CRITIC’S CORNER COLUMNIST
I recently encountered a rare joy: showing a friend “The Princess Bride” for her first time and experiencing her first reactions, mostly “What?!” *laughter*; “Is EVERY quote from this movie?”; “Buttercup is stupid.”
To all three: “Yes.”
So many fantastic characters and then … Buttercup. She is so much a damsel in distress that it’s frustrating to watch. I once complained about this to my sister: Wesley is amazing — doesn’t he deserve better than Buttercup?
Yes, he does, but his love makes her worthy, and as my sister pointed out, whose love does that sound like; whose love gives us our worth?
This parallel between the love of Christ and the soul and the love of Wesley and Buttercup is so strong as to be nearly allegorical.
To begin with, Wesley woos Buttercup with love and service. No matter what task Buttercup sets him, “‘As you wish’ was all he ever said to her.” His is a love which serves. Christ similarly woos the soul by becoming a servant. During his life on earth, he washed the disciples’ feet and demonstrated the love of God through his miracles. In our own lives, we feel this gift during times of spiritual consolation and fervor.
But when Buttercup hears that Wesley has been killed by pirates, she despairs. This is the dark night of the soul — the desolation of feeling abandoned by our divine Lover, the desolation of his tomb.
Rather than trusting her love, Buttercup is drawn into the world, into an engagement to Prince Humperdinck, the personification of worldly pride and vanity. She does not love him, but she is seduced by despair and yields to his worldly authority. Humperdinck, however, does not love Buttercup but seeks to use her — the opposite of love. Though he pretends to offer her the world, he plans to use her death to forward his desires.
But suffering, even when the result of our sins, can lead us back to Christ, and Humperdinck’s plot is what reunites Buttercup with Wesley. For, unbeknownst to Buttercup, Wesley has been fighting for her rescue; he has returned from “death” in order to bring her salvation.
And he does, but Buttercup’s fidelity must be tested. Before Wesley will reveal himself, she must prove her “enduring faithfulness” and freely choose him. Here, she redeems herself. Three times, this trust is tested in the Fire Swamp. Alone, she would fall to these dangers, but Wesley takes the danger unto himself and does not fail her.
Even after these proofs, however, Buttercup succumbs to despair once again. Surrounded by Humperdinck’s soldiers, she surrenders. Doing evil that good may come from it, she turns herself over to the world’s power, abandoning her trust in Wesley’s judgement. Because she cannot see the good in resisting evil to the death, she compromises with the world.
Wesley is thereby betrayed to suffering and death, his pain made worse by the very strength of his love for her, and Buttercup, again in Humperdinck’s castle, is plagued by her own conscience, condemned by her own mind.
Thus, she realizes her mistake and throws her hopes upon her faithful lover, denying the power of the world to keep her and Wesley apart, proclaiming to Humperdinck, “You can’t hurt me. Westley and I are joined by the bonds of love. And you cannot track that. Not with a thousand bloodhounds. And you cannot break it. Not with a thousand swords.”
Though Humperdinck has lost the power to deceive her, he still has control over her. Though sin loses its charm, habit still holds sway. Buttercup cannot achieve her own freedom. We cannot achieve our own salvation. Wesley must return from mostly-death to conquer Humperdinck. Christ must return from death to conquer the world.
Buttercup believes she is wed to her sin, but when Wesley returns, he reveals her freedom, and they escape and live in perfect love.
Is this parallel intentional? I don’t think so. At its core, “The Princess Bride” is a satiric comedy, not a spiritual allegory. But even as it hilariously and ingeniously mocks the fairy tale, the film highlights the goodness of the love which drives the plot.
Though we laugh at the absurdities of the genre, we are also undeniably attracted to it. Every human soul is created for fairy tale.
We have so enraptured the heart of our Creator that he undergoes incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection to demonstrate his love and rescue our stupid, stupid souls. Though we fail and betray him again and again, to him, we are worth it.
Every single one of us is Buttercup — the Lord’s own damsel in distress.
And if you respond “Inconceivable!” in a huff, I must inform you: “You keep using that word — I do not think it means what you think it means.”