Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1672
The Princess Bride is a 1973 adventure story by William Goldman. Goldman presents his novel as if it were a shortened version of a classic book by S. Morgenstern, a writer from the imaginary country of Florin. Goldman uses the façade of an original work as an excuse to make commentary on the style and action throughout the book.
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In the introduction, Goldman claims he has had a lifelong relationship with the story A Princess Bride. He says that he was a late bloomer who could barely read until the age of ten, when his father, an immigrant from Florin, read him the novel while he was recovering from pneumonia. Afterward, Goldman became addicted to adventure stories and grew up to become a writer. As an adult, Goldman tried to read The Princess Bride himself and realized that his father had skipped over substantial boring parts. This inspired him to create an abridgment.
The main story of The Princess Bride begins with Buttercup, a girl who is so beautiful that people come from all around to see her. Buttercup thinks very little about them—largely because she is a rather dimwitted girl who has very few thoughts on any subject. If the young men get annoying, she asks the farm boy, Westley, to get rid of them. He says, “As you wish,” and he beats up the other boys.
Eventually, Buttercup realizes that she is in love with Westley. When she tells him this, he immediately goes to America to seek his fortune so he can marry her. Before he leaves, he kisses her, and the kiss surpasses the greatness of all five of the highest-rated kisses since the invention of the kiss in 1642 B.C. Sadly, however, Westley’s ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is well known for killing his victims ruthlessly. Buttercup locks herself in her room for days to grieve. When she emerges, she is far and away the most beautiful girl alive. She says she will never again fall in love.
Prince Humperdinck, the leader of Florin, is a great hunter whose main interest is keeping and maintaining a Zoo of Death full of animals he can release and hunt. One day he is in his zoo when the doctor comes and tells him his father is dying. “Drat!” says Prince Humperdinck. “That means I shall have to get married.”
Prince Humperdinck refuses to marry Noreena, the princess of Guilder, because she is bald. Count Rugen, Prince Humperdinck’s only confidant, suggests marrying a commoner who is renowned for beauty. Rugen finds Buttercup, and Humperdinck agrees that she is stunning. She refuses to marry him, even under threat of death, until Humperdinck tells her he does not care whether or not she loves him.
Several years later, Buttercup is introduced to the people of Florin, and Humperdinck announces that they will be married. Afterward, Buttercup goes for a ride to ponder, in her dimwitted mind, the fact that she dislikes the prince. She is on her way home when she encounters three travelers: a Sicilian, a Spaniard, and a giant Turk. The Sicilian knocks her out, then frames people from Guilder as her kidnappers. He tells his companions that they are going to take Buttercup to Guilder and kill her in order to start a war.
In the boat on the way to Guilder, Buttercup jumps overboard and attempts to get away, but the Sicilian, Vizzini, manages to recapture her. However, he and his companions soon notice that they are being followed by a man dressed in black who surprises them with his strength and resilience. Vizzini takes Buttercup and the giant ahead, and he leaves the Spaniard, Inigo, to fight their pursuer.
At this point, the story flashes back in time to Inigo’s childhood with his father, Domingo, a sword maker. When Inigo was a little boy, Domingo made a beautiful sword for a nobleman with six fingers, but the nobleman killed Domingo in an argument over the sword’s price. Inigo swore he would get revenge, and he spent ten years building his strength and studying swordplay. Now he believes himself to be the greatest swordsman in the world, but he cannot find the six-fingered man. He feels like a failure. Working for Vizzini is the only thing that gives him direction in life.
Inigo is eager to practice his swordplay, so he is thrilled at first when the man in black turns out to be a brilliant fighter. They have a long battle; to Inigo’s surprise, the man in black is the better swordsman. He disarms Inigo but refuses to kill him. Instead, he clubs Inigo over the head and knocks him out.
