My preferences are not important. Just look at what I've read, note what's lacking, and tell me to read it posthaste.
In my last review I spoke briefly about the entertainment-biased and substance-biased schools of writers. Musketeers is perhaps the most iconic and enduring success story for entertainers. Strictly speaking, the oeuvres of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens might also lay claim to the title, but at present these two authors are generally far more popular among writers of high school and college curricula than they are among lay readers. The halo of Musketeers’ reputation, on the other hand, has always been a beacon of excitement and emotional appeal more so than depth or realism, though it possesses all these qualities. Like any dedicated writer of pulp, Dumas first excises self-righteousness and pretentiousness from Musketeers, favoring adventure and romance, whenever he finds himself having to choose between the two extremes. Dumas’s approach to his subject matter provides the inverse to Tolstoy’s zealously written War and Peace, with each novel providing identical levels of quality from their respective corners.
Though the plot twists come like clockwork with every chapter, the constantly ramped up action rises organically from characters with striking virtues and vices, which altogether form compelling personalities. the famous protagonist, d’Artagnan, possesses all the qualities that have been proven to win affection from massive numbers of readers: bravery, loyalty, perceptiveness, virility, and dashing good looks. Though one never doubts the overarching goodness and attractiveness of d’Artagnan’s character, Dumas manages to stir up affection and admiration for the young Gascon without completely omitting, glossing over, or uncomfortably twisting into virtue d’Artagnan’s less savory actions. Dumas likewise brings Porthos to task for his bluster and hot-headedness, and Aramis’s piety also contains amusing notes of naivete and even slight hypocrisy. Even Athos loses his composure, and wallows in drink from time to time.
The love stories are also very romantic and geared towards emotional involvement, but never saccharine, nor pointlessly salacious. Dumas might very well have taken pleasure at imagining the blushes of prudish Sunday-school teachers, but he always weaves together the complete picture; both the libidos and the nobler affections of each character all come into play. The men can be both cruel and chivalrous, and the women can be manipulative as well as brazenly honest. The women also have marvellous personality and willpower. They make the men work for their affection. D’artagnan intrigues Constance Bonacieux right away-- as one expects from a daring hero--, but she meets his first, overzealous overtures with pitying smiles as well as flirtatious batting of eyelashes. Dumas takes a refreshing amount of time to develop the relationship, and illustrate the emotional arcs taking place for both parties.
Dumas is one of literature’s consummate entertainers, and all the more so because he does not have to resort to escapism to achieve his ends. He has written a tale of love and derring-do, but the infectious humor and lightheartedness that he brings to bear on his subject matter allows one to see the chivalrous ideals here presented with an eye equally capable of admiration and skepticism. One could well stoop to hero-worshipping the deeds of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, but I rather think Dumas would have his readers stand toe to toe with the objects of their admiration. After all, d’Artagnan, though young and green, always has one more word to add, one more idea to present whenever trouble faces him and his three friends. I doubt that Dumas imagined a code of chivalry set in stone that defies questioning or attempts at improvement. I myself am not prone to violence, and certainly not to unchecked jingoism, but Dumas has certainly made me more hopeful than I have been in a long while about the possibility to temper ferociousness with conscience.