William Goldman subtitles his novel S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The “Good Parts” Version, claiming himself merely the abridger of an earlier, lengthier satire by Simon Morgenstern. The first thirty pages explain that Goldman chose to abridge the story so that his ten-year-old son would enjoy it. Yet, this “introduction” merely disguises, and does not apologize for, Goldman’s desire to spin a fun, fast-paced adventure. As the characters’ names alone indicate, the work is also a parody of conventional European fairy tales.
What makes the novel unusually amusing is Goldman’s constant interruption and annotation of the tale. The “introduction” portrays Goldman’s (fictional) unpleasant wife and son, his beloved father, and his editors, and, throughout the novel, he inserts parenthetical remarks about them and their reactions to the story. “Morgenstern” includes his own parenthetical remarks, which are hilariously self-contradictory—for example, that the story occurs before Europe but after Paris, before the concept of glamour but after the invention of blue jeans. Goldman’s comments occur in italic type and accompany typographical jokes such as a “SPLAT” that takes up half a page.
The result may leave unsophisticated readers confused about how much is serious “editorial commentary” and how much merely pranksterism. Goldman’s most notable gag, which fooled many readers, consists of a complaint that Morgenstern does not depict the romantic reunion between Westley and Buttercup in the ravine and an explanation that Goldman has written his own. Goldman gives the address of Ballantine Books and encourages readers to write in and request the scene, adding that his publishers deserve the distribution expense because they have not spent much money promoting his books. The Princess Bride, then, is as much a satire on storytelling, the book industry, and the roles of author and audience as it is an adventure story. Young teenagers may not understand these jokes, while older readers may at least suspect that the joke is on them.
The adventures of Buttercup, Westley, and Inigo are told not in the high, romantic language that teenagers might expect from a tale of medieval times, but in a contemporary, New York-ish tone reminiscent of the wit of Woody Allen and the Harvard Lampoon. For example, at one point Buttercup thinks, “I’m a dead cookie.” Miracle Max, likewise, seems totally out of place. Fairy tales frequently feature wizards, but they do not bicker with their wives and haggle over prices, as Max does. Young readers who enjoy sword-and-sorcery tales will find these anachronisms amusing, although they may not realize Goldman’s cynical purpose is to sabotage fairy-tale conventions.
Goldman anticipates that a young audience may be confused by his unconventional treatment of the damsel-in-distress and revenge themes so common in fairy tales. He frequently interrupts moments of high drama and suspense to “remember” his own reaction when his father allegedly read the book to him. These interruptions take the form of an assurance that Buttercup will be rescued or a warning that Westley is about to die. He also reports that his father concealed the story’s conclusion from the ten-year-old Goldman, because “Morgenstern’s” ending implies that Humperdinck will recapture the protagonists and that Westley and Inigo will die of their wounds. Young readers who fear that the evil prince will prevail and that the heroes may die might wonder why Goldman speculates that even if Buttercup and Westley live, they may not live happily ever after: Fairy tales show that order and good are always restored, while Goldman’s book teaches that real life is not fair, that friendship and love are the only comforts in a cruel, meaningless universe. These are important lessons for young people, since much juvenile fiction depicts an unrealistically happy ending.