If you like historical fiction, romantic adventure, swordfights, and devil-may-care heroes laughing in the face of death, The Three Musketeers is for you. Originally serialized by Alexander Dumas in 1844, this book is the gold standard for swashbuckling adventure. If you haven’t already read it you might have thought that you probably should. You are right.
You’ve probably got a general idea of the story from the many movie versions of the book. Eighteen-year-old d’Artagnan comes to Paris in 1625 to make his fortune by joining the Musketeers, an elite guard particularly loyal to the King. Along the way he makes enemies of agents of Cardinal Richelieu who are plotting against the queen and is befriended by three musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Intrigue, romance and tragedy ensue.
What you probably didn’t get from the movies is the depth of the characters, who are much more interesting as written by Dumas than as usually portrayed on screen.
In addition to its humor and good fellowship, what makes The Three Musketeers fun is its combination of action and character. The action is straightforward and there is plenty of it. As Athos says, why worry about why you are fighting? “Is the king accustomed to give you such reasons? No. He says to you jauntily, ‘Gentlemen, there is fighting going on in Gascony or in Flanders; go and fight,’ and you go there. Why? You need give yourselves no more uneasiness about this.”
But if the action is black and white, the characters are not. D’Artagnan, young and inexperienced, is also ambitious and clever but prone to impulsiveness that puts his life and honor at risk. Athos, although outwardly careless, is subject to brooding depression and obviously has a secret. Aramis is cunning and perpetually on the verge of leaving the musketeers for the church, which he sees as a better path to power. Porthos is simple and courageous but vain. Despite their loyalty to each other, there are complex dynamics pulling each in different directions.
The villains are equally complex. None are completely evil, except for Milady (no real spoiler here). Richelieu is an adversary, but that is more politics than villainy. In the end he does our hero several good turns. Even Rochefort, d’Artagnan’s nemesis, turns out to be not such a bad guy.
And as for the queen, for who so many risk so much . . . well, you can decide for yourself whether she is worth it.
A complex setting
The story is set in a complex political ménage. The king, Louis XIII, is an ineffectual dip who does not particularly like or trust his queen. The Queen of France, Anne of Austria, is Spanish (it’s complicated) and does not much care for the king. She plots with her brother, the King of Spain, against France and is in love with the Duke of Buckingham of England, which is at war with France. This upsets Richelieu, who is possibly himself a spurned lover of the queen and who as the king’s prime minister does not appreciate her conspiring with the enemies of France. Richelieu is the power behind the throne, and as such is resented by Louis, who is embarrassed by his own incompetence.
Into this tangle of loyalties, disloyalties and alliances step the three musketeers and their friend. There is no entirely honorable role for them, which explains Athos’s agnosticism about fighting (although he is at heart a loyal monarchist). In the end they fight against the cardinal (because he is plotting against the queen), for the queen (because that is what gentlemen do), and ultimately for themselves (because they have no choice).
The first half of this book is good-humored adventure and romantic/political intrigue. The second half is darker and loyalties are strained. Political machination is replaced by personal intrigue and our young hero, although Athos credits him with having the longest head among the four of them, makes some questionable decisions. All of which sets the scene for Dumas’ sequel, Twenty Years After. But, more about that in a later column.
Despite the darkness in parts of the book, The Three Musketeers is a fun read and you don’t have to take any political or moral lessons from it unless you want to. There are many editions and translations available and your local library or bookstore is bound to have a copy or two.