The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

*sighs sadly*

Nope.

Oh, it’s not rubbish. But it feels as though another little barrier has just come down between me and so, so many other people.

I didn’t adore it.

I can sort of see why some people might. There are virtues here. Goldman has a great line every now and then, and of course the narrative is geared around Being Awesome, so there’s that. And yet…

Well, let’s backtrack.

The Princess Bride is a strange sort of book. It’s an homage to classic adventure novels – Stevenson, Dumas and so on – perhaps a little bit by way of the pulp Sword and Sorcery tradition, and it’s presented as an abridgement of a genuine old adventure novel. Goldman claims to have simply stripped out the boring bits from the original novel by ‘Morgenstern’, leaving only ‘the good bits’. Those good bits are a classic adventure, with pirates and assassins and evil princes and so on.

I can see the attraction of the narrative. Goldman essentially strips out almost all character, themes, worldbuilding and so on, and just has a cast of very familiar fantasy archetypes – the Spanish fencer, the idiot strongman, the beautiful princess and so on – going through the motions of the usual adventures, but eliding all the bits that aren’t Awesome. This is both a strength – it plucks the notes that it’s hard not to respond to, of True Love and Daring-Do – and also a great weakness, because without any personality behind the clichés (to the extent that these are people at all they’re with only one pitiable exception obnoxious people), or any context in the setting, or any particular themes, it’s hard to particularly care what’s going on, and the lack of slower parts means that the High Drama is sort of exhausting. It’s sort of… oh, people are going to kill me for this, but… it’s sort of like reading someone’s write-up of their D&D campaign. It’s about that level of story. [It’s like someone took those old D&D novels and said these need to be less literary! – and that’s a bold and exciting choice that most authors wouldn’t take! But there are also reasons why most authors wouldn’t take that approach…]

Now, to be fair, this campaign write-up is written up really quite well. Goldman adopts a classic English Flippancy style, and while he doesn’t do it as well as a Chesterton, a Cabell, or in more modern times a Pratchett, he does have some funny lines here and there. He’s clever. He’s witty. He actually writes his villain adeptly (he’s a complete cliché from top to bottom, but he’s done with great elán). And, again, he goes at it at pace and doesn’t leave the reader too much time to get impatient and to start wobbling the cardboard skeptically. But on the other hand, it’s never exactly hilarious, and the jokes… well, they’re all basically the same. And there’s a very broad, predictable feel about them. There’s a strong sense of… well, Monty Python, if Monty Python weren’t actually funny, and weren’t actually ever unexpected. [Not kidding: for one thing, through the whole Miracle Max scene I couldn’t help but imagine him looking like Tim the Enchanter…]. And while the anachronism is part of the ‘joke’ (see, it can’t be real because the places have really silly names and there’s no possible time-period it could fit! see, it’s funny!), it mostly just irritated me. I know, this is a little hypocritical – why should I have a problem with Goldman’s mediaeval characters shouting “time out!” and the like, when I had no problem with Jurgen? I don’t know exactly, but maybe it’s that this isn’t funny enough to count as a comedy for me. It’s neither funny enough on the surface, nor as substantially ironic below, to get that latitude. Instead, it’s a D&D campaign narrated sarcastically.

And then there’s the other stuff. Because Goldman doesn’t just stick his frame story in an introduction and leave it there, oh no. He continually breaks into the text with lines here and pages there inserted by him as an ‘abridger’ commenting on the ‘original’ he’s working from.

The basic joke here isn’t awful. It’s “hey, remember how those classic adventure novels have really boring bits that modern audiences just skip through?” – and that’s a fair point. So he comments on how he’s skipping this description of clothes-packing here, that description of etiquette lessons thee, and so on, and how serious scholars love the complex satire of these passages but he’s bored stiff, and so on, and it’s sort of funny the first few times.

