‘The main thing, she realized, was to forget your childhood dreams, for the Fire Swamp was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.’
When I was ten years old I read The Princess Bride for the first time. I bought it in a NYC mall on one of my family’s only vacations. It was right before everything went to hell for us; before my mother got sick, before I wound up in the orphanage. I paid for the book with my birthday money. I walked out of the store. I wrote my name on the fly-leaf, right across from the splashy map of Florin and I blacked out the phrase ‘son of a bitch’ from the back cover blurb because I didn’t want my uberconservative mom to see it and take the book away from me. I read it in two days. Then I read it six more times in a row. I went out into the woods to practice my fencing.
A few days ago, I found the copy (spine taped on, ‘bitch’ blocked out) in a box that my father-in-law had been storing in his attic. I read the novel for the first time in years. It was a completely different experience. When I was a kid, I was so focused on the adventure (I needed the adventure, like blood needs iron) that I missed the melancholy entirely. I missed the knowledge that derring-do can’t save you, that vengeance cannot save you, that love and beauty will fail to save you.
I missed (the fictionalized) William Goldman’s adult disappointment in his good, but deeply unromantic, life. I missed the fact that the ending hints at the inevitable tragedy which follows the trope-like escape and joyous reunion of the lovers. I did not realize, at ten years old, that there was anything to miss. And that was the point. Children need adventures; the pure, clean lines of unadulterated myth. Reading it as an adult I caught (as the author meant) the muddy threads of melancholy. Ostensibly, Goldman is giving us an edited ‘good parts’ translation of someone else’s grown-up story. In reality, Goldman (the author) is presenting an image of the way that life is edited to make the concept of adulthood bearable for children.
Reading it as an adult, the adventure was still there, still bright and sharp, still reddening my blood, but I can taste the bitterness at the bottom of the cup.
This bitterness made me love the story more. At ten years old, I liked milk and sugar; I couldn’t stand coffee. The Princess Bride is a book that you should read in innocence and experience. I’m glad I read it at ten, and at 32. When you grow up, you understand what it means to lose your innocence, you know the tactics that life will use to hurt you — as Westley came to know the contents of the Zoo of Death. You understand that (in order to live a real, full, an honest life) it is vital that your innocence is lost. There are no happy endings. Ever. Not for anyone.
But, look to the text; the nobility depicted in it is real. The love is real. The adventure is real. It’s all there, and undeniable — as it is in so-called real-life. It’s just not enough to make you anything other than mortal. Heroes die. You’ll die. I’ll die. All our loves will, eventually, be lost. We can choose to live, to act, to love in spite of that. That’s what the ‘good parts version’ means.