Religious Themes in The Princess Bride
The Princess Bride is not generally known as a deep philosophical film. Its main claim to fame is that it is an archetypical “cult classic”: it fared reasonably, but not spectacularly well in the theatres when it came out, but it was one of the first movies to achieve a wide and enduring and dedicated audience on the then-new video-tape rental scene, as those who loved it rented it and watched it again and again and shared it with their friends, who, in turn, if they loved it, rented it and watched it again and again and shared it with their friends, and so on. If someone has seen the movie, there is a very good chance that they have seen it more than once! Its other main claim to fame is that it was wrestler Andre the Giant’s most memorable appearance on-screen.
The Princess Bride is set up as a simple story read by a grandfather to his reluctant, bed-ridden, video-game-enthralled grandson. The story turns out to be a hyperbolically archetypical fairy-tale, humourous in its playful alternation between exaggerating and flouting classic fairy-tale archetypes and conventions. On the surface, it would not seem to be the sort of movie in which one would expect to find any sort of deep philosophical or religious themes! But Western fairy-tale and religious traditions are, in fact, deeply linked, with fairy-tales finding their most definitive expressions in the folk-traditions of the Christianity-saturated culture of the late medieval West. The frame-story too deals with themes close to the heart of Christianity: family, love, and the meaning of tradition. The result was a movie that struck a strongly resonant chord with most, if not all of the fantasy- and fairy-tale loving Christians of my acquaintance.
The opening of the movie economically establishes a number of important details and key themes. The movie title The Princess Bride appears in silence, then, as it fades to black we hear the sound of a young boy coughing, then fade in to a full-screen shot of a baseball video-game being played. “Take Me Out to the Ball-Game” plays in beeping computer tones as the animated character on the screen hits a foul ball, but keeps running anyway. Already we have an idea that a key character is a young boy sick at home, bored, lonely, engaged with only a very inferior imitation of reality. The zoom out from the computer/TV screen immediately confirms this: we see the boy’s bored fixation with the game as his mother enters the room and feels her son’s forehead. The mother announces that the boy’s grandfather is here, and the boy’s reaction reveals that his relationship with his grandfather is rather shallow, to say the least. The grandfather is also shown to be somewhat out-of-touch with his grandson as he pinches the boy’s cheek—an action that the boy has just anticipated with some distaste. The grandfather gives his grandson a present, a book—“A book?” the boy reacts with disbelief—and tells him, “When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father, and today, I'm gonna read it to you.”
Already, then, we have tradition misunderstood (the pinch on the cheek), tradition situated in a context that implies healing (the reading of the book), competing versions of reality (computer/TV vs. book), and a relationship that, for the purposes of the movie is going to revolve around a special book—just how special is immediately underscored by the grandfather’s description of it. The boy asks, “Does it got any sports in it?” to which the grandfather passionately replies, “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles…” None of these are specifically religious themes, of course, but all of them are near and dear to the heart of Christianity in one way or another. One interesting detail about the book from William Goldman’s book The Princess Bride on which the screenplay (also written by William Goldman) was based is that what the grandfather reads to his grandson is what Goldman calls the “Good Parts” version of the book by (fictitious author) S. Morgenstern. Goldman describes Morgenstern’s original book in terms that make it sound remarkably like the Old Testament: the book includes all sorts of excruciating details entirely irrelevant (in modern terms) to the main story. What the grandfather reads to his grandson, then, is not the whole book, but the central storyline (i.e., the essence) of the book: a retelling that roughly parallels the relationship between the Old Testament and the Gospel—a parallel made all the more evocative by the Jewish name of the original author and Goldman’s description of the grandfather’s retelling as the “Good Parts” version.
As we have already noted, both the movie and the books (fictitious and real) are entitled The Princess Bride—a title immediately evocative (for Christians) of the Church, the Bride of Christ. That the princess bride’s true love comes back from the dead to save and to marry her is also too good a parallel for the Christian viewer to pass up. While it would be a disservice to the movie to try to view it as a purely allegorical representation of the relationship between Christ and His Church, there are quite a lot of other parallels along these same lines. Westley is introduced as being nothing more than a poor farm boy (cp. Isaiah 53:2—“he hath no form nor comeliness; and … no beauty that we should desire him”), and when he has to leave Buttercup he tells her “I will always come for you” (i.e., he is the “Coming One”). Even certain elements that at first appear to work against the cumulative effect of such parallels can ultimately be themselves viewed as further parallels. It seems odd, for example, to think of Christ as a pirate, as Westley becomes the Dread Pirate Roberts, or to think of Christ saying to his beloved, “As you wish.” But then again, Christ was certainly viewed by his opponents as a sort of pirate, stealing and spiritually murdering their followers, and the repeated use of “As you wish!” as the ultimate expression of love in The Princess Bride turns out to be less contradictory than one might think at first: as the story develops we come to see the phrase as an expression of loving, self-sacrificial service to the beloved—and a sort of service that actually teaches the beloved to wish for what is best.
