Friday, November 08, 2013

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (Revisited)

My History with The Three Musketeers and why I’m Re-Reading It
          Like most boys, I was fascinated with stories of sword-fighting and swashbuckling and adventure, so naturally I wanted to read The Three Musketeers.  Our school library had a copy, and I tried to read it several times before I was ready.
            I first attempted it in 2nd grade.  I brought the book home from school, and tried to read it under the supervision of our babysitter.  Even though she tried to explain to me what was happening as we read it, I just wasn’t old enough to understand the story yet.  We got about 2 chapters into it, and then we just gave up.
            But, around 6th grade, I gave the book another try, and found that not only could I read it, I could read it easily.  And what’s more, it was remarkably fun to read.
            One always suspects the classics of being dry and boring, but once I had reached about a 6th grade reading level I found that this book was anything but dry and boring.  In fact it was remarkably fast paced and addictive, filled with adventure, intrigue, and surprising plot twists.
            Once I finished The Three Musketeers, I was hungry for more, and eager to move onto the sequel. 
            Unfortunately, however, my school library did not have the sequel.  Neither did my local library.
            My mother drove me to the bookstore in the mall, but they did not have the sequel in stock either.  So my mother inquired at the front desk about ordering a copy.  The clerk looked the book up on the computer, and then informed us that the book was no longer in print, and so it was impossible to order.
            And so that was that.  I gave up on The Three Musketeers series and moved onto other books.
            Of course looking back now, I’m sure the book would have been available somewhere if I (or the booksellers) had had the tenacity to track it down.  It is, of course, a classic work of literature.  But I was only 12 at the time, and when I was told the book was not available, I did not argue.

            In the years since, however, I’ve run into several people who have had no trouble in tracking down all the sequels to The Three Musketeers.  My friend Dean, for example, has been recommending the series to me for several years now (somehow he must have had access to these books as a child.)
            Also, in a sign of how popular these books are internationally, I’ve had friends from all over the world who have recommended the whole series to me.  In Australia, I had an Iranian classmate who told me that as a young girl she had read and loved the whole Three Musketeers series in Persian.  More recently, a Vietnamese friend told me she had read the whole series in Vietnamese, and she also said it remained one of her favorite series from childhood.
            And so, the past few years, whenever I go into a bookstore I keep my eyes peeled for Twenty Years After.
            I still have yet to find it.
            Most bookstores only have the original Three Musketeers in stock. Sometimes they will also have The Man in the Iron Mask (the last book in The Three Musketeers series), but I have yet to find any of the middle books. 
            (Assuming the bookstore sales correlate with the reading habits of the general public, this must mean a large amount of people are skipping all the middle books and going directly to The Man in the Iron Mask.)

            However, in this day and age it has never been easier to track down books via the Internet.  I suspect I could easily track down a copy of Twenty Years After (A) via, but as I’m living in Cambodia, where the mail service is unreliable, I resorted to another measure.
            Since all of these books have long since passed into the public domain, they are all available for free online.    I happen to prefer a paper copy, but fortunately for me cheap printing is readily available in Cambodia.  At a corner print shop just down the street, I was able to get the whole book printed for just 1 cent a page—which ended up being only about $8 (about what I would have paid for a paperback copy anyway).

            And so, I decided now was as good as time as any to return to The Three Musketeers series, and read the sequels I had always intended to read as a child.  I had the corner printer’s shop print me out the Gutenberg Project copy of Twenty Years After, and set to work on this.  (For the free online Gutenberg Project copy of Twenty Years After, click HERE).

            As far as I can remember, I was around 12 when I first read The Three Musketeers.  And so it would seem fitting that I now find myself reading Twenty Years After about twenty years after I read the original.  I mentioned this to a friend and he laughed and said I had done the timing just about perfectly (well, 20 + 3 years anyway).
            But actually, even though the events in Twenty Years After take place 20 years after the events in the original novel, the reader is not meant to take a long break between books. Twenty Years After was published only one year after The Three Musketeers, and it assumes all the events of The Three Musketeers are all still fresh in the reader’s mind.  There are several references to the events and characters of the first book (not only major characters, but also minor characters).  And, without giving too much away, several plot twists in Twenty Years After revolve around characters from the original Three Musketeers appearing in unexpected places.

