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Musketeers, Swashbucklers, and more: An Interview with Lawrence Ellsworth

September 24, 2016 1 comment

Do you like tales of swashbuckling adventure, with dashing heroes, sword duels, chandelier swinging, and repartee as swift as a rapier’s blade? Then you need to know about Lawrence Ellsworth.

Lawrence is a one-man swashbuckler revival. His recent collection, The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, contains rare tales by the creators of The Three Musketeers, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Prisoner of Zenda, along with the work of many other writers whose names deserve to be equally famous. The first-ever Zorro story is there, along with a Robin Hood story and even a swashbuckler by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But that’s just the warm-up: Ellsworth has something much bigger in store. Announced earlier this month, his translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Red Sphinx (with cover art by Lee Moyer) is the first time this tale of the Three Musketeers has ever been translated into English in its entirety. To any Musketeer fan, that is pure gold.

Lawrence is a man of many parts. By day he is Lawrence Schick, legendary tabletop RPG writer and now the loremaster (yes, that really is a job title) for the wildly popular Elder Scrolls series of video games. At weekends he can be found at Renaissance Faires and other gatherings of romantics and anachronists, giving readings and looking very much like a Dumas character himself. He somehow found time to answer a few questions about swashbucklers, Alexandre Dumas, and what he plans to do next.

redsphinx

How did you first become interested in swashbucklers?

When my father was a young man in the 1930s and ’40s he was a fan of the adventure pulp magazines. When I was a boy in the 1960s, publishers were reprinting many of the best pulp tales in inexpensive paperbacks, and my father would buy them, read them, and then pass them on to me. So Harold Lamb, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard enthralled me at an early age. Poring through the libraries for any book in which the hero wore a sword soon led me to Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s historicals. En garde!

What attracted you to the work of Alexandre Dumas, in particular?

In the early 1970s, just as I was beginning to think the swashbuckler genre was played out for me, the Richard Lester / George MacDonald Fraser films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers proved there were still new ways to approach it. The screenplays led me to Fraser’s Flashman novels, and that sealed the swashbuckler deal for good and all.

Lawrence Ellsworth is a nom de plume: in my day-job I’m Lawrence Schick, a game designer. In the early 1990s I led a troupe of writers who produced live-action role-playing weekends for 50 to 100 players, specializing in historical productions with romantic themes. While writing and researching The King’s Musketeers for this troupe, I became fascinated with 17th-century France. I learned French so I could read Dumas’s novels and Richelieu’s memoirs in the original language. In the process I did a translation of The Three Musketeers for fun and practice. In my research, I learned about Alexandre Dumas’s “lost” musketeers sequel, Le Comte de Moret, a.k.a. The Red Sphinx, and decided to translate it.

Just how many Musketeers books did Dumas write? Why is the situation so confusing?

Dumas wrote four books in what I call the Musketeers Cycle: The Three Musketeers (1844), set in 1626-28; Twenty Years After (1845), set in 1648-49; The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1850), set in 1660-66 (with a coda in 1673); and finally The Red Sphinx (1866), set back in 1628-30.

Where it gets confusing for us anglophones is that The Vicomte de Bragelonne is so long—296 chapters, as compared to 76 in Three Musketeers, for example—that its English translations are invariably broken up into three or four volumes, each with its own title. Different translator/publishers divided Bragelonne at different chapter breaks, and used varying titles for their sub-volumes, so good luck if you’re hunting through used bookstores for the later books and get a mismatched set, as you may find overlapping or missed chapters between the volumes.

Worse, Dumas’s subtitle for Bragelonne is Ten Years Later, which is often used as the title of the first sub-volume—and this is inherently confusing, since though it follows directly on Twenty Years After, based on the title it seems like it should precede it…. Maddening!

The usual subdivision of Bragelonne is therefore into Ten Years Later; The Vicomte de Bragelonne; Louise de La Vallière; and The Man in the Iron Mask. But not always! (When I get to translating the Bragelonne colossus, I intend to title the first volume Between Two Kings; or, Ten Years Later, restoring that confusing phrase to its position as a subtitle.)

Why was The Red Sphinx overlooked for so long, when The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask became so famous?