Such repeated and extended parallels, however, raise two very important questions that deserve to be dealt with before continuing with this exploration of “Christian religious themes” in The Princess Bride. (1) Did the author of the screenplay intend these parallels? and (2) Does the existence of these parallels mean that we should read The Princess Bride as an allegory? The first question is notoriously difficult to answer, and without access to authorial/directorial commentary on the film that directly addresses the question, I would hesitate to say “Yea” or “Nay” to it. Instead, I will suggest that, given the link noted above between the Western fairy-tale and the West’s Christian heritage, the definitive answer to this first question (whatever it may be) hardly matters. The Princess Bride is set up as the ultimate, archetypal fairy tale and, given this, it is bound to end up giving cinematic expression to some of the deepest religious themes of Western Christendom. My response to the second question would be similarly equivocal: it depends upon what one means by the word “allegory”. If by “allegory” we mean a one-to-one correspondence between character and idea (à la Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), a process which virtually negates the reality of the story in its radical subordination of characters and events to the ideas they are mean to represent, then I would say, “No, we should not read the film as allegory.” But this is a late and much over-simplified definition of the word “allegory” which I believe does serious disservice to both story and symbol. In earlier allegories such as Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (or later ones, such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles—Lewis’ disavowal of them as allegories being based, in my judgment, on a desire to avoid the misunderstanding and demeaning of them that would inevitably take place if they were read as Bunyanesque allegories), no such one-to-one correspondence was attempted or expected: the narrative, characters, and fantasy world retain a consistency and reality of their own, even while they hint at higher, symbolic, spiritual meanings through metaphor and evocative parallelism. If, then, when we suggest that The Princess Bride ought to be read allegorically, we mean by this that, without compromising the integrity of its narrative, fantasy world, and characters, we investigate what higher meanings can be gleaned from the parallels and metaphors the movie provides, then, by all means, let us read it as allegory!
The set-up of the fairy-tale story proper has Buttercup betrothed to the devilish Prince Humperdinck, a man whom she does not love and who—we soon learn—does not love her; indeed, is only “marrying” her in order to kill her and thus have an excuse to go to war (much as Satan desires us only to use us as pawns in his war on God). Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio hired by Humperdinck who epitomize brawn (body), skill (soul), and brains (spirit). Each member of this trio is bested in what he is best at by the returning Westley, masked—his true identity hidden (as Christ’s was)—and wearing black. Buttercup at first fails to realize who he is (as Israel failed to recognize Jesus as the Coming One), and Westley chides her for her unfaithfulness. Believing Westley to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, she pushes him down a steep embankment to kill him (cp. Luke 4:29!), only to throw herself down the embankment after him when she recognizes his parting cry of “As you wish!” (cp. the Christian concept of descending with Christ into his death in baptism) What follows is an emotional and revealing reunion:
Westley has lost his mask on the roll down. [the Coming One now finally revealed in “death”] He leans over Buttercup.
Westley: Can you move at all?
Buttercup: Move? You're alive! If you want I can fly. [cp. “I can do all things through Christ…” Phil 4:13] They embrace.
Westley: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well, you were dead.
Westley: Death cannot stop True Love. All it can do is delay it for a while.
Buttercup: I will never doubt again. [faith]
Westley: Quietly. There will never be a need.
The story to this point has dealt with the restoration of the relationship between Westley and Buttercup—a restoration that is completed in their journey through the impenetrable Fire Swamp together—but has not yet dealt with the problem of Buttercup’s betrothal to Prince Humperdinck. On emerging from the Fire Swamp, the happy couple is confronted and separated by Prince Humperdinck, essentially resetting their physical circumstances to what they were shortly after their first parting—but Buttercup’s faith in Westley as the “Coming One” is now unshakeable, with the understandable exception of a brief moment of doubt just after her “marriage” to Prince Humperdinck at the end.
