Musketeers Without a Cause

Rediscovering the secret core of Dumas’ classic.

The Three Musketeers is a perfect example of the novel we can remember without having read. But does the actual book resemble our memories? Or the movies and comics that are for many of us the chief sources of those memories? Richard Pevear’s new translation offers us an opportunity to find out.

Certainly the musketeers rollick and rumble as we thought they did, even if the prose in which they do it (both Dumas’ own and that of the new version) is pretty clunky. They are always fighting, and it’s a godsend to them that dueling has recently been forbidden in Richelieu’s France. They can misbehave by doing what they like best. They are often wounded but never seriously damaged. They drink wine by the bottle (or two) and never by the glass. They consume prodigious amounts of food. They are happy to be kept financially by their mistresses, Dumas noting unconvincingly that manners and morals were different in those days. They gamble constantly and are usually broke. They will never grow up, never diverge from their formulaic identities. Porthos has his size and his vanity, Aramis his morbid interest in the church, Athos his dark and painful past. More precisely, if they grow up, their story will end instantly, and this is just what happens at the close of the novel. Porthos marries the rich old crone he has been exploiting, Aramis takes holy orders, Athos retires to Roussillon. D’Artagnan, not a musketeer at all until page 493 of Pevear’s text, becomes the cardinal’s man rather than the king’s.

The three musketeers of the title are wonderfully true to our memories, but what about the belated fourth, the dashing d’Artagnan? Did we ever think of him as the louche and calculating figure the book unmistakably shows?  Full of charm but always wary, and never quite the reckless gallant the others are. He is the close friend and acknowledged leader of the three inseparables, as they are called. They follow him everywhere and are ready to die for him. But then they are ready to die for anything, and he is not really one of them. He is a man of ambition, he is going somewhere, and the whole point of the three musketeers as we know them—their whole splendid vocation—is that they are going nowhere.

When d’Artagnan learns his friends’ secrets, he stores them like an intelligence agency, in case they become useful. He is out to make the world work for him, and in this respect he is closer to Cardinal Richelieu, whom he comes to serve, and to Milady de Winter, who becomes his archenemy, an incarnation of ambition as a restless will to action.   “For an active and ambitious nature like Milady’s,” Dumas remarks of her when she is locked up and seemingly powerless to do anything, “the days when one is not busy rising are ill-starred days; find a word, then, to name the days that one spends falling!”  D’Artagnan clearly feels much the same, except that he never even looks like he is falling. One of the great set pieces of the book involves his reaction to the news that Athos, a persistent but inept gambler, has lost not only the magnificent horse d’Artagnan gave him but the horse’s rich harness as well, and d’Artagnan’s horse and harness, and an extraordinary diamond he knows d’Artagnan possesses. It’s true he wins back the harnesses and the diamond, and that d’Artagnan later wins back one of the horses, but our hero never really gets over his shock and disapproval. We share his shock, of course, and maybe his disapproval, because we are reasonable people, as he is. There’s the difference. Athos is a mythological musketeer, and he will always make reason and ambition look small.

The plot of the novel is pretty much as we remember it, a constant if never quite complete conversion of public history into private romance. D’Artagnan goes on a secret mission to England, falls in love and loses his mistress to Richelieu’s closet politics, sleeps with Milady and scorns her. He and his friends take part in the siege of La Rochelle, a Protestant city that fell to the Catholic king in 1628. The duke of Buckingham woos the queen of France and gets himself assassinated. The king of France, Louis XIII, sulks a lot and is endlessly, and justifiably, suspicious of the queen. One apparent throwaway sentence, reminding us of the later birth of the boy who was to become Louis XIV, points to the strange political climate of the novel. This king and queen are far more likely to spark foreign invasion and international conflict than produce any sort of heir, and yet an heir is what they manage to have, beyond the pages of the book. Well, not just an heir but a national icon. Imagine England without Elizabeth I, or America without George Washington. The Three Musketeers is like one of those episodes of Star Trek where the known future almost doesn’t happen; its location is a fictional France because subsequent French history doesn’t appear to be anywhere in the cards.  

I had always believed that d’Artagnan and his friends were fighting against Richelieu and his men for a reason, even if I couldn’t remember what it was. Characters are repeatedly called cardinalists or royalists, and d’Artagnan himself is very clear about his options:  “That single moment sufficed for d’Artagnan to choose sides: this was one of those events that determine a man’s life; it was a choice between the king and the cardinal.” But it doesn’t determine his life, because the king doesn’t really have any politics, and Dumas himself gets more and more disappointed with the mean-spirited monarch as the novel goes on. Richelieu himself is a great statesman and schemer, but d’Artagnan and his friends don’t seem to understand or care about any of the issues that people are getting killed and exiled for. They serve the queen against the king, the king against Richelieu, and Richelieu against the Protestants. They are in it for the risk and the adventure, and d’Artagnan in particular is in it because he loves conspiracies.  

Conspiracy is everything, and the more pointless the better. This is the novel’s most infuriating feature if you are looking for straightforward sense and consequence, and one of its most subtle forms of appeal if you are ready to see d’Artagnan as some sort of cousin to Balzac’s Rastignac and Stendhal’s Julien Sorel. These are Young Men from the Provinces and they are going to make it. Making it, then as now, in France and elsewhere, requires a total indifference to what else gets made or unmade in the process.  

Once we have seen our hero in this light, we can understand his deep connection to Milady and even begin to grasp why Dumas allows her to run away with the last hundred pages of the novel. We may remember she is a villain, but do we remember we always liked her too much? She is a Young Woman from the Provinces, and she has made it in a way that even d’Artagnan never will. She is a “woman of a hundred faces,” a “truly superior woman.” Dumas compares her to a “good general,” says her destiny partakes of that of “great criminals,” and arranges the weather to match her mood:  “Milady felt consoled to see nature share the disorder of her heart.” It’s true he also calls her “the invincible force of evil,” but in context this looks like a compliment. Unarmed and friendless in English captivity, she manages not only to seduce her Puritan jailer into letting her go, she gets him to assassinate Buckingham for her, thereby completing the mission that seemed quite lost. Then she takes off for France and almost succeeds in torturing d’Artagnan by capturing the woman he loves. Failing this, she poisons the hapless lady anyway, just for the hell of it, commenting “with an infernal smile” that this was not the vengeance she had in mind “but, by heaven, one does what one can!”

The new translation is very readable (as are its predecessors), though there are quite a few lapses into pure translationese, that language that no one ever speaks: “what horror,” “he is relegating me to the infamous,” and so on. But Pevear has got rid of all the coyness about sex that marks most of the earlier versions, and above all he preserves the swift movement and casual complexity that Dumas’ breezy method creates. At the end, for example, d’Artagnan and the musketeers (and Milady’s wronged brother-in-law) track down Milady and set themselves up as a clandestine court, complete with an executioner they have brought back out of retirement. Milady is judged and beheaded, and the plot thus closes in a spectacular display of moral correctness and its secret disavowal. The good guys assert their virtue; the evil woman is luridly punished; and there is nothing to stop us from thinking that, even in death, she has won the real game, since her tireless self-invention has far more life in it than their righteous anger. And d’Artagnan himself, of course, is more appealing as a rascal than as an avenger.