The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
When I was little, my favorite song was “All For Love”, the theme song from Disney’s 1993 adaptation of The Three Musketeers. This summer, I actually watched the film, which was so thin and hilarious that I was surprised it got a theatrical release. (Music is great, though.) But at one point, my brother asked me if a scene was faithful to the book, which I have never read. I resolved to correct that oversight, and it was the first book I picked up as the semester started. (Okay, first book for personal reading.)
The Three Musketeers opens in 1625, when young Gascon D’Artagnan sets out from the southwest of France towards Paris, hoping to make a name for himself as one of the King’s Musketeers. But D’Artagnan seems to have a knack for starting off every relationship on the wrong foot; with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, three of the King’s Musketeers, things are quickly resolved and they become the best of friends, but with Rochefort and Milady de Winter, two of Cardinal Richelieu’s agents, things take a turn for the worse. As the four men seek to protect and serve the King, the Cardinal and especially Milady de Winter seek to stop them at every turn.
Like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers delivers a wonderfully swashbuckling adventure with a bit of a melancholic aftertaste (in the best of ways). There’s enough court intrigue, duels, and seductions to fill several books, and, best of all, there’s something wonderfully wry about Dumas’ voice regaling us with this fanciful tale–after D’Artagnan dreamily makes it back home unmolested at three in the morning in Paris, he notes that clearly, lovers and drunkards are under some sort of divine protection. While I would never go so far as to call it camp, it’s certainly high drama. Each character is vividly and broadly sketched; eager, determined D’Artagnan, calm, brittle Athos, vain, academic Aramis, and Porthos, a womanizer and gourmand of the highest degree. But I don’t want to make it sound as if things are flat; they’re all human, if a bit idealized. Athos gets a lot of character development and even Milady, whose colleagues joke that she’s in league with Satan, gets several chapters to herself as she plots her way out of a seemingly hopeless situation. This is even reflected with how relationships resolve themselves after the novel is done; once a enemy, not always an enemy.
The English translation of The Three Musketeers is masterful. While I’ve never read Dumas in the original French, there is a lot of wordplay that could have been lost in a poorer translation, but Jacques Le Clercq does a fantastic job–frustratingly, I can’t seem to ferret out when he created this translation, but it was after Dumas’ death. The prose is sparkling with Dumas’ wit, which helps during the more meandering sections, and whenever a moment requires French, Le Clercq brings it out with a helpful translation integrated right in that flows beautifully. There’s even a moment when Aramis uses the informal ‘you’ over the formal ‘you’ that he apparently uses the entire book; Le Clercq renders it in French and briefly gives an explanation as to why it’s a moment. I’m always excited to see translations as lovingly rendered as this one is.
The Three Musketeers was serialized in the magazine Le Siècle over four months in 1844, and it shows. The best thing I can compare it to is a television series–while there’s something happening each installment, not everything is devoted towards resolving the major story arc of the Musketeers struggling against Milady, as in a more modern adventure. This lends to a meandering feel that is happily warded off by the lovability of the main characters, especially the earnest and naïve D’Artagnan, the dastardliness of our villains, and Dumas’ wit, be it in scenes where Milady and D’Artagnan privately express disdain for each other while publicly expressing love or Porthos making a particularly good jab. While I’m quite enamored of the main story, I think my favorite episode occurs when Athos, seeing that the four of them require a safe place to carry a delicate conversation, leads them all on to eat breakfast in contested enemy territory–which ends in plenty of dead enemy soldiers. I wonder what it would be like to just read a chapter a day for quite some time; judiciously edited (there is plenty of womanizing, adultery, and death afoot), it might even make a great bedtime story for the kids. But if you’re a person who needs a tighter focus or plot, be forewarned.
Bottom line: The Three Musketeers, like its sister novel The Count of Monte Cristo, offers a grand swashbuckling adventure with a bit of a bittersweet aftertaste–in the best of ways, of course. The leads are lovable, the villains dastardly, and the wit sparkling. But be forewarned; since it was published as a serialized novel, it occasionally feels like it’s meandering, although it’s always entertaining.
I rented this book from the public library.