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Final Paper: The American Hero's Perspective of Royalty

Page history last edited by Breanna Buterakos 8 years, 3 months ago

Breanna Buterakos

Dr. Abigail Heiniger

American Literature II

April 15, 2016

The American Hero’s Perspective of Royalty as Portrayed in The Princess Bride

            The idea of the American hero was born into American literature centuries ago, whether present through tales of heroic heists during the American Revolution, sacrificial displays of courage during the American Civil War, visions of cowboys and Indians fighting out their differences in the Wild West, or the triumphant familial recollections of American veterans returning from WWII having saved Europe – again. The American hero is a roguish, intelligent, idealistic, stylish, hard-core citizen who is always victorious over his arch-nemesis. Every hero has one, that despicable being who wronged the hero, the sworn enemy. Inigo’s nemesis was Count Rugen. Westley’s was Prince Humperdinck. In both instances, we can see that royalty, in the eyes of the American hero, is nothing more than yet another obstacle to be conquered. Even today, hundreds of years after the American Revolution, we can see the continual threads of distaste for royalty, evident in writings up through the 1970s. Through satirical tendencies of The Princess Bride and “A Boxing Match or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull,” we can see that Americans view royalty as a thing of the past, outdated and tyrannical, stupid, gaudy, cowardly, and worthy of the title of “arch-enemy” to the American hero.

            Despite what Disney may tell us, America has traditionally viewed royalty as a villainous entity, as a representative of bondage and misery. The nineteenth century satirical cartoon “A Boxing Match or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull” which contributes to this comparison also reveals that American political cartoonists often thought it appropriate to portray their much-despised former government as unavailing and pompous (Matz, ix). As apparent by the two main “bad guys” in The Princess Bride, William Goldman clearly represents royalty as the essence of malice and malevolence through the most heinous individuals he could think up. Though this essay will mainly focus on the crown prince, Humperdinck, it cannot be ignored that his chief advisor is also a detrimental force, both to the country and the health of the heroes, with which to be reckoned. From these two sources, the conclusion can be reached that America simply despises royalty.

            Prince Humperdinck, future ruler of the quaint kingdom of Florin, has a royally ingrained sense of fashion. As seen in the passage where he quite blatantly and rudely refuses to marry the princess of Guilder after coming to realize that she had a complete lack of hair, Humperdinck is vain in his constant attention to self-image (Goldman, 75). Not only does he constantly worry about his own grooming, clothing, and public image, he sees it unfit to taint himself by marrying a woman without hair, even though he is one of the only people who knows of her condition. This is indicative of the extent to which his pride and vanity control him and lead us to begin to recognize the first signs of cowardice and a lack of ability to appreciate emotions such as love, sacrifice, and humility.

            As seen in the illustration of John Bull (Charles), who represents a personification of the United Kingdom, we can see that American cartoonists characterized the UK’s form of government with gaudy, rather old-fashioned clothes (“John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations”). John Bull is wearing white breeches, stockings, and waistcoat, but, judging from the state of his nose, they will not remain that color much longer, perhaps symbolizing the deterioration of the monarchy. His coat is bright red, soiled on the shoulder as though he has recently fallen and just now regained his footing; yet we know that as soon as he leaves the fight, there will be servants awaiting him to assist him in undressing and give him another of the same sort of coat, this one unsoiled, most likely throwing away the ruined coat rather than repairing it.

            In both instances, we can see evidence of economic waste. Even in regards to the royal family today who truly are nothing more than popular figureheads and origins of style trends, waste can be seen. The expenses lavished upon the royal weddings, births, deaths, and even Jubilees are huge. According to The Atlantic, “sustaining the royal family costs Britons 53 pence, or about 81 cents, per person, per year. The total came to about 33.3 million pounds (about $51.1 million) for 2012-2013” (Khazan). We can see this displayed in both the artifact and the novel. The extravagant and gaudy clothes of Humperdinck and John Bull are a misuse of resources. The message is clear: royalty is a waste of money.

            Not only is royalty wasteful, it is outdated. This can be seen in the pomp and ceremony of Humperdinck’s instating of Buttercup’s “princesshood.” Before Humperdinck would marry Buttercup, he insisted that she be a princess – marrying a commoner would be scandalous. Rather than finding a princess of royal blood, however, Humperdinck merely finds a small plot of land, Hammersmith, on which nobody lives that belongs to neither Florin nor the neighboring countries and makes her the princess of that (Goldman, 81). This may have been a result of protocol or pride; the book never really indicates which. Either way, Buttercup’s being made a princess was for nothing more than the sake of the title, and Humperdinck did not see fit to marry someone of low breeding. His bride must be a princess.

            Even if this could be excused as mandatory protocol, Humperdinck’s view of his step-mother cannot be dismissed. Humperdinck’s mother died when he was born and his father remarried to a homely lady whom Humperdinck admits to be actually quite nice. Despite this, since all the step-mothers Humperdinck had ever heard of or read about had been evil, the prince decided to always refer to his step-mother as ES, which, of course, stands for Evil Step-Mother. Humperdinck stubbornly refuses to call her anything else, reasoning that since she is a step-mother, she must therefore be evil, and he must treat her with the utmost contempt and disrespect (Goldman, 69). These both truly represent Humperdinck’s close-minded character. He is unable to think outside of the realm of what has been done in the past, even if it means demeaning someone who has done nothing to deserve it. It is in this that we see Goldman’s portrayal of royalty as unprogressive.

            Seen both in the traditional white garb and wig worn by John Bull and the fact that he is unimpressively bad at boxing, we can tell that he also is stuck in past traditions, the white representing his thoughts that he is above his subjects (“Introduction to 19th-Century Fashion”). He, though able to command armies, is unable to fight. Britain, at the time of the American Revolution, was a massive empire, continually growing and by Victoria’s reign spanning more than a quarter of the world’s population. As America broke away from Britain and European ideals and customs, including colonialization, America proved itself to be a formidable enemy, taking victory in its finest form and conquering the British (Marston, 1-4). The English king was unable to keep his grip on America because of his inability to relinquish the concepts of imperialism and move into a new age of equality and paid labor. Progress did not mesh with the king’s ideals and thus was never striven toward.

            In addition to the detriments of being unable to adapt to new ideas, royalty is also portrayed as cowardly. Evident in nearly everything he does, from his deceitfulness to his reactions to being accused of pusillanimity, Prince Humperdinck proves himself to be exactly what he proclaims he is not: an enormous coward. When Humperdinck detains Westley, the hero and Buttercup’s true love, instead of returning him to his ship as he had promised, the horrible repercussions of his cowardice come into play. Buttercup calls the prince a coward to his face, and Humperdinck, dashing heir to the throne and the greatest hunter in the world, becomes deeply angered by her blatancy, so much so that he tortures and kills Westley with more pain than any man has ever known (Goldman, 247). The Machine is what kills him, yes, but in Humperdinck’s words, “think of this too: in all this world, you might have been happy, genuinely happy. Not one couple in a century has that chance, not really, no matter what the storybooks say, but you could have had it, and so, I would think, no one will ever suffer a loss as great as you” (247) we can see that by the way he places emphasis on true happiness and the fact that Westley will forever be deprived of it that it is not the physical pain of dying that will torment Westley, but rather the knowledge that he will never have even the slightest chance of having a happy ending. The loss that he mentions is not Westley’s life; it is the loss of every hope and dream, of love, of everything which makes Westley human.

            Possibly the climax of the book, this is where we see the pinnacle of the prince’s cowardice. Perhaps he wanted Westley out of the way so he would not somehow crash the wedding. But perhaps Humperdinck just wanted to hear Westley scream. He wanted to relish the sound, the knowledge that he was in control and his adversary helpless. Buttercups words made him feel exposed, and rather than challenging Westley to a duel to prove his worthiness as a prince, to prove he is not afraid, Humperdinck simply kills him, depriving Westley of any chance of rebuttal, allowing Westley to neither confirm nor deny the princess’s words, and proving that the only thing Humperdinck is not afraid of is his own conscience.

            This same cowardice is seen in artifact as, instead of removing his crown to fight with the man in black, the king keeps it perched precariously on his head. He does not allow himself to be on the same level as his opponent, never letting his opponent forget that he is in control, that he is the king. This contributes to Goldman’s portrayal of royalty as attempting to remain above the fight. Indeed, the First Federal Congressional representatives were reluctant to allow the title “His Highness” or “His Majesty” to be added to the title of President of the United States for fear that the President would think himself above the people of America (Bartoloni-Tuazon, 1).

            Lastly, royalty, from the perspective of Goldman and Charles, is inexorably stupid. This is clearly evident in Humperdinck’s willingness to drop his sword when faced by the fifty-fifty chance that Westley was bluffing about his ability to fight (Goldman, 310). Rather than stake his life on the likelihood that Westley was unwell, Humperdinck would allow his cowardice to take control of him. His mind was not strong enough to analyze the situation, realize that Westley had been mostly dead all day, and continue with the duel. In addition, Humperdinck was willing to make horrid decisions regarding his love life, proving once again that his limited intellect did not leave room or value for concepts which royalty should stand for such as love and bravery (77).

