Of Kings, Queens, and Musketeers

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Author: Allen G. Wood
Date: 1997
From: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature(Vol. 24, Issue 46)
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 134)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,841 words

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[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Wood examines the enduring popularity of the Three Musketeers trilogy, commenting that, "[t]he exploits of d'Artagnan and his three musketeer friends are perhaps better known and more read than works actually written during the reign of Louis XIII."]

The first half of the French seventeenth century remains vividly animated in the collective, popular imagination as the period of the Three Musketeers, even more than one hundred and fifty years after the publication of Alexandre Dumas' historical novel. The exploits of d'Artagnan and his three musketeer friends are perhaps better known and more read than works actually written during the reign of Louis XIII, for readers in France and indeed throughout the world. And the commercial success which Dumas enjoyed, as installment followed installment during the spring and summer of 1844 in Le Siècle, called for the sequels of Vingt Ans Après and the Vicomte de Bragelonne, which advanced the musketeers to the time of the Fronde, then to Louis XIV. Even today, the popularity of the musketeers is still apparent in the various film versions of this modern classic story. It is important to examine the dynamics of history and fiction contained within the novel in order to ascertain the mechanisms of historical transmission in novel form, and determine which elements of the seventeenth century are conveyed by the popular icon.

The intertextual links between Dumas' novel and the Mémoires de M. d'Artagnan by Gatien de Courtilz are described in many critical and editorial commentaries, in addition to speculations about the involvement of Auguste Maquet, one of Dumas' many hired writers, in the final draft of the Trois Mousquetaires. But rather than focus on questions of hypotextual, source material on one hand, or authorial collaboration on the other, which would only repeat well known information, this study will consider Dumas' text by itself and examine the ways in which it represents the historical period, the era which sets the scene for the narrative action. Dumas did not think of himself as a historian, but he did regard history as "un clou auquel j'accroche mes romans" (Maurois, 170). But where exactly is this historical nail in the Trois Mousquetaires, and how does the fiction hang from it?

The historical novel as genre was initiated by Scott, and popularized in 19th-century France by Balzac, Hugo, Vigny and Dumas, who appropriated French history for their fictional rewriting of history from the Middle Ages (Notre Dame de Paris) to the French Revolution (Les Chouans). Georg Lukacs reminds us that:

What matters in the historical novel is not the retelling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figure in those events. What matters is that we should reexperience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel, and act just as they did in historical reality.(p. 43)

It is not a matter of canonizing history, but of popularizing it. While on the one hand the nineteenth century was institutionalizing the past, as presented in Ralph Albanese's study of Molière in the Republican school system, on the other hand fictive creations such as those of Dumas had great mass appeal because they did not claim to be scholarly or pedantic. It is important to be aware of all the various symbolic presentations of past mentalities, in addition to the more traditional documentary aspects of history.

The ahistoricity of this genre, and Dumas' work in particular, has long been noted, and it is clear that "... personne ne lit la trilogie de Dumas pour apprendre quelque chose sur le XVIIe siècle." (Bem, p. 13) Jeanne Bem's article continues with a lengthy key which reveals that the major historical events related in the three novels had analogues in the nineteenth century, the true historical referent for the works. It must be noted, however, that such a reading of Dumas' text puts too great a privileged position on the major events of history. Moreover, and to the point at hand, only two of the twelve items in the key refer to the Trois Mousquetaires.

The novel's beginning is highly significant in indicating a precise historical period. Dumas, not particularly fond of subtlety, begins his novel with a matter of fact statement concerning date and place: "Le premier lundi du mois d'avril 1625, le bourg de Meung, où naquit l'auteur du Roman de la Rose. ..." There are no transitions, but an abrupt and swift movement backward in time to a specific moment in the past, although, in fact, the exact date of the first Monday in April in 1625 is not provided. Dumas did not use this technique in Vingt Ans Après but returned to it in the Vicomte de Bragelonne: "Vers le milieu du mois de mai de l'année 1660, à neuf heures du matin, lorsque le soleil. ..." After this initial date, however, the year is not mentioned again throughout the novel, until the final page, the "Epilogue," which closes the events of the work in a historical chronology containing three references to dates or years. In other words, within this framework which directly states a date in time, the historical period is evoked in a non-calendar fashion.

