Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Review: 'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre DUMAS

Statue of D'Artagnan in Auch, Gers

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre DUMAS

Written in serialised form in 1844, and set around 1625 in the France of Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Anne of Austria and bishop Richelieu, Les Trois Mousquetaires is a story of adventure that still delights and entertains. Although historically inaccurate in places, it is rich in colour and atmosphere, full of witty dialogue and drama. It is the first in a trilogy about D’Artagnan (other books are Twenty Years After, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne).

D’Artagnan is a brave but temperamental Gascon who makes his way to Paris on a yellow horse, encountering adventures on the way. He provokes duels with each of the three musketeers - Athos, Porthos and Aramis - when he first meets them in Paris. However they join forces to fight the bishop’s guards and forget their differences and become friends. D'Artagnan dreams of joining the Musketeers - the King’s guards -  and is finally admitted to the Musketeers at the Siege of La Rochelle. D'Artagnan also falls in love with Madame Bonacieux and embarks on a quest to save her, a quest which takes him to England and back, and which also saves Queen Anne of Austria’s reputation.

Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in serialised form in 1844

A Gascon

Dumas’ genius must lie in the characters he creates. Like Dickens, his characters attract and hold our interest and D’Artagnan remains one of the most well-known and well-loved characters of all time. Much is made of the fact that D'Artagnan is a Gascon.

He had the power of seeing in the night:

‘It is said that the eyes of Gascons, like those of cats, have the faculty of seeing in the night. D’Artagnon was able to see therefore…’

He was proud:

‘Proud as a Scotchman, muttered Buckingham. ‘And we,’ answered d’Artagnan, say ‘proud as a Gascon’. The Gascons are the Scotchmen of France.’

And crafty:

‘Imagine Don Quixote at eighteen; Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses, a Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet… face long and brown, high cheek bones, indicating craftiness, the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected even without his cap…’

 And brave:
‘Our brave Gascon has just shown himself as brave and as faithful as ever.’

D’Artagnan was clever enough to be able to read people just by looking at the countenance of those he encountered:

‘It was not a landlord this time but a landlady who received him. D’Artagnan, being somewhat of a physiognomist, examined at a glance the fat and good-humoured face of the mistress of the place. This glance satisfied him that dissimulation was not necessary with her and that he had nothing to fear from such a happy-looking countenance.’


Women in Dumas' world could be weak, powerful,  cunning, charming, vindictive, and capable of sorcery.

‘There was an understanding between this lady and Porthos. If she was a lady of quality she would have fainted, but, as she was only a solicitor’s wife, she contented herself with saying in a concentrated rage…’

‘The enchantress had resumed that magic charm which she took up and laid aside at pleasure, that is to say beauty, softness, tears and above all the irresistible attraction of that mystical voluptuousness which is the most irresistible of all kinds of voluptuousness.’

‘Her ladyship wished to please the Abysse and this was a very easy task for a woman so truely superior. She endeavoured to be amiable and became charming so that her entertainer was seduced by her varied conversation as well as by the grades which appeared in all her person.’

I'm particularly amazed at this feisty lady:

'Athos examined it (the ring) and became very pale. He then tried it on the ring finger… A shade of anger and revenge passed across the generally calm forehead of the gentleman.

She turned, no longer like a mere furious woman, but like a wounded panther.

‘Ah, wretch,’ said she, ‘you have betrayed me like a coward, and, moreover, you have learned my secret. You must die.’

And she ran to an inlaid cabinet on her toilet table, opened it with a feverish, trembling hand, drew from it a small dagger with a golden hilt and a sharp and slender blade and returned with one bound to the side of d’Artagnan, her vesture in pieces. Although the young man was, as we know, brave, he was frightened at that convulsed countenance, at those horrible dilated pupils, at those pale cheeks and bleeding lips. He arose and recoiled as from the approach of a serpent that had crawled towards him and, instinctively putting his perspiring hand to his sword, he drew it from the sheath. But…. her Ladyship still advanced to strike him.

Her Ladyship was rushing at him in horrible transports of rage and howling in a fearful manner…’

The English

Dumas manages to slip in a few amusing digs at English food:

‘The English, who above all things require to be well-fed in order to prove good-soldiers, eating only salted provisions and bad biscuits, had many invalids in their camp.’

And comments on the weather in England:

‘It was one of those few and fine summer days when Englishmen remember that there is a sun.’



Proper sustenance is critical for the French, even in the midst of battle:

‘We are four against one... about to be engaged to a far greater amount of foes…. How many persons? Twenty men. How far off are they? About 500 paces. Good, we have still time to finish this fowl and to drink a glass of wine. To your health, d’Artagnan!’

The musketeers even ask the enemy to hold off the battle until after breakfast:

‘Gentlemen, we are some of my friends and myself engaged in breakfasting in this bastion. Now you know that nothing is more disagreeable than to be disturbed at breakfast, so we entreat of you… to wait until we have finished our repast or to come back in a little while unless… and coming to drink with us to the health of the King of France.’

Loose ends

The story in this book meanders and detours. Some of the loose ends are conveniently tied up, like where her Ladyship might be found. The name of the town they will later need to locate actually falls out of someone's hat:

‘Hello sir. Here is a paper which fell out of your hat. Hello sir, hello.’

‘My friend,’ said d’Artagnan, ‘half a pistole for that paper.’

‘With the greatest pleasure, here it is.’

D’Artagnan unfolded the paper. Only one word…the name of a town… Armentieres…. is written in her hand… let us take great care of this paper…’

Her Ladyship decides to wait for the cardinal’s orders in a convent, which also happens to be the convent where Madame Bonacieux is being held:

‘I am proceeding to the Carmelite convent at Bethune where I shall await your orders.’

'All for one and one for all'

The famous slogan is only referred to once in the book, although there are many duels and shows of bravery.

Some of the pleasure in reading this book is the fact that the real D’Artagnan (Charles de Batz de Castelmore d'Artagnan)  on whom Dumas based his character, came from Lupiac, a village in Gascony. So, whilst reading the book, I paid a visit to the Musée D'Artagnan in Lupiac and was transported to the 17th century. It was easy to imagine the proud D’Artagnan,  leaving the area as a boy and returning many years later leading the King’s guard. The entourage travelled through France and Gascony on the way to St Jean de Luz where Louis XIV wed Marie-Thèrese of Austria.

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