In crafting the film The Princess Bride, the filmmakers weave numerous compelling and intricate features together by to create a tight mesh of effective storytelling. Most fruitful, however, is the use of bold and sometimes unconventional religious imagery. These heavy-handed, though skillfully implemented, religious themes grab something deep inside the audience’s subconscious. The themes can then draw the viewer into the film through symbols and storylines that we have come to recognize from our collective spiritual past. By entrenching his primary characters of Westley, Buttercup, the grandfather, and grandson in religious symbolism, screenwriter and novelist William Goldman fires the first shots in what could easily be termed as a religious war for true love. Just as it is difficult for Buttercup to embrace the love of a farm boy because her position sets her apart from him, it is equally hard for Christians to walk with Christ unless they reject the sins of the world. While The Princess Bride clearly embodies the elements of a traditional fairy tale, enhanced by non-traditional elements, its true accessibility comes when viewed as an allegorical tale, emboldened by Goldman’s use of familiar religious themes.
Both in the novel form as well as the film adaptation, the characters, structure, narrative voice, and thematic elements are composed of traditional fairy tale elements with a twist. Goldman himself foreshadows what is to come through his S. Morgenstern persona when he promises in the novel a story of "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants…Bad men. Good men. Beautiful ladies…Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave Men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles." We are introduced to a hero with unnatural, almost superhuman, survival abilities. Westley endures the original Dread Pirate Roberts, he willingly ingests poison, he navigates the treacherous fire swamp, and then literally – like Christ – returns from the dead with a little help from Inigo and Miracle Max in their quest for revenge.
In the film adaption, as in the original novel, Goldman wisely utilizes a framing technique that creates a story within a story. While the primary, inner story centers around Westley and Buttercup, the outer story of the grandfather reading their adventure to his grandson is part of the same narrative structure and reinforces the inner story. In fact, the grandfather’s role in guiding his grandson mirrors the influence that Westley has on Buttercup. This is most apparent in the film’s final moments as the grandson suggests that maybe they could read the story again the next day, to which the grandfather replies with the same familiar refrain as Westley, simply saying "as you wish." This structural element of the film contributes directly to the success of the adaptation, fortifying the narrative construction. In doing so, Goldman utilizes a sophisticated literary device that allows for narrative interjections from the modern-day storyline into the fairy tale, anchoring the film in much the same way that Goldman achieves in his novel’s parenthetical interjections. The adaptation of the asides to the reader as commentary by the grandson allows his story to exist both in a more fantastical fairy tale realm as well as that of the real world. In doing so, the framing element provides the necessary presence of reality to allow for the absurdity of the fairy tale elements to resonate with the audience. This technique gives the film an opportunity to develop a kind of pathos, a genuine connection with its audience. According to Ryan Vlastelica, Goldman’s refined use of this literary device "gives us permission to have a sincere emotional reaction to what is essentially a silly story. Given the tone and simplicity of the tale, [The] Princess Bride…needs something in the real world to ground it: the real world."
While the story itself is told within the traditional framework of a fairy tale, the humor and much of the dialogue in the film adaptation is decidedly modern, allowing for allusions to a real world outside of the fairy tale without having to make any direct references to it or withdraw from the storytelling itself on any regular basis. The narrator's limited interjections (such as when the grandfather stops to talk to his grandson during the "scary part" of the story) are more effective because of Goldman’s restrained use, which keeps the audience focused on the story, almost forgetting the outside world, just as the grandson hearing the story feels, but with frequent reminders that this is a story being woven in our imaginations beyond the confines of reality. In the article "Movie vs. Book vs. Fairytales: A Comparative Analysis of The Princess Bride," the writer explains that the emotional connection generated by this kind of accessibility to the characters allows the audience to be tethered to the story in the same way as the grandson is in the outer storyline. Goldman, therefore, allows us to excuse deviations into absurdity and high drama and rewrite them in our minds as they were originally presented – "true love and high adventure." This juxtaposition of a personal connection to the story, buffered by the comforting separation of fiction, has enriched great morality tales throughout history, in particular the biblical parables of Jesus – more to the point of this article.
