Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (who could improve on a title like that?)

Home to famous lines such as "As you wish" and "My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die," The Princess Bride is an adventure, a love story, and a strangely post-modern novel that I read every year, at least once.

I first read The Princess Bride six years ago when I discovered that the movie I had loved as a kid was actually based on a book. If you’ve seen the movie but not read the book be warned that this reminiscence is probably going to contain a few spoilers.

Its full title is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, which is an insanely unwieldy title for what is ostensibly a children’s book. But then, it isn’t really a children’s book.

Written as an abridgement (although there was no original book to abridge), the story moves between the voice of the abridger William Goldman (also the author, although the back-story he gives here makes it clear he has created a character out of himself for the purposes of the story) and that of Morgenstern’s “original work” (Morgenstern, of course, is another invention). The movement between the Goldman’s “reality” and Morgenstern’s fiction is pretty genius because without Goldman’s injections of modern day concerns and characters the book would be so fantastic it would be ridiculous, to the point of being laughable.

But it isn’t laughable; instead, it’s infectious. The structure invites rereading because, depending on your mindset, you can focus more on the Goldman side of the narrative or on the Morgenstern adventure.

The Goldman narrative tells the abridger’s story of being read the book as a child and then desiring his son to read it. So he hunts up and down for the book, manages to get it to his son, only to have the son read one chapter and hate it. Goldman can’t understand how his son could hate such a wonderful book, that is, until he himself picks it up. That’s when he realizes that his dad skipped all the boring stuff when reading it to him. So, Goldman sets out to write the “good bits” version, a process he chronicles through his interruptions.

A quickie version of the Morgenstern plot is as follows: Buttercup (the most beautiful woman in the world) falls in love with Westley (a farm boy on her parent’s farm); like all good storybook love, this takes time and when Buttercup finally realizes she loves him they have a brief time together before he feels its necessary to leave and make some money so they can be married. He leaves and gets murdered by the Dread Pirate Roberts and Buttercup is sad. But, the local prince wants to marry her, so he swoops in on her parent’s farm and spirits her away to his castle to await the wedding day. Then, one day while out for a ride, Buttercup is kidnapped by Inigo, Fezzik, and Vizzini and the adventure really gets rolling. (I don’t want to give too much more away because really, it makes such a wonderful read). I will say, though, that the stories of Inigo and Fezzik are wonderfully fleshed out in the book, which is one of the things I love Goldman for; he could have just left them as mysterious and handy side characters, but he didn’t. He gave them lives and histories; an attention to detail that makes The Princess Bride so much more than your average adventure novel.

And oh what a story it is. Like the fictional, child-version of the abridging Goldman, every time I read The Princess Bride I get so caught up in the action and the love story and the hilarity of the interruptions that I can’t put it down. Which is really why I can afford to read it every year—it may be over 300 pages, but it only takes two days to read. And the adventure of those two days is enough to satiate me for another year because the big adventurous scenes get stuck in my head and play over and over, just as if I were a little kid again, enthralled with the movie-version of the sword fight on top of the Cliffs of Insanity (and with names like that, how could you not become enthralled?).

The Princess Bride: Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

By William Goldman

First Published in 1973

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