Life, Death, and The Princess Bride - Remembering William Goldman

My students are talking about whether they believe in re-incarnation. Interspersed with conversation about YouTubers and who can draw the best anime-style eye, these eleven to thirteen year olds begin to ponder whether you can pick how you’re re-incarnated. I only watch and listen as they contemplate things as only children who are just coming into understanding their own lives can. I find I’m thinking about William Goldman. Goldman, author of The Princess Bride and screenwriter of Misery, All The President’s Men, and a whole laundry list’s worth of movies, was in a sense the auteur of my childhood. The humor and values of The Princess Bride bled into my understanding of the world as I passed from childhood into adolescence, in a way I wish I could have told him about. My father was extraordinarily good at doing imitations of Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, and André the Giant, and he insisted on reading me the book first before we watched the movie together. That whole experience was somewhat metatextual given how in the book itself a grandfather is reading the story to his son. I looked forward every night to hearing what would happen next in the novel and hearing my father do a funny voice for a new character I hadn’t heard yet.

In The Princess Bride, Westley tells Buttercup “As you wish” for years before saying “I love you,” and it is only now, as a half-formed adult, that I understand the deep significance behind that interaction. Parents give their lives to children. Partners give their lives to each other. Sometimes love can be as simple as giving, and sometimes the three words “I love you” are not the words you need to say in order to communicate what you mean. I understand how much my parents gave me, and how, though it's un-sexy in comparison to movie romance love, parent-child and familial love runs just as deep. At its core, The Princess Bride is a novel and film about how different kinds of love manifest and how the love we have for each other bleeds into every other affection. Buttercup’s love for Westley influences her kindness and humility towards everyone around her, and Inigo’s deep friendship with Fezzick and unfettered love for his father influence his fencing and his ability to fight back.

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya and Carey Elwes as Westley. Image courtesy of Trope and Dagger.

When I entered high school, I started to competitively fence on my school’s team. Fencing became an integral part of who I was – I developed confidence through the ability to fight while wearing a mask, and control over my emotions through drills and movements. At a fencing summer camp I attended, the camp showed The Princess Bride. It was something of an in-joke among fencers who would pick apart Inigo Montoya’s strategy and point out technical inaccuracies as only pretentious private school athletes can. But there was something so warm and affirming about seeing the film together and recognizing myself, now slightly older, in a story that reminded me so strongly of childhood. Beyond just a device to put on my college application and a way to build muscle, I realized that my fencing, like Inigo’s, was part of how I processed trauma and tragedy in my own life. Fighting back and feeling powerful with my whites, épée, and mask was a gift that Inigo had paved the way for me to experience.

At the end of my senior season, the parent-teacher association of my high school gifted us with framed photographs of our team standing together. “You represent your families and your community with honor and dignity,” one woman said, and I remembered thinking what a strange thing to say that was. I thought about the traditional ideal of fencing, medieval swordplay and honor, and that perhaps it was not so different now, even though we fenced with electric score boxes and wires. One of my friends now trains with the coach who choreographed Mandy Patinkin and Carey Elwes’s fight scene. It seems The Princess Bride pops up everywhere. As I grew into my own person and developed stronger and more complicated love for the others in my life, fencing became a manifestation of that love. My sword-fighting fantasy that I’d taken up, at least in part because of how cool I thought Inigo Montoya was, turned into the thing that carried me through emotional rollercoaster after emotional rollercoaster. I wept and screamed on the strip sometimes, and ceaselessly hit targets in fits of anger, but fencing, like love, is a road of constant up and down intensity. Like Inigo Montoya in the castle, I picked myself up again when I reminded myself why I was fighting.

Carey Elwes as Westley and Robin Wright as Buttercup. Image courtesy of Hollywood Reporter.

All this is to say that William Goldman wrote a book and screenplay that helped me understand the complex, messy reality of human life when I was too young to process it in my own words. He brought compassion and nuance into the lives of so many people, young and old. His work connected me to my family and helped me understand myself better. This is not even to speak of the endless quotability of The Princess Bride and the way that sardonicism shaped even my sense of humor. Thanksgiving reminds us of our families and of what we have to be grateful for, and coming home from college for the first time I look back at things like The Princess Bride and feel a little bit like crying. I am grateful that Goldman’s work is a kind of re-incarnation for the warmth he carried with him in his personal sphere, and that through my own writing I can pass on some of the warmth he shared with me. I promised myself when I heard of Goldman’s passing that if I ever have children, I will read them The Princess Bride. I will show them my high school épée and my varsity letter, and I will tell them to be strong but caring, to cherish those they love and to believe that love – for others and for yourself – is worth fighting for. My voices won’t be as good as my father’s, but I can try.