nd so ends, the series that started with Three Musketeers, proceeded through Twenty Years After, then into The Vicomte of Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, and Louise de la Vallière. By my estimates, it took 4000 pages to arrive at this point. And after three years and something like 100 books and short stories later, I’m ready to conclude this saga with The Man in the Iron Mask.
I’ve written how the eternal bonds formed in the first book, of three (then four) common soldiers were unified by friendship and duty. I’ve also noted (in later books) how the four have broken, reforming as France suffers its changes. Good enemies become weasely courtiers. Good kings become bad ones. Religion (and frankly, ambition) draw the friendships apart.
And here we are at Mask: they are all old now, looking at their lives in retrospect, all but Aramis, General of the Jesuits, who has schemes in mind (still!). And what schemes. He has learned that when Louie XIV was born, there was also a Louie XIV.V, meaning a twin only minutes behind the elder. With everyone downstairs toasting each other, everybody save Anne of Austria (who I like far less as she gets older). And she does the only thing a mother can do – she has her child banished to the country (for his youth) and then to the Bastille (welcome to manhood, there). But Aramis knows, and Aramis schemes.
With the help of a bed in an estate that lowers into the service corridors, he convinces trusty Porthos (still strong, but perhaps just a touch senile) to help him spirit His Majesty out. They take him to the Bastille and swap him for the false king, trained and now instituted into the Royal bed, now to serve as a better ruler (and perhaps a puppet, as well as a stepping-stone to popedom) to Kingmaker Aramis.
Really, it’s hard to like the guy.
Well, the scheme bombs. The first person Aramis approaches is Fouquet, a soon-to-be-disgraced minister who could save himself by going along but righteously does not. This leaves Aramis in the lurch, forcing him to flee to fortified Belle-Isle with the confused Porthos. And if that isn’t bad enough – he leaves the false king, unwarned and unaware, to face his angry true brother when he returns. Talk about uncomfortable family reunions.
But all is not well for everyone. D’Artagnan is nearly disgraced by dragging his feet in catching the fugitives (here, I side with Louie – Aramis meant for him to stay in the bastille for the rest of his life, seen as a king-wannabe madman. Perhaps Louie should have picked someone else, or D’Artagnan should have declined? And Athos is distraught over his adapted son Raoul who has gone on an African campaign to die (still upset over Louise’s treachery of the heart). In the end, everyone dies but Aramis: Porthos heroically defending his false friend, lovelorned Raoul in battle, Athos in the pain of his loss, and D’Artagnan while on campaign in Holland, standing before the thirteenth fort he’s taken, the day won, victory his, struck by the final shot of the day, right as he reaches for his awarded Marshall’s baton. And Aramis, he’s an old, graying Spanish ambassador. His death, when it comes, will be a whimper; of this we can be sure as readers.
It was sad to read D’Artagnan’s final thoughts as his life drained away, how he would soon be reunited with Athos and Porthos and even Raoul. But Aramis? It was goodbye forever.
A bittersweet ending to one of the grandest epics I’ve ever read, and interesting that it shows that there can be friends who can’t be saved.
If you are a reader and love classics, you might attempt this long journey. I’ve marked the trailhead and the waypoints above. Get ready for the read of your life.