Vox Book Club, The Princess Bride, week 3: The perfect summer read comes to an end

Here we are at the end of The Princess Bride. The Zoo of Death! Inigo Montoya’s final duel! Westley’s standoff with Humperdinck! And a whole series of trap doors for an ending.

One of the things that is most lovely about The Princess Bride is that you can feel how much affection William Goldman has for it. He loved this book so much so that he could never quite bear to finish it. So as the Vox Book Club comes to the close of the book this week, we’ll be making our way through multiple closes, each more playful than the last.

But this won’t be the end of our Princess Bride coverage. Next week, we’re hosting a live Zoom event with a murderer’s row of smart and funny critics. You can get the details and sign up here.

Here’s our discussion of The Princess Bride, from chapter seven through “Buttercup’s Baby.”

Spoilers: Fezzik dies. (Omg, I’m kidding!)

We begin with the Zoo of Death, and what a nice, stolid supervillain name that is. Humperdinck didn’t waste any time coming up with something more creative: It’s a Zoo, it’s got things that cause Death in it, what more do you want. Fezzik and Inigo’s journey through the Zoo is the biggest set piece the book has to offer that the movie left out, and it’s an incredibly charming bit of character-building for them. Each obstacle is perfectly suited for one of their strengths, so they have to work together to make it through, and in the end they are only able to succeed through the power of FRIENDSHIP. Aww!

But when they finally get to Westley, they find him “a little” dead and have to take him to Miracle Max. Goldman lampshades for us that Max is Jewish in a way that some critics think is anachronistic, and which he defends on the grounds that there have actually been Jewish people around for a long time. Goldman was writing just at the point that American fantasy was first starting to incorporate Jewish characters into its Tolkien-descended worldbuilding — see for instance Schmendrick the Magician in The Last Unicorn — and it’s interesting to think about Goldman’s meta defense of Jewish characters in fantasy as a forerunner of the debates the science fiction and fantasy world has been having about diversity over the past decade.

Miracle Max sends Fezzik and Inigo on a quest, but Goldman doesn’t even bother to show it to us. It’s plainly a gimmick so that Fezzik can later pull out his holocaust cloak in the nick of time, we all know it’s a gimmick, and so we move on. But Goldman is sure to tell us, piqued, that he did not plagiarize the quest format from The Wizard of Oz, and that Morgenstern wrote The Princess Bride well before L. Frank Baum came up with Oz.

The finale itself is a sweet and scrappy little heist, but the heart of it is clearly with Inigo, fighting against Count Rugen. There’s a reason all those repeated “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya”s are immortal, right? Whereas Westley’s standoff with Humperdinck … well, a person could wish it didn’t reach its climax with Westley yelling at poor Buttercup, who has no idea what’s going on, and telling her she’s his property, is all.

Buttercup is the title character of this book, but leaving Westley behind in the Fire Swamp is just about the last active choice she makes for a long, long time. Instead, she’s stuck in the castle with Humperdinck, waiting to be killed, so committed to her belief that Westley will rescue her that she gets married to Humperdinck without ever quite realizing it’s happened. When she finally participates in her own escape from the palace by ordering the guard off, even Morgenstern is taken by surprise.

But maybe Buttercup is able to come into her own in Buttercup’s Baby! (The novel that doesn’t exist, which I’ll italicize, as opposed to the material Goldman put in the back of the 25th anniversary edition, which I’ll put in quotes.) She does in my mind, anyway, and because Goldman only gives us one chapter, we’ll each have to come up with our own versions. (Stephen King, that scoundrel, sure is taking his sweet time with the rest of the abridgment.)

What we do get of “Buttercup’s Baby” is a slightly sadder, slightly weirder story than even the rest of The Princess Bride. There are body-snatchers and a sentient whirlpool and more sad Inigo backstory and Buttercup practically dying in childbirth until the body-snatchers take over Fezzik and have him invent the C-section. Goldman writes in his meta material that Morgenstern was an older writer and a different man by the time he wrote Buttercup’s Baby, and of course that goes for Goldman too: Twenty-five years went by between The Princess Bride and “Buttercup’s Baby.” Goldman wrote the book for his 7- and 4-year-old daughters, and they were grown women by the time he wrote that last chapter.

But Goldman hasn’t changed so much that he’s abandoned all his trolling: He went and titled that first chapter of Buttercup’s Baby “Fezzik Dies!”

Of course, we know from the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition that Fezzik doesn’t die. He gets rescued by a giant bird that happened to be flying just below the cliff instead. Duh.

Let’s chat

In this section, I’ve collected stray thoughts and questions I have about The Princess Bride all the way through the end. 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. How fun is it that Morgenstern has apparently turned into a real crank about trees by the time he gets to Buttercup’s Baby? Was 1998 close enough to the time Jonathan Franzen got really into birds that we can read Morgenstern’s tree obsession as a subtweet?
  2. Do you consider “Buttercup’s Baby” canon? I treat it kind of like the revelation that Dumbledore is gay: Sure, why not, I’ll go with it, but I don’t think it really counts.
  3. The original ending of The Princess Bride was a cliffhanger, which “Buttercup’s Baby” sort of resolves. If you read an edition that didn’t have “Buttercup’s Baby” at the end — and I didn’t the first time I read this book — did you come up with your own spin on the ending? How did you feel about the “Buttercup’s Baby” version? I believe the version I came up with as a 14-year-old had much more kissing.
  4. How has Buttercup aged for you as a character? Do you want her to be more active, or do you think she has hidden depths?
  5. What is the holdup with Stephen King finishing up that abridgment? (Yeah, I know what he says in his FAQs, but that’s no fun.)
  6. This is your last chance to roll out your favorite Princess Bride quote. Let’s hear them.

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk, and meet us back here next week on Thursday, June 25, for our live event. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter!

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