The Hidden Depth of The Princess Bride

[Spoilers throughout.]

What if I told you the real story of The Princess Bride was not about Buttercup and Westley? Or Inigo and his revenge? What if I told you that, instead, the heart of this fairytale lies in the “real world,” in the parallel plotline of a little boy hearing it for the first time from his father?

To see what I mean, you must read the book by William Goldman, not just watch the movie. Midway through the novel, Goldman reveals what he sees as the point of his story: life is not fair. Hardly original, I know. But the genius of Goldman’s style is not that he writes about unfairness; it’s how he does so.

This book doesn’t peddle its “life’s not fair” motif through the ostensible plot—not through the story of a shallow (?) beauty and her valiant (?) hero. After all, who should care whether Westley dies? It will not shake the universe to its foundations if one measly princess does not get her happily ever after. We all know that, and would probably all say, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

No, the reason this book can claim it’s about the inequity of existence is that it’s an ‘innocence lost’ story. Innocence lost and, arguably more importantly, salvaged. Not quite regained, let’s be clear on that. J.M. Barrie observes in Peter Pan that once we’re dealt that initial, disillusioning blow of reality as children, we’ll never be as carefree and confident of resolution as we were before.

But we can and do come to grips with our new reality as it now presents itself. The optimist within us feels dazed, and doesn’t rule the roost as completely as it used to, but it still lives. We all still have sparks of improbable hope in us, however deep we may bury them.

The remarkable thing about The Princess Bride is it presents us with both sides of that coming-of-age coin. First, it captures the exact moment that a ten-year-old’s idealism dies its first complete death.

 “Westley dies,” my father said.

 I said, “What do you mean, ‘Westley dies’? You mean dies?”

 My father nodded. “Prince Humperdinck kills him.”

 “He’s only faking though, right?”

 My father shook his head, and closed the book all the way.

 “Aw [profanity redacted],” I said and I started to cry.

The Princess Bride

 “Who gets Humperdinck?” I screamed after him.

 He stopped in the hall. “I don’t understand.”

 “Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody’s got to get him. Is it Fezzik? Who?”

 “Nobody kills him. He lives.”

 “You mean he wins, Daddy? [profanity redacted], what did you read me this thing for?” and I buried my head in my pillow and I never cried like that again, not once to this day.

The Princess Bride

The great secret of the plot is not that it should matter so much to us whether the hero survives. It’s that it matters so much to a sick little boy—one who’s learning, for the first time, that maybe the universe doesn’t always operate based on justice.

I spent that whole night thinking Buttercup married Humperdinck. It just rocked me. How can I explain it, but the world didn’t work that way. Good got attracted to good, evil you flushed down the john and that was that.

I could argue that this whole premise falls apart because of what most of us already know: Westley does not stay dead. Through a humorous and fantastical series of events, his former nemeses track him down, hire a miracle man, and they storm the castle after all. “Foul,” we may cry. It’s important for children to learn things don’t always “work out”. Why promise to teach them that if you end up giving them fairy godmothers and wishing stars anyway?

Because once our eyes are opened, they stay opened—that’s why. Fortune may come in to save the day, and often does, thank heaven. But, as Goldman explains, we’re no longer left with that sense of certainty. We no longer know everything will be all right. All we can do is pray for the best. And, in the end, that’s what this book does. We’re not told for sure whether everyone we love “gets away”. We don’t know how long their ride into the sunset lasts. But at least there’s a chance for it.

As adult readers, that hope is all the magic we need.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Olivia R. is an aspiring author, story enthusiast, and current college student.  She can be found at Meanwhile, in Rivendell . . . [], where she blogs about books, movies, television, and assorted odds and ends.

6 thoughts on “The Hidden Depth of The Princess Bride

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        1. In the book, Katie, the dad doesn’t lie to his kid. Westley DOES die. Humperdinck DOES live. But Westley doesn’t stay dead. Humperdinck doesn’t win. He never told his kid that Buttercup would marry Humperdinck, the kid just assumes.

          In the movie, the grandfather doesn’t lie either. He just doesn’t spoil the surprises. He neither confirms nor denies what the boy assumes.

          In the book, the dad reads the book to his son during a long illness, over the course of like a week. In the movie, it’s over the course of one day.

          And, in the book especially, the adult is helping the child understand that life can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be hopeless.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Well, I still disapprove of the dad’s choices, but it’s okay, because I don’t think The Princess Bride would be my type of book to read anyway.

            (I haven’t seen the movie either, only clips of it, and I thought the wordplay was very amusing but I didn’t like the characters too much. So, not my thing, I guess. C’est la vie.)


  1. I LOVE IT. You are exactly right. And this is why that story resonates so strongly even with adults. Because we know life isn’t fair. But we still hope it sometimes can be.

    As Westley says in the movie, “Life IS pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” And yet he (and, later, Buttercup) are proof that you can survive that pain. Westley survived being kidnapped by pirates. Buttercup survives the pain of losing Westley to pirates, the pain of losing him again after he returns beyond all hope. And, even though they’re reunited (again, beyond all hope), one of them will someday lose the other through death, and again… they will survive.

    And even when something seems hopeless, don’t stop hoping. Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it a little while. Which we, as Christians with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, totally get.

    Liked by 1 person

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