            As seen in the artifact, John Bull is left with a dazed and stupefied expression on his face as he faces his adversary. His eye has been discolored, either via a punch or else he is wearing makeup. He appears to be slightly thuggish, bleary-eyed, and unaware of anything in his surroundings, almost unable to focus on his opponent. Stupidity, analogous with what we see in Humperdinck’s character, is evident in John Bull’s character and, more importantly, in what he represents.

            The American villain is the foil to the American hero. He is everything the hero is not, and, contrary to popular representation, as seen in the artifact and the novel, the prince is not even close to being a “nice guy”, much less heroic. He is wasteful, outdated, cowardly, and stupid. Thus, focus can easily transfer from the villain to the hero by looking for the opposites of these traits. The hero is not royal, not flashy, not weak, not stupid, and stands for something worth-while. The hero is always attractive, always the best at everything (even dying) and always triumphant.

            Ambiguity is the major trait of the American hero. When the man in black is first mentioned, it is unclear what kind of character he is. He, later revealed to be Westley, wears black leather from his mask to his shoes, only his eyes visible. His eyes are described as “blackest of all…flashing and cruel and deadly” which may be viewed as characteristics of a villain (Goldman, 87). Black, however, does not refer to the literal color of his eyes – after all, Westley’s eyes are described as the sea before a storm, dark blue. Instead, the black refers to the intent behind his eyes, or possibly even the color of his soul. At least, this is what the reader is led to believe. Flashing indicates intelligence, possibly vindictive intelligence since it is followed directly by “cruel.” The fact that his eyes are described as deadly proves that just a glance from Westley is dangerous, and he is at least capable, perhaps even willing, to kill. He is not necessarily labeled as “good” the first time he appears. When he kidnaps the princess from her captors, his motives are unclear. He is shrouded in mystery.

            The man in the artifact, whose identity is also unclear, is also dressed in black, but rather than the swashbuckling black leather that Westley wears, the man in black is dressed professionally, though his clothes indicate that he is of middle or working class. The black shows that he is used to or at least willing to get his hands dirty (“Introduction to 19th-Century Fashion”). It appears from the battle, that he is completely unscathed. He does not cast a shadow, as if he is only semi-real. This links back to the idea that simple farm boy Westley is not even Westley; he is the Dread Pirate Roberts. The hero’s identity is unique, unclear, and concealed in ambiguity. A prince or any other royal whose face is known everywhere cannot have this same sense of obscurity. Royalty cannot be the hero.

            In addition, we can see that as opposed to the weak cowardice of Humperdinck, Westley is strong. Not only is he stronger than the villain, as seen when he faces down the prince in a duel that never even crosses swords, he is stronger than the other heroes (Goldman, 310). His initial opponents, Inigo and Fezzik who later become fellow heroes, are in no way able to compete with Westley’s physical skills and strengths. Westley fights Inigo and Fezzik and subdues both of them. He disarms the only sword wizard in the last several centuries and knocks out a giant renowned for his strength in hand to hand combat, all after having exerted himself on the Cliffs of Insanity (150). The hero is the best at everything.

            Though this is not directly evident in the artifact, we can see that the man in black is not the least disheveled, revealing that he is at ease with the fight. He is in a good fighting stance, with one leg back and one forward, his fists up in preparation for an attack or defense. Even the American attitude of triumph, which came about after the Revolutionary War only to become stronger after the World Wars, shows that American heroes can do what they put their minds to when everyone else thinks they are incapable (Morton, xii).

            In addition to his physical strength, the hero has a strength of mind that is unmatched. He outsmarts the great Sicilian Vizzini who claims that Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato are morons in comparison to his great intellect. Westley proves that he is far more intelligent than both the modern and ancient geniuses, leaving us thinking of them as fools dying in mid-laugh. He manages to infiltrate a castle and stop an entire royal wedding with only three people, a wheelbarrow, and a cloak (Goldman, 291). Westley is brilliant, with an astute knowledge of humanity and human nature, yet he somehow remains above such notions as fear and uncertainty.