But it’s just the same joke, again and again and again. We get it, Dumas was long-winded, OK. And it does allow him to skip the ‘boring’ bits in the story, the bits with the character development and the setting-development and whatnot, and just fill us in on the key details in (almost) bullet points. But… after the first time, couldn’t you just put “seventy pages later…” or something, rather than going through the entire sketch again?

Because as it is, instead of a few pages on packing luggage, we get a few pages of a rather pompous author explaining why he’s not giving all those details on packing luggage, and in terms of readability, once you’ve learnt the basic joke, that’s not much of an improvement.

And then there’s the other other bits. In this edition, at least, we get an intro, then another, really long-winded intro, which mostly serves to establish Goldman as a misogynist, adulterous, fat-shaming smirking little creep (and which makes me rather less tolerant of the endless descriptions of how sexy and beautiful Buttercup is; I can go along with parodying the Impossible Beauty of adventure heroines, and I can even maybe go along with Hey There’s Nothing Wrong With Admiring Beauty, reclaiming-beautiful-princesses-and-swashbuckling-adventurers-it’s-a-fairy-tale-OK if it’s done right, but I don’t want to feel that the author’s hands are in his trousers too much). And then the story ends at the end, in an abrupt, I’ve-run-out-of-ideas-so-bye-now way, except in this version it doesn’t end, because we get dozens of pages of interminable rambling about the author again, and now it’s not even funny or well-told like it was at first, and finally, finally, we get a chapter of a book that doesn’t exist. This is a chapter of the non-existant sequel to the novel, and it’s basically a series of random scenes scrunched together in a random order to taunt the audience. Like a magician, showing us the implements of the trick and daring us to work out what he’s going to do with them, only because the book doesn’t exist he never actually does do anything with them. Except, en route, to give us a couple of scenes with more character depth and emotion than the whole of the original novel itself, making us kind of wish he’d put that sort of thing in in the first place (he even taunts us by saying that he wished those scenes had been in the original!).

Perhaps the sins of these later additions, assuming that’s what they are, would have been ameliorated by some sort of indication in the text of what really was part of the ‘book’ and what was just additional stuff thrown into this edition at the publisher’s request. But the problem with meta-ironically erasing the boundary between author and text is that when your author surrounds the text with tedious self-aggrandizement, it looks just like its part of the text.

And yes, I know now that apparently much of the ironically self-critical material of the endless prologues and postlogues is apparently even more fictional than it seems, and that he’s criticising himself mendaciously as some sort of bizarre and probably pathological form of self-promotion, but that doesn’t actually make it much more fun to read.

Now again, I want to take a step back here and say: sure, yes, there are good things here. Readers of these reviews may be angrily pointing out to me that in other reviews – that of The Skylark of Space, for instance – I’ve happily praised books for their enthusiasm, their joy, their naive good fun, despite objective authorial inadequacies far worse than Goldman here possesses. And that’s a very valid objection. If you cut out the stuff at the beginning and the end, and gloss over the boring lecture bits and grit your teeth a little through the repetitive jokes, The Princess Bride is pretty fun. Of course it is, it’s composed of a series of calculated Kickass Moments. And I love the flippant style as much as anybody, if not more – I grew up with Wilde, with Jerome, with Pratchett, with T.H. White, with Wodehouse, and I’ve been struck in adulthood by the brilliance of Chesterton and Cabell and Saki. How could I not enjoy Goldman’s delightfully mannered excesses in that direction?

The problem there is, I’ve just named eight other authors who do the same thing but better.

And I love the clichés of fantasy and adventure. Epic fantasy is, even if I don’t read that much of it today, fundamentally still My Genre, and it still revolves around exactly the same character archetypes and predictable plot beats that Goldman both mocks and celebrates in this novel.

The problem is, sometimes it’s nice to get more than just The Greatest Hits played at full volume, by trumpets. Sometimes it would be nice to have emotional engagement, and characters I can empathise with, and surprises, and complexity, and little things like that.

Sometimes, I think, The Good Bits mean a little more if we get a few of The Boring Bits along the way. Sometimes it’s nice when our narrator seems to care about the story. Sometimes, frankly, I want more than just all this constant flippancy. Ironic detachment rapidly becomes alienating when it’s the only colour in the palette.

