There exist in the world authors from previous eras whose characters have become so ubiquitous in the popular culture that they undergo a strange kind of infantalizing. The rather serious philosophical questions Robert Louis Stevenson posed about mind-body duality and evolution are passed over in favor of the monster story of wicked Mr. Hyde. Jonathan Swift’s venomous satires of English life are reduced to the tale of an island of little people and an island of giants.
And even as I knew this, I steadfastly avoided reading the works of Alexandre Dumas pere, considering his most well known work, The Three Musketeers
, as nothing more than an early proto-swashbuckling Saturday matinee serial. Plus, there was the length consideration. Dumas wrote by the line and it shows, at least in the heft of any one particular volume of his work. A typical Dumas can make Dostoyevsky look like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Novel. And who wants to sit through a long, long, loooonnnng children’s adventure tale?
Well, as it turns out, I do. Or rather, I don’t.
Because Dumas, while he’s fun, breathtaking, ludicrous, exciting — in short, all the things too often lacking in “serious fiction” — is anything but a kid’s writer. True, even though there exist children’s versions of his novels with all the alluded to naughty bits excised (or even unexpurgated texts marketed at children); true, even if he is widely considered by many scholars as no more than a hack penny a line scribbler who worked with collaborators like an assembly line, incapable of serious literary quality fiction.
The basics of the plot are relatively well known: young hot-headed D’Artagnan meets with and challenges each of the Three Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis; the three, impressed by his bravery and quick-thinking, take him under their wing; meanwhile, the Queen of France, engaged in a never-consummated affair with the Duke of Buckingham, is under the watchful eye of Cardinal Richelieu and his spies; most formidable of his spies are a team made up of a shadowy figure referred to only as the Mysterious One and Milady; and through various means and machinations, our four heroes are drawn into a contest against Richelieu on the side of the Queen.
Now, over time, the term “Musketeer” has obtained some gloss of nobility, chivalry, and honor, having become stripped of its mere military title aspect. It is as if a book written over a hundred years ago entitled The Three Corporals had elevated that rank to nobility. We clearly discover throughout the book that most of the musketeers are bullies and ruffians, even our heroes are not without their bad points. Still more curious about this name is that most of these men are swordsmen, who don’t seem to ever partake of any “muskets” or the like. It is a rare moment when our heroes come into contact with gunpowder.
None of which matters, because we are quickly drawn under Dumas’ spell. His characters are all distinctly drawn, Aramis with his holy orders and quiet philosophy, Athos with his distinguished paternalism and deep sorrow, and Porthos with his loud and brash manner and his vanity. Likewise the enemies they are up against, the smoothly evil and calculating Richelieu; the seductive, brilliant hellcat that is Milady, a stronger female in literature nowhere to be found; and the dangerous Comte de Rochefort, a shadowy presence of malevolence.
It becomes clear rather quickly too that Dumas had an extraordinary gift for the cliffhanger style and the miraculous escape, double-crosses and triple-crosses filling out the bill all the way. Mistaken identities and figures hidden in cloaks and masks populate the novel in every shadow, every corner, and every darkened hallway. Intrigues always just out of arm’s length draw both the characters and the readers along deeper and deeper into court secrets and competing factionalism.
Probably no greater advertising for the Machiavellian schemes of Cardinal Richelieu ever existed or was more broadly bruited about than this novel. At every turn, at the moment when the Musketeers or their allies think that they may have gotten the best of the Cardinal, like an octopus, his tentacles are everywhere at once, grasping at every likelihood. His agents are in every corner of the country, his name whispered fearfully by every innkeeper and tavern wench, the King in his pocket. He is almost evenly matched by his agent Milady, more cunning than a snake. The scenes in which she seduces her jailer Felton are some of the most exciting and suspenseful in the novel, and next to nothing happens in every one.
Thus it is that the author must manage pretty fast footwork for his heroes if they are to have any hope of outwitting the Cardinal. Dumas’ plots hinge on that accepted notion of coincidence writ large across the story where evil designs are overheard in casual conversations, where a figure sighted in the distance just happens to be who D’Artagnan wants it to be, where every twist of the story fits neatly into every other. Novels are no longer written with this tailored manner and it’s easy to see how too many of them could eventually become stylistically clichéd. Taken every so often, Dumas’ novels, though, are a cure for what ails you when the reading doldrums strike and every book selected seems tedious and vague.
Yet all of this sounds distinctly like good fun for younger readers. And it is. That’s the strange magic of it. At no point while reading The Three Musketeers does anything happen that isn’t entirely kid acceptable while there is much here for adults. Even the scene in which D’Artagnan seduces Milady is done in such delicate style that it achieves its goal of sophistication and sultriness without dropping overt hints, the kind prevalent in any PG rated film these days. And at no point while reading The Three Musketeers do you, as an adult, feel like the book is talking down to you or cheating you in any way, all the while you’re having a grand time.
Which is the strange magic of Dumas. A six hundred page novel passes in barely the time it takes shorter books to lose your attention near the middle. The cliffhanger style chapter endings pull you along ever deeper into the book. Even though I was listening to an audiobook most of the time, I had to pull down a copy off my shelf, never before cracked open, and read ahead after hours. It even lit a fire under me to read and listen to more Dumas, propelling me to the next book, the nearly twice as long Count of Monte Cristo
. Happy adventuring awaits should you follow this path.