Acton Institute Powerblog

The Prince and the Pirate

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Humiliations GaloreThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and over at The University Bookman I have written up some thoughts on the modern classic, “As You Wish: True (Self-)Love and The Princess Bride.”

Those familiar with the story know that the tale develops around the conflict between Prince Humperdinck and Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) over Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in Florin. I frame my piece with the confrontation between another prince and another pirate, an encounter which Augustine famously relates in his City of God. As Augustine writes, Alexander the Great rebukes a captured pirate for his crimes, only to hear the pirate’s retort tu quoque.

In “The Use of Alexander the Great in Augustine’s City of God,” Brian Harding describes Alexander’s “restless ambition for further conquests and power,” which leads him “to search constantly for new lands to conquer; in the same way the pirate captain is always on the look-out for merchant ships which he can harass.” Similarly Humperdinck’s constant competitive drive and lust for power are exemplified in his hunting prowess and his designs to conquer Guilder. He is a prince who would be emperor.

I go on to explore the themes of justice and love in relationship to The Princess Bride by examining the memorable scene with Miracle Max. I think this scene captures in a singularly powerful way the insights of Adam Smith’s famous observation that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” To be successful in his quest, Inigo must come to recognize that Max views revenge against Humperdinck as a “noble cause” worth his miracle-working. Thus Inigo promises “humiliations galore!” for Humperdinck.

But as I conclude, there are limits to revenge as a motivation as well, even when the origins of the pursuit for revenge are just. Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played Inigo Montoya, has said that his favorite line in the movie comes at the end, when he wonders to Westley, “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” Revenge, in fact, turns out to be something you cannot truly live for.

Likewise, in an engaging profile in the New York Times Magazine, Patinkin passes along this insight from his family: “Comparison leads to violence.” Humperdinck’s envy is another theme worth considering, as his desire to possess Buttercup is only surpassed by his wrath when he finally realizes that he cannot have her. Thus, says Humperdinck before he pushes the Machine to 50, “You truly love each other, and so you might have been truly happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance, no matter what the storybooks say. And so I think no man in a century will suffer as greatly as you will.”

My family just watched the movie again over the Christmas holiday (for now last year’s 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition is available for under $5), and I was struck that in the film. as the four friends escape from Humperdinck’s castle, the narrator makes clear that they were riding away “to freedom.” Humperdinck’s unjust tyranny had been broken, and Westley and Buttercup were finally free to live lovingly ever after.

That’s a story worth telling and retelling.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.