After stating that initial events in the novel occur in 1625, Dumas then has the task of recreating a world different from that of 1844, where the differences convey a plausible historicity indicating early seventeenth-century France. His second paragraph begins:

En ce temps-là les paniques étaient fréquentes, et peu de jours se passaient sans qu'une ville ou l'autre enregistrât sur ses archives quelque événement de ce genre. Il y avait les seigneurs qui guerroyaient entre eux; il y avait le roi qui faisait la guerre au cardinal; il y avait l'Espagnol qui faisait la guerre au roi. Puis, outre ces guerres sourdes ou publiques, secrètes ou patentes, il y avait encore les voleurs, les mendiants, les huguenots, les loups et les laquais, qui faisaient la guerre à tout le monde. Les bourgeois s'armaient toujours contre les voleurs, contre les loups, contre les laquais ... mais jamais contre le cardinal et l'Espagnol.

These multiple "paniques" make this a formidable, hostile environment, one which threatens the average citizen from multiple sources, in an inextricable web of opposing forces which ensnares all too easily. The wolves and Huguenots allude to a pre-1700 society, and references to king and cardinal specify even more accurately the period of Louis XIII. As for the dangers of thieves, lackeys, and warring lords, they provide a universal enough threat to indicate almost any time of the Ancien Regime. All the details in this list of "panics" give general support to the historical dating of the events as occurring in 1625, without being particularly precise.

Reference to a Spanish war with the king of France raises the first instance in the novel of historical anachronism. War with Spain did not break out until ten years later, in 1635. Although the historical novel as a genre presents a mixture of fact and fiction, of history and narrative, the phenomenon of anachronism presents an inappropriate fiction in an item which requires greater historical accuracy. Various critics have pointed out numerous anachronisms in the Trois Mousquetaires, which are important only to the extent that they reveal certain blindspots or inattentions. It is true that Dumas was no historian, nor was he writing for historians. Yet his novels are historical in that they capture the general essence of a period, and are highly plausible with regard to historical data, dealing with the realm of the vraisemblable, if not with the vrai. The question of perspective arises: "L'écriture historique sur le XVIIème siecle doit-elle passer par une vision moderne, Historique, scientifique et 'exacte' de ce qu'était la réalité du XVIIème, ou par la vision que les gens du XVIIème avaient de leur temps... ?" (Ronzeaud, p. 122) Anachronisms do occur as traces of a difference, as signs of fictionality. Yet they must be apparent to figure in the reading, whereas, indeed, those in the Trois Mousquetaires, like hairline cracks between the imaginary and the real, are likely not even to be perceived.

The fact that Mme de Combalet and the Duchesse d'Aiguillon are presented as two minor characters, when in fact they are two names for the same person in history, apparently escaped the author's attention. In addition, the Porte de la Conférence in Paris is mentioned at a time before the conference which gave it its name, and the rue Servandoni discussed at a time before the architect was even born. Marion de Lorme is alluded to as a mistress of Cardinal Richelieu when she was only fifteen--but, given her reputation, this detail may imply an improbability, rather than an anachronism. The musketeers bathed in the sea when such an act was rare except in cases of illness, lord Winter threatens to have Milady transported to Botany Bay, discovered by Captain Cook one hundred fifty years later, and houses in Dumas' seventeenth-century Paris bore street numbers earlier than conventional history allows. Finally, many critics chide the reference to Papal infallibility in M. de Tréville's sarcastic comments to the king concerning Richelieu:

--Son Eminence n'est pas Sa Sainteté, Sire.--Qu'entendez-vous par là, Monsieur?--Qu'il n'y a que le pape qui soit infaillible, et que cette infaillibilité ne s'étend pas aux cardinaux.(p. 94)

The reality of Papal infallibility was quite obviously an anachronism in the time of Louis XIII, but also in that of the Trois Mousquetaires in 1844. It was not until Pope Pious IX's proclamation in 1870 that this concept became church doctrine. Until that time it was simply an idea, like so many others, that could have been uttered at any time, without taint of anachronism.