Goldman's screenplay clearly utilizes the cherished idea of parabolic storytelling to create an instant familiarity and cultural bond with its audience from the onset. The concept of the parable is, in itself, inherently biblical and crucial to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. In the same way, Vlastelica explains, the film adaptation of The Princess Bride "is about storytelling, not just the story being told." The earliest moments of the film introduce us to an older, wiser teacher figure (the grandfather) sitting down to impart wisdom through an allegorical tale to a younger, and somewhat obstinate, listener (the grandson). Likewise, the audience must also find enough truth in the presentation of Goldman’s story to succumb to the fantasy of its telling. Much like Jesus to the apostles, the grandfather circumvents confrontation by fictionalizing the tale, providing distance that allows the listener to be more receptive to the underlying lessons. Equally important is the fact that this device grounds the film in the modern day, contextualizing the lessons that it presents and giving relevance to the story. Ethan Nichtern argues this element is essential for the story’s success since "without some understanding of cultural context, no ancient teaching makes much sense. It is context (the who, what, when, where, why, and how of spiritual teaching) that brings the teachings to life and makes them resonate timelessly." By embedding this device within the framing of a story within a story, Goldman successfully marries the fairy tale and allegory, rooting it in a familiar convention that allows for the development of pathos, as well as the possibility for being transformed in some way by having experienced it - as detailed in the article "Movie vs. Book vs. Fairytales: A Comparative Analysis of The Princess Bride."
Friar Justin Hewlett of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church explains, "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." In adapting his own novel, Goldman efficiently and deftly utilizes the relationship between the grandfather and grandson to provide a link from antiquity to the modern day, just as Jesus accomplished with his audience through the telling of parables. In doing so, Goldman inexorably links the person telling his story with the great religious storytellers of our collective past.
To strengthen the audience's emotional connection to his film's characters, Goldman skillfully uses religious character archetypes throughout his parable-like storytelling. Some of the archetypes are blatant and easy to discern. Fezzik, the giant, certainly invokes the biblical narrative of Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior slain by young David (I Samuel 17). While both giants are defeated by a more diminutive foe, Fezzik's story does not end there. He proves his inner goodness and is eventually reconciled to and even befriends his one-time opponent, Westley. Inigo Montoya could be viewed as one of the apostles, waiting for the introduction of a Jesus figure who could fill the need that he did not know existed – a sense of purpose and belonging to carry him beyond his vengeance. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter attacks a Centurion out of loyalty to Jesus (Luke 22), much like Inigo wishes to avenge his father's death. Peter's vengeance with a sword is mirrored with Inigo's sword in his search for his father's killer, the six-fingered man. Humperdinck himself could easily be interpreted as a Pharisee, operating with deception and manipulation, rejecting Westley's claim on Buttercup as the Pharisees rejected the claim of Jesus on the Church.
While Westley embodies the character traits of multiple biblical archetypes, most significant is that of Christ himself. He is introduced to the audience as a poor farm boy who rises to greatness (as the Dread Pirate Roberts) and puts himself at odds with the ruling faction (Humperdinck), just as Jesus lived as a poor carpenter until He began His ministry and eventually came into direct conflict with the Sanhedrin and the Roman installed rulers. Of course, the most direct Christ parallel can be drawn as Westley is resurrected, first in a metaphorical transformation from farm boy to Dread Pirate Roberts, and secondly after his physical death at the hands of Prince Humperdinck as mentioned earlier. A third, more subtle resurrection occurs when Westley threatens Humperdinck and challenges him to a duel from his bed, where he suggests that he could indeed be lying down because he lacks the strength to stand, but then rises to level his sword and disarm his rival. This transformation from a peaceful man attended by his love, just as Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome attended Jesus at the tomb (Mark 16:1), during the moment that might have been his death, to a man ready for battle whose strength is unknown, is yet another reflection of the resurrection of Christ.
According to Richard Greene, Westley's "to the pain" challenge exposes Humperdinck's weakness and cowardice through rhetoric, without ever having to use the sword in his hand, much as Christ used rhetoric to expose the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. There are less obvious uses of the Christ-like archetype in the film, as well. Westley scaling the Cliffs of Insanity inverts Satan’s challenge to Jesus that He fling Himself from a great height to prove his divinity (Matthew 4:5-7). Particularly poignant is the fact that Westley loves Buttercup steadfastly in spite of her rejection (as Jesus says the Heavenly Father loves us). Even what is arguably the most identifiable phrase from the film, "as you wish," has a biblical origin. Just as Christians are given personal choice to accept the gift of God’s love and salvation, Westley's gentle response to Buttercup's scorn is a reminder of God’s mercy that is available to us if we wish it.
