Tuesday, March 9, 2010

And All for One

I bought abridged versions of the Three Musketeers and the Adventures of Robin Hood when I was eight. Both I ended up putting aside with a queasy feeling after reading them, because they were so obviously not children’s books (being influenced by Disney). The Three Musketeers ends with murder, a trial by peers and a gruesome execution. Robin Hood ends, not with a fox marrying his lady love, but with an old, wounded outlaw begging sanctuary from a convent, bled to death in the night by a vengeful prioress.

So it time to revisit d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis as an adult. The Penguin Classic Deluxe edition was the obvious choice as 1) it was attractive with a marvelous cover by Tom Gauld and 2) it was translated by Richard Pevear who is one half of my favorite translating team (he and his wife Lara Volokhonsky translated Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, along with many other works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Dumas.)

Thanks to the frequent cinematic adaptations, nearly everyone knows the plot without having read the books. In a time of shifting loyalties and political intrigue of seventeenth century France, a young impressionable, hot-headed provincial, d’Artagnan, comes to Paris with the ambition of becoming a musketeer. After – what else? – a duel or two, our young quixotic hero befriends three musketeers: Athos, the silent deep-thinker sunk into a pervasive mysterious melancholy; Porthos, larger than life, lover of finery and women; and Aramis, the dreamy, poetic temporary musketeer longing to join the priesthood. Of course the novel is called the Three Musketeers not Four, and it is the three friends, their motivations, secret histories and mythic natures, which exert a strong fascination upon both d’Artagnan and the reader. The four friends fight for the King, defend themselves against the Cardinal, attempt to rescue damsels in distress, survive wars and assassinations, and generally run around the countryside in a great hurry.

As a child, I was impressed by the motivation of “honor,” by the knightly virtues, by the desperate claims love exerts in courtly romances. Now, re-reading it in its entirety, I am aware of its ridiculousness. These are characters which take themselves and each other very seriously; but with a love of wit and humor, they keep their spirits up with mockery. I realized that I had missed the farcical nature of the Three Musketeers. This is a swaggering book about men spoiling for a fight who are profligate gamblers, lovers and drinkers, enthusiasts of the sensuous life who are able with glib tongues and quick wit to escape the traps set for them by the scheming Cardinal Richelieu and his demonic femme fatale, Milady de Winter (who, as the only strong female character, does get a bad rap).

This is a rollicking tale full of suspense, danger, and passion – it makes sense why it has been adapted so frequently for film. Though Dumas’s writing is florid, it is not psychologically difficult, peppered with Princess Bride-ish witticisms such as “…I see that, if we don’t kill each other, I will afterwards take real pleasure in your conversation.”

Dumas has done his research; written in the nineteenth century, the novel is set in a France fraught with the wars of religion, where the nobility and royalty are not restrained by government. Let’s remember the Revolution hasn’t happened yet for d’Artagnan, though it has for Dumas.

This is an unmistakable blockbuster. It has cliff-hangers, close-calls, and love affairs - I am convinced that anyone could read this novel and have a good time.

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