Reading “The Princess Bride” Ruins Your Childhood, Which Is Why You'll Love It Forever
"Life is pain," his mother said. "Anybody that says different is selling something."
"Who can know when his world is going to change?" asks the narrator, discussing his "favorite book in all the world," which is, of course, his world-changer. William Goldman's The Princess Bride is a fake abridgement of a novel; as the abridger, also named William Goldman, explains, his father read it to him despite his being a book-averse 10-year-old. When the narrator recalls asking his father if The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure has any sports in it, this is how his father describes the novel's contents:
"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."
Later in the book, this is how the narrator describes his life:
"[My son's] always gonna be fat, even if he gets skinny he'll still be fat and he'll still be spoiled and life will never be enough to make him happy, and that's my fault maybe — make it all my fault, if you want — the point is, we're not created equal, for the rich they sing, life isn't fair. I got a cold wife; she's brilliant, she's stimulating, she's terrific; there's no love; that's okay, too, just so long as we don't keep expecting everything to somehow even out for us before we die."
You may have noticed there is a discrepancy.
Georg Lukács writes, "Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths." Of course by "ages" he means "eras," but the willfully misinterpreted English translation applies here: Happy are those ages (under 11 or 10) when our "world is wide and yet it is like a home." What Goldman does in this novel is gently crush our childish illusions, switching between the main narrative's swashbucklingly straightforward characters and the abridger's ponderously thoughtful, action-free life (he's a writer, for Pete's sake!). Seeing the formulaically heroic story through the eyes of an unhappy adult is jarring to a child reader. Probably because I had a lucky childhood, it had never occurred to me before I read this book that my parents thought I was anything but wonderful, or that my life would not be full of adventure, or that my parents might not love each other. It had also not occurred to me that true love might not be a real thing.
In his introduction, the narrator examines why he abridged the novel at all, and says, "take the title words — 'true love and high adventure' — I believed in that once." The whole novel, with Goldman's cynical "commentary" woven in, touches on that loss of innocence — the way fiction betrays us, the disappointment in not having a life of adventure, the compulsion to keep believing. As much as the narrator insists on keeping "believed in that" in the past tense, it's clear from the book's final paragraph that he hasn't fully shaken the belief. In the introduction, he says, "And true love you can forget about too. I don't know if I love anything truly any more beyond the porterhouse at Peter Luger's and the cheese enchilada at El Parador's." This is the novel's third-to-last sentence: "I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops." In the act of reading, Goldman has fallen back into the old habit of belief. But why the shift in imagery from steak to cough drops?
Because Miracle Max, a character in the book, says, "true love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. Everybody knows that."
This is where the tension in the novel lies — it's not in the question of "Will Westley and Buttercup be reunited?" because, as the narrator puts it, "one thing you know when you're ten is that, no matter what, there's gonna be a happy ending." There is never a moment's real doubt that the happy ending is coming for Westley and Buttercup. But there is doubt that the abridger still believes in love. And the thing is, no matter how much he says he doesn't, he gives himself away: This is "his favorite book in all the world" for a reason, and it's because even though he is too cynical to believe it, he believes it.
When Prince Humperdinck chases after Buttercup, Count Rugen asks him if he thinks they're walking into a trap, the prince says, "I always think everything is a trap until proven otherwise."
Likewise, the abridger knows the story is a trap. He tells his readers it's a trap.
We all fall into it anyway.