So here it comes. Peter Capaldi – Malcolm Tucker as was, Doctor Who as shortly will be – is twirling his moustache as Cardinal Richelieu in trailers for the much-heralded BBC adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844). It’s always good to see British TV take on French literary classics. Let’s hope The Three Musketeers has a little more in common with its source material than the BBC’s other recent effort, The Paradise, for which I’d be surprised if the producers were able to put up the subtitle ‘based on the novel by Émile Zola’ without blushing. At any rate, the Dumas adaptation looks exciting, as you can see above, with plenty of cape-swishing, sword-fighting, smouldering looks and death-defying leaps. Plus one element that is markedly more prevalent than in the book itself: gunfire. One of the odder things about Dumas’s novel for the modern reader is its singular lack of muskets.
In the mid-1620s, when the story is set, the Mousquetaires are the household guard of the French king, Louis XIII, an elite force trained for the battlefield as well as for the protection of the monarch and his family in peacetime. They are named for their specialist training in the use of the musket (‘mousquet’), an early firearm originally developed in Spain at the end of the previous century under the name ‘moschetto’ or ‘sparrow-hawk’. Muskets were long-barrelled guns, quite unlike the pistols shown in the trailer, and fired by a ‘matchlock’ mechanism of holding a match or burning cord to a small hole leading to the powder chamber. By the 1620s they were not quite as cumbersome as the Spanish originals, which needed to have their barrels supported on a forked stick, but they were still pretty unwieldy devices.
There are lots of weapons in the opening chapters of Les Trois Mousquetaires, where D’Artagnan travels to the barracks, and challenges almost everyone he meets along the way to a duel (including all three of the musketeers). Lots of sword-fighting, but no muskets in sight. One of the musketeers has nicknamed his manservant ‘mousequeton’, or ‘little musket’, and that is as near as we get to a gun until page 429 of the Folio edition, when an actual ‘mousqueton’ makes its first appearance. A ‘mousqueton’ is not quite a musket, though, and in any case it’s not one of the musketeers that’s holding it.
The siege of La Rochelle in the later part of the story seems a more propitious setting for firearms, and indeed, as soon as he arrives at the camp, D’Artagnan spies what appears to be a musket pointing at him from an ambush, and flees, suffering only a hole to the hat. Examining the bullet-hole, he discovers ‘la balle n’était pas une balle de mousquet, c’était une balle d’arquebuse’ (‘the bullet was not from a musket, it was an arquebuse bullet’, arquebuse being an earlier type of firearm). We are now 586 pages into the story, and starting to wonder if Dumas is playing a game with us. The suspicion is heightened when the musketeers take a jaunt into no-man’s-land for some secret scheming away from the camp: ‘Il me semble que pour une pareille expedition, nous aurions dû au moins emporter nos mousquets,’ frets Porthos (p. 639). (‘It seems to me that we ought to at least have taken our muskets along on an expedition like this.’) ‘Vous êtes un niais, ami Porthos; pourquoi nous charger d’un fardeau inutile?’ scoffs Athos in return. (‘You’re a fool, Porthos, my friend. Why would we weight ourselves down with useless burdens ?’) The key to the Mystery of the Missing Muskets is in these lines. Their absence from the novel up to this point is not simply for the historical reason that the heavy and dangerous weapons were appropriate for the battlefield, not for the duties and skirmishes of peace-time Paris. Even when his heroes are mobilized, Dumas remains reluctant to give his musketeers their muskets. Remember that, writing in the 1840s, Dumas is closer in time to us today than he is to the period he’s writing about, and his gaze back to the seventeenth century is often more drawn to romance than historical accuracy (as the cheerfully pedantic footnotes in my edition point out on every other page). For Dumas, the charm of his chosen period lies in the skill and daring of the accomplished swordsman, and his breathless narrative can wring far more excitement from a well-matched duel of blades than it could from a military gun-battle. Heroism in Dumas is to be found in noble combat, staring your opponent in the eye as you match his deadly blade with your own, not in clumsy long-range slaughter of unknowns. Musketeers his heroes must be, in order that they might belong to the royal guard and thus play a role in the dark conspiracies hatched around the King, the Queen and her English lover by Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the throne. But the muskets themselves are surplus to requirements.
Dumas does relent a little on his musket-phobia by the end of the novel. On page 645, the musketless musketeers fire at their enemies using weapons grabbed from corpses. And finally, on page 705, when Richelieu catches the four friends conspiring on the beach, we are at last granted a glimpse of the soldiers’ own guns: ‘[Athos] montra du doigt au cardinal les quatre mousquets en faisceau près du tambour sur lequel étaient les cartes et les dès.’ (‘He pointed out to the cardinal the four muskets stacked next to the drum on which lay the cards and dice.’) As far as I can make out, this is the only point at which we see the musketeers with their muskets in the whole story, and it seems a fitting way to present them to the reader: lying idle while the musketeers are occupied with other, more important amusements.
posted by Simon Kemp