The Vicomte de Bragelonne is a different sort of novel from the preceding volumes in the D'Artagnan Romances. In The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, we find our four heroes battling against evil forces with a combination of stunning swordplay, unmatched bravado, unbelievable ingenuity, and several strokes of great fortune. Their famous cry, "All for one and one for all!" has echoed throughout the imagination for 150 years. Movies are still being made from the stories, they still appear in television commercials, they have their own candy bar, and some current authors have even lent their talents to filling in the gaps between the novels. The swashbuckling exploits of the "four invincibles," as they are referred to in the novels, have made them sell consistently for a century and a half, a feat not achieved by many authors. The popularity of the stories, first as magazine serials and then as novels, made Dumas the most famous Frenchman of the age. The heroes and villains are clearly defined, and it is never difficult for the readers to know who to cheer for as the drama unfolds in the theater of the mind.
Dumas himself resembled, as much as one could in the 19th Century, his swashbuckling heroes. Before he embarked on the series, he was already considered one of, if not the, greatest dramatists in France. He had fought in one of the many revolutions in France at that time, and would later run guns in an Italian revolution. His unerring sense of drama had brought him theatrical acclaim the world over, and when he switched to novels, that same sense never steered him wrong. For the entirety of the D'Artagnan Romances, he had a collaborator, named Maquet, who did much of the historical research. But the many charges leveled against Dumas that he ran a literature "factory" are blatantly false. Once he got his historical framework, Dumas injected the story with his own energy and breathed life into it, many times ignoring the strict dictates of historical fact for the necessity of crafting the drama as he saw fit. Indeed, The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After bear many structural similarities. There are clear villains (Milady, De Wardes, Richelieu, Mordaunt, Mazarin) and clear heroes and heroines, great men destined for demise, despite our heroes' efforts (Buckingham, Charles I), and yet our four heroes must triumph against all odds, united until the end.
But the clearest difference in this third volume is that our heroes are no longer united. Though inseparable in their youth, now Aramis, with the unwitting Porthos in tow, is plotting against the king, who D'Artagnan has sworn with his life to defend. Athos, once the most upright defender of nobility, is now forced to break his sword before his monarch, and renounce the sacred vow he pledged with his son in Twenty Years After to respect royalty in all its forms. Never, even, do the four come face to face in the course of the entire novel. Time has sent them in different directions, and managed to separate them when constant villains in the course of forty years have failed.
Dumas uses this division of his heroes to skillfully insert his own opinions on that phase of French history, which in many ways paralleled the time he lived in himself. Although Dumas's distinct storytelling talents are as evident as in the former novels, Dumas sets the twilight of his characters in the dawn of a new age, exploiting the contrast as a form of social commentary. The four former musketeers are now drawn to each represent a virtue. D'Artagnan is Loyalty, Athos is Nobility, Porthos is Strength, and Aramis is Cunning. When Louis XIV dishonors Raoul and casts off Athos, he sheds the ideal of Nobility as he in reality broke the power of the French nobles and brought the entire country under his control. When he tames D'Artagnan, as Aramis and Porthos are fighting for their lives at Belle-Isle, he symbolically gains the Loyalty of his servants, which he would keep during his long reign. When Porthos meets his demise at Belle-Isle, Strength is no longer a virtue prized in France, as Industry (in the form of Colbert) and Cunning (in Aramis) now become the hallmarks of the time. When Fouquet falls, so does Generosity. When Louis takes Louise as his mistress, condemning Raoul to his death, Fidelity dies with the poor young cavalier as Innocence is corrupted. As D'Artagnan, Raoul, Athos, and Porthos meet their ends, and only Aramis is left alive, Dumas indicates the death of these noble virtues in France, virtues that he urged his contemporaries to assume again in his own time.
This new generation that comes with the ascension of Louis XIV is, indeed, pale in comparison to the times in which the four musketeers had their great exploits. D'Artagnan and Athos are endlessly commenting on these youngsters, always unfavorably, and they are generally accurate. Raoul, the true son of Athos, and the symbolic son of the four, is never as quick to draw his sword as D'Artagnan would have been at that age, though he is equally as skillful in its use. Although he loses his one true love, Louise, as D'Artagnan did forty years ago, Constance, this loss kills the younger hero. He is more thoughtful, more sensitive, and thereby weaker. The villains, too, are watered down. De Wardes, certainly the most "evil" character in the novel, pales in comparison with the great villains D'Artagnan and his friends had to face. Colbert, though ugly, ill-humored, and set to ruin the kind, generous, affable Fouquet, is actually a blessing in disguise, and it is through his "great works" that France is ready to rise to ever-greater glory in the coming reign. The Chevalier de Lorraine, always a disruptive influence, is checked not through confrontation or daring intrigue, but by artful court maneuvering. De Guiche, Raoul's loyal friend, and as consummate a nobleman of the new reign as one might expect to find, is more concerned with his love affairs and his own happiness than his role in safeguarding Raoul's honor. Though he does fight De Wardes in the only illegal duel in the novel, he loses, and does nothing to help Raoul when the king's treachery is discovered. And age has affected the four heroes, too. D'Artagnan pulls off his masterstroke in England not with his four friends by his side and sword drawn, as he did in the former novels, but with stealth and cunning. He defeats De Wardes not by a duel, which would be his ordinary mode of operation, but by outwitting him. The only scenes that are reminiscent of the times of former glory are the riot at the execution, where D'Artagnan, with Raoul by his side, defeats a whole mob, and Aramis and Porthos's desperate final stand in the grotto. But even these are tainted; D'Artagnan's action ends up going against the values he would have prized, had he known the truth, and the events in the grotto cost Porthos his life.