By 1865, his first fame past, Dumas was writing whatever would sell. Jules Noriac, editor of the weekly Les Nouvelles, needed a novel for serial publication, and asked Dumas if he would be willing to revisit the setting of his earliest success, The Three Musketeers. Dumas, who hadn’t lost his fascination with the reign of Louis XIII and his prime minister, Cardinal Richelieu, was quick to accept. The result was the original serial publication of Le Comte de Moret, a swashbuckling tale of King Louis, his adventurous half-brother Moret, and Cardinal Richelieu.

Especially Cardinal Richelieu; the novel is as much about Richelieu as it is about the Comte de Moret, which is why its alternate title is The Red Sphinx. The focus on the Cardinal explains why Dumas refused to include appearances by d’Artagnan and his three musketeer friends, as they would surely have walked away with the story. In any event, between The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years Later, and The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Dumas had already written over a million words about d’Artagnan and company. Why flog a dead horse?

That decision to leave out d’Artagnan and his famous friends probably accounts for how Le Comte de Moret fell between the cracks of history. It had but a single 19th-century translation into English that is now lost, and the novel wasn’t even revived in France until 1946.

Do you plan to translate the whole cycle? What are the advantages of a new, uniform translation?

I do, in fact, intend to tackle the whole shebang—my translations of The Red Sphinx and The Three Musketeers are complete, and I’m about a quarter of the way through Twenty Years After.

The advantages of a new, uniform translation of the series are consistency and readability. Though there are a couple of good, modern versions of The Three Musketeers available, Twenty Years After and most of The Vicomte de Bragelonne haven’t had new English translations in over a century. These are great novels, classics of world literature, but available to readers of English only in creaky, stiff old versions that don’t do justice to Dumas’s dynamic prose and crackling dialogue. The entire series should be on the shelf of every fan of historical adventure fiction.

In your opinion, which is the best of Dumas’s Musketeer books?

Oh, The Three Musketeers, of course—Dumas was on fire in 1844-45, when he wrote T3M and The Count of Monte Cristo, his most enduring works, both of which are crammed with bold scenes and unforgettable characters. But Twenty Years After was written right on the heels of Monte Cristo and T3M, and in some ways it’s superior to its predecessor in pacing and structure. And the sheer length of Bragelonne gave Dumas the luxury to examine his characters and themes in a detail afforded nowhere else.

The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask have each been filmed many times, and now there is the popular BBC TV series. In your opinion, what is the best screen adaptation so far?

A new take on the Musketeers comes along every few years, and most of them have their good points, but the gold standard is still the Lester/Fraser Three/Four Musketeers films, as they nailed Dumas’s tone, and with their extra length, gave the filmmakers enough time to really bring the characters to life. That said, I’m also quite fond of the just-completed BBC series The Musketeers, which focused on adding depth to Dumas’s iconic characters rather than adhering to plot, and in the process showed why those characters are still relevant and resonant nearly two centuries after they first appeared.

In your dreams, given every actor who has ever lived, whom would you cast as the four Musketeers? As Richelieu? As any other character?

A fun parlor game that never gets old! With The Red Sphinx bringing Cardinal Richelieu back into the limelight, let’s take a look at some of the great actors who’ve portrayed him over the years:

– Raymond Massey (Under the Red Robe, 1937)

– Vincent Price (The Three Musketeers, 1948)

– Charlton Heston (The Three / Four Musketeers, 1973-74)

– Tim Curry (The Three Musketeers, 1993)

– Christoph Waltz (The Three Musketeers, 2011)

– Peter Capaldi (The Musketeers, 2014)

Unbelievable! With a character so rich and many-sided as Richelieu, it’s no wonder such a plum role often goes to actors who are among the best of their generation. For the movie version of The Red Sphinx (it’s inevitable, right?), I’d like to see Kenneth Branagh take on the role.

One reads of Dumas père and Dumas fils: who was who?

Alexandre Dumas père, or senior, is the 900-pound gorilla of swashbuckler fiction whose works we’ve been discussing today. His son, known as Alexandre Dumas fils, was also a novelist and playwright; he wrote stories of manners and romance, and is best known for La Dame aux Camélias.

Many thanks to Lawrence for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find him at his web site swashbucklingadventure.net and keep up with his author appearance via his Facebook page. And, of course, you can find his books at your favorite bookstore or e-tailer.