Friday, March 21, 2014

The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of the Most Famous Prisoner in History and the Four Musketeers by Roger Macdonald

Truth really is stranger than fiction
In his 2008 book The Man in the Iron Mask, Roger Macdonald delves deeply into the real history behind the Three Musketeers novels of Alexandre Dumas. Though the novels are clearly based on actual events in the history of France, Dumas claimed that his most legendary characters—the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan—were concoctions of his fertile imagination. The historical record shows clearly, however, that although Dumas may have invented the unique personalities of each of these inimitable characters, the four famous Musketeers were in fact real people. Macdonald traces the true stories of these four daring adventurers and tells you just about everything you’d want to know about their lives and times. Along the way he reveals the alleged biological father of King Louis XIV and puts a name to a certain famous prisoner whose identity was forcibly concealed behind an iron mask.

Despite the obvious Dumas connection, one need not have read that author’s works to appreciate this book. In fact, Macdonald barely mentions Dumas. He concentrates solely on the history, and doesn’t stop to draw parallels between the novels and reality. Frankly, there is so much information packed between the covers of this book, there’s little room for any lit crit. Though it may be a cliché, Macdonald is a writer who truly never wastes a word. You’ll find few books that cram enough sheer facts into each sentence as this one does, yet the prose is still smooth and captivatingly readable throughout. Nevertheless, the barrage of data can be relentless. If your mind wanders for a second you’ll miss something important. The personages are all so interconnected with one another that there’s little that’s not important. Macdonald includes a list of “Principal Characters” at the front of the book, but the brief descriptions offer little guidance through this tangled web. I must confess that after the Musketeers died I did lose track of some of the plot threads. (That’s not a spoiler. This is history. Everyone dies.) But I managed to thoroughly enjoy the book nonetheless.

Having done no historical research into this topic, other than reading the trilogy of novels by Dumas, I’m in no position to argue with Macdonald’s hypothesis as to the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask. I realize that his theory is but one of many, and for me the veracity of his claim is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book. Regardless of whether he’s solved this great mystery or not, I did learn an awful lot about historical events in France during the reign of Louis XIV. As a fan of Dumas, it was a joy to experience this story from another angle, to see how closely the novelist stuck to the truth and where exactly he strayed. Macdonald’s theory of who wore the mask is a fascinating and provocative one, and how it unfolds over the course of the book is a great ride. Like a crafty mystery writer, he wisely chooses not to reveal his candidate until nearly the very end of the book.

The third novel in the Musketeers trilogy, Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, is often reprinted in English under the title of The Man in the Iron Mask. In my opinion, Macdonald’s book is even more interesting and exciting than its namesake. While I loved the first two books of Dumas’ trilogy, the finale—which occupies much of the historic ground that Macdonald covers here—is easily the weakest of the three. Macdonald shows us that the real story was even more fantastic than the great novelist envisioned. The lives of d’Artagnan, Louis XIV, and the Man in the Iron Mask were at times so outlandish and astonishing, you really couldn’t make this stuff up.

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