But these differences in the times and the changes in our heroes as they age do not detract from the work, but rather enrich it. It is a more mature novel than its predecessors, richer in detail due to the slower pacing. The mood, too, is much darker, especially towards the end, when we know that impending doom is approaching for Raoul, as his love affair unravels, and for Aramis and Porthos as their plot is detected. And, of course, the mystery of the man in the iron mask, around which the latter portions of the book are based, is one of the most dark and sinister mysteries in all history. The characters, though they each defend an abstract ideal, are as rich and vivid as they ever were, if not more so, and the depth of emotion that Dumas explores is much wider than in the two earlier books. Porthos was modeled on Dumas's own father, and legend has it that the author wept for three days as he was writing the death of that gentle giant. Many readers experience the same, no matter how many times they may have read that passage. Even Aramis, according to Dumas, was moved to shed his first and only tears. Anyone who has ever loved and lost can feel Raoul's pain, and any parent can understand Athos's anguish as he sees his son off to certain death. No longer are characters simply good or simply evil, they are their own entities, sometimes good, sometimes evil. The Duchesse de Chevreuse, once Aramis's close friend and contact at court, the mother of Raoul, now schemes against Aramis, hoping to bring about his downfall. Queen Anne of Austria, once the beautiful, helpless heroine, is now the ailing, sometimes imperial, matriarch of the royal household, tortured by the son she was forced to forsake. In other words, they are human. The refinement of the four principles, as age steals upon them, adds an element that is somehow lacking from the former books. They now hail from different spheres, which lends richness to their portrayal. Aramis is the man of God, with a scheme always in the works. Athos is the dignified, retired nobleman, whose only concerns are debts left unpaid and the launching of his son into the world. Porthos is a great baron, ever ready to help, ever seeking another title, ever seeking the noble airs that were not his birthright, but to which he came upon his wife's death. And D'Artagnan is a hardened soldier, casting a cynical eye everywhere, still loyal, but somewhat embittered, trading in his customary "mordioux!" for the "bah!" more common to old men.
The character of D'Artagnan is, of course, the focus of the Romances. Dumas frequently admitted that D'Artagnan was the man he could never be. In The Vicomte de Bragelonne, the character expands even further. Although his primary symbolic representation is that of the virtue of Loyalty, he is not devoid of other virtues. He has his share of Cunning, Nobility, and Strength, as well as the virtues of the other characters. He's a sort of Everyman, superior in every respect, and the only man that can tame him is Louis, the greatest French monarch of them all. The scene in which D'Artagnan goes to the scene of the duel between De Wardes and De Guiche, and from the forensic evidence manages to piece together the details exactly, predates the classic detective fiction that was becoming popular in the States with Edgar Allen Poe's murders in the Rue Morgue. He has learned to maneuver in royal circles with infinite grace and delicacy, and until the end he boasts that he can always make the king do what he wants. Even outside the D'Artagnan Romances, he has gotten around. He's found his way onto the big screen countless times, most recently in two major films in the 1990s. He's found his way onto the stage, not only in Dumas's own adaptations of the Musketeers saga, but as a walk-on character in Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand, for example. Many talented authors, in many different ages, have lent their pens to continuations to the saga. Paul Feval and a M. Lassez wrote a series of eight novels based on the adventures of D'Artagnan with a young Cyrano de Bergerac. These are supposedly tales of Grimaud's, Athos's servant, related to Athos, and Aramis even makes an appearance. Roger Nimier's last book was D'Artagnan amoureux, set shortly after The Three Musketeers. He had planned more in the series, but unfortunately died in 1956. The 1993 winner of le Prix Interallie was a novel entitled Le dernier amour d'Aramis by Jean-Pierre Dufreigne, which focuses on Aramis, the most mysterious of the four and the one whose past remains the greatest mystery. Although Dumas's portrayal of the character of D'Artagnan is the most famous, it was not the first. Dumas got much of his initial material from a book written by a soldier, Courtilz de Sandras, who supplemented his income by writing historical fictions. He published his fictional Memoirs of M. d'Artagnan in 1700, and Dumas, after reading the first volume, used much of the material as his basis for the first part of The Three Musketeers. The real D'Artagnan, although he was Captain-Lieutenant of the musketeers, and he did arrest Fouquet and escort him to prison, was far from the dashing hero Dumas made him. As for the other characters, particularly Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, they also appeared in this fictional memoir, and lacking even the scant details about them that subsequent historians have managed to bring to the light of day, Dumas's ever-fertile imagination made them three of the most famous men in history.
