D’Artagnan is a poor young man from Gascony, full of high-spirits and skilled with a sword, who heads to Paris with dreams of making his riches and one day becoming a Musketeer. He introduces himself to Monsieur Treville, the captain of the Musketeers and a former friend of his father, who assists his career by placing him in a different king’s guard as there are stringent criteria for becoming a Musketeer. In a case of mistaken identity, D’Artagnan ends up in a duel with the three Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, which eventually leads them to becoming devoted friends.
The Cardinal Richelieu, the true head of state who manipulates the king to do his bidding, conspires to indict the queen in an affair with the Duke of Buckingham. She has given certain diamond tags as a token of her affection to the Duke. The Cardinal convinces the king to hold a ball and has the king command the queen wear the missing diamond tags to it in the hopes that this will indict her before the king. The Musketeers journey together along with D’Artagnan to England, while the Cardinal’s agents attempt to stop them along the way, in order to recover the tags and thwart Cardinal Richelieu’s schemes.
After the thwarted affair, the plot takes the Musketeers to the siege of La Rochelle, a protestant enclave that rebels against the Catholic throne with support of the Duke of Buckingham. There D’Artagnan proves himself with enough brave deeds to finally join his friends and become a Musketeer, while winning the begrudging respect of Cardinal Richelieu. Occurring alongside these basic plot points is the scheming Lady de Winter, an evil woman and accomplice of Cardinal Richelieu, who manipulates and kills her enemies without the least qualm. Her past intertwines with Athos and her present continually finds her schemes thwarted and interfered with by the three musketeers.
The Three Musketeers is a page-turning adventure story that includes romance, intrigue, and sword-fighting. It is a fun novel and even a good one in a certain sense, but this is not deep stuff that is going to have you pondering the meaning of life. Some parts of the plot rely upon Protestant and Catholic religious conflict and Lady de Winter manages to manipulate one character to assassinate another by playing on his Protestant religious sentiments against his Catholic master, but it is hard to call this a deep exploration of the nature of religious conflict. Most of these elements are present to make the story more exciting. So is this great literature then?
I suppose it depends on how one defines great literature. I would argue this is great literature in that it has solid writing and remains a wonderfully entertaining page-turner, despite being over 170 years old. I suspect very few of our page-turners today will age so well. Some works are less about deeper meanings and more about the joys of a good story told well, whose characters become part of the larger imaginative landscape of human society beyond whatever themes the works try to explore such as Peter Pan, Long John silver, and Ebenezer Scrooge. The Three Musketeers have found their place in that larger cultural imagination; they have attained a kind of popular legendary mythical status. The work also has value as one of the forerunners of the historical fiction genre, which remains popular to this day.