France and the West, but of the world as a whole.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in Spiritus Mundi:
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Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved