The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, January 27, 2017

The "Villain Protagonist": Richelieu in "The Red Sphinx."

So, I'm slowly reading Alexander Dumas's The Red Sphinx, which is being touted as a sequel to The Three Musketeers. It isn't exactly; it takes place within days of the conclusion to The Three Musketeers, but other than the figures of the court, so far (I'm a quarter of the way through), the only character from Dumas's great classic who reappears is Cardinal Richelieu. And so far, this is Richelieu's novel.

In the earlier novel, Richelieu is ruthless, sometimes outright cruel, but with one great virtue that the narrative (and several of the "white hats") readily grant him: he's the one adult in the room, protecting and fostering the developement of France as a major power. At one point, Louis XIII even rhetorically describes the Cardinal M. De Treville (Captain of the Musketeers), "he who watches while I sleep, who labors while I amuse myself, who conducts everything at home and abroad . . . I speak of the prop of the state, of my only servant, of my only friend--of the cardinal." (Ch. 6). Much of The Three Musketeers is spent in casting Richelieu as both a great man and as a villain. Someone to be opposed, but not always, to be admired, intermittently, but never entirely to be trusted.

In The Red Sphinx, there are two viewpoint characters: the Count de Moret (the illegitimate brother to Louis XIII) and Richelieu himself. Richelieu schemes in this novel, but solely for the good of France, and against the schemers who would weaken the nation to serve their own loyalties: Anne of Austria, Marie de Medici, the King's own mother, and Gaston d'Orleans, his epicene, treacherous, legitimate brother, to name but a few.

In point of fact, I can't help but suspect that the showrunners of the BBC's recent series The Musketeers(2014-2016) were familiar with The Red Sphinx; all of these tropes surface in the series. Richelieu thwarts Marie de Medici's machinations, Gaston sleazes around the palace trying to seize the throne. Richelieu has an intensely romantic, though chaste, relationship with a much younger woman he thinks of as his niece. (Neither chaste nor niece in The Musketeers.) There's even a parallel to the scene I've placed at the top of this post. Richelieu spares a woman sentenced to die, sequestered in a convent, in order to benefit from her knowledge. In The Red Sphinx, though, the Cardinal saves her from the cell in which she is immured, tortured by the nuns and the priests who supervise the convent (who believe her guilty of a terrible crime).

In The Red Sphinx, though, Richelieu saves the woman from degradation (she has been imprisoned for 9 years, her clothes have shredded to rags and not been replaced by her jailers, so she is naked in an unseated cell, summer an winter). And the threats he makes to the Mother Superior of the convent when she tries to resist his orders that the woman be clothed, warmed, and fed--yes, there is a resemblance to his bearing in that scene from The Musketeers. He even thinks to himself that God has never been more with him than at this moment.

Except Richelieu is right. He is serving God and France in this moment. The Master of Realpolitik is moved, though it serves his policy to be.

For Dumas, Richelieu is a complex figure--he is capable of warmth and frigidity, he can be a villain at times, but he serves a higher purpose. Rather like Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, Richelieu is a character whose heroism (or villainy) is unstable--you can tell either story with Daggett or Richelieu as the hero or the villain; twist the kaleidoscope, and the entire picture, and its meaning, changes.

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