When we remember the past or move forward into the future, often we do it by means of narratives. Narratives are story-like structures we create in our minds to organize events. They help us remember the events–and to make sense of them. And it turns out that many of the things most folks believe about love comes from narratives. And one of the best narratives in the world comes to us from The Princess Bride. Here is what this story showed me about love.
The Book Begins Differently.
The movie version of The Princess Bride is very good. But if you ever get a chance to read the book, I heartily recommend it. After the first fitful beginnings of this false tale-within-a-tale, a sort of comic inverted King in Yellow, it opens:
The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.
From there, we count down like Casey Kasem as Buttercup becomes the most beautiful woman in the world–protesting all the while that her mind matters too, thank you. She meets Westley, the Farm Boy, and treats him like crap because, well, she’s kind of not too bright and a little thoughtless. She’s painted that way. She’s not a perfect girl at all. I mean, sure, she’s lovely, and she has aspirations of bettering herself, but she’s just not very smart. She tortures Westley the way Calvin tortured Susie in the comic strip–to excuse her feelings, to exorcise them, to keep them safely at distance. But it didn’t work. She realizes she is in love with Westley early on, and goes to his hovel to tell him so.
“I love you,” Buttercup said. “I know this must come as something of a surprise, since all I’ve ever done is scorn you and degrade you and taunt you, but I have 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 a half hour after that I knew that what I felt before was nothing compared to what I felt then. But ten minutes after that, I understood that my previous love was a puddle compared to the high seas before a storm. Your eyes are like that, did you know? Well they are. How many minutes ago was I? Twenty? Had I brought my feelings up to then? It doesn’t matter.”
Tell me. Go ahead. Tell me. Tell me that means nothing to you. Yes. I mean it. Try. I don’t know if I could ever believe you. I don’t know if either of us would ever want me to believe you. She’s only a young woman here, a girl really, but love overwhelms her.
Buttercup still could not look at him. The sun was rising behind her now; she could feel the heat on her back, and it gave her courage. “I love you so much more now than twenty minutes ago that there cannot be comparison. I love you so much more now than when you opened your hovel door, there cannot be comparison. There is no room in my body for anything but you.”
The author, William Goldman, understands love. He illustrates that point above and beyond clarity.
Cas’ Formative Years.
Yeah, I ran into this story at a formative stage. I was still Christian at that point. The movie came out in the late 80s. I still had these secret yearnings to get back into the SCA and gaming, so you can guess this movie and book hit me like a thunderbolt. I learned about true love and high adventure, I learned about miracles, I swooped and dove and fenced and sailed in my imagination alongside Westley and Inigo and Fezzik, I hurled myself into the water with Buttercup to avoid her kidnappers, and I plunged into the ROUS-infested ravine with Westley.
Through it all, no matter where I roamed or what I did, in the back of my mind I was searching for the man in black and a castle to storm. I wanted a love like Westley and Buttercup had. Maybe one that was even better.
After Westley leaves, Buttercup blossoms and becomes more personable and thoughtful, and after he is reported dead–killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never, ever takes prisoners–she implodes with grief before her final flowering:
In point of fact, she had never looked as well. She had entered her room [to grieve] as just an impossibly lovely girl. The woman who emerged was a trifle thinner, a great deal wiser, an ocean sadder. This one understood the nature of pain, and beneath the glory of her features, there was character, and a sure knowledge of suffering. She was eighteen. She was the most beautiful woman in a hundred years. She didn’t seem to care.
A Lovely Girl.
A lovely girl who has never known any kind of adversity, never seen any kind of suffering, is simply a lovely girl. There are many of them. Youth itself makes a person lovely in many ways. Then, that youth fades.
But the one who has known hardship and suffering and risen above it, fought past it, gotten through it, that is the one we call beautiful even if her features do not look “conventionally pretty” or she has lost that dew-kissed youth she once (or never) had. And even Buttercup herself gets into an argument with Westley later on in the book because he keeps harping on her beauty when she wants to be recognized for her intelligence too. Even she knows that beauty is ephemeral and–while nice to have–is secondary in importance to what matters most.
Indeed, one thing the book makes a lot more clear than the movie does is that its heroes have all suffered enormously. Inigo had lost his beloved father, a master weaponsmith, to the six-fingered man–who had murdered the smith, stolen his masterpiece sword, and disfigured young Inigo’s face. Fezzik was ostracized and bullied all through his youth for his immense strength and size. Westley, of course, had almost died at sea and was about to lose his one true love to the story’s villain.
They had all suffered hugely to become who they were. Whatever their strengths, they had honed those strengths through suffering. They had come to those strengths by pain. They would not have been the pinnacle of their talents otherwise.
But they did not revel in that pain; indeed, when Inigo gets a chance to fight his nemesis, he realizes that he doesn’t care about revenge so much anymore; all he really wants is his father back, and he knows the six-fingered man cannot give him that. When Westley gets a chance to kill his own enemy, he realizes that what is important is that he rescued Buttercup, and now that he’s got her back, the prince stops being important.
At the time, I wasn’t even out of my 20s, but the lessons I gleaned from this book have stood with me ever since.
After I finished the book, I decided I would not hide silver hair when it came, nor go for all that plastic surgery people were already getting back then to hide their age; I decided to be proud of my age and not try to pretend to be younger than I really was. I would not try to hide from pain or to avoid the lessons it inevitably brought.
This book was one of the most influential ones I ever read, especially regarding my attitudes about love and life. You don’t have to become a swashbuckler to have a life of adventure. You don’t need a sword in your hand to be a fighter. And life is pain, and that anybody who told me differently was trying to sell me something. But moreover, that same pain can draw you in and through itself like a silk shawl through a wedding ring, and you come out the other side a much greater being than you went in.
Also, it taught me to trust those I loved, not to make huge precipitous decisions without trying to think them through first, and not try to make huge decisions for people who don’t want me to make such decisions for them. Just think of how things might have turned out differently in the Fire Swamp if Westley hadn’t thought ahead about dealing with all those risks!
I close today’s post with this statement from the end of the “introduction” to The Princess Bride:
And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.
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(This post was tidied up by Cas on February 14, 2019.)