Likewise, Buttercup, as the reluctant bride, personifies the archetype of the Church itself, the bride of Christ. Hewlett explains further that "Buttercup…fails to realize who he is (as Israel failed to recognize Jesus as the Coming One), and Westley chides her for her unfaithfulness." Upon Westley's physical death, her faith has grown sufficiently to sustain her hope for salvation even through death itself, just as the Church, the bride of Christ, awaits the second coming to ascend to heaven in a fully restored and reconciled relationship.
The religious archetypes depicted in The Princess Bride have meaning not only in their existence but also in the resolution of their diverse story lines. Mike Lewis states that the two relationships presented in Goldman's film adaption as the primary influential character relationships are that of the grandfather and grandson in the outer story and that of Westley and Buttercup in the inner story. As the framing element has reinforced the ideal that these two relationships are, in many ways, reflective of one another, the audience has developed a pathos for the characters that necessitates a resolution as definitive as that of Christ in biblical texts - an emotional ascension that allows them to be transformed, restored, and reconciled like their archetypal counterparts. In fact, as Nichtern asserts in The Dharma of the Princess Bride, "if you learn about mindfulness or empathy by working with those closest to you, then your relationship with everyone else will be illuminated." The reconciliation of these relationships, therefore, is essential to the spiritual ascension of both the characters and the reader. Upon Westley's first return to Buttercup in the film, he challenges the strength of her tenuous faithfulness, saying, "I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?" to which Buttercup replies, "Well, you were dead." Here, there are many parallels to the Christ story, from the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus asked His disciples why they could not wait and pray with Him as He asked (Luke 22:39-46), to the interaction with Thomas who did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead even though He had promised to return (John 20:24-29). All of this culminates in the truth that Westley desires Buttercup to accept, as he explains, "Death cannot stop True Love. All it can do is delay it for a while." When Buttercup replies, "I will never doubt again," it is clear that her journey to transformation and ultimate ascension has begun.
The trials that she and Westley face are the catalyst for her transformation, requiring strength of character and faith that they will succeed. The fire swamp, in particular, suggests times of struggle, when we need a savior and must act in faith even when the challenges seem overwhelming. After going through the Fire Swamp together, they are separated again by Humperdinck. This time, however, Buttercup has unshakable faith that Westley will always come back for her. Even in the face of death, she is unwavering in her belief that Westley will return. Once again, recalling the familiar Christ archetype by reinforcing the ideal that death is no obstacle for the true love of the Savior, Goldman imparts significantly more import to the resolution of the relationship. When Buttercup's faith can withstand even the insurmountable obstacle of death, she is capable of being an equal partner, worthy of a fully restored relationship with her love, as explained in "Movie vs. Book vs. Fairytales: A Comparative Analysis of The Princess Bride." Westley's return from the dead - keeping his promise that death is no obstacle for true love - as well as Buttercup's transformation of faith allows her to be reconciled in a fully restored relationship, just as the Church is to be reconciled to Christ after the second coming (Matthew 25:31-46). Her ascension is complete, having emotionally evolved and proven capable of maturing from a person of weak faith to one of unshakable belief, regardless of the circumstances.
The complexity of the inner story's resolution could be argued as temporarily obscuring the gravity of the ascension of the outer story's characters. It is, however, integral to the success of the adaptation as a whole. Hewlett asserts, "the story that the grandfather has been reading his grandson has proven transformative, changing both the boy and the relationship between grandfather and grandson." The grandson ascends mentally from child to adult, understanding love, romance, and humanity, which parallels the inner story, as Buttercup comes to understand faithfulness and the power of an unconditional, mature love. His ascension is most apparent when he becomes upset that Westley has actually died in the Pit of Despair and that no one has taken revenge on Prince Humperdinck. Hewlett argues this transformation serves as a bridge to the audience's own ascension, as "The boy has gone from passive toleration of the story to active interest in it, from a desire to censor the story...to a willingness to submit himself to its reality, however unpalatable,...mirror[ing] 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." While the grandfather uses a fairy tale to teach his grandson the true meaning of agape love, Jesus used parables to teach His contemporaries the deeper meaning of Christian love. In this way, Goldman borrows the parabolic teaching device to allow for an emotional attachment and mental separation from the story, all while grounding the adaption of his stories in modern reality.
