(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Three Musketeers (1844)
By Alexandre Dumas
Book #37 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
A clever mix of fact and fiction (like so many "historical" novels of the Romantic Age), 1844's The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas pere (or "Senior") is actually set in 1600s France, back when a slightly ineffectual King Louis XIII was under quiet threat by his number-two man, the evil and conniving Cardinal Richelieu. Of course, Renaissance France was no stranger to court intrigue, which is why so many important government officials back then had their own private militias, loyal only to them, including the group of salty "musketeers" (who actually fought with swords most of the time) in charge of protecting just the king, as well as the opposing group of rough-riders who reported directly to the cardinal. Our story, then, follows the fate of one such aspiring musketeer, d'Artagnan of Gascony, as he heads to Paris for the first time armed with a letter of introduction and a fatal chip on his shoulder regarding whatever he perceives as even the slightest insult against his character; through a series of early comic misadventures, he ends up falling in with a group of three existing musketeers who are already friends, who for the purpose of "protecting their virtue" Dumas refers to by the code names Athos, Porthos and Aramis, three distinct personalities who are literally the definition of the audience-winking action hero (and I mean literally, nearly every winking action hero you've ever seen was inspired in one way or another by Dumas' originals).
The actual plotline, then, consists mostly of the adventures d'Artagnan has with these three, serving sometimes as an apprentice and sometimes as a peer, and even sometimes being the hero depending on the situation; and this is especially the case when it comes to the circumstances behind the book's main storyline, the affair the king's wife is having with England's Duke of Buckingham (whose country was actually enemies with France at the time), the way that Richelieu through his agents tries to take advantage of this info, and the ways that d'Artagnan and the musketeers foil these attempts. The events that make up this storyline are many and varied, consisting for the most part of several self-contained mini-arcs (an offshoot of its original serial publishing format); but needless to say that there is much derring-do, much romance as well, a plethora of comic relief among the four's personal servants, stolen diamonds, masked balls, crumbling medieval prisons, purloined letters, and the most beguiling villain in perhaps all of modern literature, the sexy femme fatale and stone-cold killer Milady de Winter. Add a potboiler finale, and you're all set for this book's two eventual sequels, which together tell the story of decades in the life of our hero d'Artagnan.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it's the very textbook definition of "swashbuckling adventure;" or I guess I shouldn't say "for starters," because for a lot of people this is actually the most important thing about it, that it's written in a style now considered corny and is therefore hard to even find anymore, full of double-crosses and fortuitous chance encounters and all the other kinds of thrilling yet implausible details that mostly make up this genre. Plus, its fans say, it's a great example of early Romanticism at its best, making it historically important as well, starting with the fact that it's set in the 1600s in the first place; because lest we forget, the early Romantics tended to discount the entire Enlightenment period of the 1700s as artistically worthless, claiming that one had to go all the way back to the Baroque era or even the Renaissance to find stories truly worth telling, as most plainly manifested by the group of Romantic artists (and Dumas' peers) known as the Pre-Raphaelites. (And by the way, apart from his swashbucklers, Dumas was also heavily responsible for yet another cultural trend among early Romantics, the sudden reverence for charming criminals that was known for example in Britain as "Newgate stories," and which gave aging Enlightenment adherents apoplectic attacks when they first started becoming popular in the 1830s.) It's not just a great book on its own, argue its fans, but doubles as a powerful snapshot of what the early Victorian period was all about; combine these two things, they say, and you get the very definition of "literary classic."
The argument against:
Oh, and did I mention that it's 700 pages? And not only that, but 700 pages of "Ha ha!" and "Ho ho!" and "Pardeau!" In fact, this is a common complaint about Dumas in general, that he was a master at taking tight little stories and expanding them into ridiculous lengths, with supporting evidence that's hard to deny; after all, it's a fact that he got paid by the line when originally composing most of his serial tales, and it's also a fact that he eventually set up a "story factory" that cranked out hundreds of such penny-dreadful tales, penned by ghostwriters and with Dumas basically putting his seal of approval on them at the end. Although nearly no one denies that the storyline itself of The Three Musketeers is exciting, there are plenty who object to its rambling, endlessly digressive nature, claiming that this is a story better absorbed as a two-hour movie than through its original space-eating literary form.
I'm afraid that this is one of those days where my judgment comes down right on the line between yes and no; and that's always a shame, because no matter which option I end up choosing, I feel like I'm doing a disservice to the other legitimate argument out there. Because the plain fact is that The Three Musketeers is indeed an undeniably page-turning yarn, a surprisingly funny charmer that convinces you to root for its caddish heroes the same way we do for Han Solo or Indiana Jones; but it's also a fact that this is roughly 300 pages of interesting story padded out to a 700-page manuscript, with there being these sometimes dozen-page digressions throughout consisting of such empty dialogue as coos between lovers, brags between duelers and more. And so there's a part of me that's tempted to recommend just watching one of the many movie versions of this story and being done with it; but then, as its fans so passionately argue online, film adaptations generally do a poor job of capturing the laid-back wit that makes the book so charming in the first place, with it being not really the swordfights themselves that make this story so successful but the cavalier attitudes displayed by the swordfighters. This will appeal intensely to some, and simply rub others the wrong way; and that's why today I give The Three Musketeers a recommendation but only a reserved one, and also give you permission to not feel bad if you yourself don't particularly want to slog your way through it. Such decisions are never popular ones, but in this case at least it's particularly apt.
Is it a classic? Kind of
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Humboldt's Gift, by Saul Bellow
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)