The hero’s journey (Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Pantheon, 1945) isn’t just a quest of the body, but a mission into the subconscious. As the hero sets off down the road of trials they initiate their own psychotherapy, facing down the parts of themselves that have been silenced or buried. Therein lies the brilliant dualism of the villain construct, as not only a dreadful existential threat, but as a mirror into the twisted potential of our choices—who we might become.
But not all stories follow that formula so explicitly. If you’re familiar with The Princess Bride, then you know it as a great adventure and a love story, taking the heroine Buttercup through a harrowing kidnapping, into the heart of The Fire Swamp, to the altar with a man she loathes, and ultimately (spoilers), back into the arms of her true love Westley. She doesn’t cross a threshold so much as get literally dragged across one, and she never falters from her primary directive— “true love.” You could make the argument that she faces down some inner demons, and learns a thing or two about herself, but part of what we love about her is that she actually doesn’t change that much. She always moves with the clarity of love.
Westley, the man in black, is similarly steadfast. He battles through countless hardships surely, but true love is his perpetual motivation, and he’s as firmly rooted in romanticism at the end as he is in his first form as the farm boy.
Inigo Montoya, the dueling spaniard, is driven only by revenge. He takes his creed— “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”— right up to the finish line of the movie, learning only that revenge is hard, but it works if you can deal with being stabbed a few times.
So who is the real hero here? Who changes? The answer is subtle. It’s the embedded meta reader, the stand-in for the audience, the archetypical “Grandson,” played by a brilliant Fred Savage. He walks with the characters, answering his grandfather’s call to adventure the moment he opens the novel and begins down the path. His lack of an actual name is evidence that he acts as a vehicle for our own experience, through which we observe the world of Floren with its pomp and treachery. But what lies under the surface for The Grandson? What is motivating him? What subconscious monster lurks there?
Alright so here’s the rub: The child claims to be sick in bed, but we never hear him sniffle or cough. He can’t make it to school, but he can hang on the edge of every word The Grandfather says, well into the night. Perhaps his seclusion has some other, hidden purpose? If we look closely we’ll find something buried beneath the strata of the dialogue. Namely, that The Grandson is mourning the death of his own father, and the story of The Princess Bride is his delivery through the halls of grief, back to the cathedral of love. This subtextual dramatic action acts as the great function of the narrative. The story itself is the psychotherapeutic laboratory that we use to navigate our frustrations, our love, and our grief. And the hidden story, the writing on the wall, the mysterious passages of our own interpretations— that is the beloved activity of engagement, and it amplifies the resonance of our art forms.
In the opening moments of the film the mother asks the boy “Are you feeling any better?” and informs him that his grandfather is here. The boy replies, “can’t you tell him I’m sick?” The mother says “Sick? That’s why he’s here.” That loaded question mark after “sick” is in the original script, and hints to us that the word “sick” is a kind of code. Why would she question his reply if he were truly ill? “Sick” stands in for “sad and grieving.” When The Grandfather arrives he utters a clue as well, when he says “It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father, and today, I'm gonna read it to you.” The reading of the book is a ritual between father and son, yet The Grandfather is the one who does the honors this time. This would suggest that The Grandson’s own father is unable to do so, but the tradition must be upheld. The reading of the book is the transition into adulthood, and as we all know, that process is all too often typified by loss, pain, and finally acceptance.
The echoes and absence of fathers are everywhere in the film. Inigo is the primary example, as his entire driving force is tracking down vengeance for his late father who was unceremoniously murdered by the six-fingered man. A central character to the story, he takes over huge chunks of screen time as he shifts into the protagonist’s role. He is also an observer of the love between Westley and Buttercup, having been deprived of the person he loved most of all. Just like The Grandson, he is transformed by their love, from a kidnapping sell-sword into a devoted friend and savior. He claims to need the man in black to enact his revenge, but all the while he’s being delivered from a life of paltry, poisonous feelings. Also take into consideration Inigo’s age when his father is killed: eleven years. This is the same age as The Grandson, a few years before puberty, left to navigate the world without his father.
The Six-fingered Man himself, the father killer, is a classic Campbellian villain, embodying greed, pain, hatred, and nihilism. The fatherless boy within the story, Inigo, is haunted by this dark figure who “...unleashed great evil on the world, but also unleashed a story” (Joyce Carol Oats. “The New Yorker Fiction.” Audio blog post. Joyce Carol Oates Reads Eudora Welty). This is the function of the bad guy, the conflict maker, to stand in for the dark forces of the universe, and if they are doing their job well, to really call into question our resolve to seek meaning, and to be good. Later, The six-fingered man is revealed to be Count Rugen, the (slightly augmented) right hand man to the despicable Prince Humperdinck. He greedily watches over Westley during his stay in the Pit of Despair, where we learn about what drives him... You know, other than murdering sword makers and orphaning children:
“...I'm sure you've discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain. At present, I'm writing the definitive work on the subject, so I want you to be totally honest with me on how The Machine makes you feel. This being our first try, I'll use the lowest setting.As you know, the concept of the suction pump is centuries old. Well, really that's all this is except that instead of sucking water, I'm sucking life. I've just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five, but I really don't know what that would do to you, so let's just start with what we have. What did this do to you? Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity, so be honest. How do you feel?”
