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"One for All and All for One"-Or Not
on October 19, 2005
Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" is one of those books whose title one grows up knowing. In fact, it is difficult to remember a time when one was not familiar with this title! Also familiar from childhood is the slogan "one for all and all for one," although it appears but once in the entire 400+ page novel (the number of pages varying by edition, type size, etc.) In my case, this early familiarity with the title and the popular slogan enabled me to grow up with a thorough misunderstanding of what the book was about. I always assumed it was a series of swashbuckling, derring-do adventures by three gallant rogues bound together by fealty and love of carefree adventure. Finally, I had time to grow up and actually read the book that I felt I already knew and, in so doing, I found most of my assumptions about it to have been rather inaccurate. Ah, how reality intrudes upon safe assumptions formed in ignorance of facts!
The three musketeers, of whom there are really four who are germane to the story, are nominally soldiers of King Louis XIII, and they easily spend as much time fighting other French soldiers who are more loyal to Cardinal Richelieu than to the monarch. Not pitched battles, you understand, but back alley sword fights as chance meetings permit. But such knavery is but a small part of the intrigue, plotting, spying, assassination, and sundry other peccadillos that characterize the royal court. Add to the royal jealousies a measure of personal infatuations, kidnappings and imprisonments, and we find a web which ensnares more than one of our fine musketeers.
The men themselves defy a singular type casting, for they are all of such different personalities and motivations that they have little in common, and, in fact, their friendship, which is better characterized as an alliance at times, does not outlast the novel's epilogue as we see each following a decidedly separate path, one to the church, another to a wealthy marriage, a third to the estate he had formerly left, and only one to the life of a soldier.
Suffice it to say that Dumas' novel is more than I had anticipated, yet also less in some ways. More in that it is not a series of mad adventures but presents a constantly evolving theme of intrigue and mystery; less in that I found my heroic musketeers to be but mortal men, being vanquished by their betters in duels while themselves vanquishing their inferiors, subject to the throes of deception and loss in their love affairs, and driven at times by the simple fact that they find themselves pennyless and in need of food money!
The plot holds the reader's attention, and the unfolding picture of the disparate natures of our musketeers urges the reader onward to the next chapter. The novel does give short shrift to women: the queen is all but powerless, the principal villain is "milady," the keeping of mistresses is a common way of life, and the "sweet young thing" whom we expect to rescued from a loveless marriage by d'Artagnon meets her fate in a scene reminiscent of Shakespeare's Juliet. Perhaps it is useful to remind oneself that this is a novel written in the 1800's and set in the 1600's so that we do not condemn it for its acceptance of actions that appear strangely intolerant in the 21st Century.
Why should "The Three Musketeers" be on anyone's reading list? I offer the two reasons that I felt compelling: first, any book, regardless of how long ago it was written, remains brand new until one has read it, and, second, its title and its strangely engrossing slogan are so well known and so oft repeated that those who use them should know the real story and the real characters that they are invoking! I have said nothing about writing style or pedantry in parts of the text, for my linguistic skills are so limited that I can enjoy the book only in English translation, and I realize that the words I am reading are not those of the author but of a translator. I shall not hold Dumas accountable for the efforts of another, and different translators will undoubtedly render the text somewhat differently. Some will be true to the literal meaning of Dumas' words. Better ones will be true to the spirit and connotation of those words. In any event, the novel deserves the time that the reader will devote to it, for it is too well known in our culture for anyone to remain ignorant of its contents or, as in my own case, to have misconstrued those contents early on. I am pleased that I now stand corrected in terms of Dumas' first great novel.