Friday, November 24, 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask

Comes with secret extra chapters!
The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas

I'm always nervous about French literature, but I really liked The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago, and lots of people love The Man in the Iron Mask, right?  It can't be that difficult.  So this has been on my TBR pile for a while now, and I started it with high expectations for a lot of excitement and intrigue.

I was having a hard time, though; 50 pages in, and nothing much had happened except a lot of intriguing over money between incomprehensibly-named people.  I recognized Aramis, one of the three musketeers, and figured out that this story takes place years later, but otherwise I was a bit lost and concluded that I should take a look at a plot summary, maybe a character list, so I could figure out what was going on.  And I was immediately stumped.  Every plot summary I looked at said that the story starts with Aramis in a secret meeting with a prisoner (the titular Man) at the Bastille.

I looked at my copy again.  Aramis is definitely meeting with a conniving elderly duchess in a fancy house, not a young male prisoner in the Bastille.  I looked at the list of the first few chapters online; it failed to match my table of contents.  Stumped again.

It took me a little bit to solve the mystery, but I did figure out that my Oxford World's Classics edition simply starts the story some 28 chapters before, apparently, every other edition in the world.  This is possible because The Man in the Iron Mask is like Return of the King; it's really the third part of a very very long novel, which is itself the last volume in the D'Artagnan chronicles.  Oxford seems to have chosen a different method of dividing the book up, and completely neglects to mention anything about it.  I therefore felt free to skim a bit until I reached the usual opening at chapter 29.  However, the story got interesting and comprehensible a few chapters before that, and I settled in.

Aramis, now a bishop, has got a typically subtle and ingenious plan underway.  Few know that the young new king, Louis XIV, has a secret identical twin brother, who was spirited away at birth and raised in utter seclusion and ignorance before being installed, as a teenager, in the Bastille.  Aramis plans to switch the two men and rule from behind the throne, perhaps gaining a cardinal's hat or even....the papal throne itself?  He recruits Porthos as an accomplice, deluding him that Louis is the usurper.  Meanwhile, Athos worries about his son, who is doing his best to kill himself over his unrequited love, and D'Artagnan, as the captain of the musketeers, is absolutely loyal -- but his definition of loyalty includes a lot of blunt speech to the brash young King.

The Iron-Masked Man is surprisingly absent from a lot of the story; I expected him to be much more present.  It's an exciting story which I enjoyed, but it's also very long and wordy, and includes an incredible amount of subtle intriguing that was hard for me to follow.  I'm now thinking I need to re-read the Three Musketeers, which I've only read once, and didn't really like.  Maybe I would get it better a second time.  I also thought this would be a good time to pick up The Black Count, the popular biography of Dumas' father, so expect more Dumas goodness in the near future!

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