Defiance of Convention through the Frame Narrative
The Princess Bride by William Goldman is an example of masterful utilization of rhetoric and literary devices to convey a tale of true love and high adventure. Written in the 1970s, the novel is often labeled a fairy tale, but differs with respect to the literary narratorial conventions of that genre. Some elements that make the story unorthodox include the purposefully overemphasizing of the narrator’s presence and the obscuring of the identity of the original storyteller. These literary devices tie into Goldman’s prolonged and complex frame narrative, which is used to resurrect the tradition of oral storytelling and call attention to the importance and power of the audience’s role of interpretation in the narratorial process of storytelling.
Inherently, oral fairy tales have characteristics that remind the audience of their role in the storytelling process. Brian Attebery, a scholar on fantasy and science fiction, states that oral tales are communal property (not owned by or traced to a singular teller), narrated by an actual person, and heard by and meant for the community of people who created the tale (17). Because of the strong relationship between audience and narrator, the communal audience is aware of the impact they have in the story-making process. Attebery uses “Snow White” as an example, and he speculates how after creation, it entered the oral tradition and “began to be recreated anew at each telling.” There is a transmission process, “from community memory through performer back to community again” (18). The audience, based on the cultural norms and social issues of their time, modify the story to suit particular messages they wanted conveyed. Phyllis Frus, an associate professor of English, and Christy Williams, an instructor of English, argue that this method keeps the text relevant and appealing (Frus). From this continued relatability, the next generation of audiences will pick up the story, modify it to suit their needs, and continue to pass it on, thereby continuing the cycle of storytelling. On the other hand, literary fairy tales tend to be static in nature, because once one is written, verification of the original tale is always possible. This causes the stories to lose the ability to be “slightly different each time it is told, even by the same storyteller,” which Heidi Anne Heiner, a literary fairy tale analyst and manager of SurLaLune Fairy Tales, calls the “the beauty of actual storytelling.” However, many techniques can be used to keep aspects of the oral tradition alive. Goldman implements several of those methods, including reference to communal knowledge, usage of a frame narrative to create an actively participating narrator, and concealment of the original storyteller.
In The Princess Bride, Goldman extensively mentions Florinese history, geography, and politics to create communal validation. Even though obvious and commonly used verbal formulas such as “Once upon a time” are not utilized, the novel contains many allusions to past and current events that draw upon communal and reality based confirmation. For instance, the narrator describes his father as “next to illiterate. In English” and “from Florin” (Goldman 7), a country that does not actually exist. The reader, even if he/she realizes this, still can accept the narrator’s statements because of the invocation of a sense of communally accepted authenticity. Another instance is when the narrator remarks how The Princess Bride, an abridgement of the novel by S. Morgenstern, marginalizes “real” Florinese history. The narrator states that when this abridged version of Morgenstern’s book “comes out, I expect every Florinese scholar alive to slaughter me. (Columbia University has not only the leading Florinese experts in America, but also direct ties to the New York Times Book Review…” (67). The narrator’s statements are based on the assumption that Florin is real, and “scholars” and “experts” of Florin would be critical of the narrator’s dismissal of important Florinese history due to the abridgement’s focus on true love and high adventure. Once again, Goldman’s persistent commentary regarding the existence of scholars and experts, generally believed to be respectable figures of great historical expertise, facilitates the reader’s acceptance of the “truth” of the narrator’s statements. To further drive home the point, the use of a real life, well established organization (the New York Times Book Review), forces the reader to stop, reevaluate the disparity between reality and the fictional world of the novel, understand the similarities of operation between the two, and readjust his or her notions to fit the story’s description of events. This blurring of fact and fiction further assimilates and immerses the reader into Goldman’s fantastical story world, while drawing attention to the necessity for the reader to interpret the events of the story.
To replicate an oral tale experience, a literary tale must also implement an active and relatable narrator. The narrator in an oral tale “is not a fictional agency but an actual human presence” (Attebery 17). Goldman solves this problem by creating a persona of himself as the narrator of the story and by referencing his father as another story teller. The narrator is no longer a faceless presence, and Goldman further defines the humanness of the storyteller by giving the narrator a prolonged backstory. The narrator discusses his childhood, the discovery of the wonder of books, his later adult life, and the eventual realization that real life often lacks the wonder and excitement always presented in books. His realization and resulting cynicism is reflected near the end of the preface. The narrator states, “I don’t think there’s high adventure left anymore. Nobody takes out a sword nowadays and cries, ‘Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!’” (Goldman 32). The narrator, like the audience, is aware and critical of the lack of the romanticism so often portrayed in conventional fairy tales. The narrator critiques the story alongside the audience, thereby becoming an active presence and a facilitator of interaction. Furthermore, this humanizing aspect of the narrator makes the reader believe that this persona of Goldman is indeed an understanding and sympathetic human being and not just a superficial presence. Goldman then uses this persona to interact with the reader, the first time being right at the end of the preface. “Anyway, here’s the ‘good parts’ version. S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all” (32). The narrator, although aware and cynical of the gap between grandeur in stories and that in real life, appears optimistic. Despite being a literal story-teller, the narrator appears to be offering the story to the reader with great care and weight. This gesture can be seen as a direct appeal toward the reader in order to elicit an emotional response and course of action. Hopefully, the reader too will want to believe in and pass on to others the values that the narrator at one point resolutely believed to be true.
