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.