With the premiere of the BBC’s new drama series The Musketeers, a whole new generation is
now discovering one of the great characters of dramatic fiction: d’Artagnan. Hopefully, a few might be inspired to actually read the original book. The Sunday night drama is only the latest in a long line of screen portrayals based on Alexander Dumas’s 19th century novels of adventure, set in 17th century France. In fact, the oldest film version of The Three Musketeers goes back to 1921. Most of these portrayals have been based to a greater or lesser extent on Dumas’s characterization of the iconic Gascon in Paris.
But the truth of the d’Artagnan legend, now firmly ensconced in popular culture, is far less widely known. Monsieur d’Artagnan was in fact an actual historical figure, famous in his own time and yes, a musketeer of the king of France. Dumas had discovered a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Charles de Batz-Castelmore d’Artagnan written by a 17th century author named Courtilz de Sandras and based his romances on the story of d’Artagnan as portrayed by de Sandras. The real d’Artagnan had a life as every bit exciting as the character in Dumas’s books, but Dumas made some significant changes including setting the action of the novel several years before the real d’Artagnan ever even joined the musketeers.
In the books, d’Artagnan and his companions, loyal servants of King Louis XIII, work to thwart the plans of devious Cardinal Richelieu and his agents. In fact, the real d’Artagnan served as a trusted secret agent of Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, carrying out a number of diplomatic missions for him while he rose in the Garde Francaise and later in the King’s Musketeers (which had been disbanded earlier in 1646. With Mazarin as his patron, d’Artagnan served Louis XIV at home and abroad, eventually rising to become commander of the famed company. He fought in several major military campaigns, served as the governor of Lille after the city fell to French forces(you can still see the house he lived in) and finally met his death in 1673 while taking part in the siege of Maastricht against the Dutch. Indeed, he died after being shot in the throat while fighting alongside some very rare allies: the English. A young officer named John Churchill was there in the same trench, the future Duke of Marlborough.
When I decided to make d’Artagnan a significant character in my own novel, Gideon’s Angel, I wanted to model him on the real man and not the version in The Three Musketeers. With the action in Gideon’s Angel taking place in the early 1650s, this made it easy for me to write in d’Artagnan as a secret agent of Cardinal Mazarin, travelling to England to stop a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell. He’s young, confident, and brash, but also deeply honourable in his wary relationship with the novel’s protagonist, exiled king’s cavalier Richard Treadwell. It was tremendous fun writing scenes that pitted my jaded, war-weary middle-aged hero against this cocksure young French soldier with carte blanche and a “license to kill” from arguably the most powerful man in Europe.
To be sure, Alexander Dumas did right by the memory of Charles de Batz-Castelmore as a brave man of adventure, and hopefully I have as well. But the real exploits of this remarkable Frenchman are every bit as compelling and exciting as those of the fiction. I recommend Odile Bordaz’s 2010 biography, titled simply: D’Artagnan.