Wuv, Twue Wuv: The Princess Bride’s Love Stories


The Princess Bride

Everyone knows that The Princess Bride is a love story. But when I revisited it,  I found that the love story between Westley and Buttercup is only one among many. The first love story, introduced even before the romance, is between Fred Savage’s character and his grandfather, who reads him the story while he’s sick. There is something utterly touching and beautiful about an older man reading a story about love to a little boy; so often our culture seems determined to chase all thoughts of affection out of boys’ minds as early as possible instead of embracing and nurturing their ability to love and be loved. Notice, for instance, the grandson’s opposition to “kissing scenes.” The grandfather tells him that “some day he might not mind them so much” instead of skipping over them or agreeing with him. In all my years of working with children and books and literature, I have very seldom seen an adult acknowledge a boy’s future potential for romantic longing.

Familial love is evident in Inigo Montoya’s story as well. When he shares his need for vengeance atop the Cliffs of Insanity, the story is about a boy with a deep and abiding love for his father. And when he asks for his father’s help finding The Man in Black, once again, love saves the day, guiding him to the dungeon’s secret entrance.

The relationship between Fezzik and Inigo Montoya is a love story, too. Not only do they share an obvious easy companionship while in service to Vizzini, the look on Inigo’s face when he realizes that Fezzik has arrived to save him in the Thieves’ Forest is pure joy.

Look at that face! Look at the joy!

Look at that face! Look at the joy!

My personal favorite of the love stories, though, has to be between Miracle Max and Valerie, his wife. When Max nearly refuses to perform the miracle required to raise Westley from mostly dead, Valerie berates him in the way only a spouse of long-standing can. “I’m not a witch, I’m your wife! But after what you just said, I’m not sure I even want to be that anymore. True love, Max, he said true love!”

What I think my husband and I look like. . .

What I think my husband and I look like. . .

. . .What we actually look like.

. . .What we actually look like.







And of course, there is the love story that gives the movie its title: that of Westley and Buttercup. Before my recent re-watch, I hadn’t watched the movie in years. What lived loudest and most distinctive in my memory was the dynamic between Buttercup and Westley. I recalled her tormenting him as the farm boy, and his acquiescence to her demands with only an “As you wish.” I remembered him falling in love with her precisely because she tormented him. I remembered him insulting her, and her insulting him back, and Buttercup shoving him off a cliff leading to his “as you wish” declaration of love after he returned as the Dread Pirate Roberts. I remembered him suffering in a dungeon for her, and dying, and waiting for her in her bed.

As I wish, indeed, Farm Boy.

As I wish, indeed, Farm Boy.

 In short, I remembered a sort of fem-dom fantasy that gave me permission to like the idea of a man who liked being under a woman’s control. There was a reason I liked the farm boy better than the pirate.

So, with this memory living so vividly in my mind, I was disappointed to see that Buttercup becomes a nearly silent character through most of the movie. I wondered why, exactly, Westley loved her.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe that was precisely the point. In the world of The Princess Bride, love has no “why.” It merely is. And love is the most important, powerful force in the world, according to this movie. Love allows Westley to survive the Dread Pirate Roberts and return to Buttercup. Love allows Fezzik to find Inigo when he needs him most. Love allows one man to bring another back from the dead. Love solves impossible problems.

And the movie ends with the love between a boy and his grandfather, a grandfather who believes in love strongly enough to read this story to his grandson, to pass that legacy of love down to a child, to teach him that love makes even kissing scenes worthwhile.

[Extra bonus love story: My husband’s and my first date was to a Halloween party. I went as Buttercup. He went as Westley. Shut up. We were only 18.]


Posted in Movies, Review | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Hallelujah: Orgasm and Transcendence

the holy or the broken coverThe first time I heard Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” was in my now-brother-in-law, Nick’s, apartment, where at the time, my husband and I hung out frequently, drinking wine, listening to music, and shooting the breeze. Nick had just bought kick-ass new speakers and a high-end amp and preamp, and he wanted to show them off. He played us some classical music and jazz, demonstrating for us how the system was so faithful it could locate one musician relative to another in space. We were duly impressed, and begged for more.

He thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, you’d like this song.” He took out Buckley’s Grace CD (yes, those days) and cued up “Hallelujah.”

If you have never heard Jeff Buckley perform “Hallelujah,” it is time. Your best bet would be a really expensive stereo system, but if Nick isn’t in your neighborhood, you can listen to the original studio version on YouTube.

The song starts with Jeff Buckley exhaling—a half-desperate almost-sigh of release and relief. I think my heart stopped. Then the single haunting guitar notes floated out, wrapped themselves around some previously unknown part of my anatomy, and tugged out emotions I didn’t have names for. I didn’t weep or speak, just felt this expansive lightness in my chest, a sensation as new and brilliant as the first time I had an orgasm.

This is apparently not a unique experience, because “Hallelujah” has become a strange anthem, almost a hymn in our culture. I bring this up because I’ve been reading a book called The Holy or The Broken, by Alan Light. Light talks about how Leonard Cohen wrote “Hallelujah” and nothing much happened, and then Jeff Buckley produced his version, and all of a sudden crazy-amazing things happened, and the song broke out and became not just a mainstream hit but something embedded deep in the American consciousness.

The thing I found most interesting was that even if you separate out the vast differences in the ways they’re performed, the Cohen version and the Buckley version are not the same song. The lyrics are different.

Cohen’s verses, the ones he has performed, are quite spiritual. The Cohen version might be a hymn, the sort of thing you would rationally choose to play in the wake of 9/11 or after the Newtown school shooting, both times when “Hallelujah” was performed in the public eye. Light writes about how Cohen composed about ten million different verses, only a few of which he ever performed. The way Alan Light describes it, Cohen was almost plagued by this song, and he kept scribbling down versions of it, desperately trying to get it right. It was like he was channeling something but couldn’t quite hear it.

And then Buckley latched on and somehow all the pent-up meaning Cohen couldn’t quite grok came roaring down the pipe. Buckley’s verses are overtly sensual, a paean to sex and orgasm, a sad human love song. And yet despite having taken a much less lofty path, somehow Buckley managed to channel whatever Cohen was having so much trouble with. He managed to get across something transcendent and universal, something that was trying to speak through Cohen and having trouble. And it’s only since Buckley translated Cohen’s struggle (Light tells us) that the song has caught on and become such a universal expression of angst and loss and hope. It’s Buckley’s expression that became the hymn, not Cohen’s.

Transcendence is a strange thing, and even something as earthy as physical love can be the conduit for it. You can listen to the Leonard Cohen version of “Hallelujah” ten million times without getting half the buzz off it that the first ten seconds of the Jeff Buckley version gave me. And of course my opinion is not universally held. There are plenty of people who think that Leonard Cohen did it right and Jeff Buckley messed it up. But when I read about the song’s history, what had happened to it over time, I couldn’t help but think that somehow even though he was writing about orgasms, Jeff Buckley got at something more emotional and more fundamental than Cohen had been able to.

In fact, the way I choose to look at it is that “Hallelujah” was such a big thing trying to break through into the world and be born, that one man couldn’t do it on his own—Cohen tried, and he paved the way for Buckley, but it’s absolutely a collaboration. And it’s not just Cohen and Buckley who’ve done the work. It’s all the musicians who —despite the song’s overexposure—have been driven to express the sense it gives them of having access to something larger than themselves. And it’s all the people who have chosen at moments of great duress to make the song be a hymn. They’re all midwives of sorts, trying to guide the ineffable into this much more dark and concrete plane of existence.

Anyway, you should read Alan Light’s amazing book. You should listen to both the Leonard Cohen and the Jeff Buckley versions of “Hallelujah.” And all the other versions, too, the ones that reflect so many musicians’ deep need to use the song to shout their own grief and pain and joy.

Then when you’ve done that, you should look at the Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley lyrics, and you should think about why we as a culture publicly deride sex as small and dirty even as we admit at certain moments that earthy, broken, human, physical love stands in for shattering and reconstituting the soul in a way that nothing else can.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 32 Comments

Argue With Me

You can never have too much Data

You can never have too much Data.