            Initially I had hoped that I could just pick right up where I had left off, but as I read Twenty Years After, I began to realize that so many of the plot points were references to the original Three Musketeers, and since I was not remembering half of these references, I was not getting the whole experience of this book.
            And so, I went back to the print shop, and had them print out the original Three Musketeers (Project Gutenberg Link HERE) which I went back and re-read. 
            As always when you re-read something from childhood, I found that parts of the book I remembered very clearly, parts I had forgotten entirely, and some parts I had half forgotten, but re-reading them jogged my memory enough to call forth misty half-forgotten reminisces.  “Ah, so that’s where I had originally read that,” I thought to myself on several occasions.

Why I’m Reviewing this Book
            I originally started this book review project with the idea of only reviewing books that were new to me.  I do not generally review books that I re-read.
            However, when I first tried to write my thoughts on Twenty Years After, I found that I had a hard time separating my thoughts on the sequel from my thoughts on the series.  There are a number of things that can be said about the writing style, characters, and history that apply to both Twenty Years After and the original Three Musketeers.  Eventually I decided it would be easier to divide my thoughts into two separate reviews rather than to try and cram everything into one post.
            I’ll use this review not so much to talk about The Three Musketeers in isolation, but instead to talk about things I noticed in common to both books.

Some General Comments About The Series
          Right, well the first thing to say about these books is they are not short.  The Three Musketeers is about 600 pagers, and Twenty Years After clocks in at almost 700 pages, meaning that both books combined equals a reading project equivalent to getting through War and Peace.

            However, the books are so fun to read that the length is no real complaint.
            In fact these books are so enjoyable that I almost felt like I was cheating when I read them.  Cheating, that is, in so far as it’s supposed to be hard work to get through a classic work of literature.  There are supposed to be long boring descriptions, and a slow moving plot.  And you are supposed to be forced to reflect philosophically on the human condition.
            The Three Musketeers books, however, are nothing but pure and simple adventure stories from start to finish.  And there’s absolutely no philosophical reflection or deep thought.  (At times I was convinced these books slipped into the canon of classic literature by mistake, and it was only a matter of time before the literati realize their mistake and revoke this book’s status.)
            The pacing of the books is surprisingly modern.  Instead of what you might expect from a 19th century novel—a long slow boring build-up to a disappointing climax—you find instead a story where our heroes just dash from one adventure to another.
            I read somewhere that this modern sense of pacing is a result of the books being originally serialized in newspapers.  In order to keep his readers hooked from week to week, Dumas needed to provide a clear sense of action progressing in each installment, and as a result the plot moves along at a fast clip.

            Like another serialized writer Charles Dickens, Dumas often makes overuse of coincidences to move his story along.  No one ever seems to encounter just a random stranger on the road—instead every chance encounter turns out to be a long lost relative, or a secret enemy, or the long lost relative of a secret enemy.
            It’s all terribly contrived of course, but it can also become part of the fun, especially since Dumas will usually tease the mystery out for a few chapters.  Whenever our heroes encounter someone on the road, you immediately start guessing whose long lost secret relative the stranger will turn out to be, and then wait patiently for the big reveal several chapters later.

            Another way in which these books feel surprisingly modern is the way they integrate history and fiction.  I tend to think of historical fiction as something that was only created with the era of mass market paperbacks, but the Three Musketeers series is proof that historical fiction was alive and well back in the 19th century.
            On the historical-fiction continuum, Dumas leans heavily towards the fiction side.  He plays fast and loose with history, so you wouldn’t want to read his books to get an accurate representation of the facts.
            However if you believe that historical fiction can have some educational value by simply introducing important people and events from history, then you can get quite an enjoyable little history education out of these books.  For example, after reading these books I now have an idea of the major figures and conflicts in 17th century France, and if I wish to read further on this subject, I now have at least some basis for doing so.

            As for the characterizations:
            The characters in this book are not as fully life like as say the characters in Tolstoy.  The primary appeal of these books is not the plot, and not characters. 
            The 4 Musketeers (and yes, despite the title, there are indeed 4, not 3 Musketeers) at times come close to being one-note characterizations: D’Artagnan is the young and impatient one, Athos is the quiet one, Porthos is the vain one, and Athos is the spiritual one.
            I say they come close to being one-note characterizations, because although Dumas uses their surface characteristics to distinguish them from each other early on in the narrative, some of them do get added complexity as the story goes on.  D’Artagnan for example, starts out the story with a head full of noble ideas of chivalry and honor and true love, and then becomes increasingly cynical about the way he uses women as the story progresses. 
            As for Athos, his silent demeanor hides a lot of the inner demons he is struggling against.  If you look at his character development over the course of both books, the tragedy of his past initially lead him to be either the must ruthless and cold blooded of the 4 in the first book, but by the second book he appears to have made his peace with his inner demons to become the most mercifully and forgiving of the 4 by the second book.

