The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
Books In Conversation

Down Away from the Sun You’ll Burrow


Alexandre Dumas
tr. Lawrence Ellsworth
Twenty Years After
(Pegasus Books, 2019)

As far as I can tell, Lawrence Ellsworth is responsible for one of the biggest literary projects happening right now in the English language. Like William T. Vollmann’s “Seven Dreams” series of novels about the European occupation of the New World and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, an interlocking and cross-referencing “poem of a life,” Ellsworth is working on a massive and daunting scale. He’s translating the entirety of Alexandre Dumas’s stories of The Three Musketeers (1844), all 1.5 million words of it. The third volume, Twenty Years After, appeared late last year.

Twenty Years After restores a chapter that Dumas once serialized in his native French but which has never before appeared in English. It also, as with the previous and future volumes, moves past the Victorian-era translations that were, per Ellsworth’s introduction, for an “audience that was uncomfortable with frank depictions of violence and sexuality.” Those old translations, he reminds us, “employed a style of elevated diction that was deemed appropriate for historical novels of the 19th century, but seems stiff, long-winded, and passive to today’s readers.” In Ellsworth’s hands, these stories of swashbuckling and all-for-one-and-one-for-all friendship feel new again. The Three Musketeers is an enormously entertaining tale for the ages.

Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870) wrote in many different styles. In addition to these novels, and The Count of Monte Cristo (1844–1846), he wrote plays, travel books, journalism, and more. Appropriately enough, Ellsworth has also spanned many genres. In fact, he wrote the first poem I ever memorized as a child. It begins:

Search ye far or search ye near
You’ll find no trace of the three
Unless you follow instructions clear
For the weapons abide with me.

That quatrain will ring familiar, I think, to all of us who grew up obsessed with tabletop role-playing games in the late 1970s.

It so happens that Lawrence Ellsworth is the pen name of Lawrence Schick, who was an early employee of TSR, the company that created Dungeons & Dragons. There, he wrote White Plume Mountain (1979), which I personally regard as the greatest D&D adventure module of all time. He’s also the co-creator of the earliest version of the D&D setting Mystara, in which my own long-running campaign is set even now. Since then, among other pursuits, Ellsworth served as Loremaster for the Elder Scrolls Online games and now lives in Dublin, where he is hard at work writing a new mobile game.

Ellsworth was generous enough to correspond with me via email in January and February, during which time we discussed world-building, how to write an epic role-playing game (RPG) adventure, and the challenges of adapting Dumas for current audiences. There’s a unique and profound joy in getting to pick the brain of a multi-talented writer whose work I’ve known since I was a kid and who’s had such a huge impact on my own creative life.

Andrew Ervin (Rail): When did you first read Dumas and why did you decide to start translating him?

Lawrence Ellsworth: Though I grew up on the paperback adventures of sword-wielding heroes of fantasy from writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard, and historical fiction authors like my father’s favorite Harold Lamb, I initially passed up Alexandre Dumas because I thought his work would be creaky and old-fashioned, like that of Sir Walter Scott or James Fenimore Cooper. But Richard Lester’s 1973 film version of The Three Musketeers inspired me to pick up the novel, and I was hooked. The sequels were long out of print at that point, but I tracked them all down in used bookstores in dusty Victorian editions. 

Flash forward almost twenty years to the early 1990s, by which time I was a professional video game designer and producer. As a side project, I led a troupe of six called Cruel Hoax that wrote and produced live-action role-playing games, weekend-long events for 60 to 100 players that emphasized politics and romance. We were looking for a subject for our next game when I remembered Dumas and his musketeers. It turned out to be a great choice, and in the process of doing the research for The King’s Musketeers I got hooked on the characters and the period all over again, so much so that I started doing independent study into Early Modern Europe and France in the 17th century. I decided that I wanted to write historical fiction in that setting and began collecting materials. 

I was teaching myself French and rereading Dumas, and began to realize that his writing wasn’t creaky and old-fashioned, but his Victorian English translations were. Reading Dumas in the original French was a revelation: dynamic prose, crackling dialogue, vivid scenes, plus he was funny as hell. Most of the English translations of his work paled in comparison. 

