In the beginning, there was The Three Musketeers. (Shortly afterward, there was the Shmoop guide. Go check it out.) Next, there was Twenty Years After. Finally, there was The Vicomte de Bragelonne. Together, the three books are known as Alexandre Dumas's D'Artagnan Romances and cover many years of adventures and swordfights, chronicling the lives of four Musketeers.
The books were originally published in serial form, meaning they appeared one chapter at a time in the Parisian newspaper Le Siécle. This explains why Dumas's chapters are fairly self-contained and tend to end with a cliff hanger. He needed to retain readers. You can think of the serial form as the 18th century equivalent of a weekly sitcom that keeps the attention of its audience from one week to the next.
When The Vicomte de Bragelonne was put together for publication in book form, English translators took one look and realized it was too long. They typically break it up into smaller volumes – sometimes three, sometimes four. No matter how they slice it, they always entitle the last chunk The Man in the Iron Mask.
The Man in the Iron Mask takes place thirty-five years after The Three Musketeers. We meet our heroes – Athos, D'Artagnan, Aramis, and Porthos – as they encounter some serious responsibilities and challenges. The story takes place at the court of King Louis XIV. At court we discover that there are plenty of intrigues in which heroes are involved, including an interesting situation concerning a mysterious man in an iron mask.
The Man in the Iron Mask is the darker, more grown-up aftermath of The Three Musketeers, and as you can see in "Themes," the past figures heavily in this novel. By the end of the novel, King Louis XIV has ushered in an era of absolute power, where his word is law and he accepts no dissent. One way to view this book is to see it as the end of an era – the dissolution of a famous friendship and the end of fractured loyalties within a kingdom.
For those of you who are historically inclined, you can try reading The Man in the Iron Mask and try to understand how Dumas might also be commenting on the political situation in his own contemporary France. By glorifying the past through creating the beloved characters of D'Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos, Dumas reminded his readers of what they might be missing in their own France.
So, maybe when you hear of the Three Musketeers, you think more about chocolate than you do about those famous swashbucklers of French literature. We don't blame you really, because…mmm, chocolate.
But who needs chocolate when you have the same kind of political maneuvering and scheming that has drawn in audiences for centuries. That's right, The Man in the Iron Mask features the same kind of back-room plotting and dealing that hooked you on shows like The West Wing, Rome, or Game of Thrones. A secret pact to replace the king with his twin? Check. Backstabbing ministers angling for royal favor? Check. Former friends turned into enemies by the overwhelming force of politics and power? You better believe that's a check.
Let's face it: it may just be a lamentable side of human nature to strategize against one another for our own benefit. The Man in the Iron Mask is a study in loyalty and friendship and how power can affect them both. We're guessing that, even if you've never buckled a swash in your life, you'll find this study of human behavior more fulfilling than a whole box of candy bars. And it's better for you, too.