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.”

 

 

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

The Real Red Wedding 2 : Christopher Marlowe – “The Massacre at Paris”

ABOVE: Paris is Well Worth a Massacre

Christopher Marlowe: Spy. The idea that Shakespeare’s nearest Elizabethan competitor had an action-packed life in the political stage is too fun to dismiss, slight as the evidence of Marlowe’s adventures are. Sometimes the theorists cling to such minor details as the fact that Marlowe inserts an “English Agent”/ spy / self-portrait at the end of “The Massacre at Paris.” Marlowe’s less-beloved play is a minor burst of chaotic violence, dealing with the same bloody  events as Alexandre Dumas’  “Queen Margot” and extending to the latter part of the Wars of Religion (up to the assassination of the Duke de Guise by Henri III, an act which dismayed Catherine de Medicis.) The play was far more influential politically than aesthetically: it was used in England as anti-Catholic-refugee propaganda during the 1590s. The fact that Marlowe was uncharacteristically dealing with recent, still controversial history is of interest to scholars, but try as I might, I cannot see here the poetic power or theatrical inventiveness of the author of “Dido, Queen of Carthage” and “Doctor Faustus”… Although the character of De Guise does ocassionally show something of the dare-devil, fate-tempting nature that Marlowe favored in characters. Not only is De Guise Faustian, he’s downright Miltonian:

What glory is there in a common good,

That hangs for every peasant to achieve?

That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

Set me to scale the high Pyramides,

And thereon set the Diadem of France,

I’ll either rend it with my nails to naught,

Or mount the top with my aspiring wings,

Although my downfall be the deepest hell.

But for the most part, whatever enjoyment I extracted from this brief play came from re-encountering the characters from the Valois Trilogy, albeit here in paler, far less charming versions.

ABOVE: De Guise De-Dies

RATING : SHRUG

The Real Red Wedding : Alexandre Dumas – “Queen Margot”

According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Ernest Hemingway once unceremoniously punched a foolish fan who made the unfortunate mistake of saying hello while Papa imbibed his Mojito at El Floridita. So it’s best to agree with Hemingway when he counted Alexandre Dumas’ “Queen Margot” among his favorite novels in a 1935 Esquire interview, up there with the likes of “War and Peace” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

ABOVE: A Nice Christian Gathering

“Queen Margot”, from 1845, follows the  “The Two Dianas”, “The Page of the Duke of Savoy” and “The Horoscope” chronologically, and puts us right in the middle of the French Wars of Religion that saw Catholics and Huguenots exercise their righteous Christian love upon each other, (inevitably resulting in several million deaths.) The inciting event is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – the original red wedding. The arranged marriage between the Catholic Marguerite of Valois and the Protestant Henri III of Navarre appeared to be Catherine de Medici’s benevolent peace-making attempt between the followers of the Duke de Guise and the Huguenots of Admiral Coligny. Protestant leaders poured into Paris to celebrate the love match, and the grand new era of religious tolerance that was bound to ensue. Much merriment was had by all for five days.

Then King Charles IX ordered Coligny’s assassination, the doors to Paris closed, and thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered before they’d had time to wipe the wedding cake crumbs off their face. Even the newlywed Henry barely managed to escape the massacre.

Dumas captures the chaos of St. Bartholomew through the eyes of two of his classic heroes: Dashing Protestant La Mole and head-bashing Catholic Annibal de Coconnas. They first meet as sworn enemies and soon find themselves the most devoted of brothers. Their touching cross-denominational friendship is even more concentrated than the friendship of the Musketeers, (which, after all, had to go four ways.) La Mole and Coconnas are Asterix and Obelix, Tom and Huck, Orestes and Pylade. To read the duo as homo-erotic might be a stretch, but some of their scenes do raise modern eyebrows, (like the one in which Coconnas refuses to sleep with his mistress, having sexually wilted duing La Mole’s temporary absence.)

In any case, La Mole attracts the attention of Marguerite de Valois, Queen Margot.

ABOVE: Queen There, Done That

Dumas’ portrait of Queen Margot is one of kind, generous sensuality. She manages to have four or five different love interests throughout the novel without any of them feeling insincere. Even her relationship with her confidant, Duchesse de Nevers, overflows with teh sexy, and here the modern reader may freely and confidently raise modern eyebrows.

The queen said: “Have you forgotten our agreement, my dear Duchess?”

“No; I shall be your respectful servant in public—in private, your madcap confidante, is it not so, madame? Is it not so, Marguerite?”

“‘Yes, yes,” said Margot, smiling.

“No family rivalry, no treachery in love; everything fair, open, and aboveboard! An offensive and defensive alliance, for the sole purpose of finding and, if we can, catching on the fly, that ephemeral thing called happiness.”

“Just so, duchess. Let us again seal the compact with a kiss.”

And the two beautiful women, the one so pale, so full of melancholy, the other so roseate, so fair, so animated, joined their lips, as they had united their thoughts.

Clearly Margot swang both ways.

ABOVE: Margot Got Game

Actually, she swings in a  multitude of ways, forming alliances and ducking accusations from maleficent Catherine de Medicis, (whose poison-loving ways give the novel two or three memorably tense moments.) “Queen Margot” got adapted into a lavish historical epic in 1994, starring Isabel Adjani and Vincent Perez. A fittingly sensual spectacle, it may be well be the best Dumas movie adaptation, because it respects the complex, adult nature of its source material, instead of assuming it’s all sword-swinging kiddie fun.

RATING : MASTERPIECE!