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The Great Book Adventure: The Three Musketeers – Part Two

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If I’ve learned anything so far in The Great Book Adventure, it’s that expectations will get you absolutely nowhere when reading classic literature. It seems that people will take whatever they want from books and apply them however they want, simply ignoring the parts they don’t like. This can lead the prospective reader far, far astray. Nowhere have I found this more true than in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Take, for example, the Musketeers’ motto: all for one, one for all. I can’t count the number of times I have heard that trumpeted as a theme for unification. It has a nice ring to it and is filled with noble sentiment, and it imbues the musketeers with much the same. The problem, of course, is that it’s only been brought up once in the two-thirds of the book that I’ve read. I’m not sure why, but I always thought they used it as a sort of rallying cry. You know, before each encounter with the Cardinal’s men, they would circle up in a frilly French huddle, put their hands together and cry out “all for one, one for all!” As I read, I keep waiting for that moment, waiting for them to dash into action as a team. Of course, to do that, the four main characters would have to stay together longer than five minutes.

Long about chapter 20, when d’Artagnan and the three musketeers set out on a mission to deliver a letter from the Queen of France to the Duke of Buckingham in London, things looked promising. I thought for sure I was in for a good bit of adventure, with duels and battles along the way. It panned out that way only sort of. There were three attacks, apparently by the Cardinal’s men, but at each one, rather than stand together, they left someone behind. First, Porthos gets sidetracked in a duel, then Aramis gets shot in an ambush and left at a roadside inn, and finally Athos gets accused of being a counterfeiter and is attacked. Each time, d’Artagnan leaves his friends to fate, dashing off with whatever members of the dwindling party are left to follow him. By the time he makes the crossing to England, it is only his ever present servant Planchet who is still with him. This is a long way from the ideal of brotherly togetherness I came into this book expecting, but as I said, expectations will get you nowhere in classic literature. This, I find, is becoming more and more true as it relates specifically to d’Artagnan.

I had high hopes for this young musketeer wanna-be. I thought for sure, under the tutelage of his more experienced friends, d’Artagnan would become a first class hero. Not so much. Instead, what I’ve gotten the last three hundred pages or so is a Machiavellian character who is only growing in manipulative power and ability. After his mistress disappears with a suggestion of violence, he moves into the bed of a chambermaid to a powerful lady. Even as he professes his new love for Kitty, he is plotting his move into her employer’s bed, ignoring the fact that Milady (as she’s called) is a duplicitous servant of Cardinal Richelieu bent on using d’Artagnan for her own purposes. When Milady tries to kill him, he turns around and puts Kitty in danger by making her help him escape. All of these romantic machinations aside, d’Artagnan has also managed to gather secrets about each of the three musketeers which no one else knows. While he hasn’t put them to any malicious use yet, he seems content to bide his time and use the information to his advantage when it suits him best. Forgetting expectations for a moment, none of this makes me particularly fond of Dumas’ main character and I am fervently hoping this young Gascon prat gets his just deserts, or at least learns something virtuous from all this scheming.

As of this writing, I am sitting at chapter 40, with a third of the book to go. D’Artagnan is walking into what is surely a Cardinal trap and the four friends are set to go to war on the following day. There is certainly enough leg room for Dumas to redeem his characters’ many moral failings, but it would seem like a drastic departure for him to do so. Throughout, he has persisted in excusing their behavior as part of their times, noting that it is different from his own. This smacks of a cop-out and doesn’t hold much water for me as a reader. Nevertheless, I am committed to the book and it has, if nothing else, held my attention. Perhaps, with the beginning of war, the nobler virtues in these men will rise to the top and save us all, but I’m not going to expect too much.

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