‘Ah, my friend, it is not civil wars which disunite us; it is that we are all twenty years older. The loyal outbursts of youth have gone, and given place to the din of interests, the breath of ambition, and the counsels of egotism.’
By trusting in the appeal of history’s natural plot lines and openly disregarding any responsibility toward portraying them accurately, Dumas weaves his continuing tale of d’Artagnan and his three friends in this sequel to The Three Musketeers. Yet Dumas does not disrespect history or think himself wiser than the natural evolution of societies. He simply reshapes the tale, embellishing the themes and characteristics which serve his passions and insights – ultimately romanticizing it. And from the father of Romanticism, should we expect anything less?
I would not characterize this novel as swashbuckling but I would certainly say I like it more than its predecessor. If The Three Musketeers introduced us to four men of impeccable honor, though one-dimensional “good-guys”, Twenty Years After shows us how men of such unified character can fall on opposite lines of a conflict. Yet after aging and developing personal ambitions, they rediscover the bonds which tied them together – not any particular conviction, just the history and respect which solidify an undying friendship. Their friendship paves the road to personal adjustments which, in the end, prove to excite their personal morals and convictions and land them where they always hoped to find themselves.
As opposed to Musketeers, the four friends plant themselves on opposite sides of a historical revolution which took place in Paris during the 17th century. In this separation we discover new depths to each character, namely d’Artagnan and Athos. With age, they have embraced their individual ambitions which the reader will freely judge as respectable or otherwise. Unfortunately, Porthos, and perhaps Aramis, degenerated dimensionally when compared to their characters in the previous novel. But in conflict, we find ourselves. When tested, we lay bare the quality of our convictions. In the courage, wit, cunning and leadership of d’Artagnan and the wisdom, honor, dignity and morality of Athos we plainly see the spirit of men entrenched in this historical conflict.
As d’Artagnan sacrifices his moral judgement to uphold the prestige of unquestioning loyalty, devotion and even mercantilism, Athos defies his responsibility to men and adheres securely to his morals, his chivalric upbringing, and fights for the spirit of dignified civilization. Near the end, it seems that both men compromise a bit politically. But while d’Artagnan, as lieutenant of the Musketeers, served those who would ruin France because of his characteristic devotion to military orders rather than morality and lust for promotion and fortune, something le Comte de la Fere (Athos) never had to concern himself with, Athos defended the institution of monarchy. He distinguishes between the spirit of God on earth, in the monarchy, and the kings, queens, cardinals, etc who stand as its representative. Despite great peril to himself and friends, he refuses to abandon the defense of monarchy against those who would abuse it and represent it poorly – even away from France! In England, a country foreign to our heroes, Athos ruthlessly defends the monarchy. Ideals have no political boundaries!
In this installment, Dumas develops his particular insights into human nature by pitting them against each other. He develops his own political tastes through Athos, the great romantic and root of then-modern chivalry. But despite these differences, friendship prevents them from removing each other as obstacles to their goals. They make their respective stances but draw the line at harming each other. They continue along their respective paths unknowingly allowing friendship to guide them in a different direction than they imagined – a direction which benefits them better than they could have dreamed for themselves. D’Artagnan’s action, combined with Athos’ convictions, bring these four together to the center of the conflict, after they began on the fringes, and shapes the resolution to the revolution.
Yet history has not let go its pen and we will see if friendship can hold back the tide of the civilization it has challenged.