            Again, I don’t want to overstate things.  Dumas doesn’t offer a full portrait of the human complexity—if you want that you need to look for other authors.  All I’m saying is over the course of the books some of the characters at least evolve from their initial one dimensional characterizations, and there is some interesting moral ambiguity about the characters.

Which brings me to the next section:
The Morality and the Politics

          As I mentioned above, there’s a fair amount of moral ambiguity in the Musketeers.  I don’t think we as the audience are meant to approve of all their actions.
            For example, I don’t think we’re supposed to approve of Athos when he hangs his wife simply because he discovers a fleur-de-lis (W) tattooed on her shoulder.  And I’m fairly sure we’re not supposed to approve of the way D’Artagnan deceives women in order to get them into bed. 
            But it’s hard to tell exactly what the author intended because the author usually refrains from overtly moralizing about what’s happening in the story.  The action will simply be described, and the reader will be left to make their own judgment.

            And then there’s the culture of dueling. Much of the action of the book is made up of the Musketeers fighting duels. But again, Dumas only describes the actions of the duels, he doesn’t comment on the morality.
            Dumas is writing in the 1840s, so he’s describing a period 200 years before his own time.  It’s not clear to me if he’s romanticizing the old 17th century code of chivalry, or if he’s satirizing it, or if he’s simply trying to accurately re-tell the values of the 17th century gentleman without comment either way.  At one time or another, I suspected each of these 3 options, and I’m still somewhat confused about it now. 

            I’ve also done several Internet searches to try and find out what Dumas’s own personal views were, but I have come up with nothing so far.  If anyone out there knows, please enlighten me. 

            There are hints at times that Dumas might be satirizing the code of chivalry as much as he is romanticizing it.  For example, in the book some of the Musketeers support themselves financially by shamelessly trading romantic favors with older, wealthier women.  When he’s relating these parts of the story, Dumas informs the reader that although we might find this behavior disgraceful today, it was regarded as perfectly acceptable for a gentleman of the 17th century.
            Also once or twice Dumas seems to regret the senseless loss of life caused by all this pointless dueling.  For example, after D’Artagnan runs a man through with his sword, he reflects, “Then, casting a glance on the handsome young man, who was scarcely twenty-five years of age, and whom he was leaving in his gore, deprived of sense and perhaps dead, he gave a sigh for that unaccountable destiny which leads men to destroy each other for the interests of people who are strangers to them and who often do not know that they exist.” (from chapter 20).
            But these reflections are few.  For the most part the Musketeers regularly take part in duels with neither themselves nor the narrator giving the practice much reflection.

            The best defense that can be given to the code of chivalry and dueling is that it’s consensual.  It’s not a murder or an assassination—both parties know the risks beforehand, and both parties agree to the fight, and both parties go to considerable trouble to make sure the other person is not unfairly disadvantaged.
            But still, fair fight or not, to be willing to kill a man over an insult strikes me as a callous disregard for human life.
            After all, street thugs are also willing to fight each other to the death over trivial insults, but we don’t romanticize that.  When the lower classes engage in this sort of behavior we call it hooliganism, but when the upper classes do it we call it chivalry.
            Indeed, some of the duels the Musketeers got into were over matters so trivial they almost seemed like quarrelsome children with swords rather than grown men.  And although they upheld their own code of chivalry and politeness, the casual way in which the Musketeers sometimes killed their opponents in duels showed a lack of ability to empathize with others—in other words, the modern definition of a psychopath.
            And what’s worse, the chivalry applies only to people of the noble birth.  When their honor is insulted by someone of the lower classes, the Musketeers feel it is acceptable to just kill the person outright.  (For example, in Twenty Years After, one of the English commoners insults King Charles, and the Musketeers follow the commoner into an alley and just immediately kill him there.  Because he is just a commoner, he is not deemed worthy of being given the chance to defend himself with a sword.)
            Women as well are not given the chance to defend themselves, and are just executed.
            Which bring me to another problem: the classist and sexist undertones of these books.
            There books strike me as classist because there seems to be an unspoken understanding that the servants of the Musketeers come from a different class of human beings and are less important than their masters.  The servants are all portrayed sympathetically (and indeed occasionally perform acts of bravery themselves) but the Musketeers never contemplate treating them as equals.

