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The Great Book Adventure: The Three Musketeers – Part One

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"All for one, one for all."

As far as literary one-liners go, that's pretty far up there on the recognition scale. Indeed, the idea of the three musketeers, three compatriots, is one which has permeated the cultural language fairly consistently. How many times has a group of three American friends, usually children, been dubbed such? With that in mind, it has come as something of a surprise to me that the character who is taking the lead in Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers is not even part of the titular triumvirate.

The novel begins as something of a picaresque, with the teenage d'Artagnan setting off from his home in the provinces to become a member of the famed King's Musketeers. After getting past a little introductory trouble, he lands in Paris where he is granted an audience with Monsieur de Tréville, the commander of the musketeers. De Tréville informs d'Artagnan that he cannot become a musketeer without first serving an apprenticeship in a guard unit. Once a spot is found for him, d'Artagnan leaves de Tréville's study, but manages to get himself into duels with three of the most prominent musketeers before he's even found a place to live.

The dueling culture was a vitriolic, bloody and persistent part of manhood, especially in seventeenth century Europe. I had already become familiar with it all after reading Richard Cohen's excellent history of swordsmanship, By the Sword. Coming into The Three Musketeers, I was ready for the sword play, the use of seconds (back-ups), and the isolated meeting places. What I wasn't ready for was just how touchy everyone was, and how easily men got involved in duels.

When d'Artagnan gets himself into his three musketeer duels, all of them start, essentially, over nothing. The duel with Athos is arranged when d'Artagnan bumps into Athos' injured shoulder; they exchange words, and agree to meet behind the Carmes-Deschaux monastery at noon. Not a dozen steps later, d'Artagnan bumps into Porthos and gets caught in his cloak. The two exchange words, and agree to meet behind the Luxembourg gardens at one o'clock. As he walks away from the Musketeer compound, our dashing young hero begins to regret his hot words to a pair of experienced swordsmen. Seeing the third of the group, Aramis, d'Artagnan tries to make friends, but only ends up upsetting him, and, you guessed it, the two exchange words and agree to meet at Monsieur de Tréville's house at two o'clock.

What all of this sets up rather nicely is, of course, d'Artagnan's moment of acceptance into the group. When the time comes for him to meet Athos, the latter has asked Porthos and Aramis to be his seconds in the duel. The overlapping duels are found out, but before a solution can be found, the Cardinal's men show up. The newcomers, apparently because they are bad guys, decide to have it out with the three musketeers. They give d'Artagnan a chance to leave, but he stays and proves his worth to his new compatriots. Even though he still can't become a musketeer, d'Artagnan becomes a friend and comrade in the musketeers' defense of the King.

The Musketeers and the Cardinal's guards are mortal enemies, even though their masters (King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, respectively) are supposed to be working together. This brings up something which I find both intriguing and perplexing. The King and the Cardinal were real people, just as Paris was a real city. As for the rest, d'Artagnan and the musketeers, I'm not sure what to believe. Dumas wrote a preface to the novel explaining how he "happened up on the Memoirs of Monsieur d'Artagnan" while researching the life of Louis XIV. That book, in turn, led him to the "Memoirs of Count de La Fère," which he got permission to print as The Three Musketeers. As a writer, I know what a dishonest lot we can be, especially if it serves the plot, and so I don't believe Dumas' claim for a second. If you do believe it, I suppose it gives the story a slightly more credible air that it might otherwise lack as plain historical fiction. Or, perhaps, Dumas felt it necessary to clothe it in such a way because the King and the Cardinal, two such prominent icons of French history, are living, speaking characters in his book. Whatever his reason, there is no doubt the book is a historical fiction. Just how much is history and how much is fiction remains to be seen.

As of this writing, I am about a quarter of the way through the novel. I must say, there has been more talking than action on the whole, which is not what I expected. From talking to friends who have read Dumas before, especially The Count of Monte Cristo (which was a great movie, by the way), I was looking forward to more cut and thrust than chit-chat. Nevertheless, it has held my attention for 20 chapters, and there seems to be plenty of mystery and adventure still to come.

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About Chris Bancells

  • Martin Marshall

    D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis were indeed all based on real people – rather loosely. Dumas had no interest in historical accuracy and was happy to mess about not only with real events but even the internal chronology of his own works. I believe that books have been published examining the real lives of the men who inspired the musketeer stories. In the meantime, my adice is to enjoy what you read without believing a word of it. I also highly recommend that you persevere with the musketeer cycle after finishing “The Three Musketeers”. “Twenty Years After” and “The Vicomte de Bragelonne” are must reads in my opinion, and it is sad that only “The Three Musketeers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” (which is itself only 1 part of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”) are widely read today.

  • bliffle

    Yes, Dumas intended a fun period romance of the type that has continued to be popular and durable.

    D’Artagnan was a real person and a popular hero in his hometown of Auch, in the southwest, before Dumas’ novel. There’s a prominent statue of him in the town. D’Artagnan was eventually killed in a bar brawl in Copenhagen.

    And, of course, Dumas had a lot of fun with his readers by getting D’Artagnan into 3 duels before lunch. It’s a gentle parody.

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