“Forward! Still Forward!”

French Poster for The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

French Poster for The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

The movies have it all wrong. After he wrote the original novel in the series, The Three Musketeers (1844), Alexandre Dumas Père decided he was more interested in his guardsman heroes after they’ve begun to enter middle and old age. The movies like to treat The Man in the Iron Mask (1847), the last book in the series, as if it were still full of youthful hijinks and derring-do. There is no doubt a bit of that present, but in this last book Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan enter a world that is far different and more threatening than the world of Richelieu and Louis XIII.

Louis XIV, the sun-king, starts out as being not altogether sympathetic, nor is Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his fast-rising minister. This prompts two of the Musketeers to replace him with his little-known twin brother Philippe, who is being held in the Bastille. When Nicolas Fouquet, the Superintent of Finances, is told, he immediately restores the monarch and gives Aramis and Porthos a four-hour head start to safety.

Neither d’Artagnan nor Porthos are in on the plot, though both are somewhat on the outs with the young monarch. The former is sent to apprehend his old friends, and that’s when their world begins to unravel. Porthos dies in the attack on Belle-Île, while Aramis manages to escape. Shortly after, both Athos and his son Raoul die of grief. Here we see into d’Artagnan’s mind at their funeral:

The captain [d’Artagnan] watched the departure of the horses, horsemen, and carriage; then crossing his arms upon his swelling chest, “When will it be my turn to depart?” said he, in an agitated voice, “What is there left for man after youth, after love, after glory, after friendship, after strength, after riches? That rock, under which sleeps Porthos, who possessed all I have named; this moss, under which repose Athos and Raoul [de Bragelonne], who possessed still much more!”

He hesitated a moment with a dull eye; then, drawing himself up, “Forward! still forward!” said he. “When it shall be time, God will tell me, as he has told others.”

The Musketeers have become a relic in a world they now cease to comprehend. Entropy has reared its ugly head, and the period of eternal youth and joy has come to an end. Curiously, Dumas was still a fairly young man when he and his collaborator Auguste Maquet wrote this sequel.

Life in the France of the 1840s was no picnic, as we can tell from reading the novels of Honoré de Balzac written about the period. In debt, disliked by Napoleon III, and subject to the tyranny of changing fashions, Dumas frequently found himself in debt.

Coincidentally, Dumas was one of two great nineteenth century authors of African ancestry. (The other was also called Alexander: Pushkin in Russia.) Once when twitted about his ancestry, Dumas had the perfect comeback: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, that my family starts where yours ends.”