Posted by: Kristen Hicks | November 6, 2010

A Florinese Diversion

One of my favorite books for many years has been The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman.  I think I can honestly say I’ve never had more fun reading a book (which is really saying something), and I have a hunch that a big part of why is that Goldman seems to have had far more fun in writing it than I imagine the authors of other books I love having had.

The book has a fairly unique structure in that it’s set up as an abridgment of a larger book that makes up a great and revered history of the fictional nation of Florin and includes occasional interludes from the abridger, a (one supposes) fictional version of William Goldman commenting on the great historical adventure story as a fellow reader.

In a long introduction (plus 2 more if you get a recent edition of the novel), Goldman introduces the book to us through his character’s experience with it as a child–this was the book that got him through his bout with pneumonia, changed him into a book lover and provided a special bonding experience with his father to boot.  The decision to abridge it is a labor of love inspired by his desire to share the story with his own son.

Through the guise of a father teaching his son lessons about life, while remembering his own experiences learning them, all framed by an epic fairy tale, we get little bits and pieces of an interesting commentary on life.

Take this brief scene between Goldman, the abridger, as a child and an adult neighbor of his:

Life isn’t fair, Bill.  We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do.  It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie.  Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it’s never going to be”

Would you believe that for me right then it was like one of those comic books where the lightbulb goes on over Mandrake the Magician’s head?  “It isn’t!”  I said, so loud I really startled her.  “You’re right.  It’s not fair.”  I was so happy, if I’d known how to dance, I’d have started dancing…it meant so much to me to have it out and free and flying”

There’s a story about family, a child coming of age, with even a little bit of life working in Hollywood thrown in before we even get to Buttercup, Westley and co.  It’s a unique choice in framing a fairy tale and it works.  Goldman manages to rope us into his character’s feeling that this story is something special, it elevates what we’re about to read to a higher level of emotional meaning before we get to the tale itself (although for many, like myself, who came to the novel after seeing the film countless times growing up–we’re already there).

The story itself provides us with a cast of unique, memorable characters, all of whom are the best in the world at something.  The most beautiful woman alive (although she begins the book barely in the top 20), the most wealthy count, the greatest hunter, the best fencer, etc. etc.

To give you a sense of his gift for hyperbole, here’s how the couple at the center of the novel feel about each other:

From Buttercup: “I know this must come as something of a surprise, since all I ever do is scorn you and degrade you and taunt you, but I’ve loved you for several hours now, and every second, more.  I thought an hour ago that I loved you more than any woman has ever loved a man, but half an hour after that I knew that what I felt before was nothing compared to what I felt then.  But ten minutes after that my previous love was a puddle compared to the high seas before a storm…My mind begs you to ask something  so it can obey.  Do you want me to follow you for the rest of your days? I will do that.”  –and she goes on like that for a while.

Not to be undone, Westley’s response:  “If your love were a grain of sand, mine would be a universe of beaches…I have stayed all these years in my hovel for you.  I have taught myself languages for you…I have lived my life with only the prayer that some sudden dawn you might glance in my direction.  I have not known a moment in years when the sight of you did not send my heart careening against my rib cage”–and he goes on and on too.

Goldman takes pains to ensure that the superlative nature of our characters is earned–we learn of all that goes into Inigo becoming the greatest fencer around, both emotionally and in terms of his training; we learn of Humperdinck’s elaborate Zoo of Death that provides him every possible opponent he can imagine to hone his hunting skills on, and he takes us through the various “most beautiful women alive” that had to lose their looks for various reason before Buttercup could unknowingly and distractedly take the title.

All of this adds weight to the interactions between these supremely talented characters and the ability of our main hero, Westley, in conquering those with greater skill due to the power of his love for Buttercup.  When you write it out that way, it sounds quite cheesy, but Goldman manages to insert enough wit and genuine emotion into his scenes that the point comes across without feeling overly heavy handed or unearned.  The full experience is unabashedly fun and poignant and leaves us with a modern fairy tale that feels like it could be generations old, having been passed along from parent to child (and I imagine will be, given the proper time).

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