The Princess Bride is a Greek Novel: Part Two

Another full-length blog post on the Greek novels and The Princess Bride?? Inconceivable!

Last week we talked about the frame narrative, historical past setting, pirate encounters and fake deaths, false identities and disguises, and the episodic plot that are all common to both this late 80s favorite and the ancient Greek romance novels. Today we finish off our comparison between The Princess Bride and Chariton’s novel Chaereas & Callirhoe with four more parallels, so settle in for some sidekicks, subplots, and melodrama:

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  • Rival suitors and marriages

So remember that bit about Buttercup being engaged to Prince Humperdinck instead of Westley? Buttercup makes sure that Humperdinck knows she does not love him, but she is just a farm girl, and what the prince says, goes. We aren’t privy to exactly how their engagement came about, but we can be sure that refusing Prince Humperdinck would have been dangerous for Buttercup and her family. (Of course it turns out that Humperdinck isn’t really into Buttercup either, he’s just using her, but that doesn’t diminish the powerlessness of Buttercup’s situation.)

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So too in our ancient novel, after Callirhoe is sold as a slave, she finds herself backed into a corner: her new master Dionysius is desperately in love with her and wants to marry her. Callirhoe wants to refuse but can’t tell him that she is already married, since slaves were not allowed legal marriages. But as she debates what to do, Callirhoe discovers that she is pregnant by Chaereas. For a female slave who had refused to sleep with her master to turn up pregnant by another man would be downright dangerous. For the safety of her child, Callirhoe has no choice but to marry Dionysius.

Eventually, of course, Chaereas finds out that Callirhoe is not only not dead, but in fact remarried; the dispute over whether she should stay with her first or second husband ends up going all the way to the Persian royal court for the Great King to decide. What could go wrong there?

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  • Helpful sidekicks

Every Batman needs a Robin, and every Greek novel hero has a best friend and sidekick without whom he would never be reunited with the heroine. In Chariton’s novel, Chaereas’s best bro is named Polycharmus. Chariton says they are like Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, the most famous (and controversial) bromance in Western literature. Polycharmus talks Chaereas out of suicide several times throughout the novel and is even sold into slavery with Chaereas, where Polycharmus completes both their allotted portions of work each day to save the despairing Chaereas from beatings. There’s no way Chaereas’s story would have had a happy ending without Polycharmus.

Even the antagonists get sidekicks in Chariton: the Great King of Persia is supposed to settle the dispute between Callirhoe’s first and second husbands and decide who gets to keep her, but of course he finds himself falling for her beauty in the process. Although the King never actually tries anything with Callirhoe, he does send his closest advisor to talk to her and figure out if she might be open to him making a move.

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And where would Westley be without Inigo Montoya and Fezzik? Sure, they try to kill him at the beginning when they’re working for Vizzini, but when Westley is “mostly dead” from being tortured at Prince Humperdinck’s hands, it’s Inigo and Fezzik who rescue him, take him to Miracle Max for a cure, plot to help him rescue Buttercup, and carry him when he’s too weak to stand. It’s safe to say that Westley would not have been a successful hero without his sidekicks, either.

As in Chariton, the movie’s bad guy gets a sidekick too: Prince Humperdinck’s six-fingered right-hand man, Count Rugen, encourages and enables Humperdinck’s worst tendencies. Count Rugen takes Westley off Humperdinck’s hands and tortures him under the guise of research. He’s a vicious character, but you have to admit that he has Humperdinck’s back….until his own past comes back to haunt him.

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  • Sad subplots

Many of the Greek novels feature secondary characters with tragic pasts, but since Chaereas & Callirhoe isn’t one of them, we’ll have to turn to a different novel instead. Achilles Tatius’s novel Leucippe & Clitophon actually has multiple tragic subplots: the first is the hero Clitophon’s cousin and mentor, Kleinias. Kleinias gives his boyfriend a horse as a gift, but when the young man takes it out to ride the first time, he is thrown from the horse and killed. Our narrator actually includes the entire story of the young man’s death and Kleinias’s private lament blaming himself for giving his beloved the horse that killed him.

Later, when our hero and heroine are fleeing to Egypt, they meet a young man Menelaus, who tells them his own sob story about being held responsible for the death of his boyfriend. (Personally I think both these stories are part of the ancient novel genre’s heterosexist agenda, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Our sidekicks in The Princess Bride have their own sad subplots as well. We don’t know much about Fezzik’s past except that he used to be “unemployed in Greenland,” which doesn’t sound like fun — though the book goes into more depth about Fezzik’s time in various fighting rings before he met Vizzini. Inigo’s 20-year quest to avenge his father’s murder, on the other hand, is a tragic subplot so compelling that he gets the most memorable line in the movie, which he says six times:

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  • “This is true love. You think this happens every day?”

In the Greek novels and in The Princess Bride, our star-crossed lovers are periodically separated and reunited during the course of the story. After Callirhoe’s apparent death and kidnapping, and after Chaereas’s search for her results in slavery, they meet in the court of the Persian King, where they are able to see each other but not speak directly. They are separated again by the war which breaks out in Egypt, and finally reunited for good when Chaereas finds Callirhoe among his captured women and they return to Sicily in triumph. 

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Likewise, Buttercup and Westley are separated for five long years, during which the presumed-dead Westley goes from pirate prisoner to captain’s protégé and Buttercup gets engaged to an evil prince. They are temporarily reunited when Westley returns to rescue Buttercup from Humperdinck’s hired mercenaries, but separated again when Buttercup agrees to return to Humperdinck if he spares Westley’s life (a deal which Humperdinck does his best to break). Finally they are reunited when a recovering Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik storm the castle, rescue Buttercup, and ride off into the sunset.

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There you have it, friends: definitive proof that The Princess Bride and Chaereas & Callirhoe are basically the same story. I genuinely believe that if more classicists realized this fact, more of them would be studying and teaching the novels. Seriously, what better way to get students interested in ancient literature than assigning them to watch movies like The Princess Bride and Ladyhawke as homework?? You heard it here first, people. If you need me I’ll be designing my future undergrad course on the Greek novels and 1980s fantasy-romance movies.

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!