The film The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner, was released in 1987 with only moderate box office success. In the video market, however, it fared much better and since has been highly regarded, both as a comedy and as a love story.
On one level, the film is a rollicking fairy tale adventure—an account of quests on top of quests: wealth, power, revenge and romantic love. It displays courage and cowardice, honesty and deception, justice and injustice, duels, beasts and a giant. And as is traditional for such tales, the good guys win, and the threatened lovers are reunited.
On another level, like all fairy tales, The Princess Bride raises questions about life that we all care about. And it sometimes startles us with them. William Goldman, the author of the screenplay and the book on which it’s based, cared deeply and emotionally about this story.
Yet even those who have seen and enjoy the film may miss some of its deeper significance. Important questions about pain and hardship are raised by this account of the farmhand Westley, his beloved Buttercup, the Spaniard swordsman Inigo Montoya, the giant Fezzik and other characters we meet in this fairy tale. It is worth considering how these issues are engaged by Christian faith.
Life is pain
“Life is pain,” says Westley to Buttercup. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” And then the two experience not only the fire swamp (and rodents of unusual size) but separation from each other and the torture of Westley.
At least two aspects are worth pondering in a culture that struggles to eliminate hardship and hurt and that is wrestling with an opioid epidemic on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. How can there be a good, loving and powerful God, which Christians proclaim, in the midst of such a difficult world? And, in fact, do Christians hide their embarrassment about that problem by trying to sell their God as a magic potion for all things painful? The latter can happen through a “health and wealth” gospel or by a spirituality that denies the importance of physical existence.
The Bible, from Job to Jesus, consistently embraces the goodness of physicality and presents accounts of joy and triumph that go through—not around—what is painful and difficult. Jesus promises to be with us, not always to deliver us (Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 21:16-19). A prime example among the early believers is that James was executed while Peter was delivered from prison by an angel (Acts 12). Thus, the Bible itself gives witness to the difficulty of this issue as believers celebrate the Good Shepherd who leads them and cry out in lament during times of loss and confusion.
Get used to disappointment
Inigo Montoya, who has spent the last 20 years becoming the best swordsman he can, is astonished at the skill of the man in black and demands to know who he is. “Get used to disappointment,” the man responds. And likewise, we tell our children that things do not always turn out the way we desire.
Our world is broken, in a whole variety of ways. And most concerning, we humans as God’s crown of creation are broken as well. Sometimes this reality becomes so overwhelming that we are tempted to cynicism or (the pit of) despair. As in other ways, Jesus is here our model: when he felt abandoned by God in his suffering, Jesus cried out but remained faithful and was delivered through death (Matt. 27–28; Rom. 8:18-24).
Our world is broken, in a whole variety of ways.
And most concerning, we humans as God’s crown of creation are broken as well.
Prepare to die
Inigo has been searching the world for the six-fingered man who brutally murdered his father. When he finally confronts Count Rugen, he repeats the phrase he has been practicing since that tragic day, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
One of the disappointments of the story is that Inigo has not found a better way to engage the injustice of his life than to perpetuate a cycle of revenge through his own act of murder. One of the more encouraging aspects of the story is that Westley later chooses not to kill or maim Humperdinck but allows the prince’s disgrace to suffice for punishment.
Yet Inigo reminds us that we all must prepare to die, that the reality of death helps us to look beyond the tinsel, trivialities and relativities of our culture to ultimate issues. Jesus asks the crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?” and calls us to take up a cross, an instrument of torture and death, and to follow him (Mark 8:27, 34).
Mostly dead and inconceivable
When Westley is tortured and killed, other characters in the story nearly lose hope. Inigo and the giant Fezzik take him to Miracle Max to see what can be done. Max evaluates the situation and proclaims that Westley is only “mostly dead.” And when the chocolate-coated pill miraculously brings Westley back to life, hope is reborn. It reminds us of Vizzini’s earlier proclamations that certain things were “Inconceivable!”
Certainly, Jesus’ brutal torture, asphyxiation,and death on a Roman cross left hope barely alive. Christians proclaim that Jesus’ (inconceivable!) resurrection is his defeat of death and the continuation of God’s powerful plan of salvation (Luke 24:36-48; Rom. 4:25; 6:9).
The film is framed by a young boy, sick in bed, who is visited by his grandfather. His grandfather brings a book, The Princess Bride, with which to help the boy ease his time of sickness and boredom. The story begins with a young lass, Buttercup, who falls in love with Westley, a poor servant on the farm. Westley leaves to seek his fortune and return, but alas, Buttercup hears that his ship was attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never leaves any survivors. Buttercup is distraught, but eventually resigns to her fate and agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck. But Westley has actually survived, returns and in disguise chides Buttercup for her disloyalty. When Westley’s identity is revealed, her defense of lost hope (“But you were dead!”) is rejected by Westley: “This is true love. You think this happens every day?”
The grandson initially protests the direction of the plot (“Is this a kissing book?”). But through the accounts of danger, Buttercup’s kidnapping and her eventual restoration to Westley, the grandson is eventually won over and doesn’t mind the celebration of their romantic reunion.
A theme deeply woven into both the Old and New Testaments is the way romance and marriage model God’s love for creation. Jesus is presented as the bridegroom and his church the bride (John 3:27-30; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7; 21:2; see also Hos. 1–2; Isa 54:5). But Westley, unlike God, says “As you wish” to communicate “I love you.” How is God’s love experienced in a world of pain and tragedy?
Vultures and butterflies
Some years ago, I was deeply moved by reading Susan Classen’s Vultures and Butterflies, her account of living in El Salvador during the 1980s, a time of brutal civil war. I was impressed that those who experience Job-like tragedy can sometimes rise to amazing heights of faith and hope.
She writes, “Just before Guarjila we passed a dozen vultures. I noticed them from far off and was afraid we would find another cadaver in the road…. As we got closer the vultures reluctantly flew to a nearby fence and I realized hundreds of yellow and white butterflies danced in that same area. We passed through their graceful flight. Vultures and butterflies. I was struck by the contrasting symbols of life and death. The vultures seemed so big and overpowering but the butterflies were there all along. I wondered about good and evil in my life. Do I let the evil loom so large that I miss the hundreds of small gifts of goodness?”
As Classen engaged those who had suffered terribly through poverty, oppression and war, she noticed a contrast of faith responses. In her experience, many in North America felt abandoned by God when enduring times of tragedy and hardship. In contrast, her Salvadoran neighbors, though they don’t ascribe suffering to God’s will, recognize God with them (Rom. 8:35-37). For example, Elena declares, “If it wasn’t for God’s presence in my suffering, I wouldn’t be alive!” And Maria says, “Real suffering makes you realize the presence of God.”
Ultimately, faith means believing that in the end we will not be disappointed. It means having hope that the distortions of our world and our lives will be remedied and us along with them through the sacrifice and life of Jesus our Savior who loves us (Rom. 5:1-5; 8:18-25).
Joy comes out of and in the midst of problems and disappointments. It is the genuine sign of God’s Spirit present with us. It comes not because everything turned out the way we thought it should or because things always make sense. But it involves a recognition that despite setback and hardship, God is bigger than all, and greater than evil and wrong. As Westley said to Buttercup, “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”
Douglas B. Miller is professor emeritus of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.