by Todd Walton, August 5, 2011
“Oh, the women, the women!” cried the old soldier. “I know them by their romantic imagination. Everything that savors of mystery charms them.” — Alexandre Dumas
Last Thursday evening, as I was about to go to bed, I had a moment of panic because I had nothing to read. Yes, there are millions of books; and hundreds of new volumes flood the world every day; but I was hungry for a particular literary food I’ve cultivated a taste for over a lifetime, nothing else will do, and I wasn’t sure I had anything of the kind in the house I hadn’t too recently read. Alas, I am allergic to science fiction, murder mysteries (save for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), fantasy, horror, mainstream fiction, exposés of the depredations of the oligarchic octopus, and odes to the coming collapse, thus new prose is, for the most part, of no use to me.
Stumbling into my cluttered office, I espied a volume recently procured from Daedalus Books, that goodly purveyor of publishers’ overstocks—a happily inexpensive Dover edition of the 167-year-old The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I had attempted to read the book as a teenager and found the language too rich for my fledgling taste buds. I had seen a movie based loosely on the book (there have been more than 20 movies made from the novel) and I have always liked myths in which a group of characters compose a collective being, each character a distinct aspect of the whole—Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck; Groucho, Harpo, and Chico; D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. And so with hope in my heart, I lugged the ample paperback to bed, settled in for my customary bout of reading before sleep, and was relieved to find the first two chapters of The Three Musketeers exactly the food I craved.
“The intrigue grows tangled.” — Alexandre Dumas
Three months before I began to read The Three Musketeers, I was inspired by various twists of fate to begin a series of large and colorful drawings (large for me, small for Picasso), 20 x 16 inches. I have been making pen and ink sketches since I was a child, but it was only two years ago at the age of fifty-nine that I went public for the first time with my artwork by introducing each chapter of my novel Under the Table Books with a pen and ink drawing. When these illustrations were mentioned favorably in reviews, I was emboldened to create seven zany black and white birthday cards (you can color them or not) that failed to cause a commercial ripple, much less a splash. Thereafter I contented myself with using the myriad scans of my drawings to decorate the instant stationery that computers and laser printers make possible.
What do my drawings have to do with The Three Musketeers?
“My heart is that of a musketeer; I feel it, Monsieur, and that impels me on.” — Alexandre Dumas
Nine months ago I was invited to submit a short story to the Consumnes River Journal, a literary magazine of Consumnes Community College near Sacramento. I sent the editors a provocative story I was sure they would publish, but they disappointed my hopes. However, they were enamored of a drawing I included with the story, and to this drawing they dedicated an entire glossy page of their journal. Then about two months ago, shortly after the publication of the journal, I was contacted by a curator of an annual art show in Sacramento, a show of visual art created by writers, and this curator asked if I would like to present a few of my drawings in the next such show.
As it happened, the day I received the curator’s communiqué, I had just completed a series of three (large for me, small for Picasso) pieces I hoped to enter in a juried show at the Mendocino Art Center. However, I failed to have these beauties framed in time (they are still not framed) for the day of judgment, and so I will never know if I would have won a place in that show or not. Nevertheless, my sketching juices were flowing nicely when I received this invitation from Sacramento, and so there ensued a flurry of pen and ink inventions resulting in the birth of a family of colorful characters named Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Mystery, Mischief, and Merlin.
“D’Artagnan was amazed to note by what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of nations and the lives of men are suspended.” — Alexandre Dumas
The central hero (sometimes anti-hero) of The Three Musketeers is a daring young man named D’Artagnan. Whenever Dumas found himself at a cul-de-sac in the plot, he arranged for D’Artagnan to accidentally stumble upon an important someone or something to get the action moving again. These recurring “accidentals” are among my least favorite things about the novel, along with much of the final third of the mighty tome, though when I learned Dumas wrote the novel in serial form (The Three Musketeers was first published in a French magazine over the course of several months in 1844) I was more forgiving of these implausible plot twists, having myself authored a serial work of fiction for a Sacramento weekly in the 1980’s.
And, in fact, we do frequently stumble upon and over things that propel the plots of our lives, so in that sense D’Artagnan embodies the Sufi mystic who goes forth with an open heart and open mind to discover what the universe has to offer. As Paladin’s business card said Have Gun, Will Travel, so D’Artagnan’s card might have read Have Sword, Will Duel, and my card might say Have Pen, Will Make Large (for me, not for Picasso) Drawings.
Speaking of propelling the plot…lacking a studio I have commandeered the dining table for purposes of making my larger-than-usual drawings, and Marcia, my wife and boon companion these last five years, is now privy to my works-in-progress. To my great relief, she likes my drawings and even makes cogent suggestions about color choices and composition, all of which I strictly obey. (Not)
One recent evening Sandy Cosca came over and Marcia said to me, “Show Sandy your drawings,” which I did.
Sandy chuckled at the drawings (because they are funny) and asked, “Are these illustrations for a story?”
And though I heard myself say, “No,” I wondered if they were illustrations for a story. How long a story? A novella? A novel? A serial?
Two days later, Marion Crombie, freshly returned from England, viewed the drawings, smiled brightly, and asked, “Do these go with a story?”
So at last we come back to that fateful evening I alluded to in the first sentence of this article, when I, in a D’Artagnan-like moment of desperation, stumbled into my office, found The Three Musketeers, and began to feed upon that tale. Having gobbled the first two chapters, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream in which the Magician family came to life and revealed themselves to be a complicated and compelling collective being, each character a distinct aspect of a fantabulous whole. The dream, clearly, was the beginning of a story: Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Merlin, Mystery, and Mischief, though what the story is about and how long it turns out to be remain to be seen.
I have only written the first two chapters, and so far the tale seems less about dueling with the forces of evil ala D’Artagnan, and more about parents and children and their struggles to separate and individuate and ultimately come together again to take meaningful action against the larger forces of greed and avarice. The Magicians, though not great swordsmen or the darlings of wealthy queens and kings and cardinals, seem to be social activists of a most unusual kind, and they seem to pose the question: how will we, you and I, give aid to our friends and our communities in the face of the terrible and growing inequities engendered by a ruling class of narcissistic psychopaths hell bent on turning back the clock to feudal times when the likes of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers served a tiny minority of wealthy people whose pathological selfishness kept all but the luckiest few enslaved by poverty and fear?
You can view Todd’s zany birthday cards (and soon his Magician family drawings) at UnderTheTableBooks.com.