            Though it is difficult to see intelligence in the artifact, one can infer that it is echoed in the man’s posture and aloof expression, as if he lives in a completely different realm of acuity. The fact that he is fighting the king himself rather than relying on a militia or band of rebels shows that the hero is more powerful intellectually than his opponent. He is not cowardly or willing to hide. He does not allow others to fight or think for him. He is confident in his own abilities to think and act quickly.

            Westley also represents ideals, one of the most important aspects of the American hero (Morton, xi). He fights for something which, as Humperdinck said, not one couple in a century has a chance at having – true love. Westley is willing to die for what he believes is worthy, eager to sacrifice himself for this representation of love and innocence and beauty manifested in Buttercup. His hatred and disgust for the oppressor of those ideals are well-known, clearly seen in the way he calls Humperdinck a “miserable vomitous mass” directly to his face (Goldman, 310). Westley refers to Humperdinck as the very misery he creates, continuing to insinuate that Humperdinck is repulsive enough to make any decent man vomit. The final blow is in the word “mass” where he denies Humperdinck the honor of being referred to as a human. To Westley, any creature as vile as Humperdinck is nothing more than a coalescence of matter.

            Though it is not explicitly clear from the artifact, perhaps the man in black represents the ideal of freedom, or at least the act of striving to achieve it. America itself stands for ideals, for freedom, liberty, justice. The American hero stands for something the rest of the world rejects, represents revolutionary concepts, epitomizes what humans should aspire to be (Morton, xi). The man in black is opposing the monarchy and the idea that one dynasty of human is more valuable than another. The king’s crown is disheveled and falling from his head, broken and more grey than gold, perhaps indicating a falling empire or a really terrible ruler. Deduced from this is the result that the hero is destined to defeat royalty and, rather than take the crown, crush it to dust.

            This leads to the inference that the hero is destined to triumph. Nothing, not even death, can prevent the hero from snatching the crown from the heads of the royals and exposing the weasel beneath. Westley’s death is only temporary, and within only forty minutes of his resurrection, he had stormed a castle, rescued his true love, challenged and defeated the prince, and escaped (Goldman, 312). Even the secondary hero, Inigo, defies death by dueling and killing Count Rugen, all the while holding a hand to his stomach to prevent his innards from falling out through a stab wound, delivered in cowardice by the count’s hidden dagger (305). In the end, both heroes rode off into the sunset, quickly on the mend and calmly waiting to reckon with anyone who dared follow. Not even death can separate the hero from triumph.

In his triumph, Westley, however, does not kill the prince, even though he is a pirate and has proven himself to be fully capable of ruthlessness. Just as British royalty is defeated but left in the history books, Westley leaves the prince alive, possibly to reflect on his cowardice, exiting with the warning that he, the Dread Pirate Roberts, is the King of the Sea and to follow after him means certain death (311). John Bull is left with a bloody nose, a blackened eye, and a dopey expression on his face while the man in black walks away triumphant. The hero does not attempt to kill him, instead leaving him to live a long life in desolation with no companionship except his own cowardice (Matz, xii). Perhaps leading a life of inescapable misery is far worse a fate than dying. Or perhaps the hero wishes to allow the onlookers to decide from themselves whose side to support. Rather than dispatching of the royalty, as in the French Revolution which resulted in the Reign of Terror, the American hero allows royalty to live on, giving citizens the choice of democracy.

            In conclusion, the American hero is not and cannot be the a royal. It is evident in The Princess Bride and “A Boxing Match or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull” that Americans view royalty as gaudy, wasteful, outdated, cowardly, and stupid. The hero, in comparison, is ambiguous, strong, intelligent, idealistic, and triumphant, proving that royalty is incapable of being heroic. As a result of his unruly characteristics, Humperdinck foils Westley, highlighting his nobility, almost creating Westley into the swashbuckling hero we know him to be. Westley, in turn, lets him live. Perhaps royalty is the embodiment of those negative characteristics, but, as proven by Westley, perhaps we should not condemn it completely, instead allowing it to highlight us, the average farm boys, as heroes.










Works Cited

“John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations, Introduction.” Loc.gov. n.d. Web. 19 April 2016.

Khazan, Olga. “Is the British Royal Family Worth the Money?” TheAtlantic. July 23, 2013. Web. 19 April 2016.  

Marston, Daniel. The American Revolution, 1774-1783. New York: Routledge, 2003. Electronic Resource.

Bartoloni-Tuazon, Kathleen. For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. Electronic Resource.

Matz, Aaron. Satire in an Age of Realism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Electronic Resource.

“Introduction to 19th-Century Fashion.” VictoriaandAlbertMuseum. 2016. Web. 23 April, 2016.



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