princess bride“The year Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”

Continuing my apparent theme this year of reading books that are better known as films or musicals, this week I’ve read The Princess Bride. As with Psycho, I’ve never seen the film but thanks to the internet and the cult following the film has, I knew a little about it. As it turned out, I knew none of the plot (I wasn’t even sure it had one) and simply a few of the lines. (“You killed my father, prepare to die!” and so on.) But I was informed that it was funny, so I hoped the book was the same.

The book’s framing device is that the novel The Princess Bride was written by S. Morgenstern, and the author, William Goldman, had it read to him as a child by his father. When he reached adulthood, he read it himself and realised his father had cut out a lot of the stuff he hadn’t deemed suitable for his young son. This version then, is Goldman’s abridged version of the original novel, with narrative dead ends and boring descriptions removed. His notes appear throughout as he explains why he’s made the choices he has.

In a fictional European country in a Renaissance-like setting, Buttercup is a girl who has the potential to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. She falls in love with the farm boy, Westley, who in turn adores her, but declares he has to leave to go and make his fortune elsewhere. When he is rich, he will call for her. Unfortunately, while he’s gone, he is kidnapped and killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Distraught by his death, Buttercup vows never to love again.

Prince Humperdinck, the greatest hunter in the world, needs to marry to continue the lineage of his family and give himself an heir for when his elderly father dies and he becomes king. He demands only the most beautiful, so he seeks Buttercup’s hand in marriage. They agree that the marriage will be purely to continue the lineage and that she will never love him, but before the wedding can take place, she is kidnapped by a strange trio: a hunchbacked Sicilian genius, a skinny Spanish swordsman, and a giant, dim Turk. But while they flee, hot on their trail is a man dressed in black who will stop at nothing to get Buttercup safe…

It’s mad, frankly, mad, but I loved it. It’s a fairy tale on steroids that doesn’t forgo the rules of reality. In a fairy tale, the good guy always wins but here, as Goldman/Morgenstern tells us over and over – life isn’t fair. The heroes don’t always win, the villains don’t always die, and there is always someone who will beat you at something. The plot is tight and the characters great fun. Westley and Buttercup are perhaps too perfect, but I assume that’s the point. The real stars though are Fezzik the giant and Ingio the swashbuckling Spaniard, who have a wonderful friendship despite on the surface seeming to have nothing that would bind them. It is sheer loyalty that keeps them together.

There’s a lot going on here, and the final climactic battle is great as it seems to roll through so fast, the narration changing between the characters frequently and showing a minute by minute overview of what’s happening to everyone as they try to achieve their final goals in one final burst. But the novel enjoys playing with the tropes of the genre, and invents wonderful things like the Zoo of Death, Humperdinck’s personal collection of deadly creatures he can hunt, and the R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size).

I confess, now, that I skipped over the opening sections in which Goldman tells us about his fictional childhood that led to him loving the original book (to be honest, I hadn’t been sure if it was part of the story or a long-winded introduction from the author), and I also ignored the final chapter, which is supposedly the first chapter of a sequel by Morgenstern that never got published. I hope I haven’t lost too much because of this, but it seems apt to abridge a novel that is already supposedly abridged.

Whether you choose to go for these bits yourself or not, that’s up to you, but the main meat of the novel is brilliant. I’m off to seek out the film. It’s a sharp, witty novel, laced with the one truth of life that we can never ignore: “life isn’t fair”.