Sangdieu! This was good fun. I mean, it’s mostly dumb fun, like Get Low by Lil Jon or Tropic Thunder or AC/DC, but sometimes that is precisely what you need. Throughout 700 – wrist taxing, if not brain taxing – pages Dumas leads us, his readers, a merry dance across France [and occasionally England], without ever really acknowledging the absurdity and joyful irreverence of his narrative. Indeed, The Three Musketeers is so absurd as to approach the level of evil genius. Morbleu! Parbleu! Etc.
It’s interesting how one’s perception of a story can be so out of whack with the source material. Perhaps influenced by movies and popular culture references I came to the book expecting a [at least semi] serious novel, whose action revolves around politics and the pursuit of power. I also expected royal intrigues and double-dealing, vengeance and murder plots. And, in fairness, I got most of that, but The Three Musketeers isn’t a 19th century House of Cards with swords and feathered hats. It’s too ridiculous for that. The motivation of the characters isn’t greed, or even righteousness; and the musketeers themselves are not honourable administers of justice.
If The Three Musketeers isn’t a serious political thriller, then what is it? In this review I have already made use of words such as irreverent and ridiculous and absurd, and yet there is probably a better one: farce. A farce is defined as ‘a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.’ That sentence pretty much sums up The Three Musketeers. Take the well-known diamond caper, when d’artagnan is dispatched to England in order to recover a diamond pendant for the Queen so that she can wear it at a ball given by her husband. Hundreds of miles travelled, people injured, lives put at risk, and all to recover some diamonds for a party. Ludicrously improbable situation? I’d say so. Indeed, a lot of what the characters do, how they behave and react, is disproportionate, is over the top when one considers what has caused their reactions or motivated their behaviour. For example, the cardinal is said to want to ruin the Queen because she would not respond to his amorous advances and Milady seemingly wants to murder anyone who doesn’t do as she says.
What about crude characterisation? Well, it is certainly the case that there is absolutely no psychological depth to any of the characters. They all have some feature, some trait, that defines them and to which they stick till the end of the novel. So, Aramis is the sensitive, reluctant musketeer, Buckingham is in love, Milady is obsessed with revenge, Athos is philosophical, and so on. The thing is, I am not complaining, nor am I criticising. I think nearly every character in the book is wonderful; I didn’t at all yearn for greater depth. There is, to my mind, nothing wrong with farce, especially when it is pulled off with such panache and wit. It is not easy to create memorable characters, be they one, two or three dimensional. Nor is a great sense of humour less impressive than complex psychological portraits. On this, The Three Musketeers is, at times, very very funny. One of my favourite moments is when Milady says to Rochefort “commend me to the cardinal” and Rochefort replies with something like “I will. And you commend me to Satan.” Ha! I actually lol’ed. Milady is absolutely bad-ass.
I guess if you wanted to credit the book with greater depth or intelligence, if you wanted to say it is something more than a brilliant farce, then you could argue that it is a satire. One of the most interesting features of the book is that the people who hold the highest positions, by which I mean kings etc, are, for the most part, the stupidest, most self-obsessed characters. Certainly, the King of France is ridiculed more than anyone else. He is shown as being a petty, jealous, easily bored and easily duped man. There is a scene near the beginning when he has his wife searched, because he believes that she has a love letter on her person. When he recovers the letter and finds out that it is not a love letter but a traitorous one he is happy! He is, in this instance, not at all bothered about the treachery, but simply relieved that his wife isn’t cheating. Indeed, the war between the English and the French only takes place because Buckingham wants an excuse to be in France in order to see the Queen. It seems that Dumas is saying that wars etc are not waged for the reasons that we think, for religion or ideology or power. In fact, in probably the only noteworthy moment of introspection d’artagnan reflects that the fates of nations are decided on the whims of their leaders. Sacrebleu!
The thing is, I think you could make too much of all that, If Dumas was trying to be scathing, you would expect that the musketeers, being the heroes, would condemn this kind of behaviour from the king et al. And yet they don’t. In fact, they accept it. The musketeers are likeable, no doubt, but their own morals are iffy to say the least. This is why I call the novel dumb fun or a great farce, because no one is entirely good and certainly no one is treated entirely seriously. The power of the book is not in its message but in making of the reader a Don Quixote, so that upon finishing it one is eager to take up a sword and romp around the country in a fancy outfit challenging people to duels. Or is that just me? In any case…en guarde, you scoundrels!