Throughout the novel, Goldman constantly influences the reader through reminders of the active role of the narrator. At times, the narrator accomplishes this goal by directly addressing the concerns of the audience, which usually is only possible through the presence of an actual person. For instance, during the scene when Buttercup is in the water surrounded by ravenous sharks, the narrator interjects with an anecdote of when he was told this part of the story by his father:
She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time,” my father said.
I looked up at him. “What?”
“You looked like you were getting too involved and bothered so I thought I would let you
During that moment in time, Billy (the narrator’s younger self as a child) is the audience, and his father is the narrator. This parallels the present situation, in which Goldman is the narrator and the reader is the audience. Referencing a past but relevant occurrence of storytelling interaction reminds the reader that the narrator is not faceless and irrelevant, but personable and integral to the telling of the story. He has not left the reader nor will stop interacting with him/her, because in oral storytelling, the audience is also part of the storytelling process. The audience decides what to accept, reject, and pass on in future iterations of the story. Thus, it is crucial that the audience is actively interpreting and critically thinking about events that occur in the story.
Furthermore, the narrator is also aware of the possible diversity of the audience. Take for example the instance when the narrator Goldman stops abruptly talking about Buttercup’s nightmare to directly address them:
Look. (Grownups skip this paragraph). I’m not about to tell you this book has a tragic ending. I already said in the very first line how it was my favorite in all the world. But there’s a lot of bad stuff coming up…The wrong people die, some of them, and the reason is this: life is not fair. (218)
The narrator assumes not just a particular composition of people in the audience, but also a configuration of different opinions. Adults, or the “grownups,” already do realize that life is and may never be fair. Adolescents, and especially children, usually are unaware of the hard truths of life and believe that life is, if not should, be fair, because the stories they have read since childhood have not told them otherwise. These implications remind the reader that the audience is not one conglomerate mass of people. Instead, they are individuals with different understandings and life perspectives, which the narrator categories and addresses differently. By realizing the diversity of opinions and individuality of the audience, the reader may contemplate about his/her own outlook on life and current interpretation of the story. Furthermore, the narrator’s constant interjections, which are in italics, are another method of reminder. Phrases such as “This is me,” “This is my first major excision,” and “Me again” consistently remind the reader of the narrator’s presence and the existence of the framed narrative. Even more extreme an example is all of Chapter 4, which is solely comprised of Goldman’s commentary and tells of how Goldman allegedly removed an entire hundred pages worth of text because it did not progress the plot. The reader begins to realizes that the novel, although an “accurate retelling” of a satire of an “actual” country, is being changed, like stories carried down through oral retellings. As a result, the reader beings to interpret events on his/her own, especially when it becomes unclear whether the narrator Morgenstern, the supposed author of the unabridged book, or Goldman is the true narrator of the story.
Goldman further pushes the reader’s realization of the existence of his/her interpretation by obscuring who the narrator actually is. Starting in the preface, Goldman establishes that the story he tells is not actually written by him, but by S. Morgenstern (a fictional construct). By placing accountability for what is said in the story on another person, Goldman escapes scrutiny from the reader as well as responsibility, while maintain his credibility as a narrator. Because the story was not “created” by Goldman, any factual inconsistencies are not his fault. Albeit a subtle reminder that this novel is a made up story, this distinction sets up the pretext for the narrator Goldman to act as an interpreter of the story. As a critic, he has the ability to make certain judgments, such as what course of action to deal with the factual inconsistencies that appear in Morgenstern’s novel. In one of his characteristic interludes, he comments about Morgenstern’s factual inconsistences by stating that “either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn’t…The facts, anyway; no one can say about the actual motivations.” (Goldman 42). Goldman dismisses Morgenstern’s inconsistencies, and this act of narratorial power once again blurs the distinction as to who is actually telling the story. The factual inconsistencies, Goldman’s interjections, and ambiguity of who is the actual narrator creates for the reader a murky distinction of fact vs fiction, original vs created. This situation mirrors the retellings of oral tales. The audience never truly knows if the current version is faithful to the preceding one. The expected clichés and themes may have been altered, and the content may be radically different from the first iteration of the story. The reader is left deciding what parts they are willing to accept and reject. And this decision is based on his/her understanding of the story, its mechanics and logic, and the truth of that compared to reality. The reader, like the listener of an oral tale, takes up the reigns of what is described as the “the narrative transaction” (Attebery 17). Based on the reader’s understanding of the story, the cultural norms and social issues of his or her time, and the validity of how the story world operates compared to reality, the reader adjusts the story to what is believed to be most meaningful for future audiences, thereby continuing the cycle of storytelling.
The process of adaptation and change is most likely another reflection of an overarching and reoccurring phenomenon of the human condition. Like moths drawn to the moon’s light to calibrate their flight around the Earth, so too are humans drawn to the effervescent glow that radiates from meaningful stories that inspires us. We use it to make sense of our purpose and place in the ever-changing world around us. Moths may not know the difference between moonlight and light emitted from the one’s porch step, but people do. Reality appears like moonlight, enigmatic but natural; while stories remain lucid yet synthetic. Nonetheless, as long as stories, however incredible and different from reality, continue to persist, people will continue comparing them against reality and passing on their interpretations for generations to come. The next generation of audiences will become story tellers, and those who listen to their stories will eventually take the reins of narrator. The cycle of human collective learning through storytelling tradition continues onward, transforming and educating.
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