Some forms of fantasy are pure escapism. Other forms use magic and myth to promote social consciousness. And then there’s The Princess Bride, a book that exists in a class all its own. William Goldman’s tale of True Love, Harsh Revenge and Rodents of Unusual Size exhibits a gleeful audacity seldom seen in literature before or since.To begin with, Goldman’s masterpiece is not simply The Princess Bride. Rather, it’s “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the ‘good parts’ version abridged by William Goldman.” In a lengthy preface, Goldman recounts how his father read The Princess Bride to him as he lay sick as a child. Once Goldman reached adulthood, he discovered that his father hadn’t read the book exactly as written, instead he left out a lot of the boring social satire and commentary.
This, Goldman proudly states, is the abridged version he remembers, the “good parts version,” and happily interrupts the narrative time and again to make some point or other about this particular sequence of events. Everything he says is well thought-out, reasonable, and such a bald-faced lie that it’s difficult to not to take anything Goldman says as true.
Princess Buttercup lives in Florin, a mythical country (from which the equally mythic S. Morgenstern and Goldman’s family supposedly hail) located in some obscure part of Europe next to the equally obscure country of Guilder. At the beginning of the tale, Buttercup is one of the 20 most beautiful women in the world, and after her true love, Westley, is apparently lost at sea to the Dread Pirate Roberts, she quickly rises up the ranks to become the Most Beautiful in all the world. This attracts the attention of fiendish Florin Prince Humperdink, who plans to marry her and then have her killed to provoke a war with neighboring Guilder. At the last moment, a mysterious masked stranger (Westley, of course) arrives to save her, and the real story begins.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of Stuff with a capital “S” in here. Goldman himself wrote the screen adaption for the wonderfully quirky movie of the same name, and it’s simply amazing how similar the two are to each other–a rarity, as anyone who’s ever seen a favorite novel butchered by Hollywood. The trio of villians who kidnap Buttercup–the wily Sicilian Vizzini, Turkish giant Fezzik and Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya–are much more than the evil cutouts so common in fantasy works. Each one has his own personal quest, personal goals that are ultimately fulfilled in some form or fashion. Inigo’s quest of avenging his father’s death is particularly rousing, especially when he finally confronts the murderer and says the famous line: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
There’s a lot of fun here, and anyone looking for a straightforward narrative is likely to be very confused. There are no dark overlords, no magic rings to be thrown into burning mountains. Anyone not looking for those things will be pleasantly surprised. Goldman proves you don’t have to be a Tolkein clone to write rousing fantasy. It’s just too bad that more writers today don’t seem believe that.
(Harcourt Brace & Company, 1973)