Friday, May 3, 2013

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The epitome of swashbuckling adventure
Few titles signify the thrill of romantic adventure as much as The Three Musketeers. Originally published in 1844, this historical novel by Alexandre Dumas established an archetype for all subsequent adventure literature. From that point on, any swashbuckling hero to grace the printed page or silver screen must be judged against the benchmark set by these three titular gentlemen and their protégé. Very few heroes, indeed, have been able to measure up to their dashing, their daring, and their devil-may-care attitude. While the Musketeers may be a household name in popular culture, today’s audience, desensitized by countless action movies and paperback thrillers, may wonder if the original novel is still worthy of reading. The answer, without hesitation, is a resounding yes.

Young d’Artagnan leaves his home village in Gascony to seek his fortune in Paris. His dream is to become one of the King’s Musketeers. Though possessed of the swordsman’s skill and cavalier disregard for his own life required for the position, d’Artagnan is nonetheless a wet-behind-the-ears provincial who needs guidance in the workings of big-city society. Though his initial encounters with the renowned Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are clumsy and contentious, the four companions soon form an inseparable bond of friendship sealed by the vow, “All for one and one for all!” When the Prime Minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu, employing as his henchmen the cold-blooded swordsman the Comte de Rochefort and the beautiful but diabolical Milady de Winter, schemes against the Queen’s honor, our heroes must valiantly come to her rescue.

In this novel, Dumas ably demonstrates his mastery at creating complex and intriguing characters. Not only does each of the four main heroes possess a unique and memorable personality, each and every character from the King himself down to the lowliest, briefly mentioned innkeeper is a singular, fully fleshed out creation. Milady de Winter is hands down one of the greatest femme fatales in literature. To his credit, Dumas unflinchingly makes her as dastardly and nefarious, if not more so, than any masculine villain would be in her place.

If there is a flaw to The Three Musketeers, at times it is the plotting. Dumas demonstrates his usual deftness at juggling a large ensemble cast in a variety of interlocking adventures, but there are several dragging moments amidst all the capers, talky interludes in which the swordsmen gamble, mooch their way into free meals, or swindle their mistresses out of some coin. These scenes help to enhance character development, but nonetheless slow the momentum. Toward the end of the book there is a series of 10 or 12 chapters when Dumas abandons the Musketeers entirely, in order to concentrate on the scheming of the villainess. This proves too long an absence from such beloved heroes. As good as this book is, its sequel, Twenty Years After, is actually even better and more skillfully plotted. And though he may be more famous for his Musketeers, Dumas’s greatest work is undoubtedly The Count of Monte Cristo, an absolute masterpiece.

The most surprising thing about The Three Musketeers is its remarkable change in tone from beginning to end. It starts out a slapstick comedy and ends about as dark and shocking as a swashbuckler can get. It is a testament to Dumas’s skill as a storyteller that such a drastic transition feels not only natural but necessary. Along the way the reader is treated to one heck of a roller coaster ride that, despite being crafted over a century and a half ago, is still incredibly fresh, exciting, and fun.

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