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Vox Book Club, The Princess Bride, week 2: The really good parts

These are the chapters with the battle of wits, the Fire Swamp, and Fezzik and Inigo. It’s getting really good.

Robin Wright and Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride (1987)
Robin Wright and Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.
20th Century Fox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Well, now we’re into the really good parts. Chapters 5 and 6 of The Princess Bride are where the story really kicks off and we get to the stuff everyone remembers most. Fezzik and Inigo! The man in black! The Cliffs of Insanity! The Machine! And it’s where the meta frame story gets truly, exceptionally charming. Let’s get into it.

Together, let us scale the Cliffs of Insanity

This part of the book introduces Fezzik and Inigo, arguably the true main characters of The Princess Bride. It feels like William Goldman is much more interested in them than he ever is in either Westley or Buttercup, and they drive the plot more effectively than anyone else in the book. We get their full backstories here, which the movie never really has time to delve into: the full lore of the six-fingered sword and Inigo’s lengthy training regimen of rock-squeezing; plus poor Fezzik’s tragedy as a giant kid who just wants to be liked and whose parents force him into wrestling.

Fezzik is maybe the most lovable character in this whole book. He doesn’t consider himself a real poet because he knows he’s not smart enough, but he just loves rhymes! All he wants is to hang out with his best friend Inigo Montoya, playing rhyming games, but instead he ends up having to kidnap Princess Buttercup and climb the Cliffs of Insanity because his mean boss told him to. What are you gonna do?

And if Fezzik is The Princess Bride’s most lovable character, Inigo is probably its most tragically compelling figure. There’s a reason that, in a book full of oft-quoted jokes, it’s Inigo’s “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” line that gets quoted most often, even though it’s not really a joke at all. The sheer drive of his determination to avenge his father, his ferocious and single-minded strength of purpose, are endlessly captivating to read.

But soon after their introductions, both Fezzik and Inigo get taken down by the man in black: the man who can beat Fezzik at wrestling and Inigo at fencing and Vizzini in a battle of wits. He’s immune to iocane powder! He’s enough of a visionary to foresee that in the future we will all be wearing masks! He … is kind of a dick to his girlfriend, tbh.

So Westley feels betrayed that Buttercup got engaged to Humperdinck, and fair enough, I guess, but he does not take into account that as far as she knows he’s been dead for three years. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that when you fake your own death so you can assume the identity of a pirate feared throughout the world, and you choose not to tell your fiancée what the deal is, you lose your right to get super mad at her should she choose to move on with her life after a few years! And I would, in general, prefer to think that the scene where he threatens to slap her just does not exist.

Westley probably feels even more betrayed after Buttercup makes her deal with Humperdinck. Buttercup seems to feel pretty terrible about it, too, judging from her nightmares, but I think she made a rational choice. They’re surrounded by armed soldiers, and their only path of escape is back through the Fire Swamp full of Snow Sand (eeee, that moment when Westley accidentally grabs a skeleton’s hand in the Snow Sand) and R.O.U.S.s. (Shoutout to the movie’s R.O.U.S.s for my childhood nightmares.) Why shouldn’t she use what leverage she has to get them both out of that situation alive and, as far as she knows, unharmed?

Buttercup’s nightmares also take us to one of the book’s sweetest meta moments — one of the three times in these chapters that fictional child Goldman is so wound up in the story that his dad has to stop reading to comfort him. First, small Billy gets terrified that Buttercup will be killed by a shark, leading to the stone-cold classic line, “She does not get eaten at this time.” Second, he’s outraged by the “major league fake-out” that convinces him Buttercup has married Humperdinck and accuses his father of having read the book wrong. And third, he’s so wound up by Westley’s death that he ends up sobbing his heart out into his pillow, demanding, “Jesus, what did you read me this thing for?”

The moments that get Billy all work out in the end. Buttercup doesn’t get eaten by the shark, she doesn’t marry Humperdinck (well, she does, but it doesn’t take), and Westley doesn’t stay dead. But these moments are where Goldman is able to offer up a little statement of purpose for The Princess Bride. “All those Columbia experts can spiel all they want about the delicious satire; they’re crazy,” he writes. “This book says ‘life isn’t fair’ and I’m telling you, one and all, you better believe it.”

Or, as Fezzik’s mom says, in a line Goldman liked so much he repurposed it for Westley in the movie: “Life is pain. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”

But as much as Goldman tells us that The Princess Bride is about unfairness and pain and how that’s what life is, we can tell he’s no Count Rugen, writing a treatise on the intellectual nature of pain. This book is too sparklingly fun for that. And anyway, remember in the 30th anniversary introduction, when Morgenstern writes in his journal about wanting to kill off Inigo Montoya but being unable to do so because it would be unfaithful to historical fact? That commitment to pulling the good guys out in the nick of time, every time, is as much a core part of this story as the bits about unfairness are.

This is a book where life is unfair and things are sad, but also, the best people always find a way to win in the end. As far as Goldman is concerned, that’s just the truth about history.

Let’s chat

In this section, I’ve collected stray thoughts and questions I have about The Princess Bride through chapter 6. You can use them as a guide for conversation in the comments section, or in your own community, or start off with your own questions.

  1. These two chapters prompt you to write to the publishers to request a copy of the reunion scene Goldman wrote for Westley and Buttercup, or — depending on your edition — to go to a now-defunct official website. It doesn’t look like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is doing this project anymore, but back in the day, if you wrote in for the reunion scene, you’d get a letter explaining that the scene was being held up in copyright. Vulture wrote up the whole thing, including the text of all the versions of the letter.
  2. Both Westley and Inigo have trained themselves to need only four hours of sleep a night, and they use their extra time to better themselves in service of their quests for true love and revenge, respectively. What skills would you master if you only needed to sleep for four hours a night? Personally, I can’t think of anything that would be worth that much missed sleep.
  3. A couple of you lovely commenters from last week mentioned that you read this book when it first came out in the ’70s, before the movie. Did the big reveal that Westley was the man in black shock you? Goldman plays fair with it, mostly, and it feels like it would have been an enormously fun surprise if you came to it with no warning.
  4. Does anyone fully understand what Westley’s initial kidnapping plan was? Was he going to steal Buttercup away to his pirate ship and just, like … never tell her his real identity and/or take off his mask? When did he plan to tell her the truth?
  5. In Buttercup’s nightmares, she accuses herself of picking Humperdinck over Westley for the gold. Do you think that’s true? Surely Westley, as a famous pirate, must have a fair amount of money by now, no?
  6. Wow, does the part about the corruption of Humperdinck’s guard and all the illegal roundups they perform hit differently in 2020!
  7. I didn’t talk much about Vizzini, but he delivers some of the most famous lines in the book during his short page time. What do you think his backstory is?
  8. What’s your favorite quote from this section? I am partial to Inigo’s suggestion that the man in black is just a local fisherman out for a pleasure cruise alone at night through shark-infested waters.

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk, and meet us back here next week to discuss everything up through the end, including the “Buttercup’s Baby” material that got added to the 25th anniversary edition. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter!

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