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Book Review: The Princess Bride

Book Name: The Princess Bride
Author: William Goldman
First Published: 1973

William Goldman was born in Chicago. He gained a bachelor of arts from Oberlin College in 1952 and then enlisted in the army. Since he knew how to type (keyboard) he was sent to work in the Pentagon where he worked as a clerk until he was honorably discharged. He continued his education at Columbia University and earned a master of arts. While he was in the army and at University, he honed his craft by writing short stories in the evenings, having caught the writing bug during a creative writing class at school. Few of them published, but he did not give up on his dream of being a writer.

Although he later gained fame as a screenwriter, during his early years he was interested in writing poetry, short stories, and novels. In 1956, Goldman began writing his first novel, Temple of Gold. It sold well enough to launch his career.

He published five novels and three plays before he began to entertain the idea of writing screenplays. Movie adaptations of books such as Flowers for Algernon (later renamed Charly) were followed by hits such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, No Way to Treat a Lady, The Right Stuff, Misery, and All The President’s Men.

Goldman met Rob Reiner when adapting Stephen King’s novel Misery. Later they would collaborate again when Reiner directed the film version of Goldman’s book The Princess Bride. Goldman himself wrote the adaptation for the movie and created a cult classic that featured many of the top Hollywood actors of the day.

William Goldman is no stranger to the Motion Picture Academy. He has won two Oscars, one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and for All The President’s Men. He also has won two Edgar awards for best motion picture screenplay. In 1985, he earned the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.

“She loves you,” the Prince cried. “She loves you still and you love her, so think of that–think of this too: in all this world, you might have been happy, genuinely happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance, not really, no matter what the storybooks say, but you could have had it, and so, I would think, no one will ever suffer a loss as great as you.”
― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride is presented as if it were an abridgment of a classic adventure story by S. Morgenstern, an author from the imaginary country of Florin. Goldman claims a history with the story of The Princess Bride. He first heard the tale from his own father, an immigrant from Florin, who read the story to him as a ten-year-old child when he had pneumonia. As an adult, Goldman went back to the original classic and discovered that his father had skipped over many “boring” parts of the novel in order to intrigue his small son. Now a writer himself, Goldman decides to edit the original (and fictional) S. Morgenstern book into the more adventurous story he remembers and to allow himself to make editorial comments during the story.

The story takes place in Florin, a renaissance-like land featuring a lovely maiden named Buttercup. Her chief amusement is verbally abusing the family’s farmhand, a youth named Westley. She never calls him by name, only “farm boy” and his response to her demands is always “as you wish”. It doesn’t occur to Buttercup until much later that when Westley says “as you wish”, he actually is saying “I love you.”

The two confess their love for one another and Westley leaves the farm to seek his fortune at sea in order for the pair to marry. It is not long before Buttercup learns that Westley’s ship is boarded by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is known for killing every man in the ships he attacks. She assumes that her true love has been killed and goes into mourning. Meanwhile, Prince Humperdinck learns that he must marry upon the death of his father. He learns of Buttercup’s renown beauty and decides that she is the one that he will marry. He proposes to her, although he is a stranger to her, and Buttercup agrees to the match, although she makes it clear that she does not love the prince and likely never will.

The story cuts away to a trio of villains, the Sicilian genius Vizzini, the Spaniard Sword-master Inigo Montoya, and the giant Turk wrestler Fezzik. The group kidnaps Buttercup before her wedding to the prince and takes her across the sea in an effort to start a war between Florin and a neighboring kingdom, Guilder. The are pursued by a masked man in black and Prince Humperdinck in separate parties. Vizzini and his group find their way across the sea and dock at the Cliffs of Insanity. The mastermind orders the Spaniard to kill the man in black and whisks Buttercup away with the help of the Turkish giant.

Inigo is a man seeking revenge. He wishes to kill the six-fingered man who had murdered his father. He became a master swordsman in order to reach this goal. When the man in black reaches him, he arranges for a fair fight, allowing the man to rest before the duel. Inigo is confident that he can kill the man in black easily, but as the duel commences, we learn that the masked man is his equal.  In the end, the man in black is triumphant, but he leaves Ingio alive.

The man in black defeats the giant and then finds Vizzini. The two have a battle of wits and in the end, the man in black is victorious and Vizzini dies of his own treachery. The man in black takes Buttercup and flees ahead of Prince Humperdinck’s party which is still in pursuit of the princess bride. As the pair travel, the man in black taunts Buttercup, telling her that she must have felt nothing when her sweetheart had died. The girl is angered by him and shoves the man in black into a gorge. She yells at him, “You can die too, for all I care!” It is then that she hears the man call out, “As you wish.” In shock, she realizes that the masked man in black is none other than her true love, Westley the farm boy. Both explain their time apart to each other and they make up.

Despite navigating through a fire swamp, dealing with snow sand, and battling rodents of unusual size, the pair is captured by Prince Humperdinck and his friend, the six-fingered Count Tyrone Rugen. Buttercup bargains with the prince to spare Westley’s life and returns with the prince back to Florin and her fate of being his bride.

The adventure is not over. Westley must deal with a double cross, make friends of enemies, and ultimately fight once more for the woman he loves. Inigo Montoya returns and confronts the six-fingered man who killed his father, and a host of strange and wonderful characters are yet to come and enjoy.

The Princess Bride Book Cover 2I did not read The Princess Bride until I had seen the Rob Reiner film by the same name in 1987. The film has become a beloved cult classic and remains popular today. Far from a simple fantasy tale, the story is filled with tongue-in-cheek wit and serves as a satire to the fairytales that we all cut our teeth on. The author claims that the book is an abridgment of an older book by “S. Morgenstern” which was a satire on the excesses of European royalty, but the book is completely of Goldman’s own invention. He based the tales on stories that he told to his daughters as they grew up. One daughter requested a story about “princesses” and the other about “brides”. Goldman made up the interconnected scenes on the fly and gave all the characters ridiculous names. The two countries, Florin and Guilder are both named after European coins.

In an anthology The Best of All Words (1980), edited by Spider Robinson, Goldman published a scene from the novel, Duel Scene (From the Princess Bride). Among writers, this scene is often used as the gold standard of how to write a fight scene and is cited as one of the best in literature. It is not so much that it is gory, it is that it displays conflict, emotion, and a clear story arc.

If you enjoy fantasy or fairy tales, you should fall in love with The Princess Bride. If you are a writer, check out the fight scene from the book. I think you will find it as informative as I did.  This is a wonderous tale from a master-class author and it should not be missed.