On the first Monday of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, birthplace of the author of the Roman de la Rose, seemed to be in as great a turmoil as if the Huguenots had come to turn it into a second La Rochelle. A number of townmen, seeing women running in the direction of the main street and hearing children shouting on doorsteps, hastened to put on their breatsplates, and, steadying their rather uncertain self-assurance with a musket or a halberd, made their way toward the inn, the Hötellerie du Franc Meunier, in front of which a noisy, dense, and curious through was growing larger by the minute. (p. 1)
Summary: The opening of the book, of course, is famous: D'Artagnan, a Gascon hoping to make his fortune and be a musketeer, comes to Paris and happens to get challenged to duels by Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, three of the King's musketeers; their attempt to duel gets interrupted by some of Cardinal Richilieu's guards, who attempt to arrest them. Together, they fight the Cardinal's guards, and, of course, inevitably become the closest of friends, and work together to try to help make each other's fortunes. And indeed, much of the charm of the book is in its depiction of male friendship; there is a reason why the phrase most remembered from the book is "one for all and all for one". The kind of loyalty in which you have your buddy's back regardless of the scrapes he gets you into -- as when d'Artagnan has to deal with the fact that a drunk and depressed Athos gambled away not only the horse d'Artagnan had given him, but d'Artagnan's horse, as well -- is admirable in itself.
Re-reading this after such a long time, a number of things jumped out at me, all of which I think contribute to the excellence of the work. The servants had a much more important part to play in the story than I had remember; rather than being background, as they usually would have been, they end up being important secondary characters in their own right. I had forgotten how the opposition between d'Artagnan and the man from Meung ended; a surprising end, but suitable for a book that puts so much emphasis on friendship between men. The work also unfolds very nicely -- it gets bigger and bigger as the tale goes on, and all very smoothly.
The humor, of course, is a major part of the work. I remember it being somewhat humorous, but in fact it is hilariously funny; entire stretches are joke after joke. What is more, they are jokes on our heroes themselves, some absurdity about them or their handling of a situation into which they have stumbled. They are well balanced, however -- they never descend merely into farce. This also is a strength. Because we laugh about the four friends, we see their faults, and they are often miles wide, but as it is never just a farce, they stand out as truly heroic nonetheless.
Milady, of course, also makes her contribution by being one of the great villains of literature. I had remembered the Felton episode as a rather minor one, almost a digression, but reading it this time around I see that it is actually essential. Up to that point we had only brief glimpses of Milady and her evil. We knew she was treacherous, murderous, manipulative. With the Felton episode, however, we get a sustained look at her, and learn that all of this understates the case. She is not a mere murderess and liar; she is a destroyer of souls. And because we have seen it firsthand, looked a little bit insider her head and seen her ruin a good man, we can accept the history of her wickedness that gradually unfolds from there, we can accept the sense of danger that the heroes have: we know it must be true, because we have seen her in action. What is more, as I noted, the book's stage is an ever-expanding one. But how do you get bigger than war between England and France? It is Milady who makes it possible, for with her we get a battle not of swords but of souls, and one that is, if not exactly between Heaven and Hell, or Good and Evil, yet nonetheless between good, if flawed, heroes and a villain who has no qualms about endangering the salvation of someone's soul if it will serve her petty and vindictive ends. There is no bigger stage for human life, and no background that could do more to bring into bright relief a story of friendship.
His Eminence was standing, leaning against the fireplace, with at able between him and d'Artagnan.
"Monsieur d'Artagnan, you've been arrested on my order."
"So I was told, Monseigneur."
"Do you know why?"
"No, Monseigneur, because there's only one thing I could have been arrested for, and you don't yet know about it." (pp. 538-539)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.