A Fun Read, Terrible History: Roger MacDonald’s The Man In The Iron Mask

Just finished The Man in the Iron Mask by Roger MacDonald, which purports to solve the mystery of that enigmatic prisoner of Louis XIV.  If you’re as much of a Dumas nut as I am, it’s a blast.  What makes it fun is that d’Artagnan, M. de Treville, and even Cyrano storm across its pages along with mentions of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  Much of what he suggests is even plausible, which adds to the fun.  As an actual historian, the man is an utter putz–his conclusion about who the Mask actually was is based on approximately zero evidence and fairly bad speculation–for example, he never answers the question, “Well, then why didn’t the king simply have him killed?” which is an appropriate question if MacDonald’s solution is accurate.  Of course, he doesn’t cite sources except in the most cursory manner.   And he does that thing bad historians do when looking into a mystery: constantly going, “Here is the TRVTH!” rather than, “Here is why I have come to this conclusion.”  It added to the fun for me that, at his worst, he sounds a little like Paarfi–not in the way he writes, but in his insistence that, “No, really, this is what happened, honest.”

Toward the end, he discusses the French Revolution, where he proves his complete lack of knowledge (the French revolution, it seems, occurred because of the royal family’s sexual habits, and the storming of the Bastille happened because they were too slow in getting information out.  Uh huh).  But still, there are delightful moments.  “…Germain de Saint-Foix, whose shortcomings as a dramatist were rarely exposed because of his reputation as a duellist…” and I do quite agree with his conclusion that even if the story of Voltaire’s deathbed statement (when asked to renounce the devil, “Is this a time to make enemies?”) is apocryphal, he’d have said it if he’d thought of it.

So, anyway, it’s a fun ride, worthless history.

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3 thoughts on “A Fun Read, Terrible History: Roger MacDonald’s The Man In The Iron Mask”

  1. Well, The Man In The Iron Mask not withstanding, if you’re willing to accept that not all history presented in text books is necessarily accurate, I’d like to recommend Josephine Tey’s The Daughter Of Time for your consideration. Written in 1951 as an historical mystery, it presents a compelling & altogether plausible argument that Richard The Third was not the villain that history has made him out to be. A thoroughly entertaining read, I also found it to be extremely thought provoking & after many re-readings over the years, as well as supplementary reading from authors providing differing viewpoints, I am convinced that the Tudor history of the events surrounding the death of the last of the Plantagenets is not to be trusted. That Richard’s remains have been recently discovered & positively identified, gives this tale a little added poignancy. Highly recommended, although if you read the Folio Society edition, try not to let Alison Weir’s rather pissy introduction colour your view before reading the book.

  2. One of my favorite kinds of history.

    I’ve been researching that era of French history recently, actually, because I’ve got a tabletop game in which the players fight time-travelling Nazis (this may be the last time I ask my players “so what should I run next?”), and they’re currently pursuing a time-jalopy that went off course and crashed in the 1620s just outside Paris.

    So far, they’ve drugged Charles de Batz-Castelmore and stolen his letter of invitation from Monsieur Le Comte de Troisville. Fortunately for me, they’re not historically savvy enough to catch on to who they’re messing with, so next week should be fun.

    As I said. One of my favorite kinds of history.

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