Such lapses are minor, however, especially when the multiple authorship of Dumas' works (Maquet-Dumas) is considered, as well as the rapidity of its creation in installments for Le Siècle, and the great quantity of detail provided in the 700-800 page novel. Even when perceived by critical attention, the anachronisms carry little consequence, since Dumas only missed by a decade or two (some two hundred years later) his chronological target. Dumas corrected several mistakes present in the first drafts, corrections based on his own readings of the seventeenth century (Tallemant des Réaux, Mme de Lafayette, etc.). But he was no pedant, preferring a few errors which reveal his own historical fallibility, while not diminishing from his talents as a writer of narrative. Although Charles Samaran calls into question Dumas' historical accuracy, he also evokes a different kind of history at which Dumas excelled:

Qui a, mieux que Dumas, fait sentir une époque, respirer l'air du temps, et pour cela, entrer dans le secret personnel, psychologique, moral, pittoresque, des gens et des choses, [ou] ... mieux rendu le passé présent?(Introduction, Trois Mousquetaires, xxxiii)

Dumas was less concerned with a given year than an entire era, and brought it alive with adventurous deeds rather than documented accuracy.

With regard to the paragraph on the various paniques of the seventeenth century, although war and strife predominate at this initial stage of the novel, as the moral climate is established, it does not persist throughout the work. This is an early justification of force and a call for virile action in a world of swordplay and intrigue. The seventeenth century as presented in the Trois Mousquetaires is generally depicted with a certain nostalgia, as a pleasant enough world, especially for the brave of heart. In short, it is an idealized age of Louis XIII:

Dumas' picture of the seventeenth century omits everything that would have made it a most uncomfortable age for any of his nineteenth-century readers were they to have been magically transported back into it. The epidemics, the famines, the injustices, the barbarous superstitions of the period have no place in his account. Even war is reduced to a gay picnic beneath the fortifications of La Rochelle.(Hemmings, p. 123)

The historical period is maintained much less by facts of History, that is, major personalities and events, than it is by the everyday details of custom and fashion. References every few pages to an item of clothing, a unit of currency, or a mode of transportation suffice, with the numerous allusions to king and cardinal, to keep the action well anchored in its historical moment, indicated as "ce temps là." But the pourpoints and pistoles would be mere stage props if there was not also the recreation of a past mentality, of the image of a real lived experience conveyed by the descriptions and the characters. The one historical item which predominates the others, and reveals a lifestyle different from that of the nineteenth century, is the sword.

The musketeers are swordsmen, sworn to defend the king, his honor, and their own corps by the use of arms. The seventeenth century appears at first in the novel as a time of great panic, were it not for men like d'Artagnan and the musketeers who are skilled at swordfighting. As heroes of the tale, they emerge from their violent encounters sometimes wounded, but ultimately victorious. In the Trois Mousquetaires, the seventeenth century is presented as a period of libidinal freedom, with different forces of law and order (especially of king and cardinal) fighting each other for control. The musketeers establish relationships with other men, friendship or enmity, by the sword, and their relations with women are carnal and tinged with scandal. D'Artagnan loves Mme Bonacieux, a married woman. The musketeers often succeed one another in the beds of their mistresses, who act as intermediaries:

Ces femmes dont les mousquetaires partagent le service ou la couche forment un pont entre eux: leur amitié, ou leur amour si l'on veut, s'exprime en entreprises communes et en corps partagés. La maîtresse commune sert de relais à de troublants messages, de dépositaire de charmants présents, de support à de singulières opérations.(Tranouez, p. 322)

The musketeers are free to fight and love, serving one father figure as they resist the unjust constraints, the Law of the Father abrogated by Cardinal Richelieu.

