True (Self-)Love and The Princess Bride

The early Christian theologian Augustine, in The City of God, relates a story of an encounter between Alexander the Great, emperor of the known world, and a common pirate. When Alexander confronts the pirate about his malfeasance, the pirate brazenly replies that the only difference between the two of them is the scale of their activities. The pirate says that he means “the same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a little ship I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet, you are an emperor.” Augustine uses this anecdote to undercut the idea that might makes right or that the size of one’s weapon affects the morality of one’s actions.

book cover imageA more modern tale of conflict between a royal sovereign and a pirate explores similar themes, albeit more whimsically. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of The Princess Bride, a novel by William Goldman first published in 1973 and later popularized in the 1987 Rob Reiner film starring Cary Elwes (Westley), Robin Wright (Buttercup), and Mandy Patinkin (Inigo). The Princess Bride can be fruitfully understood as an extended narrative exploration of the dynamics of love and justice amid the strife between a roguish buccaneer, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and a would-be emperor, Prince Humperdinck of Florin. One of the reasons that Goldman’s tale has remained so popular throughout the years is that, in addition to its excitement and humor, it resonates with everyday life. Like the best fiction, The Princess Bride reads like true myth, exploring the deepest hopes and hates of its characters in ways that capture our imagination and move our moral sensibilities.

Love and Lust for Power

The tale begins as the beautiful Buttercup has been more or less coerced into betrothal to Humperdinck. For the prince, Buttercup is a prize fit for one aspiring to the stature of an emperor. She was ranked among the twenty most beautiful women in the world, and rising. But her beauty is something to be exploited; Buttercup is simply a pawn in a larger stratagem. Indeed, Humperdinck has devised a plan to stage a kidnapping and murder at the hands of his country’s archenemy, Guilder.

Unfortunately for Humperdinck, Buttercup’s heart has already been captured by the farm boy, Westley. He had worked his way into Buttercup’s affections by assenting to any task she might request, whatever her whim, while saying, “As you wish.” As we learn later, when uttering these words with his lips he was uttering another phrase in his heart: “I love you.” Buttercup only allows herself to be promised in marriage to Humperdinck because she believes Westley is dead at the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts, infamous for never leaving survivors. But the Dread Pirate Roberts has spared Westley when the farm boy protested his true love for Buttercup. He initiates Westley into his confidences, and, in a twist, Westley takes on the mantle of “Dread Pirate Roberts” when his predecessor retires.

Thus Westley returns to save Buttercup from her fate in the persona of a pirate. As the narrator says in the film version, the tale is full of “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles….” And indeed, true love is the dynamic force achieving victory over political tyranny and injustice. As Westley puts it, “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” But while the love between Westley and Buttercup occupies the focus of the story’s development, other loves are significant to the way the action develops.

For instance, the swordsman Inigo Montoya is driven to avenge the murder of his beloved father by a mysterious six-fingered man. The hypocrisy of the purported difference between a brigand like the Dread Pirate Roberts and the royal house of Humperdinck is exposed when the six-fingered man turns out to be the prince’s bosom friend, Count Rugen.

True Love … and True Self-Interest

The love that drives Inigo to avenge his father and the love that inspires Westley’s pursuit of Buttercup connect in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the encounter with Miracle Max. Inigo and his companion, the giant Fezzik, have recovered Westley’s body from the prince’s Zoo of Death. The only way Inigo can achieve success in his life’s goal of killing the count is to revive the Dread Pirate, whose strategic abilities are necessary to complement his fencing and Fezzik’s strength. Unfortunately for Inigo, by the time he locates Westley, the farmboy-turned-pirate has been subjected to a lethal treatment at the count’s nefarious device, The Machine.

This is where Miracle Max enters the picture. Max is the last of the “miracle men,” a class of characters who traffic is in the occult arts. Max faithfully served Humperdinck’s father as the royal miracle man for many years, but with Humperdinck’s ascension to power, Max was cast aside. Perhaps out of grudging respect for Max’s years of service, he was not expelled from the country along with the rest of the miracle men, but was rather allowed to eke out an existence on the fringes of society in his declining years.

In a final, desperate attempt, Inigo and Fezzik turn to Max. They bring him Westley’s body, hoping for a miracle from the miracle man. Max, however, is loathe to take on the job for any number of reasons. Max tells them that he’s retired, that he no longer does miracles. He cannot help them. Only when his wife intervenes does Max agree to take a look at Westley. The good news, says Max, is that there is some hope: Westley is only “mostly dead.” The bad news, however, is that Inigo and Fezzik have nothing to pay Max for his unique services.

Thus the heroes are confronted with another obstacle. How can they convince Max to take on the job? First, Inigo tries to play on Max’s compassion. Westley is survived by a loving wife and many children who depend on him. Won’t Max bring Westley back to life out of the kindness of his heart? Max refuses, picking up on the duplicity of Inigo’s deception.

When the false appeal to compassion doesn’t work, Inigo tries the truth, the same truth that spared Westley’s life with the Dread Pirate Roberts: true love. Westley’s love for Buttercup is the kind of love that comes around only once a generation, and true love is certainly the most noble thing that one could fight for. Again, Max is unmoved.

Finally, in a scene where the grittiness and reality of everyday life really strike home, Inigo takes a page from Adam Smith’s book and appeals to Max’s self-interest. As Smith famously observed in The Wealth of Nations, the person who depended merely on the benevolence of others for their provision would often be in need: “Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.”

Indeed, writes Smith, in his most famous passage, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” Inigo’s task is to find out what advantage Max seeks and convince him that their interests align. And as like knows like, he rightly perceives what drives Max: the desire for revenge.

Max has been humiliated by his fall from royal favor, and wishes nothing more than the suffering of Prince Humperdinck. When Inigo convinces Max that a living Westley is the best way to enact revenge on Humperdinck, that Westley’s success will result in “humiliations galore” for the prince, Max agrees to attempt the miracle.

Justice and the Limits of Revenge

As much as The Princess Bride trucks in the ideals of true love, heroism, and adventure, the gritty details of a scene like this with Miracle Max evince an insightful realism in the midst of fantasy. Relatedly, the limits of revenge as a motive strike home in the successful realization of Inigo’s quest. As the actor Mandy Patinkin recently said in reflecting on the film,his favorite line has become Inigo’s confession at the conclusion of the tale. Patinkin says that as he has grown older he has come to appreciate the ambiguity of Inigo’s conclusion about what comes after vengeance: “Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”

Westley provides a timely response: “Have you ever considered piracy?” he asks. “You’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts.” In this ending we catch another resonance from Augustine’s meditations on the confrontation between pirate and emperor. For as long as political tyranny persists, as long as oppression prevents true love and association between human beings, there will be a need for reckoning. For as Augustine asks, “Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers?” The Princess Bride offers a worthy testimony—attired in the garb of fanciful narrative, adventure, true love, revenge, and self-interest—to the need for justice in political order.  

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, and his most recent book is Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays in Christian Social Thought (and Action). You can follow him on Twitter.

On the fortieth anniversary of The Princess Bride, Jordan Ballor looks at some of the story’s enduring themes.