When Vizzini learns that Inigo has been beaten, he takes the girl ahead and leaves Fezzik, the giant, to kill the man in black. As Fezzik waits, he thinks about his childhood. Because of his immense size, and people have always forced him to be a fighter. However, nobody likes it when he wins because he is so inhumanly strong that his fights always seem unfair. He assumes that he will beat the man in black easily, but the man slips out of every grip and gets past every maneuver. Eventually the man in black catches Fezzik around the throat and cuts off his air, causing him to pass out.
Finally the man in black faces Vizzini and proposes a battle of wits. Vizzini believes himself to be the smartest man alive, so he assumes he will win this battle easily. However, the man in black tricks Vizzini into drinking poison, and Vizzini dies.
After defeating all three of Buttercup’s captors, the man in black kidnaps her. As they run, he mocks her, saying she is cold and cruel. When she gets a chance, she pushes him down a ravine. She looks down on him lying in the bottom and says he should go ahead and die. He says, “As...you...wish…” These words make her recognize him as Westley, the farm boy she thought was killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. She throws herself into the ravine after him.
Prince Humperdinck is hunting Buttercup and trying to get her back. He is surprised to see where Westley takes her next: into the Fire Swamp. This is a horrible place full of gas that bursts into flame as well as strange sand features and large rodents. The prince assumes at first that he will capture them at its edge, but he is shocked to realize they have gone in. He decides to meet them on the other side if they live.
In the Fire Swamp, Westley explains to Buttercup that he was indeed attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts but that he managed to survive. Roberts allowed Westley to become part of his crew and eventually retired so that Westley could become the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. During this explanation, Westley and Buttercup are very nearly killed by each of the threatening features of the Fire Swamp. They narrowly survive each attack, and eventually they walk exhausted out of the swamp.
Humperdinck is waiting to capture Westley, and there is no escape. The prince takes Buttercup back to his castle and sends Westley to the Zoo of Death to be tortured. All is apparently lost, but luckily for Westley and Buttercup, Fezzik and Inigo are now disposed to be on their side. Fezzik finds out that Count Rugen, Prince Humperdinck’s advisor, is the six-fingered man who killed Inigo’s father. Together, he and Inigo decide that they need help to get inside the castle and kill Rugen. They think Westley is the best leader they could have because of his brilliance and fighting skills.
At Prince Humperdinck’s castle, Buttercup keeps insisting that she still loves Westley and wants to be with him. Humperdinck has grown fond of Buttercup, and he is so upset by her rejection that he rushes to the Zoo of Death and kills Westley. By the time Fezzik and Inigo get there, only Westley’s body is left.
Fezzik and Inigo take the body to a miracle worker, who makes a resurrection pill that looks like “a lump of clay the size of a golf ball.” They take Westley to the castle gates, where they feed him the pill and bring him back to life. Westley is very weak, but he comes up with a plan to dress Fezzik up as the Dread Pirate Roberts and scare all the guards away. They break into the castle and split up to pursue their separate goals.
During the attack on the castle, Humperdinck and Buttercup are in the middle of their wedding ceremony. Humperdinck hears the commotion outside and orders the minister to finish. He pronounces them “man and wife” without ever asking them to say “I do.” Buttercup is shocked that Westley did not come and rescue her and goes to her room to kill herself. There she finds Westley, who confronts Prince Humperdinck and convinces him to surrender.
Meanwhile Inigo gets a knife wound to the stomach but manages to kill Count Rugen, thus ending his lifelong quest for revenge. Afterward, the heroes rejoin each other’s company and steal horses for their escape. As they ride away, Westley and Buttercup promise to be together always and never to die so that neither of them will ever be alone.
At this point Goldberg presents three different endings to the story through his text and commentary. First he claims that his father always ended with the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” However, Goldberg says, Morgenstern’s ending is far bleaker. It ends as the escape is plunging into disaster, with Prince Humperdinck’s soldiers closing in. Goldberg says he personally favors a slightly more optimistic outcome in which the happy couple and their friends make it to Revenge, the Dread Pirate Roberts’s ship, but then grow old and find themselves less than completely happy in their remaining days.