If you have only seen the movie you are missing a big piece of the picture.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman was famously transformed into a film directed by Rob Reiner in 1987. The movie is a favorite of many for its delightful combination of romance, chivalry, adventure, fantasy, and humor. What many do not know is that the book is even better.
Goldman's book claims to be an abridged "good parts version" of an earlier work of fictional author S. Morgenstern. Goldman states, over the course of a 27 page prologue, that his retelling is what his father used to read to him as a boy, leaving out all the boring stuff about politics, economics, and history, while delighting him with the story of true love and high adventure. One cannot help but smile when you realize that this is precisely the part of the book you are going to skip over the next time you read it.
The actual story is, obviously, far more detailed than the movie version. In spite of this the book and film do share a considerable amount of plot points, and even dialogue. I read the book after having watched the film for decades and had a good time remembering the voices of the actors delivering the lines as I read them.
The story centers on, as you may have guessed, a bride. A young woman (who also happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world) named Buttercup is engaged to be married to Prince Humperdinck of Florin. Buttercup is abducted by three men who have been paid to kidnap her, but keep her alive, at least for a little while.
As the three scoundrels sail away with Buttercup in their possession they notice that they are being followed by another ship. Enter Wesley, the Man in Black, the Dread Pirate Roberts.
It is Westley who I would like to suggest as a Christ-figure in the book. This can be seen in the movie, but it is far more obvious in Goldman's writing.
Westley is Buttercup's true love. They met when he was a farmhand who worked for her father. "As you wish" are the only words that Wesley ever says to Buttercup before she realizes that she is in love with him. She treats him as a slave, yet he always responds with happy service, true love.
The two decide to get married, but Westley is a poor man. He cannot support a family. So, he decides to take to the seas to make his fortune. While he is sailing, however, his ship is attacked by pirates, specifically the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners. Westley is assumed dead and Buttercup, being as famously beautiful as she is, becomes betrothed to Humperdinck, although she does not love him.
It is Westley's character that tips to him being a Christ-figure. Westley is a near perfect man. Everything he does prospers. When he feeds cows, they grow bigger and healthier than all others. He alone survived the attack of the Dread Pirate Roberts and eventually came to replace him as captain of the pirate ship. Westley out-fences a fencing expert. He out-wrestles a giant. He outsmarts a genius.
Later in the book Buttercup is describing Westley to Prince Humperdinck: He is "not so much wonderful as perfect...kind of flawless. More or less magnificent. Without blemish. Rather on the ideal side." She goes on to say that, "It's not so much that there's nothing he can't do; it's more that he can do it all better than anybody else can do it."
To all of this Humperdick responds that perhaps they should refer to him as "Divine Westley."
The plot also highlights Westley's Christ-like characteristics. He defeats the three kidnappers in the wilderness, similar to Jesus' defeat of Satan's three temptations in the desert. Westley suffers greatly defending Buttercup from the dangers of the Fire Swamp. He even dies and is resurrected.
Westley converts his enemies into his friends. He rescues his bride and lives with her happily ever after (if you believe in that sort of thing, which Goldman says he does not).
Yet there is one piece of the puzzle that is missing from the film that the book highlights. When Westley has rescued Buttercup from the kidnappers, risked life and limb to be with her, she betrays him. As they are exiting the Fire Swamp the two lovers are surrounded by Humperdinck and his men. When ordered to stand down and release the princess bride, Westley shows that he would rather die than be separated from her again.
Buttercup does not agree. She asks Humperdinck to spare Westley's life if she agrees to go away and marry the prince of Florin. Westley is dumbfounded. The film makes it appear as if Buttercup merely wants to save Westley's life, that she could not stand the thought of him dying again.
Their exchange in the book, however, is telling:
"'The truth,' said Westley, 'is that you would rather live with your Prince than die with your love.'
'I would rather live than die, I admit it.'
'We are talking of love, madam.' There was a long pause. Then Buttercup said it:
'I can live without love.'
And with that she left Westley alone."
She betrays him. He is her true love. He has overcome the odds, risked his flesh and bone, to be with her. And she simply leaves him behind to save her own skin.
It was this betrayal that cemented it for me, that there is a Gospel message buried in this story, intentional or not. Buttercup's betrayal hit too close to home, for this is what sinners like us do to Christ. We betray Him to get what we think will be better, but it won't.
Of course Humperdinck finks on his promise and has Westley confined, tortured, and eventually killed. But after his resurrection Westley still loves Buttercup, and he comes for her again. He storms the castle with the help of his new friends, finds Buttercup, and whisks her away.
According to Goldman, Morgenstern's original ends with Westley, Buttercup, and their two friends riding off with Humperdinck in hot pursuit. Yet the reader is given hope by what Westley promises to Buttercup near the end of the story:
"'It appears to me as if we're doomed, then,' Buttercup said.
Westley looked at her. 'Doomed, madam?'
'To be together. Until one of us dies.'
'I've done that already, and I haven't the slightest intention of ever doing it again,' Westley said."
A perfect and divine Lover who is forgotten when he appears to be gone for quite some time, who overcomes great obstacles to be with his Beloved, who is betrayed by her, tortured, murdered, and resurrected, who rescues her from an evil prince, who promises to never die again; that sounds like a Christ-figure to me. Perhaps it is one worth exploring with other like-minded individuals.
It's also a great excuse to watch a great film and read a great book one more time.
The Princess Bride; Goldman, William. Ballantine Books, New York. 1973.