The Princess Bride: Reconsidering the Medieval in William Goldman’s “Storybook Story”

Anna McKay | 6 February 2017

fencing, fighting, torture, poison, true love, hate, revenge, giants, hunters, bad men, good men, beautifullest ladies, snakes, spiders, beasts, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion and miracles. (8)

Defining medieval romance has troubled scholars and readers alike for centuries, but the blurb to William Goldman’s cult classic The Princess Bride (1973) offers as comprehensive a description of the genre as any. Indeed, compare this broad taxonomy to the medieval Breton lays described in the introduction to the fourteenth century verse romance, Lay Le Freine:

Sum bethe of war and sum of wo,
And sum of joie and mirthe also,
And sum of trecherie and of gile,
Of old aventoures that fel while;
And sum of bourdes and ribaudy,
And mani ther beth of fairy.
Of al thinges that men seth,
Mest o love for sothe thei beth. (5-12)

In the classic book and 1987 film (for which he wrote the screenplay) Goldman playfully reworks these stock tropes and themes, from the swashbuckling “aventoures” of Inigo Montoya, endlessly questing to avenge the murder of his father, to the “trecherie” of the tyrannical Prince Humperdinck, and the heroic duo Westley and Buttercup’s undying love. In both media, The Princess Bride is undeniably a modern revisioning, a comical and experimental reimagining of these motifs, yet, I would suggest, therein lies its very medieval status, its essentially medieval ethos.

PB1212.jpg

As any true Princess Bride aficionado knows, the book and film are strikingly different in many ways, yet both participate in the oral storytelling tradition which shaped the romance literature of the Middle Ages. In the novel’s opening lines Goldman declares, “This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it” (1), claiming that his father read the classic (supposedly written by the great Florinese writer S. Morgenstern) to him as a child, just as Peter Falk’s unnamed Grandfather reads it to his Grandson in the clip from the film below. As many have observed, this frame narrative is most obviously reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c.1386-1400) and Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.1348-53), but it also taps into a deeper tradition of repetition, adaptation, and renewal which was central to storytelling in the Middle Ages.

Copyright didn’t exist in the medieval period, and no equivalent supplied its place. Instead, poets and writers regularly reworked tales they came across, often denying any modern understanding of authorial prerogative in their conception. The Arthurian tradition is perhaps the most famous example of this, but writers such as Chaucer and Gower regularly reworked the classical tales of Ovid. This practice is also clearly evident in romances such as Sir Orfeo, a fourteenth century reworking of the Orpheus legend, in which the poet saw fit to make several alterations, which included exchanging the classical underworld for the realm of fairy, and replacing the tragic ending with the happy reunion of husband and wife. Goldman’s conceit, in attributing The Princess Bride to Morgenstern, mimics this tradition, and in mediating the narrative, Goldman himself, his fictional father, and the Grandfather in the film similarly make alterations. For example, in his “good parts version” Goldman summarises Morgenstern’s longest chapter in a page, telling us “I didn’t even know this chapter existed […]. All my father used to say at this point was, ‘What with one thing and another, three years passed’” (83). Similarly, the Grandfather learns to skip all kissing scenes, as we see in the clip, succumbing to the wishes of his young listener until the end, when his Grandson sweetly declares “I don’t mind so much.”

Goldman’s at times cynical revisioning of romance tropes, revealing a potentially critical attitude towards romance as a genre, is in fact in keeping with the often subversive inclinations of medieval romance. While the “Fair Unknown” motif so common to romance often bolsters the period’s aristocratic feudal social structure (again, King Arthur’s inherited right to rule being the classic example), several poets of the Middle Ages used romance to subvert the equation between social standing and virtue. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath tells the tale of a rapist knight, declaring, “he nys nat gentil, be he duc or erl, / For vileyns sinful dedes make a cherl” (1157-8), and his Clerk celebrates the patient Griselda as his heroine. A young girl born amongst the “povrest of hem alle” (205), Griselda is raised from her lowly station to marry a tyrannical Marquis, and forced to adhere to the feigned murder of their children as proof of her obedience. ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ is a pertinent parallel to Goldman’s story, which replicates the marriage between aristocratic male and low-born woman, and, via Humperdinck’s villainous plots to murder Buttercup on their wedding night as a ruse to instigate war with the neighbouring country of Guilder, also breaks down any connection between class and morality.

To my mind, The Princess Bride is thus, in both its film and literary incarnations, medievalism at its finest. Varied and vivid as the many forms of medieval romance, prepared to play with the very conventions it relies upon, Goldman’s “storybook story,” to use the words of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack song, is shaped by, and partakes in, a rich medieval tradition.

About Anna

I am a first year PhD candidate in English Literature. My research focuses on depictions of women weaving and wearing textiles at the intersection between the sacred and profane in medieval literature. I am also fascinated by folklore and fantasy, from Scottish balladry to Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections and the novels of George MacDonald.

Article edited by Kate Lewis Hood and Maria Elena Torres Quevedo.

Works Cited

Anon. “Sir Orfeo.” TEAMS Middle English Text Series. 1995. 12 Feb. 2016.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. 3-328. Print.

Goldman, William. The Princess Bride. London: Bloomsbury, 1999. Print.

Knopfler, Mark. “Storybook Love.” The Princess Bride, Vertigo Records, 1987, YouTube,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ifSUhwmIMU.

The Princess Bride. Directed by Rob Riener, screenplay by William Goldman, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1987.

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