As a rule I do not have a list of favourites, I find them limiting myself and I am interested in so many different things. However, when occasionally pushed to it I can narrow my choices down a little and come to a selection, not that such a list will ever prove to be set in stone of course. A new experience can change so many things. In terms of favourite books, however, I am most likely to choose Alexander Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’.
I started reading young, before I even actually got to school in fact thanks to my Mum who took the time to teach me and my brothers. It was a great gift and one that led to me reading ‘The Three Musketeers’ early on because I had a strong taste for adventure. The story gripped me from the very first and I have read it many more times since. It is a book I have never tired of. In fact ‘The Three Musketeers’ seems to be such a classic that film-makers believe it bears repeating also; it has been made into a movie some 25 times since the first version was shown in 1903!
With seminal work Dumas established some of the themes that have since become essential elements of a good adventure novel; historical or otherwise. There is the signature hero’s journey of course as a young D’Artagnan leaves the farm and travels to find his fortune as a King’s Musketeer. Told by his father to fight duels and support the king D’Artagnan discovers that even an honourable goal can compromise a man’s principles. By the end of the tale he is clearly no longer the naive young country boy that set out with such a simple understanding of the world. Friendship and loyalty is tested, intrigue confounds the simple Gascon, fights endanger his life, romance his heart, and travels to foreign lands broaden his horizons. The whole narrative combined paints a wonderful account of France in the time of King Louis XIII without ever descending into becoming an historical essay as Victor Hugo was often prone to doing in his works.
Successive readings of the text has only increased my enjoyment of the book. It has its whimsical side of course, an element that many film-makers have discovered and made use of, especially Richard Lester’s 1973 version. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan are young men earning their living as soldiers and have a healthy attitude to the dangers that this employment exposes them to. All except for Athos have plans for the future but none of them actively seek to put them into effect, with the possible exception of D’Artagnan of course; his sole ambition is to become one of them. Adventure is a pastime that diverts them from the interminable wait of another war where their particular skills will be employed far more seriously.
Even in their adventures, however, they are playing a dangerous game and lives are lost through the actions and machinations of Cardinal Richelieu made real through the sword of Comte de Rochefort and the deceit of Milady de Winter. People die in duels, fights, assassinations and executions. These events build quickly but subtly and change the atmosphere of the book. The light and airy adventures of the first part of the story give way to a darker tale as the Musketeers move from saving the Queen’s honour to the siege of La Rochelle where the Protestants violently resist the Catholic army of the King of France. Ultimately it deals with the less glamorous part of being a king’s servant when the four musketeers decide the fate of Milady de Winter, a moment where D’Artagnan finds his sense of honour conflicted by both his loyalty to his king and to his friends.
In combining all these elements ‘The Three Musketeers’ becomes more than just an adventure story, it is a classic example of historical fiction. It creates characters that the reader can care about and then uses them to take the story to significant events in the country’s 17th century political and military events and these are often found in dark places but those places are not shunned by Alexandre Dumas.
Without this element of realism ‘The Three Musketeers’ would just be a fanciful boy’s own tale, and largely forgotten about by most readers who leave their adolescence and a lot of the books associated with it behind them. ‘The Three Musketeers’ quite clearly persists, however.
It is without doubt a classic of its kind and it has been the source of inspiration for many an author since it was published in 1844. It is also one of those rare books that has an international appeal. For me it is one of the most satisfying books that I have ever read and I will return to it many more times I expect. That is probably one of the true tests of a classic work of literature, it is always there to be enjoyed again and again.