            As for the sexism, it’s pretty blatant right in the narration.  Several references are made to the weakness of women and the weakness of a woman’s heart.
            For example in chapter 58 when Milady is escaping from prison, the narrator tells us she was terrified specifically because of her feminine gender.  She saw the young officer suspended over the abyss by a ladder of ropes. For the first time an emotion of terror reminded her that she was a woman.
            The French Queen Anne of Austria is also often portrayed as giving into her heart because she was a woman.  In chapter 85 of Twenty Years After, Dumas implies that women are seldom able to make good rulers because they always give into the demands of their lovers.  Two women in history, Dumas says, were able to command their lovers and rule their country, Elizabeth of England and Catherine II of Russia.  But they were the exceptions.

            And then there’s….
The Politics of The Book:
          The Three Musketeers series takes place against the backdrop of the Thirty Years War, one of the most complex and bloodiest conflicts in all of European history (W).  It was primarily a religious war between Catholics and Protestants, but it also combined religious fanaticism with political cynicism as Protestant and Catholic rulers would often side against their religious brethren if they thought it was to their political advantage.
            The modern age (at least in our ideals) values religious toleration and abhors pointless wars which makes it difficult for the modern reader to sympathizes with the values of the 17th Century.  
            In fact, for a modern take on the Thirty Years War, see 1632.  The entire premise of the book is based on how horrified modern Americans would be if they were somehow sent back in time to witness the horrors of the 30 Years War.
            But the Musketeers are not modern Americans sent back into time.  They are men of their time and they take their values from their time.  They think it is an honorable calling to serve in the Musketeers (a form of royal guards). They are devoted unquestionably to their king and country.  They go where the war sends them, with no complaints or introspection, only a burning desire to win glory.
            Modern readers will therefore often find the Musketeers fighting on the wrong side of history.  
            Dumas, of course, was writing in the 1840s, not the 17th Century.  And it’s possible, even probable, that his personal values may have been quite different than those of the historical period he was writing about.  But again, the narrator’s personal opinions are largely absent from the story. 

            One of the few places that the narrator does interject himself is the historical background to the siege of Rochelle (W) at the beginning of chapter 41, but even here it’s hard for me to pin down Dumas’s own views.  One the one hand, he appears to be saying that the Protestant nobility where essentially signing their own death warrant by helping to destroy the Calvinist stronghold of Rochelle, because it lead directly to the end of religious tolerance in France.  But he also seems to be saying it was a political necessity to capture Rochelle because it kept the foreign protestant armies from having a launching base in France.

            Of the important cities given up by Henry IV to the Huguenots as places of safety, there only remained La Rochelle. It became necessary, therefore, to destroy this last bulwark of Calvinism—a dangerous leaven with which the ferments of civil revolt and foreign war were constantly mingling.
            Spaniards, Englishmen, and Italian malcontents, adventurers of all nations, and soldiers of fortune of every sect, flocked at the first summons under the standard of the Protestants, and organized themselves like a vast association, whose branches diverged freely over all parts of Europe.
            La Rochelle, which had derived a new importance from the ruin of the other Calvinist cities, was, then, the focus of dissensions and ambition.  Moreover, it’s port was the last in the kingdom of France open to the English, and by closing it against England, our eternal enemy, the cardinal completed the work of Joan of Arc and the Duc de Guise.
            Thus Bassompierre, who was at once Protestant and Catholic—Protestant by conviction and Catholic as commander of the order of the Holy Ghost….Bassompierre, who had a distinguished command at the siege of La Rochelle, said in charging at the head of several other Protestant nobles like himself, “You will see, gentlemen, that we shall be fools enough to take La Rochelle.”
            And Bassompierre was right.  The cannonade of the Isle of Re presaged to him the dragonnades of the Cevennes; the taking of taking of La Rochelle was the preface to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (W).

            Modern readers will of course sympathize with the right of the French Calvinists to worship in their own way, but this was not the attitude of the 17th century.  And the 4 Musketeers, when ordered to the siege of Rochelle, dutifully follow orders.