By viewing A Princess Bride as an allegorical tale that utilizes parabolic storytelling, the traditional fairy tale elements within take on a new significance. Nichtern believes the way in which Goldman tells his story reinvents traditional elements as "a postmodern fairy tale,…a perfect balance of acidic and sweet flavors, to both utterly mock and fully celebrate the genre of which it partakes." Although the narrative is told with a fresh outlook for modern audiences, the story itself is anything but new. In his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, philosopher Joseph Campbell suggests that all stories are part of the monomyth, the same story that is told over and over in different ways to appeal to different cultures and social constructs while teaching the same lessons about humanity. In discussing the great religious and mythical stories of our history, Campbell asserts, "Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization."
In other words, humanity's need to learn the same lessons in order to thrive necessitates that we tell the same stories in different forms, appearing in each society’s retelling of the monomyth. Campbell states that all stories of myth (in which category he places religious narratives) follow the hero through the main categories of departure, initiation, and return. Specifically citing stories that are contradictory in their telling, Campbell argues that they, in fact, are one in the same, saying that "whether presented in the vast, almost oceanic images of the Orient, in the vigorous narratives of the Greeks, or in the majestic legends of the Bible, the adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit above described: a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return."
Here again, Goldman's use of the parabolic narrative places his characters alongside those in religious texts, strengthening the connection to spiritual archetypes. This idea of the monomyth is not intended by Campbell as an insinuation that storytelling is fruitless, since it is merely a reinvention of the same story, but rather the opposite. In fact, he presents it as an essential tool for humanity's intellectual, social, and spiritual evolution. He asserts that although the stories will appear in different incarnations to be relevant to time, culture, or other social context, we must recognize that "through various symbols the same redemption is revealed…A single song is being inflected through all the colorations of the human choir…The way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man." In Campbell's view, then, Westley is Christ in that he is simply the same hero in another telling of the same story. This same concept is reflected clearly in biblical texts, particularly in the book of Ecclesiastes 1:9-11, which pointedly states, "That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, 'See, this is new?' It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after."
This idea of the monomyth and the necessity of developing relevant mythology for each generation is widely embraced by scholars and philosophers and was openly acknowledged by director George Lucas, who proclaimed that Campbell's writings had "rescued him" while he was attempting to complete his first Star Wars scripts. He even invited Campbell as a guest for the film screenings and referred to him as "my Yoda," as Matthew WIlhelm Kapell and John Shelton Lawrence describe in Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise. Like Campbell, Lucas mourned "a mythic decline that left youth drifting without the moral anchor sensed in the heroic genre films of his own youth" and attempted to reclaim the spirit of the great Westerns and WWII films of his youth. As Lucas developed a new take on the battle of good and evil in an unknown land, so Goldman reimagines the fairy tale, both providing heroes with adventures that serve to inform the moral character of their audience.
Ultimately, it is Goldman's ability to create a Christ-like figure in Westley, a churchlike figure in Buttercup, a Goliath-like character in Fezzik, an apostolic Inigo Montoya, and a Pharisee in Humperdinck that borrow heavily from religious heritage, then turn them all on their ear with tongue-in-cheek humor that allowed this film to succeed with audiences as well as critics. By invoking religious archetypes that are immediately relatable to viewers, imbuing them with a desire for a righteous quest, and then framing the tale in the style of a parable, Goldman skillfully avoids much of the disconnect that audiences might have felt otherwise. The viewers of the film have a virtual running start of empathy and understanding for what they are about to see. The result is a story full of characters that are buoyed by thousands of years of development from the shared experience of religious storytelling and a fantastical plotline that is anchored in the same comforting allegory as the biblical parables.
From guest contributor A.D. Hasselbring