The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy
Taking a break from my traditional fare of Fantasy and Science Fiction I decided to jump in and read through Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. For some reason I overlooked this novel in the past probably thinking that the plot was already spoiled due to all the spoofs and movies etc. I can’t even begin to describe how surprised I was when the book blew me away. Not only is it one of the best action adventures I have read but sets the bar so high for other books that I thought were original yet are surpassed by this fantastic piece of literature written 171 years ago. If you have not read this masterpiece do yourself a favor and pick it up, you will not be disappointed.
For readers of Fantasy one of the genre givens is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often the blueprint and baseline for all modern fantasy. Through Tolkien fantasy is also affected by his influences being Germanic and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Heroic characters, Epic world shattering battles, dark evil powers, elves, orcs, trolls, and dragons. But a lot of modern fantasy breaks from that mold and dwells in a perpetual gray zone. The hero’s are often hard to differentiate from the villains, the scale is often smaller, and the setting often grimmer. Dark epics such as GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire have only superficial elements in common with the heroic fantasy of Tolkien.
With the history of fantasy in mind I read The Three Musketeers and realized that for a book written 171 years ago it read like a piece of modern fantasy. At it’s core and thematically it has more in common with modern dark fantasy than LotR does. Reading it I could not stop thinking that if there was one or two semi-magical elements you could easily shelf the adventures of d’Artagnan next to Jalan Kendeth and Tyrion Lannister.
The Heroes or Anti-Heroes
The four Musketeers(yes there are actually four, it make sense once you read the book), would easily fit on the pages of current fantasy, the darker the better. Our main hero the young d’Artagnan starts off the novel as your typical poor farm boy out to join the King’s Musketeers and make a name for himself. That’s where the similarity ends tho because our d’Artagnan is an arrogant entitled jerk. He picks fights with everybody that looks at him wrong, beats his servant, tricks women into sleeping with him, and spends his days drinking and partying with his buddies. He’s not the hero the movies portray him as.
Athos, the oldest of the Musketeers is your typical wounded dark soldier. A dark sophisticated man with a hidden mysterious past who spends his days drinking his sorrows away and flying into violent rages. Athos is such a moody jerk that he forbids his servant from speaking, forcing him to only communicate by using hand gestures.
Porthos is the big foolish buffoon of the crew. A self centered man who loves fine food, fine wine, fine clothing, and fine women. His sole purpose in life is to weasel his way into older and richer women’s money so he could live comfortably without effort.
Aramis is the group hypocrite. All he talks about is giving up the warrior lifestyle and becoming a man of the church but secretly he is having affairs with noble women. He goes so far as to get into duels with anybody that even suggests he might be having the affairs, even when presented with proof.
The most striking thing I noticed when reading this novel was the fact that unlike the movies that portray them as heroes the Musketeers are quite a serious bunch of assholes. Yes they go on and on about honor and courage but they are far from your shining knights serving the king out of duty, they are a bunch of drunken adventurers doing it for gold and women. They thematically fit more into a modern crime movie about gangsters then your typical heroic portrayals they have been given. Not only that but a lot of the actions they take during the plot of the novel can be seen as treason or downright betrayal of duty to their King and France.
The Three Musketeers has two of the greatest villains that set the bar high for their modern successors. The first being the Cardinal Richelieu a real historical figure that is the mastermind behind the events going on in the novel. Richelieu is the power behind the throne running the war against Protestant rebels and Protestant England because the King of France is a worthless childish wimp. Richelieu has spies and agents throughout Europe and has so much power that he can order assassinations and kidnappings on a whim. Reading the novel I could easily see him as an inspiration for characters such as Tywin Lannister, strong, driven men who lead from behind the throne.
The show stealing, best character award of the novel goes to Milady de Winter, the original badass court seductress and assassin. She’s the Cardinals number one Spy and the darkest character in the novel. She’s a evil bitter woman, twisted on the inside by greed, revenge, and envy. Shes so well written as a conniving seductress that after being in her point of view for several chapters you begin to sympathize with her only to be kicked in the teeth a few pages later when she does something batshit evil. Cersei Lannister has nothing on Milady who would make a perfect companion for Littlefinger.
The novel is set in 17th century France during the Siege of La Rochelle. Protestant rebels are surrounded by the Kings Catholic army led by Cardinal Richelieu as the English led by the Duke of Buckingham are preparing to come to their aid. The plot of the novel centers on a clandestine affair between Queen Ann of France and the Duke of Buckingham. Cardinal Richelieu is determined to expose the affair to the King and use it as leverage in the war against England. The novel focuses on our heroes, Musketeers in the service of the king, who get involved in a tangled web of intrigue and romance between the powerful figures behind the scenes in both France and England. Lots of duels are fought, lots of women are won and romanced, and lots of wine is drank.
In closing I highly recommend this classic piece of literature. If you haven’t read it and you enjoy bad ass adventure you will not be disappointed if you chose to follow d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis around. I also think that a lot of modern fantasy should look at adventure novels like The Three Musketeers for inspiration. The intrigue, wit, focus on fantastic pacing, and action of Dumas’ masterpiece should be a baseline in all modern fantasy. A lot of current work should supplement the obsessive world building of Tolkien by implementing more Dumas style action and adventure.
P.S On the Importance of Translation.
If you decide to read the Three Musketeers please get the proper and modern translation. The best out there is the 2006 version translated by Richard Pevear. Other versions of the book, like the free kindle version are based on the original Victorian English translation and due to Victorian sensibilities downplay a lot of the sexual innuendo between the characters. Do yourself a favor and go for the best version.