If you know me at all you know that I have a weak spot for anything that could be described by the word ‘swashbuckling.’
swashbuckler (n) - a swaggering swordsman, soldier, or adventurer
I don’t really know why this is. I think I just have an insatiable hunger for adventure. Dumas provides that in spades.
I’ve read Dumas before but somehow never made my way around to the Musketeers, which is weird because it was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I knew several different incarnations of the story. After reading Alison Weir’s Wars of the Roses – which is a straight, unadulterated history and sort of whet my appetite for swordplay – I looked around my room, thought “What haven’t I read?” and there was The Three Musketeers, staring at me.
You guys, I’m so glad I decided to read it. This book is pure unadulterated fun.
Most of the film and television adaptations have taken from pretty serious liberties with Dumas’ original, unabridged novel. Why, I’m not really sure, because the book is so delightful as it is. Perhaps there’s too much history to keep the average television viewer from feeling stupid, but that’s kind of what I love about it. Dumas does a masterful job of weaving together D’Artagnan’s clumsy bildungsroman, the political intrigue of the French and English courts, the military campaigns of the 1620s, and of course the various exploits of the three titular Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell (and it’s hard to condense, because the book is like 600 pages): D’Artagnan travels to Paris to become a Musketeer, and befriends Athos, Porthos and Aramis just in time to foil a plot by the Cardinal to ruin the Queen, Anne of Austria. In the meantime, the vicious Milday de Winter, a favorite spy of the Cardinal’s, hatches a diabolical plan to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham – and to murder D’Artagnan and the woman he loves.
This all sounds very serious. And it is – but what doesn’t really figure into the plot description is the sheer number of shenanigans D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis get up to in their abundant free time. What do the Musketeers actually do when they’re not on active military duty? Well, according to Dumas, they drink, fight, gamble, seduce all the woman within walking distance, and then drink some more. Honestly, I’ve never seen so much shameless debauchery in one book. At any given point, two or more of the Fab Four are at least a little intoxicated, if not outright plastered, and in any given chapter at least one of them will get laid. Seriously. It’s unbelievable how much sex these guys have. Never mind that Dumas is obliged to never explicitly say so, but to hint at in an oblique and yet painfully obvious way. He makes all the other writers of the time look downright bashful. Maybe it’s because he was French. Who knows.
But all the sex and spirits aside, where the fun really lies is in the characters. The Three Musketeers has the strongest leading cast I’ve seen in a long time. The villains are dripping brilliance. The Cardinal is so cold and calculating he makes Othello’s Iago seem like a fluffy little bunny rabbit. Milday de Winter is similarly terrifying (and what a win for strong female characters). Athos makes for great hero material. He’s smart, handsome, and mysterious, and possessed of a sense of honor that verges on idiotic at times. Think Mr. Darcy minus feelings plus fencing. Then we have Porthos. Porthos is a pompous buffoon whose antics are nothing short of hilarious. As for D’Artagnan, he fits easily in our favorite adolescent category of hotheaded, lovable idiots. He falls for a different woman every five minutes, treats them all terribly without even realizing it and then dashes off to have another adventure. Which leaves us with Aramis. Oh, Aramis. Aramis is my newest literary crush and you guys, I can’t even. He’s dashing and clever and the only one who seems to be capable of a remotely monogamous relationship, even if it is with a married woman so far out of his league he can’t even be seen in public with her. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that thanks to the BBC he will permanently look like Santiago Cabrera in my head.
But, uh, my imaginary love affair with Aramis is not the point of this post. The point is the characters in this novel are impossible not to like. Bonus characters include all the lackeys and the Duke of Buckingham, who makes a few positively swoon-worthy speeches to Anne of Austria (marital fidelity was apparently not a thing in seventeenth century France). I dare you to crack open this book and not crack a smile.
This all brings me to something I’ve been meaning to say for a while: Don’t neglect the classics. They’re endured for a reason, and Dumas’s body of work is no exception. The Three Musketeers is bursting with action and adventure and a slew of lovable scoundrels. Five stars. Not to be missed. Add it to your Goodreads shelf here, and then go grab a copy from your local bookstore. Because it’s been around so long, you can probably find an old used copy for a quarter, and if not that, I know Barnes & Noble carries a copy for less than five bucks. All for one!
(And when you’re all finished, you can slog through all the movie and TV adaptations, most of which will feature large numbers of Attractive Men With Beards. You can’t go wrong.)