By this time I was reading beyond Dumas’s famous novels and into his more obscure works, and I kept coming across references to a musketeers-period swashbuckler from late in his career called The Comte de Moret, but there was no extant English translation and it was impossible to find. Finally I came across French reprint copies of its two volumes in the bouquiniste stalls in Paris, and though the novel was unfinished, it was grand stuff, genuine Dumas bursting with all his color, humor, and joie de vivre. I’d done my own translation of The Three Musketeers as part of my learning-French project, and as I was flying back from Paris, it suddenly occurred to me that could translate Moret and from that idea was born the literary reconstruction that became The Red Sphinx.

Rail: Can you tell me about your experience in designing video games? Do you see a connection between your work there and the kind of world-building we see in Dumas?

Ellsworth: In games, narrative arises from player decisions in game activities, so what game design teaches you about world-building is that the world exists to provide context for gameplay, so pay attention in your world-building to those aspects of the world that bear on player choices. The player wants to feel that they’re participating in a rich and coherent world, and to provide that you can and should go into great detail about parts of the background that provide meaning and motive to the game activities. The rest of the world can be more-or-less sketched in, because the player won’t directly interact with it, and to give it too much attention can mislead players into thinking something is more important or relevant than it really is. 

Ultimately, world-building for historical fiction gets you to the same place, but the process is different: a historical setting provides the world-builder with an overwhelming quantity of detail, and the writer has to decide which details matter to their story and largely select only those to include. To oversimplify, game world-building is additive while historical fiction world-building is subtractive. In both cases you end up with richly detailed contexts where it matters for the narrative, while less relevant background is merely sketched in. 

Dumas was a master at this. He was a playwright before he became a novelist, an expert at honing down his narrative to include just what would fit on the theater stage and be direct and forceful enough to play to the cheap seats at the top of the balcony. Most of the prose he wrote was historical fiction because he loved history, but in his best work all the history on the page is there to serve the purpose of moving the story forward. Dumas famously used assistants like Auguste Maquet to help outline his novels, and one of their main functions was to do historical research that would support the narrative. If it wasn’t directly relevant to the story, Dumas threw it out—subtracted it, just to nail home the point. 

Rail: Like Dumas, you’ve worked in several different media and genres. For example, you wrote the first poem I ever memorized. What were your responsibilities with Dungeons & Dragons and how did those prepare you for working on Dumas?

Ellsworth: In writing fantasy, I’ve occasionally put things into verse form to convey a certain tone, and I’ve had to translate some poetry in the Musketeers books, but poetry is hard work, and my skills don’t naturally go in that direction. Though doggerel, such as drinking songs, can be fun. 

My first writing job was working for Gary Gygax on material for Dungeons & Dragons: I revised his work and that of his friends, who got all the plum assignments in the early days, and wrote some stuff of my own. The most important thing you learn working on story games is to approach everything as a collaboration, with the players as your collaborators. I can’t emphasize this enough. You’re not writing a story, you’re creating the background and narrative tools and materials that others will use to tell a story among themselves, a story that doesn’t really exist until they tell it. It’s like writing horn charts for jazz, music that really only exists when the musicians play it, hearing each other and riffing in collaboration. When you write a scenario for a role-playing game, you’re creating a structure that others will extemporize upon to create their personal version of the narrative. So you have to leave room for their contributions, including enough pointers to help them shape the story because they’re not professional storytellers. 

Working that way eased my transition into designing video and computer games, because they have to be built by creative teams in which narrative design is just one of several disciplines. You work with artists, animators, audio and level designers, and other skill sets even more arcane—you have to be able to collaborate. But the narrative designer has the greatest responsibility for looking out for your final collaborators, the players. 

Which brings us back around to translating Dumas, because translating fiction isn’t just a technical exercise, it’s really another kind of collaboration. You can translate the words on the page, but you must also somehow conjure up that intangible essence we call the writer’s voice, and do it in a language not their own. When I convert Dumas’s tales into contemporary English, I’m not just translating his words, I’m collaborating with the writer himself to color the work with his sensibility, feelings, and personality—in short, his voice. You might think that would be made easier by the fact that he’s been dead for 150 years and therefore can’t complain about my decisions, but you don’t have him talking in your head like he does in mine. He gets salty. 

Rail: You’ve committed yourself to translating approximately 1.5 million words. How does it feel to take on a project of this magnitude? 