            We do at least get one hint that, if left to their own devices, the Musketeers wouldn’t go about persecuting Calvinists of their own volition.  In chapter 47, Porthos says: “Do you know…that to twist that damned Milady’s neck would be a smaller sin than to twist those of these poor devils of Huguenots, who have committed no other crime than singing in French the psalms we sing in Latin.
            However, even after appearing to have realized the war is pointless, the Musketeers do not make their peace with the Calvinists, nor do they resign their commissions.  They appear to view their duty as following orders regardless of their own personal views.
            Dumas seems to be romanticizing the loyalty of the King’s Musketeers who serve their sovereign unquestioningly. In the 19th century, it was perhaps still possibly to romanticize the attitude of the loyal soldier who believed “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die” (to quote from another 19th century work (W)). 
            However after the horrors of the twentieth century, the judgment of posterity has been that soldiers do not operate in a moral vacuum simply because they are following the orders of a superior.  If the war persecuting Calvinists is unjust, then the Musketeers must bear some of the moral responsibility for participating in that war.

            Therefore, having praised these books for being very modern and enjoyable in terms of plotting and pacing, I must say that in my opinion the morality and politics of these books is a problem for modern readers.
            But I believe it is possible to enjoy a book based on its story-telling qualities while still disagreeing with its morals or politics.  For example, I still enjoyed the Flashman series while disagreeing with the pro-imperial themes of the later books. 
            And this is particularly true with books from another time period. I think we’ve all had the experience of enjoying classic books while sometimes recognizing that the morality they espouse is out of step with our modern sensibilities.  (For example, the debate between Phil and myself over whether it is possible for the modern reader to enjoy The Iliad I think it’s possible to still enjoy the epic descriptions of the battles, even though from a modern standpoint that whole war makes no sense at all.)
            The distinction is not entirely effortless.  You do still have to juggle some cognitive dissonance as you try and enjoy the story but simultaneously disagree with its politics, and cheer on the heroes while simultaneously being appalled by their morals.  But it is possible to do, and I have done it here.
            Furthermore, since the Musketeers are by definition an elite royal guard, I suppose you do not go to a book like this expecting to find a story about lower-class heroes resisting royal authority.  The book is called The Three Musketeers, so you get what you pay for—a story about the King’s devoted Musketeer guard.  (As for me personally though, when it comes to swashbuckling heroes I’m much more comfortable with the politics of Robin Hood or Zorro.)
            In Twenty Years After the politics get even more problematic as the Musketeers support the royalist cause against the republicans in the English Civil.  But I’ll deal with Twenty Years After in my next post.


            Afterwards a friend e-mailed me to let me know such a series was already in production (W).  (Apparently all I had to do was ask for it.)  It will be interesting to see how the new series turns out.

* For another bloggers take on The Three Musketeers, see Blogging the Canon [LINK HERE]

* One of my high school teachers once told us that a number of French Calvinist Huguenots settled in the Netherlands to avoid persecution back in France, and that a number of the Dutch Calvinists in West Michigan were actually partly of Huguenot descent.  In fact, he said this was the reason why a number of the Dutch Calvinists in West Michigan have black or brown hair, instead of the blonde hair stereo-typically associated with the Dutch.
            I’m not entirely sure he knew what he was talking about.  (He could go sometimes go off on tangents that lead him outside of his areas of expertise.)  And I’ve never been able to independently confirm this. (My own research has turned up nothing.  For example a Google search on “Dutch + Calvinist + West Michigan+ Huguenot” doesn’t turn up any pages that support his theory.)
            Does anyone out there know if this is true or not?
            If it is true, however, then the fact that French Calvinist blood is part of my community is one more reason why I really should be cheering for the French Calvinist defenders of La Rochelle, and not the Musketeers.

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Dean said...

I hadn't heard about the tv series. If you hear what it's called or when it'll be playing, please let me know.

Joel Swagman said...

At the moment, all I know is what's on wikipedia:

I'll let you know if I hear anything else, I'll pass it along, but you may well find out info before I do.

Dean said...

Regarding the "Dark Dutch": My mom has researched our lineage back a long ways, and her studies have led to a theory that at one time there were Spanish Invaders to the Netherlands area, and that is where the dark dutch(and myself) come from. I can't remember the year, I want to say in the 1400's or 1500's or something. Just another insight for you. :)

Joel Swagman said...

Yes, I believe the Netherlands were part of the Spanish empire during that time, so I guess that would make sense. Interesting, I never thought about the Spanish connection.