No One Fights Like Gascons : Alexandre Dumas – “The 45 Guardsmen”

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ABOVE: The Three Musketeers have really let themselves go.

It’s easy to get attached to three or four musketeers; when we’re talking 45 of them, things get a little more challenging, which is why Alexandre Dumas’ “The 45” (often published in English as “The Forty-Five Guardsmen”) is by far the less popular entry in the Valois trilogy, even though it contains all the winning elements of the previous novels, ( “Queen Margot” and “La Dame de Monsoreau”.) Realistically, it’s a steep learning curve for the unconvinced or uninitiated: not counting all the returning royals and nobles from the saga (the Three Henrys, as well as Catherine de Medici and dear Queen Margot) we’re also introduced to over 20 principal characters in the first couple of chapters… and that’s before the 45 titular swashbucklers even show up! (Dumas himself points out that each of them have fascinating stories to tell, but ain’t nobody got time for THAT.)

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ABOVE: “FORTY-FIVE GUARDS?! In one night?! Well, I’m afraid the engagement is off, Monsieur.”

The 45 guardsmen were largely Gascons hired to protect Henry III, and so Dumas gets ample room to praise the bravado and braggadocio that he identifies as a trademarks of the natives of the Gascony, the French region that extends from below Bordeaux almost to Basque Country. It would almost be ethnic stereotyping, but he’s fond of Gascons, it’s clear, since he gave the place what’s easily its most famous fictional son: D’Artagnan.

Unfortunately, there’s no D’Artagnan here, since this all happens some 40 years before “Musketeer Times”, in the 1580s, toward the end of those Wars of Religion that saw the three Henrys, (Henry III, Henry of Lorraine, and Henry of Navarre) fight each other, presumably propelled by the creed that “there can be only one.” Meanwhile, in case one wasn’t confused enough, a FOURTH Henry, Henry de Joyeuse, starts stalking demonstrating his love for Diane de Meridor, the Lady of Monsoreau.

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ABOVE: Guess which of the Henrys this is!


Toward the second half of the narrative, both Diane and the returning Chicot the Jester try to elbow their way to the foreground of the narrative, but this is hard to do with so many other characters blocking their way.  The novel itself fails to push its way to the forefront of Dumas’ oeuvre. “The 45” is not recommendable as any kind of entry-point to the world of Dumas: it’s too busy with plot and intrigue (there’s at least four main storylines in here). It also feels unfinished; it’s reputed to be a bridge between “Monsoreau” and a never-written fourth book that would string together all the narrative strands of the Valois trilogy. For something like a satisfying wrap, you’ll have to follow Chicot to his cameo in Auguste Maquet’s “la Belle Gabrielle.”

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ABOVE: “Hmmm, I appreciate the rescue and all, but there’s no need to squeeze my boob that hard.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH forthe fans; a confused SHRUG for newcomers to the Valois books.


Nothing Like a Dame : Alexandre Dumas – “La Dame de Monsoreau” or “Chicot the Jester”

Alexande Dumas’ (and Auguste Maquet’s) “La Dame de Monsoreau” picks up six years after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre from “Queen Margot”. Catherine of Medici’s pervasive influence still contaminates the body politic like a traceless poison. Her son, Henry III, a king as devted to his prayers as he is to his young strapping friends (the so-called “mignons”), sees his throne threatened by two Dukes, (D’Anjou and De Guise) not to mention his namesake of Navarre, (who, spoilers, will in time step up to the role of Henry IV, since Henry III is “the last Valois”.)

But this is one of Dumas’ most accomplished romances, so those Wars of Religion, in which the devout happily murdered their brethren  at the drop of a Pater Noster, take a backseat to the love story of Bussy D’Amboisse, (proud and heroic), and beautiful Diane de Meridor, the titular dame. A series of dastardly abductions and attempts upon Diane’s virtue have resulted in a forced, exceedingly unhappy marriage between her  and the despicable and decrepit Count of Monsoreau, whose all-encompassing jealousy is, if we’re to be fair, more than justified. Bussy is too honorable to pursue a married woman; should the Count of Monsoreau catch a sword to the chest in a duel, though, then the widow will be up for grabs, so almost every male character in the novel is out to court Lady Di and stab Monsoreau – except King Henry III, who was “immune to the delights of the gentler sex”, if Dumas’ portrait has any accuracy to it, (not always a given.)

Both of those plot threads, the historical and the romantic, present Dumas in fine form, nimbly swinging back and forth between scenes of romantic melodrama and heightened courtly tension. But it’s something else that propels “La Dame de Monsoreau” to the front ranks of Dumas’ histories: the portrait of Chicot the Jester. Now, whether Chicot belongs more to Dumas or Maquet is worth arguing about (my own theories lean to the latter.) But less arguable is that the novel’s alternate title, “Chicot the Jester,” is fully earned.

Chicot, irrepressible prankster and soldier of absurdism, is the King’s official stand-up comedian, and unofficial counsellor. The real Chicot inherited his role from the equally famous Triboulet, but no dwarf or hunchback was he: out of the famous court jesters, Chicot was the only one authorized to carry a rapier, at a time when bearing arms was no constitutional right but a King-given honor. Equally apt at literal and metaphorical ripostes, Chicot earned general admiration, and poets of the time dedicated ballads to him:

“Chicot was once a fool, and like a fool would prance,

But lately he’s become the wisest man in France,

Punching with his punchlines everything in sight:

When the kings are wrong, the buffoons are right.”

The Valois trilogy continues with “The Forty-Five.”