So I’m afraid you’ll all just have to hate me.

I would, however, be interested to see how many adorers of this book came fresh to it in adulthood, free from the nostalgia of childhood readings (because it’s clearly a book that will appeal more to children and teenagers), and without the benefit of having seen the film adaptation (which the book cries out for, not only because many scenes are highly cinematic but also because real live human actors could flesh out the robotic, idealised characters with genuine humanity and specificity).

 

I won’t give a detailed breakdown of ‘scores’ for this novel, because it’s been too long since I read it, having taken this long to force myself to write what will clearly be one of my least popular reviews, but as a general overview I believe this to merit a 4/7: NOT BAD.

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4 thoughts on “The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

  1. Nathan says:

    Not as great of an outsider as you think. YES, I loved this book when I read it early in college. I bought my own copy and fully intended to read it again soon.

    But I didn’t. I started it again, I tried it again after that. Several times I tried yet again and came to the same conclusion as you; the joke got old. I had more patience for the crazy anachronisms than you did, even finding them funny. But long winded commentary on what was cut out of a non existent text eventually got repetitive to the point of me quitting.

    I still loved it once, and not when I was a tot. So I still look upon it fondly. But I am no longer thinking that SOME DAY I will get the right mind to reread it.

  2. Hans says:

    I actually read the book (and watched the movie) for the first time over the Christmas Holidays – my daughter got the book as a gift from a friend and I took the chance of closing one of my gaps in pop culture. It’s okay; there was no place where I’d wanted to put it down and it’s a pleasant read, but it has exactly the flaws you describe. The hero and the heroine are indeed pure cardboard (and Westley is a Mary Sue on top); the villains, as well as Fezzik and Inigo, are at least mildly interesting. For me, the most fun part were actually the pseudo-biographical parts, even if the narrator comes off as a bit of a jerk (I think that’s intentional.) You’re right in that it’s a book better read as a young teen or pre-teen. I think I might have loved the book if I’d read it at 10 – 12; now it’s too late; like you, I have read too many authors who do the same thing better.
    As for the movie, it falls into the same category – not bad, mildly funny, but here, additionally, the adventure / suspense part suffers from the out-dated scenery and special effects (it has the look of a 50s / 60s fantasy / fairy tale film with cardboard trees), while, for the comedy part, my inner voice was always thinking what Monty Python would have done with that material.

  3. Thanks, you two! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I can only agree with you both again: it is OK, it was fun (the only bit where I wanted to put it down was the stuff tacked on to the end, by which time I was close enough to the end that I muddled through). And I agree that it’s something you could well love, if you read it early enough – which I didn’t. [I hope your daughter liked it, Hans!]

    I did, incidentally, enjoy the initial biographical bit, at the time – it was icky, but well-written. But too long, I thought, and I didn’t really feel it complemented the rest of the book, though (switching from hollywood sleaziness to childhood simplicity leaves a lingering bad taste in the mouth), and when we returned to Goldman at the end, I found that dull and unwelcome.

    I do still intend to watch the film at some point. When I was reading the book there were a lot of points where I thought ‘this would work better on film’ – whether that’s the delivery of certain lines, or certain dramatic moments, or the pathos and the characterisation – I gather, for instance, that the film does a good job of playing up the bromance between Fezzik and Inigo, which is only briefly present in the book. But I’m not expecting too much – the standard of pre-2000 fantasy films is, after all, exceedingly low!

  4. Hans says:

    I hope your daughter liked it, Hans!
    I’ll have to check whether she actually read it. 😉 We visited her in Vancouver where she is studying, and I returned the book to her only shortly before we left. But I know she watched the film last year and found it just mildly amusing, so I don’t assume she’ll think of this as the best book she ever read. Plus, she’s 19 and has read more grown-up stuff, so the Princess Bride’s window of opportunity with her has most probably already passed.

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