In this second half of the film, Westley is literally killed by Prince Humperdinck out of jealousy over Buttercup’s faithfulness to him. Prince Humperdinck is also revealed as the one behind Buttercup’s first abduction and as now planning to murder his bride on their wedding night—all for the sake of starting a war: about as Satanic a scheme as one could conceive, though Humperdinck’s primacy as the prince of evil finds a close rival in the pure sadism of his partner in crime, Count Rugen. Westley, however, is brought back to life by the revenge-seeking alliance of Inigo and Miracle Max—and here one must admit that the revenge-theme is more than a little difficult to reconcile with a Christian allegorical reading of the film. If one wanted to justify it, one might suggest that the motive of revenge is entirely appropriate to a Christ-figure returning in a fiery apocalyptic-style judgment, as Westley returns with the flaming Fezzik:
Fezzik: My men are here, I am here. But soon, you will not be here.
Westley: Light him.
Inigo lights the cloak on fire with a candle.
Fezzik: The Dread Pirate Roberts takes no survivors! Soldiers back up from the flaming Fezzik. All your worst nightmares are about to come true!
Fezzik: The Dread Pirate Roberts is here for your souls!
But it is somewhat more difficult to justify revenge as the primary motive underlying Westley’s “resurrection” from a Christian standpoint. (True Love tries to play a part through Miracle Max’s wife, and ultimately does, but only by revealing to Miracle Max that “I make him better, Humperdinck suffers?” Inigo: “Humiliations galore.”) However, given what we have said above about allowing the characters and the story to retain their own reality rather than imposing a strict allegorical reading, we will pass over this “inconsistent” detail in silence in order to focus on the elements that more accurately parallel classic Christian religious themes.
The way in which final judgment and salvation are accomplished in the film is a testimony to the power of the word (Word). Inigo, stabbed unexpectedly (and unfairly) in the stomach by Count Rugen, looks as though he is about to fail in his life-long quest to avenge his father’s murder, but recovers his strength and unnerves (and ultimately defeats) his opponent by repeating like a mantra the words with which, ever since he was a boy, he has imagined he would confront his opponent: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killèd my father. Prepare to die.” Westley heads off his beloved Buttercup’s suicide with words of compliment and irrefutable logic: “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. ’Twould be a pity to damage yours.” And…
Westley: Did you say "I do"?
Buttercup: Um, no. We sort of skipped that part.
Westley: Then you're not married. If you didn't say it, you didn't do it.
And then, in perhaps the ultimate cinematic tribute to the power of the word, Westley defeats Prince Humperdinck with words alone, drawing out by the power of his words the truth of Buttercup’s earlier observation about Humperdinck, that he is “nothing but a coward with a heart full of fear.” Westley concludes his verbal assault by drawing himself to his feet, extending his sword straight out in a manner reminiscent of “and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16), and commanding Prince Humperdinck to “Drop... your... sword.” Humperdinck obeys, and, one presumes, immediately thus enters his own personal hell, there embarking upon—as Westley puts it—“a long life alone with his cowardice.”
There are a great many other details and themes in The Princess Bride that could be drawn out and explored from a Christian or even just from a religious perspective, but only one more that commands our attention as absolutely essential here at the end. This story that the grandfather has been reading his grandson has proven transformative, changing both the boy and the relationship between grandfather and grandson. We have seen glimpses of the process throughout, as the boy has gotten caught up more and more in the story. The most dramatic realization of this process is undoubtedly the boy’s outburst upon learning that Westley is indeed dead in the Pit of Despair and that nobody kills Prince Humperdinck:
Grandson: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?
Grandfather: You know, you've been very sick and you're taking this story very seriously. I think we better stop now. Closes book and stands up.
Grandson: No, I'm okay. I'm okay. Sit down. I'm all right.
The boy has gone from passive toleration of the story to active interest in it, from a desire to censor the story (the kissing scenes) to a willingness to submit himself to its reality, however unpalatable. While there is in fact not much more than the reluctant beginnings of such willingness here, by the end, the boy’s submission to the story is strong enough not only to tolerate, but to demand and even to appreciate the ultimate kissing scene. The boy’s gradual acceptance of and submission to the story mirrors what must be our own acceptance of and submission to the gospel. And, finally, the issues of misunderstood tradition and of the relationship between grandfather and grandson are both resolved in the last two lines of the film, and both have been resolved by the transformative reading of the book: now that the meaning of tradition (love) is understood, both the tradition and the one presenting the tradition are appreciated.
Grandson: Grandpa? Pause. Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.
Grandfather: As you wish. Turns off light, grabs coat and leaves.