The Man in the Iron Mask
By Alexandre Dumas
Unabridged edition published by Brilliance Audio
Read by Geoffrey Sherman
It might have been nice to have listened to the first two volumes of The Viscomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years After, those being The Viscomte de Bragelonne, and Louise de la Valliére in three volume editions, but I’ve been sitting on this book for a while and, well, those two volumes tend to get ignored much of the time anyway. Perhaps I will go back to them some day.
The subject of The Man in the Iron Mask is based on an actual prisoner who was arrested as Eustache Dauger in 1669 or 1670 and held in a variety of jails, including the Bastille. He was held for some 34 yerars and died under the name, Marchioly late in 1703. No one ever saw his face, which was hidden by a black velvet mask. Naturally his identity has been the subject of many a wild speculation. It was Voltaire who claimed that the man was actually the older, but illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV and so some seventy years later Dumas ran with that notion and one-upped it, making the prisoner the king’s twin brother which may well take the prize for least likely.
The story itself is obviously the latter half of a larger volume and I find myself wondering why anyone would publish it separately, and yet there are editions that do not include the first two parts. If you are not aware of the first half of this very long book, you stand to be confused as to how and why some of the situations the characters are in came to be. So my first recommendation is to either read the first two sections or at least read through a synopsis, because this volume assumes you already know.
In many ways, I did not find the story as well written as The Three Musketeers or Twenty Years After. Dumas spends entirely too much time on the satirical aspects of the story, such as D’Artagnon’s conversations with various other characters such as Porthos who has nothing new to wear that fits him because his servant has grown too fat and he has always sent the servant to be measured for his (Porthos’) clothing as Porthos does not like being measured. From there a very long winded discussion and demonstration follows on how one might be measured without being touched (it depends on mirrors) and the astute or even half-attentive reader can see where it is going several pages before Porthos does. I came to the conclusion that Porthos must have had a lobotomy sometime during the first half of the book since, while not the most clever of men in prior stories, he was not so much of a dolt.
Another example of D’Artagnon’s standing as a satirical character is in his non-arrest of Monsieur Fouquet in which he insists on staying in Fouquet’s bedchamber but that the man is not actually under arrest. Fouquet, an intelligent man and veteran of French politics, sees through the subterfuge and asks D’Artagnon to please stop playing games and just arrest him already, and yet D’Artagnon stubbornly points out he never said Fouquet was under arrest. There are various other encounters between these two men later on, including the actual arrest of Fouquet and always with the same satirical bent, making fun of common courtesy taken to the ridiculous extreme. I found myself wondering if this was the original inspiration of another pair of French gentlemen, e.g. Messieurs Alphonse and Gaston.
Meanwhile Aramis appears to have become as Machiavellian as Dumas’ portrait of Richelieu, as greedy of Dumas’ Mazerin, with the solid common sense of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter and the morals of a weasel. He has come up with a fantastic scheme by which he intends to become pope. It all starts by replacing King Louis with his twin brother Phillpe and goes on from there. However, he forgets the first law of conspiracy and that is to never tell anyone the plan unless they absolutely need to know. The idiot confesses what he has done to Monsieur Fouquet who is apparently the most honest and honorable man in France with the possible exception of D’Artagnon. So in spite of being on the king’s “arrest with all due haste” list, Fouquet runs straight to the Bastille and has the king released. The king runs back to the palace to confront Phillipe who immediately admits to what he has done and Aramis runs for his life, dragging Porthos along with him, promising that he will be made a duke. Porthos, of course, believes him.
For the record; if you have not actually read the book, Phillipe’s identity is hidden away behind an iron visor, not a full face mask as usually depicted in movies and TV serials, so in spite of my sarky title for this review, I don’t imagine he was condemned to eat through a straw for the rest of his life.
Somewhere in there we stumble over Athos and his heart-broken son, Raoul. The woman Raoul loves has fallen in love with the king and is now his mistress (that happened in those sections not in this volume) and so Raoul has decided to join the French Foreign Legion to forget. Well the legion does not yet exist, but he does join the Duc de Beaufort in an expedition to Algiers to fight the Barbary corsairs. Close enough.
Here are some spoilers: Eventually Pothos is killed when he tries to hold the equivalent of a small mountain on his back (and nearly does so), allowing Aramis to scurry away to Spain where he is appointed ambassador to France (yes, that makes sense – the best candidate for an ambassador to a friendly nation is always a guy convicted of treason against that nation). Athos, on learning of Raoul’s death dies of a broken heart himself. D’Artagnon is sent off to war and while there receives his promotion to “Marshal of France” just a moment before being struck by a canon ball, and yet he still lives long enough to have a few final words. End of book.
This was obviously Dumas’ attempt to finish off the characters once and for all, but other authors picked them up, some of whom wrote under Dumas’ name, but I think this pretty much finished any interest in reading Musketeer stories for me.
The story may have been disappointing, but Geoffrey Sherman did a fair job of reading it. He reads exceedingly clearly and is able to delineate each voice so that one need not concentrate in order to know who is talking. Indeed, I think I would have known each voice even if Dumas had neglected to say who was speaking at any time, so, yes, very well done.
So to sum it up, it was a very good reading of what I feel was a mediocre book. I am at a loss to adequately explain why so many movies adaptations of this story have been made except possibly because they have by and large never been completely true to the Dumas novel they are based on, at least so far as I can tell. Most, in fact, are so wide of the mark as to think the screenplay writers were not even shooting at the right target.
In any case, if you feel the need, as I did, to get through the entire series, then I suppose this is a matter of touching all the bases. If not, then, go ahead and read something else.