The Princess Bride and Philosophy: Inconceivable!
US: Nov 2015
Philosophy, as a discipline, has a particular language and mode of study that can require years of study to unpack. One could, in theory, jump right in to Kant and Nietzsche, but there’s every possibility that one wouldn’t get much out of their works without some prior philosophical training.
That’s one of the strengths of Blackwell’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series. With more than 40 volumes to its credit, it’s covered a range of pop culture, from Bob Dylan to Spongebob Squarepants. One of the first of the series that I read was Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, which covered such large topics as Neitzschean ethics, feminism and violence, and the philosophy of knowledge, all in an accessible way. My philosophical knowledge was fairly thin, but reading about Faith the Vampire Slayer (Eliza Dushku) as a Nietzschean ideal offered a different perspective of both Nietzsche and Joss Whedon’s series.
That’s the particular gift of Open Court’s book series; to use the context of popular culture to elucidate challenging and occasionally opaque concepts for the non-philosopher. The familiarity of a favorite film or television series offers an entry point to the philosophically uninitiated; depending on an essay’s author, using something like Monty Python, World of Warcraft, or Harry Potter to explain political philosophy or medical ethics can offer a greater understanding both of philosophy and of the series, film, or book being examined.
The latest entry, The Princess Bride and Philosophy: Inconceivable!, continues this trend by providing an in-depth examination of the oft-quoted and much beloved late-‘80s film. It’s an interesting choice, for a variety of reasons. Unlike many of the film-based books in this series, The Princess Bride isn’t a contemporary film; it was originally released nearly 30 years ago, although it certainly remains vital in the minds of both Gen X and millennial viewers, based on the novel by screenwriter William Goldman. The film itself name-checks Aristotle and Socrates (in the famous “Battle of Wits” between the Man in Black [Cary Elwes] and the criminal Vizzini [Wallace Shawn]), uses an interesting, meta-like framing structure (a grandfather [Peter Falk] reading the story to his grandson [Fred Savage], and is thematically resonant, with discussions of true love, metaphysics, honor, and torture threaded throughout the story.
Editors Richard Green and Rachel Robinson-Greene have taken care to choose a variety of essays that deal not only with the film, but also the book upon which it’s based. Tobia T. Gibson’s essay, “Have Fun Overthrowing This Evil Government!” is a strong essay that ties both the film and the book to the contemporary rise in private military contracting, examining the “just war theory” in the context of the story, as well as pointing out that the novel goes into greater and more horrifying detail as to the torturing/war-mongering proclivities of villains Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) and Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon).
Other essays deal with the medical ethics of Miracle Max (Billy Crystal), as well as calling into question the morals of the film’s hero, Westley, and the ethics of revenge through the figure of Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). Each does precisely what the series intends: offers new perspectives and greater insights into popular culture.
Yet, the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series itself seems to work best in the context of television, book, and comic books series, rather than film. While The Princess Bride, as both a film and a novel, offers numerous entry points to discuss these concepts, it’s only a single, 90-minute film and a single novel. Unlike Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which had a large ensemble cast and 144 episodes to choose from, the authors of this volume are necessarily far more limited.
Thus, the Battle of Wits, Westley and Inigo’s sword fight, Inigo’s quest for revenge, the Miracle Max scene, Westley and Buttercup’s (Robin Wright) relationship, and Prince Humperdink’s war-mongering, are examined and re-examined. While the five sections of this collection do offer a variety of perspectives, it remains an unfortunate consequence that the collection begins to feel repetitive and slightly strained by the mid-point of the book.
That said, this volume succeeds in what might be the most important aspect of books of this type: it helps me see a familiar part of pop culture with new eyes. The next time I pull out The Princess Bride DVD, or catch the movie on cable, I’ve no doubt I’ll be thinking about the ethics of lying, what Westley actually did while he was the Dread Pirate Roberts, and the nature of humor and rhyme. I’m certain that’s what all of the authors would wish.
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