As Florin and Guilder teeter on the verge of war, the reluctant Princess Buttercup is devastated by the loss of her true love, kidnapped by a mercenary and his henchmen, rescued by a pirate, forced to marry Prince Humperdinck, and rescued once again by the very crew who absconded with her in the first place. In the course of this dazzling adventure, she’ll meet Vizzini—the criminal philosopher who’ll do anything for a bag of gold; Fezzik—the gentle giant; Inigo—the Spaniard whose steel thirsts for revenge; and Count Rugen—the evil mastermind behind it all. Foiling all their plans and jumping into their stories is Westley, Princess Buttercup’s one true love and a very good friend of a very dangerous pirate.
It was impossible for me to start reading The Princess Bride without some preconceptions. The film alone is such a huge cultural influence that even without having seen it or read the book I knew some things about it. I think you’d be a little hard-pressed to find someone in North America who has not heard the line “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” I also knew of the film’s narrative frame; a grandfather reading the story to his ill grandson who at first has misgivings about hearing it. What I didn’t expect was the bizarre metanarrative that the novel had in store for me.
At the outset of my reading I was met with a couple of lengthy introductions—for the 30th then the 25th anniversary editions—that I was initially impatient with. Much of it spoke of the film and the novel retrospectively from Goldman’s perspective, which I didn’t find very accessible as a newcomer, but since I often have a completionist mindset I was loath to skip them. While reading these introductions I began to notice that Goldman was clearly fictionalizing his experience as the author. It wasn’t until I got to the true introduction within the pages of the novel itself that the pieces started to come together.
The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure is a fictional book by a fictional author, which Goldman’s father fictionally read to him when he was recovering from pneumonia as a child. Unbeknownst to him his father skipped over the long-winded historical and satirical content to tell a more exciting tale. The book I held in my hand is Goldman’s abridged version of a book that never actually existed, complete with his own notes for context, regaling the reader with the “good bits” of Morgenstern’s much longer tale.
The metanarrative at play here is expertly put together—certainly enough to trip me up—and frames the whole book in unexpected ways. It allows Goldman to get away with quite a lot in the telling of his story too. Numerous plot devices and developments the characters go through are incidentally skipped over to keep the exciting parts going, with his notes filling in the necessary information for context. It almost feels like cheating, cutting down some of the work he has to do as a storyteller, yet the narrative frame makes it feel more than acceptable. It also fits the tone of the story we are given, which is sincere in its feelings yet does not take itself seriously.
Even more astounding to me is that along the way he crafts evocative characters that are hard not to love. They do fall into familiar archetypes, but are fleshed out in their own meaningful ways as the story progresses. Inigo is a charismatic, masterful swordsman, but he’s also got an alcohol problem and can’t really get things done properly without direction from somebody else. Fezzik is a kind-hearted yet simple giant of a man with herculean strength, yet he has numerous moments where he shows more forethought and ability than he gives himself credit for. For all of Buttercup’s sentimentality, she’s very practical and tries her best to adapt to new situations. There’s plenty of over-the-top pining for a lost love, but she never felt completely at the mercy of the villains to me. She is often trying to negotiate things into more favourable terms and will take matters into her own hands if need be.
The only character I did not care for too much was Westley. I understand the importance of his role in the grand scheme of the story, I just had a bit of trouble getting invested in a character who is inexplicably exceptional at nearly everything he does. There is a tongue in cheek-ness to it, granted, but I couldn’t get as attached to him all the same. The direction the story takes in his treatment is appreciable, subverting his abilities, but nothing about his personal character gave him any flaws that I saw as obstacles to him achieving his goal.
While I think the metanarrative frame elevates the novel significantly, there are points where this worked against it too. Behind all of that there was a legitimately engaging fable full of adventure and endearing characters, and more than once I was honestly a little upset that sections were “skipped over” to keep up with the conceit that this is an abridgement. A part of me wanted that level of it stripped away, just to see what a more conventional text might look like.
Small complaints aside, The Princess Bride is an excellent novel, plain and simple. There’s plenty of exciting action, great characters, and hilarious writing that knows exactly the kind of sandbox it’s playing in, constructing it perfectly into an oddball adventure. Framing it all is a metanarrative that elevates the text further from a gripping fable to a reflection on stories and the personal shape they can take in an individual life. After all, this isn’t really The Princess Bride if you consider the book as the sum of all its parts. It is a version of the story read by a caring immigrant father—who struggled with the language—to his bedridden son who needed something to lift his spirits.
My rating: 5 out of 5