Wednesday 21 January 2009


One thing most novels have is heroes and villains.
And yet they're often not the most interesting characters.

The most interesting characters are often those who don't quite fit into that role, the one's where the author has succeeded in creating a niche where a character can exist who he has true freedom with.
Because the author lacks that freedom with his/her main hero. Or believes they lack the freedom. Some indeed, take risks, creating heroes of decided ambivalence. And villains whose motives we can identify with.

But in Aramis, Alexandre Dumas created one of the finest literary creations that ever existed.

The Three Musketeers is very well known, and indeed it's a great read. It's not, however, a great literary masterpiece. It's a rollercoaster adventure story; young provincial lad goes to Paris to seek his fortune serving the King, makes three heroic friends, together they foil the dastardly machinations of Cardinal Richelieu and his evil henchwoman, Milady.
The characters are not much more than cardboard cutouts. Athos, embittered but worldly wise, Porthos, a huge vainglorious Buffoon, a kind of Obelix prototype, Aramis, charming womaniser who keeps hankering to be a priest.

I must admit even in this first novel, Aramis was still my favorite of the musketeers. The one I personally found most interesting and sympathised with most. And I have a sneaking suspicion Dumas did too. Because I have a feeling many authors find that they have invented a character they can do what they want with; one who isn't quite a hero, they are someone who IS what the author would be if they could live their perfect life. They are not a charcter who the author needs to you like, the hero is there for that, they can be a more balanced character. They can have the unsympathetic traits one might not risk giving to the hero. But nevertheless- they still appeal.

It is in the later books of the series that we find greater depth of character. The second novel, Twenty Years After, is perhaps the least well known. The plot is better thought out though for one thing and we start to see the glimmerings of the richness that will chracterise the final, three volume installment, the trilogy devoted to the 1660s and the the early youth of Louis XIV.

The character of Athos in the later books is almost a complete change from that of the earlier books. Virtually unrecognisable, in most respects. His relative importance diminishes, whilst that of Porthos doesn't change overmuch. Neither of them play much of a role, indeed it is hard to define them as truly central characters even, by the final trilogy.

But the curious relationship between D'artagnan and Aramis comes to dominate the backdrop. The two most intelligent of the four, the two who are curiously counterbalanced adversaries, and yet who are perhaps the closest of the four in understanding eachother.

They are alike, yet unlike.
And underlying the whole series lies the fact that their uneasy friendship yet survives all the way through, a friendship based not so much on warm emotions, as on a genuine admiration for the other.

D'artagnan, of course is intelligent and highly rational, but he is also hot headed, telperamental, doggedly stubborn and loyal to the core.
Aramis is a far cooler figure. His is elegant, charming, calculating and ultimately, ambitious to the core.

I cannot help feeling that underlying the whole series is a lot of unspoken admiration from Dumas for the Catholic church, albeit veiled. I think he admired the srength of the institution and in a sense, his depiction of the later Aramis has many points in common with his Richelieu of The Three Musketeers, as if it was a character type he had a sneaking admiration for; the worldly, Machievellian prelate, the cleric for whom the church is an insitution of power, an institution they serve, not so much out of a love of God, but because they believe that without that insitution, life would be a lot more barbaric and brutal.

I think that Dumas, writing when he did and being of liberal sympathies, probably found it hard to be openly admiring of the church, especially since what he admired about was not it's godliness, but it's cultural significance. His clerics are generally depicted as intelligent, worldly men, often ruthless, but ultimately serving a civilising influence. There is a certain character type which formed the backbone of the Catholic church at it's height that didn't exist in the Protestant churches to the same level. The worldly cleric, drawn to the institution because of what it was; the power of the pen over the power of the sword, the coldly rational thinker who aimed to ensure that the world was ruled by mind, not matter, the defender of art and elegence over sweaty muscular flesh and bloody blades of steel.

And in Aramis, he creates the hero of all that that stands for, an elegant, handsome, charming, calculating Machiavellian whose logic will always triumph over his emotion.

Ultimately, Aramis must lose, because of what he is. He is a schemer and a plotter who seeks to replace the lawful King with his twin so that no one notices and then make his way to the Papal throne, with the aid of his puppet King.
He is destined to lose, because he is everything a hero should not be. Dumas wrote for an audience not inclined to sympathise with a Jesuit priest of cool temperament and honeyed tongue. It cried out for hot tempered, plain speaking heroes who drew their swords to fight, not debonair, robed figures with jewelled rings on their figures.

I so often feel that if I could be any character in literature, it would be Aramis.

Or at least- he's probably the one I most admire. I'm not sure I could actually live up to him.
He's just too damn good.


Anonymous said...

That's a good point. Haven't really thought about those characters in that way. I'm usually too focused on heroes and villains. Good food for thought.

I much enjoyed The Three Musketeers.

Anonymous said...

Ready Crushed?

"One for all and all for one!"

Watch out for rocket ships ^_^

Anonymous said...

I've got the Three Musketeers but I haven't properly read it yet.

Thanks for this post, I'm intrigued now!