He is filled with glee at the experiment, and we’re left to understand that this man literally steals people’s lives. Grief is another such force that seems to suck the very life from our bodies. The manifestation of grief in this story is the father-killer, and it won’t be until he is slain that atonement with the father is possible, the hero’s ability to face down the thing that wields power over his life, and defeat it: Grief itself.
Consider the phrase, “as you wish,” an utterance which of course means “I love you.” This is an incantation, suggesting that the thing you desire will be made so, that the world will be changed depending upon your will. It is the also the key phrase that reveals Westley’s true identity to Buttercup when they are reunited after his three-fold duel of steel, braun, and brains. This is also the phrase that the grandfather utters, the last line of the movie, when the boy says “Grandpa? Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow?” The reassurance of the future, the loyalty of service, the feeling beneath the words— all of these things are baked into the phrase, teaching the boy that love, ephemeral as it may be, is the guiding principle of the world and the people in it.
At the bottom of the story circle we watch our heros contend with meaninglessness and despair, and our meta hero experiences his own version of this from his “sick” bed. Deep in the void, after Westley has been kidnapped and tortured, and Humperdinck has unleashed his rage, the boy questions the very purpose of the story itself:
Grandson: Grandpa, grandpa, wait. Wait, what did Fezzik mean
"He's dead"? I mean, he didn't mean dead. Westley's only faking, right?
Grandfather: You want me to read this or not?
Grandson: Who gets Humperdinck?
Grandfather: I don't understand.
Grandson: Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end. Somebody's gotta do it.
Is it Inigo, who?
Grandfather: Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.
Grandson: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?
Grandfather: You know, you've been very sick [“sick”] and you're taking this story very seriously.
I think we better stop now.
Grandson: No, I'm okay. I'm okay. Sit down. I'm all right.
Grandfather: Okay. All right. Now let's see, where were we. Ohhh, yes. In the Pit of Despair.
The grandfather literally says it! We are in the pit of despair now, but you must keep moving forward. The boy knows this intuitively. It is not time to walk away, to cast off the journey, simply because there may be no justice waiting for us at the end. The important thing is to continue, to climb up out of the void, to embrace the fact of death, indeed, the important thing is to blave— er, I mean, true love. Here, The Grandson begins the long journey upwards, back to the world of hope, and the cathedral of love.
So what do we need when the depths of despair call to us? A miracle of course. Enter Billy Crystal in his ingenious turn as the iconic Miracle Max. The hero often requires the help of some impish genius to unlock the secrets of life and death (see Yoda), and this time it’s old Max and his indomitable wife Valerie, whipping together the miracle pill, reviving Westley, and turning the tides when we need it most. Even Max’s motivation echoes the descent of the child, as he used to be in the employ of Humperdinck’s father. After this father figure died, Max was set loose by the prince, awash in the world without his patronly employer, a mirror to the loss and grief so toiled-with by our heroes. It is this very sickness, bearing anger at the brash Prince Humperdinck, that leads him to help our heroes in the first place.
Then the castle. The final threshold. The seat of horrible power the characters must traverse in order to complete their journey. Buttercup, the very embodiment of love and innocence, prepares to take her own life in the cold rooms within. The stakes have never been higher!
And finally the atonement with the father comes to pass. Inigo slays his nemesis in a deeply badass flurry of blood and steel. And this time when he utters the words “My name Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” those of us paying attention know that he’s actually speaking to grief itself. The oldest enemy. And he leaves it there on the floor of the castle, inert and unremarkable. He was borne into the depths of his pain on the back of true love’s purpose, and it bore him back into the world unburdened by that lingering poison.
Westley succeeds as well of course. He finds and liberates Buttercup with some choice bluffs for a cowering Humperdinck, and they all fly out of the window of the castle, whisked away on the backs of white steeds, escaping into the night. They have rescued love itself from the brink of damnation. They’ve run through the dark heart of the enemy, determining to never bend.
And for The Grandson, he’s lived the vicarious life of the reader. He’s grappled in the laboratory of fiction, where we stitch our grief to the wagons of ghosts to be carried through our own hearts. And the harbinger of the word was his own grandfather, progenitor and mentor, a person who knows his grief from the other side of time. But much like the classic hero, The Grandson had to make the journey for himself. It was the persistence that led him to the end, the time, the story, the atonement, and of course, a new found appreciation for kissing— The greatest currency of all in the cathedral of love.
For my Mayor, Dan Harmon