Not so very long ago, our beloved Mary Ann Rivers knocked all our Wonkomance socks off with her post on using classical appeals to back up your wonky love story. This post, which involved Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, was so brilliant that I had to read it three times.

“I want to lean against a marble column and talk about this in just a little bit more depth than the six elements of poetics,” Mary Ann wrote, “because this is where I begin to suggest a complex and useful craft tool for writing and responding to successful wonkomance. Namely, that a story can be epically, immensely wonked and be satisfying to an extremely wide audience of readers, possibly for hundreds of years, as long as it forwards a winning argument.”

Then she said a number of clever things about logos, pathos, and ethos that mostly went over my head, but I didn’t mind because I was soothed by the Data and Picard photos.

Then I promptly forgot and went back to bashing my head against a novella I was trying to write.

In due time, and with a lot of hand-holding and loving nudges from Serena Bell and Mary Ann both, I finished the first draft of this novella and then started thinking about how to revise it. I read it and filled my Scrivener document with questions and imperatives. “What is this scene even about, anyway?” “Make this make more sense.” “This chapter is all over the place. Fucking hell, woman!” Times four hundred. Serena asked me some very smart questions. I had no idea what the answers were.

I hate this book I hate this book I hate this book, I thought. I sent Mary Ann an email that was mostly like this: “? o_0 :-( !!!” She wrote back, “Remember that you had an argument? Maybe look at that.”

Beams of rainbow light broke through the cloud cover and washed the prairie in glorious brilliance.

Like this

Like this

An argument! Right! I did have one. In fact, this was a story that I’d written for the express purpose of making an argument. This was a story I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about writing, that I’d badgered my agent and editor into letting me write, that I’d blogged about and daydreamed about, synopsized and planned, and yet somehow I had forgotten all of that, because the act of writing it had clobbered me over the head so hard that my brain fell out.

But once I remembered that I had an argument, everything fell into place. And I mean that. EVERYTHING. I sat down, wrote out my argument longhand, wrote down what the evidence was for my argument, and then went through my Scrivener file and answered every single question I had asked myself, easily. All in the course of about two hours.

It was miraculous. Easiest revision ever.

Then I went and read Mary Ann’s post again and understood it more clearly.

So let’s look at this argument business a little more closely, shall we? Because it turns out to be an interesting way to think about not only writing but also reading and wonkomance.

To make a winning argument, Mary Ann / Aristotle suggests that the author has to

  1. make a convincing chain of evidence to support it (logos)
  2. appeal to the reader’s emotions so that they will either feel good about accepting the argument or feel bad about not accepting it (or both — this is pathos), and
  3. appeal to the reader’s sense that the author — or a major element of the story — can be trusted (ethos).

So one of the first things that occurred to me, once I started thinking about argument, was that category romance is really good at argument.

Yes, even this, she will do. The poor woman.

Yes, even this, she will do. The poor woman.

I recently read Maisey Yates’s Heir To a Desert Legacy, which is a sheikh book in which the heroine is a graduate student in physics who’s recently given birth to her half sister’s baby. The heroine agreed to be a surrogate, partly from love of family and partly because she needed the money. It just so happens that her half sister was married to the ruler of one of those made-up Harlequin Presents Middle Eastern countries, and it also just so happens that the half sister and this ruler died in a car accident on their way to pick up the baby. So the story opens with a very angry, freshly minted sheikh knocking on the door of the heroine’s Portland apartment to retrieve the heir to his throne (whom — it just so happens — he wasn’t aware existed). And the argument begins immediately — both literally, in the sense that the heroine won’t give him the baby, and figuratively, in the sense that Yates starts telling us what this book is going to convince us of or die trying.

The argument of the first half of the book is about love and how it changes the heroine. It goes like this:

(1) It is difficult not to love a child who you’ve grown inside your body and cared for from birth.

You can tell yourself that you’re just in it for the money, you’re just caring for the baby until you figure out what’s next — but the truth is, even though you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re tired and fat and your breasts are leaking, you would rather stab a stranger in the eye than let him take this baby from you. Which is how you begin to figure out that you love him. (The baby. Not the stranger. That part comes later.)

