The Princess Bride is actually an ancient Greek novel.

Lest any of you think I am trying to stir drama: I am not saying that William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride, plagiarized his whole delightful book. I am saying that the general story, as laid out by Grandpa in the opening of the 1987 movie adaptation, has been around forever: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” Of course this may remind you of the Odyssey, and rightly so, but only slightly less well known is this: it corresponds even more closely with the Greek romance novels written in the first few centuries CE.

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Even the opening scene of Grandpa reading a book to his sick grandson and peppering it with commentary reminds me of the Greek novels: Achilles Tatius’ novel Leucippe & Clitophon, for example, begins outside the main story, as Clitophon agrees to tell the tale of his amorous adventures to a stranger. This is a device as old as time: the One Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Talesand Decameron are all stories within a story, characters spinning yarns of varying length and detail to pass the time, or to distract each other from what is happening around them, such as illness.

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Fred Savage & Peter Falk make up the outer frame story of The Princess Bride (1987)

The parallels with Greek novels inside the main story of The Princess Bride are much more striking, and there are a lot of them, so we’ll just cover Part One today. I’ll use the Greek novel we think is the oldest, Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton (1st century CE), as our main point of comparison, but I’ll bring in other ancient novelists occasionally where the parallels fit.

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Haters of PDA, never fear: the Greek novels are generally pretty chaste. The novels’ heroes (for the most part) and heroines keep it in their pants until marriage, whether they want to or not. In two of the novels, including Chariton’s, the couple actually gets married at the very beginning of the story before their separation begins, but even so, we see little more than a kiss or two.

Behold, definitive proof that The Princess Bride is modern America’s ancient Greek novel:

  • Historical Past Setting

The Princess Bride is essentially historical fiction: it is set in medieval or early modern Europe, in the made-up countries of Florin and Guilder. Similarly, Chaereas & Callirhoe takes place in the 5th century BCE and includes historical places and figures: the heroine Callirhoe is presented as the daughter of Hermocrates, a general from Syracuse who played a role in defeating the Athenians’ Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War.

  • “Murdered by pirates is good!”

In the Greek novels, the sea is always a dangerous place, and expeditions usually end in either shipwreck or capture by pirates. In Chariton, Callirhoe is taken from her tomb in Syracuse by pirates and sold as a slave in Ionia (modern-day Turkey). Why was she in a tomb in the first place? Chaereas thought Callirhoe was cheating, and in his rage he kicked Callirhoe in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her so she seemed dead. This of course is another trope of the novel: the fake death, or Scheintod.

In The Princess Bride, Westley sails off to seek his fortunes, but his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Westley is presumed murdered; Buttercup despairs and declares she will never love again. Of course, this is a Scheintod: we know that the hero can’t die in the first 15 minutes of the movie, but we also don’t know how or when Westley will show up again. Which leads to my next parallel…

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“You’re the Dread Pirate Roberts, admit it!”
  • False identities and disguises

What’s an adventure romance without a little good case of mistaken identity? Near the end of Chariton’s novel, Chaereas mistakes his beloved Callirhoe for one of the Persian women he’s just captured, and she mistakes him for an Egyptian general. Callirhoe finally recognizes Chaereas by his voice, and a joyful reunion ensues. In Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Tale, the heroine disguises herself as a beggar so that she can make her way across the Egyptian countryside unnoticed; her disguise is so good that the hero doesn’t recognize her until she speaks their code word. In Achilles Tatius’ novel, the heroine is sold into slavery: with her shaved head, tattered clothes, and scarred back, the hero can see only a slight resemblance to his beloved and only discovers for certain that it is her when she writes him a letter.

In The Princess Bride, Buttercup is kidnapped by mercenaries (very Greek-novel-esque) and then “rescued” from those mercenaries by none other than the Dread Pirate Roberts. By his attitude and carriage and little eye mask that really doesn’t hide his face convincingly, Buttercup is convinced of his identity as the man who killed her Westley. She does not realize that the Dread Pirate is in fact her beloved Westley until he cries out his signature phrase to her: “As you wish!”

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  • Episodic adventure

In The Princess Bride, the lovers face strange and exciting obstacles in their quest to be reunited: a sword fight, a giant fight, a lethal battle of wits, the dangerous terrain of the Fire Swamp, capture, torture, revival by grouchy miracle man, and storming a castle. The progression of adventures and obstacles doesn’t necessarily make sense. Each new adventure that the hero and his friends must face is seemingly random; there is no logical reason for the Fire Swamp and its many terrors, or a giant fight, or for the subplot of Inigo Montoya’s quest for revenge against Count Rugen — and yet.

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The ancient novels are the same way; each new adventure episode is introduced seemingly by chance. Pirates just happen to notice Callirhoe’s expensive funeral and decide to raid her tomb, where they find her alive; Chaereas and his best friend Polycharmus are in the wrong place at the wrong time while looking for Callirhoe and get sold into slavery, and they only escape execution by the skin of their teeth, because someone hears Polycharmus lamenting about Callirhoe. War just happens to break out in Egypt in the middle of the court trial for who will be Callirhoe’s husband, giving Chaereas the opportunity to beat the Persian King and get Callirhoe back.

There is no rhyme or reason to the heroes’ wanderings in any of the ancient novels, but if getting back together were straightforward and easy, the books would be no fun at all. The happy ending isn’t the interesting or good part, it’s all the stuff in the middle that counts.

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There is more to talk about here, but I can feel your eyes glazing over already, so here ends Part One of our exploration of the wonderful world of “Sara’s dissertation topic meets The Princess Bride memes.” See you next week for Part Two!

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