Metanarrative, Cervantes, and The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride is (probably) my favorite movie. It also happens to be based on a book, which I first read in my mid-teens. Now, the book caught me off-guard. It was far more cynical than the film and there was this whole mess about William Goldman’s personal life. I read it again a few years later and finally understood it. See, the novel The Princess Bride is a postmodern exploration of metanarrative wrapped in with a deconstruction of adventure narratives. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Wait, what?

Let’s break this down. Much of The Princess Bride is William Goldman telling us about his life, his psychiatrist wife, disappointing son, and his quest to find the book his grandfather read him as a kid. Sadly, the book (by S. Morgenstern) is long and filled with boring bits. So Goldman skips them, interrupting the narrative every now and then to tell us what he’s skipping and why.Really, who wants to read three chapters about economics anyway?).

Of course, this is all fabricated. There is no S. Morgenstern, Goldman’s wife isn’t a psychiatrist, and he has two daughters. But within the book it makes for a beautifully postmodern story; Goldman is fully aware of how stories work and merrily draws attention to it in the metanarrative. At times it’s a story about stories. Meanwhile, he pokes fun at the conventions of the adventure and fantasy genre, deconstructing a lot of what we take for granted in them.

A few hundred years earlier, Cervantes did the same thing in Don Quixote. Like Goldman, he presents the central story as one that he’s researched extensively and is relaying here for us. But the ‘research’ often interrupts the story. A memorable moment early on sees Quixote in a duel with a Basque, they’re poised to deliver fatal blows and then the narrative stops and the narrator informs us that that’s where his copy of the story ends. We’re then treated to a few pages of how he got a hold of the next chunk of the story.

Cervantes is playing with the very idea of fiction and stories. He’s messing with the narrative, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. It’s a lot of fun and lends Don Quixote’s story an almost mythic quality, which is further enhanced by the style of the narration.

Throughout it all, Cervantes is endlessly making fun of the chivalrous novels that were popular at the time. How? He takes someone who gets caught up with the notion of being a knight errant and, taking the books as gospel, sets out in an attempt to have a grand adventure and sees what would really happen.. It doesn’t go well, one because books don’t mention these knights bringing changes of clothes, money, or provisions; and secondly, someone who goes around meting out his own brand of justice while violently defending any insult of his honor actually looks a lot like a vigilante bandit. Naturally, hilarity ensues and Don Quixote and his squire wind up being attacked in response (all to our amusement).

Stories like The Princess Bride and Don Quixote are important. They take what we know and play with it; not just be deconstructing the tropes of the genre they’re using, but also by playing with the idea of stories themselves. It’s not just books that do this; the famous “Duck Amuck” cartoon not just demolishes the fourth wall (postmodernism) but uses the very metanarrative of animation as a plot. Actually, if you want a good representation of what I’m talking about, that’s a great place to start.

I love postmodernism and metanarratives in stories, mostly because I love stories in the first place and it’s wonderful when they play with it. It’s fantastic and often adds an additional layer to already great narratives.

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