Saturday, January 20, 2018

Top Three

I can’t agree with Stranger Things’s Dustin about the Three Musketeers candy bar. “It is Top Three for me,” he says to his buddies on their Halloween quest for free sugar rushes. Dustin loves his nougat. Me? I think a Three Musketeers bar is a Milky Way that forgot its best part.

The Three Musketeers the novel, on the other hand, I love. It has both the nougat of historical fiction and the caramel of broad comedy, and with the deliciously grim brooding of Athos, it becomes not just a Milky Way, but a Milky Way Midnight Dark. Yum!

A big part of my current list is meant to recapture the passionate engagement of my adolescent reading, and rereading Dumas’s rollicking tale of D’Artagnan and his friends certainly fulfilled that mission. Of course, the experience wasn’t the same as it was forty-two years ago: I’m not the same person I was then. I loved it this year just as much as I did then, but now I think I understand much better why it moved my teenage self so deeply.

In 1976, the characters of Athos and D’Artagnan especially revealed to me a whole new depth of life I didn’t know was possible. I saw in these heroes a nobility that had (I know I understood this even then) nothing to do with their wenching and their drunkenness. As immoral as the Musketeers are in many ways, at their best moments they act by internal principles. Athos especially avoids reacting viscerally to almost all present circumstances; he acts according to the inner man, a core somewhat shaped by past circumstance, yes, but internalized nonetheless. D'Artagnan on the other hand responds in the heat of the moment most of the time, but he can always explain his knee-jerk reactions as following lessons his father taught him or obeying the code of bravery.

As an adolescent, I didn't really know any philosophy of life, any ethic. My Christianity consisted of believing the right things about events commemorated by major holidays and generally feeling pretty good about not making graven images, murdering, or committing adultery (pretty easy to avoid for a seventeen-year-old suburban kid). My daily, hourly, minute-by-minute conduct, however, reacted to circumstance based on feelings, and both the feelings and the reactions were almost entirely out of my control. Of course, I could (and often had to) justify my actions by some quick moral reasoning. But that was all after the fact. These two characters showed me, maybe for the first time, that there is such a thing as character, deliberate character, shaped and honed by adherence to principle and followed by determined practice until it becomes second nature.

My favorite scene in the book was and still is the lunch at the bastion at La Rochelle. The four companions, needing to work out some plans where the Cardinal’s men can’t possibly hear them, wager their comrades in the attacking forces that they can eat lunch in a rocky ruin in the middle of the battlefield. Their compatriots see the escapade as a daft bit of derring-do, but the Musketeers go to their noisy repast in full assurance of ultimate success. This is not the confidence of adolescence: the irrational sense I had at the age of my first reading that nothing could kill me (except rejection by a girl). It’s trust in training. It’s mature knowledge of one’s own strengths and the enemy’s weaknesses. It’s mastery over fear. This scene has stuck with me and provided a model of courage many times in my life – not all of which, I’m afraid, found me faithfully following the model.

As book lovers know very well, reliving an experience is not always the best way to capture a cherished memory. We reread our favorite books over and over, but that activity can’t rebirth the unique moment of seeing Rivendell or meeting Captain Cuttle for the first time. Books in a series, though, provide the next best thing. Why I didn’t read the sequels to The Three Musketeers when I was seventeen, I can’t tell you. But they’re on my list to read now. We’ll pick this topic up again in 2020, when I’ll read Twenty Years After, and by which time, I hope, we’ll have two more seasons of Stranger Things that I can enjoy for the first time.

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