As a closing, instead of more of my thoughts on the novels, I instead quote what Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about The Vicomte de Bragelonne: "My acquaintance with the VICOMTE began, somewhat indirectly, in the year of grace 1863, when I had the advantage of studying certain illustrated dessert plates in a hotel at Nice. The name of d'Artagnan in the legends I already saluted like an old friend, for I had met it the year before in a work of Miss Yonge's. My first perusal was in one of those pirated editions that swarmed at that time out of Brussels, and ran to such a troop of neat and dwarfish volumes. I understood but little of the merits of the book; my strongest memory is of the execution of d'Eymeric and Lyodot - a strange testimony to the dulness of a boy, who could enjoy the rough-and-tumble in the Place de Greve, and forget d'Artagnan's visits to the two financiers. My next reading was in winter-time, when I lived alone upon the Pentlands. I would return in the early night from one of my patrols with the shepherd; a friendly face would meet me in the door, a friendly retriever scurry upstairs to fetch my slippers; and I would sit down with the VICOMTE for a long, silent, solitary lamp-light evening by the fire. And yet I know not why I call it silent, when it was enlivened with such a clatter of horse-shoes, and such a rattle of musketry, and such a stir of talk; or why I call those evenings solitary in which I gained so many friends. I would rise from my book and pull the blind aside, and see the snow and the glittering hollies chequer a Scotch garden, and the winter moonlight brighten the white hills. Thence I would turn again to that crowded and sunny field of life in which it was so easy to forget myself, my cares, and my surroundings: a place busy as a city, bright as a theatre, thronged with memorable faces, and sounding with delightful speech. I carried the thread of that epic into my slumbers, I woke with it unbroken, I rejoiced to plunge into the book again at breakfast, it was with a pang that I must lay it down and turn to my own labours; for no part of the world has ever seemed to me so charming as these pages, and not even my friends are quite so real, perhaps quite so dear, as d'Artagnan.
"Since then I have been going to and fro at very brief intervals in my favourite book; and I have now just risen from my last (let me call it my fifth) perusal, having liked it better and admired it more seriously than ever. Perhaps I have a sense of ownership, being so well known in these six volumes. Perhaps I think that d'Artagnan delights to have me read of him, and Louis Quatorze is gratified, and Fouquet throws me a look, and Aramis, although he knows I do not love him, yet plays to me with his best graces, as to an old patron of the show. Perhaps, if I am not careful, something may befall me like what befell George IV. about the battle of Waterloo, and I may come to fancy the VICOMTE one of the first, and Heaven knows the best, of my own works. "
So many readers have thought the same over the last century and a half, and many more will in the times to come. Like Dumas itself, the work has many flaws. There are errors in history, chronology, and in some places Dumas even writes the wrong year or gets confused about a character's age. Dumas always cared more about the drama, the suspense, the history he was creating, rather than the sometimes boring facts of actual history. He took his historical sketch and filled it out from his own imagination, creating characters whose actions changed history within the novels, and who have enlivened history ever since.
There has been much confusion over the years as to which books form the "Musketeers Series" or the D'Artagnan Romances, as they are referred to by scholars. The greatest confusion lies in the manner in which editors split the lengthy third volume of the series. The title of the whole work is The Vicomte de Bragelonne, however, its subtitle is Ten Years Later, and so some older editions use that as the title. Also, the novel is split into three, four, or five volumes, depending on the edition. When split into three volumes, the titles are: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask. In four volumes the titles are: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask. The copies of The Man in the Iron Mask that are sold in bookstores today correspond to the last volume of the four-volume edition. The five-volume editions rarely give separate titles to the volumes. Also adding to the confusion is the fact that Dumas considered The Three Musketeers to be two books: The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. The split occurs, naturally, shortly after D'Artagnan is made a musketeer. Some older editions split this book in this fashion. Also, there are two other books that feature the characters of the D'Artagnan Romances that are, however, falsely attributed to Dumas. These two titles are D'Artagnan and the King-Maker and The Son of Porthos. Not only do these novels outright contradict the earlier books in the series, but they were clearly not written by Alexandre Dumas. Many catalogues, however, list them among Dumas's works. Most commonly, though, the entire D'Artagnan Romances are found in five books, with The Vicomte de Bragelonne being split into three volumes. Here is a listing of them in chronological order, with possible subdivisions listed in parenthesis:
The Three Musketeers - serialized 1844 (The Four Musketeers) Twenty Years After - serialized 1845 The Vicomte de Bragelonne - serialized 1847-1850 (Ten Years Later) Louise de la Valliere The Man in the Iron Mask