I think about “The Princess Bride” probably every day. I don’t especially care if that’s too much; it’s a pair of lungs to me now. So it was an unexpected loss of air to hear that its storyteller, William Goldman, recently passed away. I never knew this person, but his work was a joy that seeped into my own life.
My love for this movie (and the book that preceded it) is complete and all-encompassing. Its lines and ethos permeate all of my days – my need to rhyme with “peanut,” my knowledge to never get involved in a land war in Asia, my tendency to overuse the word “inconceivable” even in the most conceivable of situations. Buttercup and Westley gave me a love that’s as fun as it is deep. A sense of humor is key when dealing with the forces of evil. The Dread Pirate Roberts knows this.
I’m not sure of the precise moment “The Princess Bride” arrived in my life; like most lasting cultural touchstones, it seems to transcend origin and simply exist across planes of time. My existence has always been wrapped around a VHS tape that brought me this story. I know it came to my family’s house one Christmas, but I don’t remember its manger-like presence under the tree. My awareness came later. I’m not positive on when I first popped that tape into our tiny white TV unit, that moment of discovery. I do know I’ve never been the same.
The yarn goes that Goldman famously said he wrote the original book because his two daughters had differing requests for story content: one wanted a princess, one wanted a bride. So a compound wonder was born. But the essence of “The Princess Bride” is neither of those things. It lovingly jabs at fantasy, revealing the skeleton behind our favorite stories. Goldman knew that stories help us move through the world, but they can be taken apart to build different things. That distinction lets us enjoy the Jell-O while poking holes in the mold.
This is was what “The Princess Bride” did. It both built a world and took it apart, peeking out from the scaffolding and winking. With the storytelling framed as a grandfather telling his sick grandchild a fairy tale, the skepticism interrupts once in a while to comment on any errant ridiculousness, lest we get too carried away with the treacle.
As the grandfather reads his story, we meet Buttercup – a farm girl who grows up to wear the best red dress ducats could buy – who lives in a country called Florin. She falls for farm boy Westley, whose “as you wish” lament/love proclamation is tattooed on my forehead. He must sail off to earn enough money for their marriage, but Buttercup later learns his ship was waylaid by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Devastated, she eventually agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, because that is what one does in the throes of grief.
And so it goes, with Buttercup getting kidnapped by my favorite film trio ever: Vizzini the Sicilian crime lord, revenge-mad sword master Inigo Montoya, and lovable rhyming wrestler Fezzik. They soon discover they are being followed by a man in black. Across the sea and up the Cliffs of Insanity, the trio and Buttercup treat us to some fun banter (rhymes, screaming eels, etc.), but they can’t shake the mysterious man. We learn about Inigo’s obsession with getting revenge on the six-fingered man (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”). The man in black manages to climb that cliff and catch up with them, wherein the first sword fight takes place. He bests the sword master, knocks out Fezzik, and outsmarts Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”) to flee with Buttercup. She, however, senses from his outfit that he’s the Dread Pirate Roberts, and shoves him down a crevasse for killing her beloved Westley. On the way down, he yells “as you wish,” so she flings herself after her true love. Oh, and Prince Humperdinck has been tracking Buttercup this whole time.
You probably know all this by now. That is the power of “The Princess Bride” – even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, they made such a dent in popular culture that at least the most famous lines and scenes are generally familiar. I’ve steeped myself in it like so much tea that its ethos has, upon reflection, become my worldview. I also like to peek behind the scaffolding and poke at the structure of the known world, all while still enjoying the facade. Fairy tales have just as many princesses and noble steeds as they do evildoers and Rodents of Unusual Size. Balance in all things.
As such, the story doesn’t shy away from pain, and shows evil blossoming in various ways. It even measures suffering in sound. Prince Humperdinck sends Westley to the Pit of Despair, where he is tortured on a rack and his screams signal the amount of life leaving his body. “Life is pain, Highness,” Westley calmly says as he is reunited with Buttercup. Inigo lives with a past injustice eating away at his brain. This black vein reveals a closeness to Brothers Grimm-style fairy tales, where violence is as commonplace as magic. Those stories don’t gloss over gruesome punishments and dark passages. Neither does “The Princess Bride.”
Even so, watching the movie is a life-affirming experience. I am a movie talker, which makes me an annoying presence at any form of film viewing. I must react in the moment to whatever I’m seeing on screen, whether for the first time or the Nth. This habit turns into full recitation with “The Princess Bride.” It’s less of a movie and more of an extended incantation for me now. I watch these scenes and speak these words and things are right. I will know something is truly wrong when I can’t spout off all its lines, pop a reference unnecessarily into any conversation and irk or confuse those around me. My form of a spell is the script of this movie – reciting it brings magic. I cut a path deeper into the woods every time I go back to it. It’s a form of reading out loud – always comforting while always a form of knowledge to reckon with.
And then there is true love (“Wuv, twue wuv.) Westley doesn’t fully die in the Pit of Despair because his heart is full of love for Buttercup. She enters the fire swamp because she is together with Westley again, and almost puts a dagger in her heart rather than marry Prince Humperdinck. The grandson may scoff at this cheesy throughline, but who doesn’t love a love story? One that doesn’t take itself too seriously but still brings the white horses in at the end.
For this blessing, I give thanks: thank you, William Goldman, for bringing “The Princess Bride” into the world and helping build mine. Thank you for the indelible characters whose friendship is both a comic gift and a vessel for tragedy, and all the love that is true. Thank you for the darkness and the blinding light. For a kaleidoscope into love and beauty and pain and rhyming and all the things that make us human. Or at least, for this human, a story I can never get tired of – a forever lullaby.