Book Review: The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis & Athos by Kari Maund and Phil Nanson [2005]

Book Review: The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis & Athos by Kari Maund and Phil Nanson [2005]

The titular characters in Dumas’ Three Musketeers (and its various sequels and add-ons) were not made up out of whole cloth by the master of swashbuckling adventure, but rather based on real 17th century personages that inhabited the tumultuous word of a France struggling through wars political and religious, dynastic maneuverings, changes in government and outright rebellions and insurrections. So who were they based on? And who was Dumas anyway?

The Four Musketeers: The True Story of D’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis & Athos seeks to answer all of these questions and more. Written by Phil Nanson and Kari Maund, the latter under the psuedonym Kari Sperring has written fantasy fiction that has more than a touch of Dumas’ spirit (Living with Ghosts and The Grass King’s Concubine). Maund, as well as Nanson are also professional historians, with a solid background in medieval and renaissance history.

The book looks first at the historical D’Artangan, giving him a whole chapter for the authors to flesh out the real person, and what elements Dumas borrowed to make his fictional creation. The book follows with a chapter looking at the titular three Musketeers (surprisingly, one of them has an extremely thin biography, the invented Dumas character very much invented), a look at the role of Musketeers in 17th century France and a look at the 17th century quasi biography Memoirs de M’ d’Artagnan, the major source of Dumas information and inspiration on Charles d’Artagnan, the basis for Dumas’ hero.

Finally, the book looks at Alexandre Dumas as a writer himself. Did you know, for instance, that a fair portion of his work was written with uncredited collaborators? The book ends with (a slight out of date) look at the afterlife of TheThree Musketeers in various forms of media. The fact that although the book was written in 2005 and already is out of date is a testament to the abiding power of Dumas’ characters and stories.

The major detraction from the book might be a matter of expectations for casual readers. As the authors ARE professional historians with a style and format to match. Readers expecting something like Mark Kurlansky’s popular and populist histories are going to be put off by the painstaking, footnote infused style of the authors. As a protip, those footnotes in The Four Musketeers come fast and furious, and this is a book where the footnotes are as important as the main text in gaining understanding.

The other detraction from the book isn’t a problem within the book itself, but again a reader issue. The book presumes a fair bit of knowledge about 17th century Europe and what was going on in France and its environs (especially the Thirty Years War, and there is an excellent book recommended in the footnotes on the subject). The relative shortness of the book and its laser like focus mean that the authors cannot digress heavily to explain the socio-political situation surrounding the lives of the men who inspired Dumas’ characters.

Even with these caveats, The Four Musketeers shows solid scholarship, research and depth of knowledge of the subject. Anyone at all who wants to know more about the real people who inspired the immortal characters of Dumas would be well served by picking up this book.