The three musketeers

The three musketeers / Alexandre Dumas, père

Seeing as how it’s been quite a while since I did something that wasn’t 20th century sf, I figured I’d go back to the classics and take a look at The three musketeers.

Spoiler: it’s not particularly faithful to subsequent adaptations

Brief plot summary

D’Artagnan is a hotheaded would-be musketeer. Armed with an ugly horse, his father’s sword, a letter of recommendation, and instructions from his father to fight as many duels as possible, d’Artagnan leaves his native Gascony and heads for Paris. Adventure, espionage, and “romance” ensue.

So how is it?

It’s wildly underappreciated. The pop culture image of a straightforward swashbuckling story as the four musketeers defend the honor of the queen against the evil Cardinal Richelieu is misleading at best. Dumas’s work is a light-hearted social satire framed by a historical adventure.

What’s interesting to me is how the popular image of the Three musketeers totally ignores the novel’s moral complexity. The heroes are very concerned with matters of honor, but taking a step back and looking at the events from outside their perspective what actually happens here? We discover that one of the heroes attempted to murder his wife to protect his “honor”. The musketeers are fairly abusive to any non-aristocrats. One of them commits a Revenge of the nerds-style rape by deception. One of the major setpieces of the story involves the heroes attempting to cover up the queen’s treason in the name of protecting her honor. The protagonists continuously impose themselves on others and in the end they end up accomplishing very little aside from being responsible for several pointless deaths.

Richelieu, the apparent villain of the piece, is the character who, despite his underhanded methods, appears to have the best interests of the people and the country at heart. Historically, Richelieu was a major figure in the centralization of power in France. In the context of this book, he pretty much “wins” at the end, the heroes’s attempts to prevent his not entirely unreasonable plans having been more annoying than anything.

That being said, the genius of The three musketeers is that it’s also possible to read it completely straight and still enjoy it. It’s a work that doesn’t take itself particularly seriously (the best adaptation is still the 1973 Oliver Reed film and its 1974 sequel where the fight scenes (choreographed by William Hobbs, who most recently did choreography for Game of thrones) are largely slapstick affairs). The fact that the novel is called “The three musketeers” when there are actually four of them for at least half of it is an indication.

I’ve been greeted with scoffs by Literature profs when I say that Dumas’s one of my favorite writers. It’s really a shame that to explain is a pain that they’re truly more than nail-biters.

Recommendation

If they can get past the somewhat antiquated style (depending on the translation) this is a solid recommend to young people being who are told they need to read more “Literary” stuff. That it is sometimes required reading for schools is unfortunate and hampers it somewhat though.

As it’s so old there are a lot of translations out there. I’ve linked the Dover thrift edition above but it’s been a while since I read it in English so I’m honestly not sure which translation to recommend.

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