Ellsworth: Any size project is manageable if you take it a chapter at a time and set your own pace. I have friends who’ve hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and they all did it one leg at a time over several seasons. The Musketeers cycle is well over 500 chapters, but at one or two chapters a week that’s not crazy big. Dumas managed to get through it in far less time than I’ll take, and won’t it look nice when all eight volumes are lined up on the bookshelf? 

Given the state of the world, it seems to me it’s up to creators to keep the lamps lit and create as much as they can. If I were married, maybe I’d be happy sitting down with my partner in the evenings and binge-watching quality TV series, but I don’t care for doing that alone. I play role-playing games and try to keep up with literary historical fiction and fantasy, but really, I’d rather be writing. Every evening I set myself a manageable goal, plug away at it until I hit my numbers, and then it’s pencils down and read a book or do some research. 

Rail: What were your responsibilities for The Elder Scrolls Online?

Ellsworth: Ah, that was a dream job, really. As your readers may know, ESO is a sprawling multiplayer online role-playing game set in a persistent version of Tamriel, the same fantasy world as SkyrimI was lead writer on the project, but then a new creative director came in who wanted his own guy for that, so he invented the position of “Loremaster” and shifted me sideways into that role. That was really just a recognition of the job I was already doing, overseeing the world background and maintaining consistent history, mythology, and cultures for that world’s array of strange and ancient civilizations. I worked with the studio’s stable of writers to keep the stories in the tone of the Elder Scrolls series, which is dark and humorous but never hokey. I got to consult with the great designers at Bethesda Games who’d gone before me, many of whom I’d known from our previous lives in the biz, and it was like collaborating on a great work that spanned generations—not that long in the real world, perhaps, but it was eons in video game terms. 

 I was privileged to contribute to enlarging and enriching the history of Tamriel for over nine years, and could have kept at it, but I reached a point where it was fun but no longer personally challenging. And meanwhile, the tone of the real world had grown darker and far less humorous around me. I, my friends, and most of my family are intellectual weirdos of one stripe or another, and the United States is no longer a safe and welcoming haven for intellectual weirdos who won’t stay within certain narrow bounds of behavior. And it’s not just that: my son lived through a horrific multiple-murder shooting at his high school, and as a student of history, I’m pretty sure things are going to get a lot worse in my native country before they get better again. I’m American-born, but my two youngest are immigrants, one of them a young woman, and I looked at the situation and didn’t like the odds. I decided it was time to consider other options, and put out a few tentative feelers. 

If a life in the games business prepares you for anything, it’s how to react to sudden change: an old friend proposed an opportunity in Ireland that met all the necessary criteria, it stood up to a careful vetting, plus it just felt right. So, one morning early last year I woke up to find myself living in Dublin. I wanted a challenge, and boy howdy, did I get one. I’m working in a small team building a category-breaking mobile game, and I’m still doing narrative and world design, but much more besides. It’s invigorating, especially for a guy in his mid ’60s, which in video games is like being Methuselah. Besides, Ireland is great—people read books here!—and the Irish like an eccentric weirdo, especially if he looks a bit like a mad poet. As for the kids, well, they’ll forgive me for it. Someday. 

Rail: Why is it that Dumas’s stories still feel so vital, especially right now?

Ellsworth: Dumas’s work remains vital and relevant over 150 years later because his best novels speak to the problem of courage, of how an individual can find the strength and means to do what’s right despite the constraints of society, family, and convention. This is a problem that never goes away, a matter that every generation has to face for itself. Unlike many of the heroes of historical fiction, Dumas’s characters are complex, three-dimensional humans of depth and contradiction, people for whom wrestling with these problems is no easy matter. Look at Cardinal Richelieu, an antagonist and seeming villain in The Three Musketeers, yet a protagonist in The Red Sphinx. Because his novels are exciting and plot-heavy, and because his early translators cut out the sex, softened the language, and dialed back the violence, in the early 20th century Dumas’s work was miscategorized as “Boys’ Adventures,” a label that has stuck for far too long. His best work is long overdue for a re-assessment, at least in the Anglophone world.


Andrew Ervin

Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel Burning Down George Orwell's House and the novella collection Extraordinary Renditions. His most recent book is Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World.


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