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Lawrence Ellsworth : « Dumas’ iconic characters are woven into our culture »
Can you describe your “journey with Dumas”: how you got to know him, how you became a translator of his books, how you decided to write a novel based on The three musketeers?
My father had read a lot of American pulp adventure magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the ‘60s, when I was a child, he bought the paperback pulp reprints and passed them on to me, so I fell in love with stories of heroes with swords, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Harold Lamb, Robert E. Howard, Rafael Sabatini, and so forth. I read The Three Musketeers and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until I was a young man haunting used book stores that I discovered that novel had sequels, as well as Dumas’s many other books. I also loved the Richard Lester film adaptations from 1973/74, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, as well as the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the Musketeers screenplays for Lester.
Around 1990 I was the head of a LARP (live-action role-playing) design troupe producing theater-style games for 60-100 players, specializing in intrigue, romance, and character development. I thought the French royal court at the time of Cardinal Richelieu would be a good basis for a game, and in the process of doing research for that project I fell in love with the period and its personalities. I began looking into the idea of writing stories in that setting, but a lot of the best references, like Richelieu’s memoirs, weren’t available in English, so it seemed like a good idea to learn French so I could read them. I undertook translating The Three Musketeers as part of my language project, and reading Dumas in original French was a revelation: his writing was so much more vivid, and dynamic than how it’s represented in the 19th-century translations that are still the most common English versions of his work. I started toying with the idea of preparing my own, modern English translations of Dumas.
How did you come up with this concept of a “parallel” novel, designed to be read alternating chapters of The three musketeers and chapters of your book?
I’ve been designing role-playing game scenarios for almost forty years, so I’m comfortable with overlapping and interweaving story lines, and tend to think about stories in that way. In fact, to write novels one of the things I had to do was un-learn game writing! Anyway, in my project of learning French I was translating The Three Musketeers at the same time I was researching the Rosicrucians and the Vicomte de Fontrailles, and just naturally started thinking about mixing the two.
Do you know any other book designed to be read alternating chapters with another one?
In fact, I don’t - it’s probably been done before, but I can’t cite any examples from personal knowledge. From anecdotal reports, most people who read The Rose Knight’s crucifixion do so sequentially rather than interleaved with The Three Musketeers, I would guess because reading it interleaved is too unfamiliar or perhaps just awkward.
The title The three mystic heirs is designed to sound very closely like The three musketeers. Did you start with the title and then built a story based on a mystic secret society, the Rose Knights, to justify this title, or did you find the title after the story line?
The story came first and the title came later, as I was looking for ways to tie in my novel with Dumas’.
Can you describe the method you used to identify the details of Dumas’ story you could use to weave your own story to it?
I did a broad outline of my story, highlighting its characters and events, and then overlaid the outline onto the 67 chapters of The Three Musketeers to see where it fit and where it didn’t. Then I adjusted my outline to touch on and weave in and out of Dumas’s story as much as possible.
Is your choice of a hunchback as a hero a reference to Féval’s Le bossu?
No, while researching potential historical characters for inclusion in The Three Mystic Heirs, I discovered Louis d’Astarac, who actually was a hunchback. The more I learned about him, the more I could see him as my protagonist.
Why include a baroness Orczy’ character on top of all the Dumas’ ones?
Once you get started mingling favorite fictional and historical characters, it’s hard to stop. When my LARP troupe wrote our King’s Musketeers game, in addition to historical figures we had included characters from other Dumas novels, and also from other authors, so I already knew that Orczy’s “First Sir Percy” was from the same period as d’Artagnan and his comrades. When my story called for another English agent working for the Duke of Buckingham who was a sympathetic character, I naturally thought of Blakeney.
Of the Three Inseparables, Aramis is the intriguer and political conspirator who was actually involved with Buckingham’s allies, so he fit naturally into the story I was telling. I would have had to stretch to include more participation from d’Artagnan, Athos, or Porthos, and I thought the story was strained enough.
During most of your book, you use this quite unusual technique of interspersing your story with Dumas’. Then, close to the end, you come back to the much more frequent technique of transposition, with Fontrailles “seducing” Mikmaq like Milady with Felton, Milady's trial by Fontrailles and his friends mirroring her trial by the musketeers, Fontrailles avoiding being condemned by the père Joseph thanks to Milady’s letter, just like d’Artagnan with Richelieu thanks to his blanc-seing. Why this change of techniques in the very last chapters of your book?
At what is arguably the climax of The Three Musketeers, Dumas focuses for six chapters on Milady, her imprisonment and escape. When I came to that part of the book, the way Fontrailles’s story was shaping up, it made more sense to have him go through his own parallel experience of imprisonment and escape rather than try to create some forced involvement with Milady’s. By that point in the novel, if I’ve done my job right, the reader should really be more interested in my characters than in Dumas’s anyway! Therefore, to make The Rose Knight’s Crucifixion stand on its own, the climactic chapters of Louis’s story focused on him and the outcome of his struggle.
This doesn’t really answer my question. My point was: why do you start « copying/transposing » Dumas’ story in the last chapters of your book, while you didn’t do it at all in the previous chapters?
Sure, I’ll try to be clearer about it. I am first and foremost a storyteller, so telling a story effectively to the reader is my primary concern. At that point in the book the interleaving structure I’d employed in the earlier chapters wasn’t the best way to convey the climax of the story, so I briefly dropped that structure and adopted Dumas’s own approach of focusing on a main character’s imprisonment and the challenges of escape. It was more important to tell the story effectively than to mistakenly adhere to a given structure. You’ll note that I went right back to that structure once it was useful again.
Do you think Dumas is still well known and widely read today in the USA? Is there still an interest in him?
Thanks to the adaptations of Dumas’s stories into many different media, his iconic characters - d’Artagnan, the Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo -are woven into our culture and recognizable to almost everyone even if they’ve never read a word of Dumas’s novels. The strong interest in and favorable reception to my reconstruction and translation of The Red Sphinx, based on the fact that it was a sequel to The Three Musketeers that people had never heard of, shows the continuing popularity of the musketeer characters and stories. However, most of Dumas’s novels in print are still their original 19th-century translations, endlessly recycled, and their outdated language seems awkward to the contemporary reader. I’m undertaking the project of preparing new English translations of Dumas’s entire Musketeers series in hopes of making them more accessible to modern readers. I want everybody to enjoy them!
So, you have other projects linked to Dumas?
My new, modern translations of The Three Musketeers and The Red Sphinx are now available in the US and UK from Pegasus Books. I’ve completed the manuscript and notes for a new English version of Twenty Years After, and am now several months into a translation of Le vicomte de Bragelonne, which will be delivered in four volumes over the next four years
Interview by Patrick de Jacquelot