William Goldman. The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.
Rating: 4.85 out of 5 chocolate-covered resurrection pills
Rating #2: This book is so good I read it twice in a row, and I keep going back to all the pages I dog-eared, re-reading all the clever lines and funny moments.
So, this is one of those instances where I saw the movie first. Of course I saw the movie first – it’s a childhood classic. It’s the “good parts edition” of Goldman’s “good parts edition,” leaving out most of the (admittedly awesome – more on that later) authorial interruptions. It’s one of the most quotable films ever, with such gems as “As you wish,” and “Have fun storming the castle!” and “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
And Goldman doesn’t blame me one bit. He already knew, by the time the 1998 edition of the book was published, that most new readers would have seen the movie first. “I doubt that my publishers would have sprung for this edition if the movie hadn’t happened,” he says in his intro to the 25th anniversary edition. “If you’re reading this, dollars to donuts you’ve seen the movie.”
Now, I may be cheating just a bit, calling this a Classic Juv/YA fantasy. At least at my local library, the book is located in the adult section. But Goldman-the-narrator insists that The Princess Bride – at least his “good parts edition” – is a children’s classic. And I, too, am positive it’s the kind of story that would appeal at least to teen readers (younger readers might get bored by all the authorial interruptions, and there’s a brief, mild sex scene in the Buttercup’s Baby chapter), so I’m going to take blogger’s license and say it counts.
There’s so much I want to talk about with this book – the meta-ness, the memorable characters, the way it both parodies and yet matches the fairy tale style – but some of what I want to talk about includes spoilers – even for those of you who’ve seen the movie – so I’m going to split this post into two pages. For the non-spoiler edition, you can safely continue reading. For the spoilers, go to page 2.
This is one of the most meta books I’ve ever read. I mentioned in my review of My Lady Jane that that book mimics The Princess Bride with its authorial interruptions and parenthetical comments. Well, MLJ is a totally straightforward, one-level story compared to The Princess Bride. The premise of Goldman’s story is that it’s an annotated abridgement of an original, much longer book by an obscure writer from a small European country, which is based on real people and events. Even Goldman’s introductions add to the story, describing his travels to Florin; his legal battles with the Morgenstern estate; his fight for permission to abridge at least the first chapter of the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby; and his interactions with the cast and crew of the movie.
Did you know Andre the Giant actually climbed the Cliffs of Insanity in preparation for his role as Fezzik? I didn’t know that. And you can actually see the six-fingered sword if you go to the Morgenstern Museum in Florin!
Throughout the story, Goldman-the-narrator interrupts the action to remember his childhood reactions to the story as read to him by his father; to mention the long, boring passages his father had skipped, and which Goldman in turn left out of his “good parts edition”; and to warn us about upcoming events that just don’t seem fair or poetically just, considering this is supposed to be a fairy tale, and fairy tales are supposed to be fair, aren’t they?
A Modern Fairy Tale (Parody?)
The thing about fairy tales, though, is that even the original tales weren’t always fair or in line with the rules of poetic justice. Sometimes the villains got away. Sometimes the heroes died before their “happily ever afters.” Sometimes “true love” fizzled at the first inconvenience. Read stories like the “The Yellow Dwarf,” “The Princess Mayblossom,” and Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” for examples.
So Morgenstern/Goldman’s “unfair” fairy tale really isn’t out of line with other tales. It’s a satire on tales of true love and heroics, but even some of the classic tales seem like a challenge to the happily-ever-after type.
Fairy tale characters
One big way in which The Princess Bride mimics/parodies classic fairy tales is through its use of extreme characters – people with extraordinary talents or attributes, like Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world; Domingo, the hermit who makes swords that are more than masterpieces, swords “for the ages”; Inigo, the fencer who is so good he can fence with his non-dominant hand, using a sword made for someone with an extra finger; Fezzik, the giant fighter who was adult-size since he was a toddler; Humperdinck, the expert hunter who’s so good he builds himself a five-level Zoo of Death just to exercise his skills; and Westley, the lover so true he can ignore torture just by focusing his mind on his beloved.
Yet, Goldman’s protagonists are more than two-dimensional wonder men and women. Fezzik and Inigo get fully fleshed-out backstories describing their childhoods and the work it took to become who they are today. Actually, they remind me a lot of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with their insecurities that they keep proving wrong without realizing it. Like when Inigo insists he can’t accomplish his ultimate goal of avenging his father without Vizzini doing the thinking for him, but then figures out a plan all by himself. Or when Fezzik keeps insisting on his own stupidity and uselessness, but manages to find Inigo and nurse him back to health all by himself, and also gets those horses when they’re most needed.
Westley apparently has a backstory, too, though it’s in the unpublished chapters of Buttercup’s Baby, but his realism comes more from those moments when, despite his extreme strength of will, he does get a little weary of all those heroic deeds. “I’m tired, Buttercup,” he tells his beloved. “[D]o you understand tired? I’ve put in a night, is what I’m trying to get through to you.” 
Even Princess Buttercup herself is more than just a stereotypical damsel in distress.
I’ve got mixed feelings about Buttercup. Just in that description of the wonder characters, you can see the problem – the one female protagonist is just there as eye candy, while the men get to do all the action and heroics, right? Goldman, Westley, and even Buttercup herself like to periodically comment on her airheadedness. She spends most of the story just sitting/standing by and waiting for either Westley or Humperdinck to rescue her. There’s even a moment (and this is where the book lost some points with me) when Westley refers to Buttercup as his property and orders her around. Oh, and slaps her at one point. And the movie lost points in the Fire Swamp, when Buttercup just stood helplessly by while Westley was being attacked by an R.O.U.S. (ok, she did eventually pick up a stick and start swatting at it, but for the most part? She’s pretty useless in that scene).
Yet, this is all part of the parody, isn’t it? Goldman is poking fun at those fairy tales in which the princess just sits in a tower or sleeps for a hundred years or passively goes along with whichever man wins her in a contest.
But Buttercup isn’t entirely passive, and this, too, is part of the parody. “Enough about my beauty,” she tells Westley at one point, after he’s been waxing poetic about her physical attributes. “Everybody always talks about how beautiful I am. I’ve got a mind, Westley. Talk about that.”  And though her mind never “expand[s] horizons,” she does eventually see through Humperdinck’s lies, tries twice to get away from her kidnappers, and takes charge several times when all the male protagonists are at their wits’ end.
And she doesn’t let true love get in the way of her self-interest. It may be an unattractive quality according to other characters, but I kind of give Buttercup props for that moment of selfishness in the Fire Swamp, even as I love the more noble Buttercup in the movie.
So, on the one hand, Goldman makes Buttercup a typical damsel in distress waiting for her true love to rescue her, but on the other hand, she doesn’t want to be just “a silly girl” with a pretty face, and over the course of the story, she develops more independent thought and heroism, putting her more in line with the clever girls and women in fairy tales like “The Snow Queen,” “Allerleirauh,” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.”
A Modern Tale of True Love and High Adventure
And so, Goldman’s story is both a meta satire on true love tales, and a pretty classic fairy tale in and of itself. In any case, it’s one of my new favorite books ever. The movie I loved just as much, though its tone is totally different. Yes, there is still the frame story of the little boy being read the story while he’s sick in bed, and there are the few interruptions, but for the most part, the movie is a straightforward love story. My best friend and I were talking about this recently, and we realized the big difference between the movie and the book — you can really feel that Buttercup and Westley are in love in the movie, whereas the book is a satire that makes you keep questioning the depth of that love (at least on one side — more on page 2). And I love them both.