Such a portrayal of the seventeenth century is both historically plausible at the same time that it makes of the former French period an exotic, idealized time. It is depicted as a chaotic yet freer era, a time which calls for dramatic, violent action from those "ordinary" citizens who serve their king. Those in the middle of society (lesser nobles, bourgeois), like the four heroes, could make a difference, and participate in shaping the course of history, both the major events (La Rochelle), as well as some of the smaller details (l'affaire des ferrets).

The chaos of life in the 1620's is also contained in a series of unstable structures in the narrative, which call for vigilance on the part of characters or readers. In particular, a series of triads either expand or collapse, creating confusion in the structure, and occasionally danger on the level of plot action. The very title of the novel indicates three musketeers, yet the novel describes the adventures of four friends. The fact that d'Artagnan is not officially a musketeer seems a mere technicality. But the common theme of "one for all and all for one" makes it unclear whether there are four heroes, or one.

Even minor details present an unstable triad. In the first chapter, when d'Artagnan leaves home, he is shown as having three presents from his parents: a letter to M. de Tréville, some money, and a horse. Yet, in addition, he has also learned the secret for making a restorative balm to heal wounds, which he uses both in this first chapter and later in the novel (it is the one "present" which lasts longest). But the most unstable and therefore dangerous triad in the entire novel involves the king, queen, and cardinal. The ambiguity in the relationship between king and cardinal makes the "panic" of warring seigneurs preferable in its simplicity, for the ambiguity can ensnare those caught in the middle, like the musketeers. The cardinal dissembles in his statements of service to the king, while the monarch, who realizes the duplicity of Richelieu, relies upon him nonetheless. The queen, caught up in all their conspiracies and intrigues, is victimized by both. While most critics view the basic dichotomy of power between king and cardinal, some, like Patrick Brady, see in the novel a general fight between good and evil as incarnated in the figures of an innocent Anne of Austria and the ruthless Richelieu.

The historical aspects of the historical novel are primarily the marginalized events of the institutionalized historical discourse, in an inversion of events and character. The perspective in the historical novel is that of a relatively minor, even imaginary, historical figure whose experience involves the average, everyday reality which surrounds a great historical moment or event. In the Trois Mousquetaires, for example, d'Artagnan does come into contact with all three principal historical figures, Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, and Cardinal Richelieu, who play influential characters limited to minor roles in the novel. The three interviews are spaced throughout the novel, providing, if not much narrative suspense, a sense of historical awe, as the "average" d'Artagnan, is sought out (and with him, the readers) by each of the three great personnages.

Because of his skilled swordsmanship, d'Artagnan comes to the attention of the king extraordinarily soon after the young man arrives in Paris. It is plausible that d'Artagnan should meet the king, since he is attached to his service through M. de Tréville, but the encounter emphasizes the fictive aspect of history. In the sixth chapter the king is both pleased that his men beat those of the cardinal, while saddened at the schism in the country, occasioned by "deux partis en France, deux têtes à la royauté." (p. 81) D'Artagnan and the king meet face to face in the Louvre, although M. de Tréville and his men were requested to use a secret stairway to avoid the cardinal's surveillance. Once inside, d'Artagnan's actions arouse the admiration of the king, who asks d'Artagnan to relate his exploits.

D'Artagnan's role in recovering the queen's ten diamond tags or ferrets from England and in counterfeiting the other two which the cardinal had taken places him in a privileged historical position. As the cardinal, who played upon the suspicions of the king, set his trap for Anne at the ballet de la Merlaison, it was d'Artagnan alone among the attendees who realized the significance of the queen's appearance with the twelve diamonds. The author shifts the description from the heads of state to the unacknowledged hero who saved the queen:

L'attention que nous avons été obligés de donner pendant le commencement de ce chapitre aux personnages illustres que nous y avons introduits nous a écartés un instant de celui à qui Anne d'Autriche devait le triomphe inouï qu'elle venait de remporter sur le cardinal, et qui, confondu, ignore, perdu dans la foule entassée à l'une des portes, regardait de là cette scène compréhensible seulement pour quatre personnes: le roi, la reine, Son Eminence et lui.(chpt. 22, p. 282)

D'Artagnan is rewarded, not with an interview with the queen, which would be far too dangerous, but with her arm. He is led into a darkened room adjoining one with the queen, when: "tout à coup une main et un bras adorables de forme et de blancheur passerent à travers la tapisserie" (p. 283) The hero is allowed one brief kiss of this great historical hand, at which time he is given a ring as a token of gratitude, before it is hastily withdrawn. As Michel Picard indicates, "C'est la Reine, évidemment, qui figure la part la plus sacrée et la plus interdite. ..." (p. 61)

Finally, d'Artagnan's exploits bring him to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, with whom the young swordsman has a most chilling interview (chapter 40). The reader suffers along with d'Artagnan under the gaze of His Eminence: "Nul n'avait l'oil plus profondément scrutateur que le cardinal de Richelieu, et d'Artagnan sentit ce regard courir par ses veines comme une fièvre." (p. 494). Richelieu is impressed with the young man's loyalty to the king, yet reminds him that he could easily destroy the young Gascon. The novel concludes with the Cardinal's great exploit, the destruction of La Rochelle, which continues the process of a fictive perspective bringing alive in narrative form the daily events and reality of a great historical moment.

The historical setting of the seventeenth century serves many functions in Dumas' nineteenth-century fiction. It recreates a time which is both familiar in its use of historical names and geographical places, yet marked by the great difference of the Revolution which makes of it an Ancien Régime. As such, the novel rewrites the past so that it can enter into the realm of the symbolic, the imaginary for the general masses. It evokes a time which calls for daring, even scandalous actions, of justified murderous and amorous affairs, in a release of libidinal energy. The characters and events in the Trois Mousquetaires are those of common life, of ordinary citizens, more closely related to the reading public. Social hierarchies are lessened, in a general move toward democratization. Material marginalized in academic, historical discourse is given primary consideration, and history is shaped by characters who are known for their actions, not for their birth. Whereas the institutionalized History developed in the nineteenth century was an instrument of closure and death, the historical novel opened up past periods and infused them with life.

One of the most significant uses of French seventeenth-century history in the Trois Mousquetaires involves the rewriting of history to foster nationalistic pride in the past, especially as portrayed in small details of history which reveal national character and the participatory role of the middle class. Along with other historical novels, Dumas' tale of the musketeers seeks to create a national myth of heroic valor and to put it into circulation as an object of exchange. The reader pays for a little bit of history, a piece of the national dream, as the body of seventeenth-century history became textualized, traded, possessed and finally consumed.

Works Cited

Albanese, Ralph. Molière à l'Ecole républicaine. Saratoga, CA: Anma Libri, 1992.

Bem, Jeanne. "D'Artagnan, et après", Littérature, 22 (mai 76): 13-29.

Brady, Patrick. "L'épée, la lettre, et la robe: Symbolisme dramatique et thématique des Trois Mousquetaires", Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 23, 3-4 (1981): 215-225.

Dumas, Alexandre. Les Trois Mousquetaires, ed. Charles Samaran. Paris: Garnier, 1968.

Hemmings, F W J. Alexandre Dumas: The King of Romance. New York: Scribner's, 1979.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.

Maurois, André. Les Trois Dumas. Paris: Hachette, 1957.

Picard, Michel. "Pouvoirs du feuilleton ou d'Artagnan anonyme", Littérature, 50 (mai 1983): 55-78.

Ronzeaud, Pierre, éd. Le Roman historique, Actes de Marseille. Paris: Biblio 17, 1983.

Tranouez, Pierre. "Cave filium! Etude du cycle des Mousquetaires" Poétique, 71 (Sept. 1987): 321-331

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082186