True Love & The Princess Bride

Ever since posting my review of Kill the Farm Boy, I’ve been thinking anew about The Princess Bride. I don’t think I understood until recently just how much it influenced my sense of storytelling.

I first saw the movie when I was in junior high. I was beginning to form an abiding interest in the craft and techniques of storytelling but I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time. It would be some years yet before this interest broke the surface of my subconscious and explicitly revealed itself. There are several movies and books from this period of my life which influenced my understanding of the subject without me realizing it.

Like most people of my generation, I fell in love with The Princess Bride the first time I saw it. It was sarcastic and funny with beautiful young leads—I was young and sarcastic and wanted to be funny and beautiful. It was romantic and I was deeply invested in the ideal of being a hopeless romantic.

Or, everyone said the movie was romantic. It talks about True Love a lot and it has the shape of a love story. But I never really bought that part of it.

I just couldn’t believe that Westley would ever fall in love with Buttercup in the first place. There’s no reason for him to. She treats him like garbage: dismissive and insulting. It never made any sense to me that he would fall for her at all.

Then it struck me: of course he wouldn’t fall for her. That’s the point.

The purpose of The Princess Bride is to satirize the tropes of the fairy tale fantasy genre. A servant boy falling in love with the lady of the house (and eventually proving his worth) is a common trope. This trope is being satirized just like all the others. Of course it’s ridiculous to think that True Love could spring from such a rude relationship. It’s why the phrase itself, “true love,” is repeated so often throughout the movie and always in situations that are inherently ridiculous.

In truth, I want stories about True Love—grand epics in which love overcomes all obstacles and the lovers live happily ever after. These stories make me happy and help me escape the world for a time. I felt like a grouch and a misanthrope because I couldn’t accept that The Princess Bride was such a tale.

Part of the challenge is that the trope of the servant boy falling for the lady of the house is traditionally depicted only from the boy’s perspective. The Princess Bride grants Buttercup far more agency than female characters are usually afforded and she clearly falls for Westley, too.

Besides which, they make a really good couple.

But it’s not because of any True Love kindled in their innocent youth—it’s because of how they argue and bicker and come together and hash things out and work through their challenges and obstacles. It’s because of how they struggle together. It’s the relationship they build as they both seek to leave their fairy tale lives behind them.

That’s the genius of this story: in satirizing the fairy tale fantasy of True Love, it finds its way to real love, a love based on substance. Their love proves itself when they try to leave the story. By skewering a ridiculous trope, it reveals a powerful truth. This is why so many people relate so strongly to these characters and their relationship. This is why we find so much hope in it.

Not because it’s a fantasy of True Love but because it isn’t. True Love is only for stories. Real love is for the world.

The Princess Bride taught me how artfully satire can be deployed and how effective it can be at stripping away facades to reveal something more substantial. It’s a masterpiece of genre satire.

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