When people generally talk about “the classics”, they are generally talking about books that are at least 50 years old, and invariably taught at some level of academia, where bored teachers ponderously ponder the possible intentions of the long-dead author, secure in the delusion that this secret authorial message couldn’t possibly be as simple or direct as what is stated upon the page. The students, often more bored than the professor, sit around writing bad angst-filled poetry, praying to god that the teacher doesn’t put anything on the test that wasn’t in the Cliff’s Notes. These books may well be excellent pieces of literature, but after the wringer academics put them through, that can’t help but be dry. It is extremely unfortunate that the term “classic” has been so subverted, because, you see, there are classics, and then there are classics. With a book that is classic of the second type, we delve into the realm of books where the hidden message isn’t hidden at all, academics are dismissive, and the rest of the world enjoys the story all the more for that fact. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (purportedly an abridged version of a book by the same name by a Florinese author by the name of S. Morgenstern, but is more generally assumed just part of the greater fiction of the book, since you’d be hard pressed to actually FIND an unabridged version) is a classic of this second type.
The Princess Bride at this point has been turned into a better known movie (the screenplay was also written by the author, and as such retains a remarkable amount of the book’s flavor), and is considered a mainstay of any geek’s movie collection, sitting right beside Monty Python and The Search for the Holy Grail. If you were to walk into a crowded room of geeks (at a convention, or computer lab, or even most coffee houses) and shout “Inconceivable!”, not only would people know what you were referring to, but would likely respond, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played Inigo well over twenty years ago, is also a musician. Even now, at every concert he gives, he cannot leave the stage without giving in to requests for him to exclaim, “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father, prepare to die!” Needless to say, I think it made an impact. As a writer, what this teaches me is that you should never underestimate the power of some good catch-phrases.
One of the amusing aspects of the book is the use of asides. At various points in the book, Goldman pauses from the story and adds an anecdote from when his father used to read him the book, or comments on the lengthy and completely boring portions of the book that he supposedly excised from the original edition. In fact, the entirety of chapter 3 is an aside detailing why he removed chapter 3 from the abridged version, involving Morgenstern’s extreme distaste for the aristocracy of Florin. These asides add a humorous effect to the book, which might otherwise simply be a rollicking adventure. They also occasionally serve a greater purpose, such as when Westley (the lead protagonist) is tortured and killed in the Zoo of Death (the Pit of Despair in the movie). That particular aside is used as a way to really give voice to the thoughts of the author in no uncertain terms. It discusses the first time his father read the story to him, and that his father had paused, and tried to skip the section. After much prodding, he admits that Westley dies, and it devastates the young William. In a later aside, he follows up with this, when as a teenager he has an epiphany: it had bothered him so much because it was the first time as a child that he had been faced with the realization that life isn’t fair. The ending of the book itself is also an aside: “But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” (Goldman 283)
Which brings me to a point of vague annoyance, though a very mild kind: I am not a big fan of “cliffhanger” endings. Goldman decided IS a fan of cliffhanger endings. He loves to leave things in a position where it is unclear what happens next, whether the protagonists live or die. Other examples of him doing this is the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch and the Kid leap off the cliff to the river far below, where it fades to black. There is no resolution, no clear answer as to whether they lived or died. I hate that, it feels like a copout. A story doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending, or a sad ending, but in my eyes it needs to bring the story it is telling to a conclusion. Loose ends? Not a problem. Sub-story arcs not finished? That’s too bad. But the central story arc, whatever that is, needs to wrap up. It doesn’t matter if a year after they live happily ever after, the couple is divorced and hating each other’s guts, or one was run over by a bear, or whatever, that’s a separate story. But ending a story arc with a cliffhanger is a breach of the contract between the author and reader. It irks me, and I suspect always will.
That irk aside, I really enjoyed the book (and the movie). The narrative style is witty and self-deprecating in a way that is generally reserved for first person memoir and personal essay, yet Goldman pulls it off in a third-person limited narrative. The interaction between Fezzik and Inigo in particular is really excellent, dealing with two people who are excellent at what they respectively do, but still very human. The friendship between them never seems strained or artificial. In fact, I’d say that Fezzik is my favorite character in the book. He is very human, with a great deal of depth for all his simplicity. Fezzik has a very simple mind, and mentally really only takes pleasure in rhyming. He is also exceptionally strong, and a giant, whose greatest fear is of being alone. Despite working as a rogue, he is a very honorable and upright person, fiercely loyal to his friends, and who believes in the importance of telling the truth. His foibles are REAL. His emotions are REAL. That is a remarkable thing to pull off in a story, and my hat is most certainly off to Goldman for doing it. (As an aside of my own: in the movie, Fezzik was played MOST appropriately by the late André the Giant. I can think of no one who could have been more fitting or done a better job. From the stories I’ve heard, André was very much like Fezzik in personality in real life.)
It’s hard for me to make a qualification of the book solely for the book. I’ve watched the movie so many times, that scenes from the movie can’t help but sneak into my memory of the book. That said, it has hardly hindered my enjoyment of either, and I would most certainly recommend either, or preferably both. In so many ways, it’s exactly what an adventure story should be.
Goldman, William. The Princess Bride. New York: Del Rey Books, 1973.