(2) Once you fall in love, all your priorities change.

You’ll follow the baby to a made-up Middle Eastern country, even if it means disrupting your doctoral work. You’ll pose as his governess. You’ll even enter into a marriage of convenience with a difficult, assholeish sheik, if the alternative is to have to leave the baby behind. (You saw that coming, right?)

(3) Once you understand how love can change your life for the better, you will seek love instead of living in fear.

Even if you’ve spent most of your life avoiding risk, love can change you–very quickly–into someone who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with the angsty sheikh and demand that he crack himself open, turn himself inside out, and refashion himself into a lovable man. And also that he have sex with you.

Now, this is just half of the argument. Part II is the sheik’s part, but I’m not going to go into that, because I don’t want to bore y’all. (Not that the sheikh is boring. He’s terribly broken in that way that Yates does so well.) My point is that the argument drives the whole story, and everything serves it: the action, the characters, the emotion, the turning points, the sex. Category romance is an efficient argument-delivery machine.

What’s so interesting to me, here, is two things: first, the idea that I might love an author’s work, love her characters, but hate her argument so much that I can’t even read her book. (Not the case here, but it happens.)

And second, the idea that I might dislike an author’s writing and her characters, her plot, and her style, and yet find her argument so fascinating, so convincing, that I can’t put her book down.

Both of those things happen to me, as a reader, on a pretty regular basis.

(It also helps to explain how entire lines of category romance don’t work for me as a reader. Category lines tend to promote clusters of arguments — Blaze books make arguments about sex, for example, while other lines might forward arguments about the value of sacrifice for love — and if I don’t want to engage with the arguments, I’m not going to like the books.)

The other way in which argument interests me is that it gives me a tool — again, as both reader and author — to pick apart a story. As a reader, I might say, “I love the argument and the emotion, but I could never trust the author after she slut-shamed so virulently in chapter 1.” That is, the ethos was off: the author lost my trust, and there was no way to get it back. This can happen, say, in a book with an infertility plot where the heroine miraculously gets pregnant at the end. “Fuck you,” many of us say, closing such a book. “I will never trust you again.” This is an ethos-based reaction to an ethos-rooted failure. The argument falls apart when the ethos fails the reader.

Or, say, “She’s trying to argue that true love can reform a bad man, but when he sleeps with the prostitute during the dark moment, she completely undermines his reform and sinks her own argument.” That’s a logos problem. You can’t build a chain of evidence and then take a giant pair of chain-cutters to it in the final third of the book — not if you want to keep your readers. The evidence has to be there, and it has to make sense.

In the case of Yates’s book, I’d say that I bought the argument but I wasn’t as affected by it as I might have been — the pathos wasn’t quite clicking for me, and I think this was because I needed more grounding in the heroine’s professional/social world in order to understand emotionally what she was giving up to be with the baby. She made me sniffly, but she could have torn out my heart and stomped on it, and if she’d done that, I’d have been more convinced and loved the book all the harder.

So those are good tools for reading and reviewing, offering one more way to think about what works and what doesn’t work in a story. As an author, moreover, I can give myself some emotional distance from feedback — and thereby use it more effectively — by asking myself “What part of the argument wasn’t working for this person? Is this an evidence problem, an emotional support problem, or a trust issue?”

And, as Mary Ann pointed out to me in an email conversation, argument is a great drafting tool. When you’re just trying to get words on the page, overwhelmed by everything you don’t know or don’t think you know about your book, it helps a great deal to know what it is that you’re trying to argue.

Looking at a romance from the point of view of argument rather than genre convention allows you to skip over all the crap about what characters are supposed to do, how they’re supposed to behave, what readers will and won’t tolerate. All you have to do is make a good argument. That’s it. Show me a clear argument, a logical chain of evidence, emotional support, and a trustworthy author, and I will show you a successful story — wonky or not.

So play with me here — can you analyze a recent reading or writing experience using this perspective? Does it open anything up that you’d missed the first time?

Oh, and I’ll share the argument of my upcoming novella in the comments.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | 35 Comments