Princess Bride vs. Callirhoe: A Study of Parallel Characters

Many of the great modern works of literature and film find their inspiration in the classical works of authors such as Homer, Chariton, and Xenophon. While modern authors may not even realize they are imitating the characters and generic conventions of ancient authors, the tropes created by classical writers laid the groundwork for many of the famous stories today. The Princess Bride, a widely acclaimed movie released in 1987, was directed by Rob Reiner and based off of a book written by William Goldman, and uses many characters that are similar to characters in Chariton’s Callirhoe. The character of Westley in The Princess Bride comprises of traits from both Chaireas and Callirhoe, while Buttercup is very similar to Callirhoe’s character. The evil Humperdinck is very similar to Dionysius, illustrating how ancient novels helped inspire more contemporary tales.

Westley from The Princess Bride is an amalgamation of conventions character traits borrowed from both Callirhoe and Chaireas. In the film, Westley leaves his love Buttercup on a ship to find his riches in America. However, shortly after his departure, it is reported that he had been killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, leaving Buttercup to mourn Westley and vow to never love another man. In Callirhoe, an enraged Chaireas kicks her in the stomach so hard she collapses and is seemingly dead, leaving Chaireas to mourn his dead wife and vow to never love another woman (Chariton 1.4, p10 T). After Callirhoe is buried in her tomb, she regains consciousness, showing that she is still alive, but is immediately kidnapped by pirates. Similarly, it is revealed later in The Princess Bride that Westley was not actually killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, he was actually kidnapped by them. Being kidnapped by pirates was a common trope in many ancient novels because it was a real fear when traveling throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Westley is also very similar to Chaireas because once he takes over the position of the Dread Pirate Roberts, he spends years searching for his true love, Buttercup, saving her from having to marry Humperdinck, the conniving prince.

In Callirhoe, once Chaireas learns that his wife had actually survived and was kidnapped by pirates, he spends the rest of the novel chasing her throughout Asia Minor trying to save her from having to marry Dionysius and other dangers she encounters throughout her journey. Throughout his quest, Chaireas is forced to endure many trials to test his wits and strength. He is required to represent himself in King Artaxerxes’s court to prove why he deserves Callirhoe more than Dionysius (Chariton 6.1, p84 T). He also leads the Egyptian army to capture the city of Tyre from King Artaxerxes, which is eventually what allows him to be reunited with Callirhoe (Chariton 7.4, p106 T). Chaireas had to prove he was mentally and physically strong enough to be worthy of Callirhoe’s love. In The Princess Bride, Westley similarly has to prove he was smart and strong enough to be with Buttercup. He outwits Vizzini, the smartest out of the trio of bandits, by making him drink the poison, which Westley had the foresight to immunize himself against. He was also able to knock Fezzik, “the strongest man alive” unconscious in a wrestling match to prove he had immense raw strength. Lastly, he defeats Inigo Montoya, one of the best swordsmen in Florin, in a duel to prove he can fight with a sword better than anyone else. These traits make Chaireas and Westley very similar because they were forced to endure many trials to prove they were worthy of the love from Callirhoe and Buttercup. At the same time, the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Westley and Callirhoe are also very similar, illustrating the influence Chariton may have had on William Goldman.

While Westley holds a mix of characteristics from Chaireas and Callirhoe, the character Buttercup seems to be inspired solely by Callirhoe. Despite the fact that it was Buttercup’s love that was presumed dead and not the other way around like in Callirhoe, Buttercup’s situation is very similar to Callirhoe’s. While she vows to never love another man, shortly after she is separated from her love, Prince Humperdinck puts immense pressure on her to marry him. Just as Callirhoe was in a very tough position to say no to Dionysius, Buttercup did not really have much of a say in whether or not she wanted to marry Humperdinck (Chariton 3.3, p41 T). Buttercup is also kidnapped by a gang of bandits and forced to travel around to various lands with them, similar to how Callirhoe was captured by pirates and forced to travel from Syracuse to Asia Minor (Chariton 1.11, p18 T). The biggest similarity between Callirhoe and Buttercup is the fact that they have very little say in their situations. Both women had their true love taken away from them, they were both kidnapped by outlaws, forced to marry somebody that they did not love, and neither could really do anything about it. It was up to Westley/Chaireas to save them. The antagonists of both of these works, Dionysius and Humperdinck, are relatively similar as well, albeit with a few more differences. Both men are very prominent in their society; Dionysius is described as “the richest, noblest, most cultured man in Ionia,” while Humperdinck is a prince, heir to the throne of Florin (Chariton 1.12, p19 T). They also both coerce their future wives to marry them, even though Callirhoe and Buttercup want nothing to do with them.

On the other hand, Dionysius is portrayed as a man who tries to live up to the tradition of being an honorable Greek, who respects the women of other honorable Greek men. (Chariton 2.4, p27 T). While he does eventually use deception to force Callirhoe to marry him, he initially resists her temptation and promises to return her to her love Chaireas (Chariton 2.8, p33 T). Humperdinck, however, is portrayed as a very small, angry, man who will use force to try to take whatever he wants. He does not actually love Buttercup like Dionysius loves Callirhoe. In fact, he hires a group of bandits to kidnap and kill her so that he could blame a different country and start a war. Dionysius is much more relatable as a character, while the reader wants Chaireas and Callirhoe to be reunited, it is hard not to feel bad for Dionysius because it seems like he truly does love her. Humperdinck, on the other hand, is completely despicable. He does not care for Buttercup in the slightest, only forcing her to marry him so that he can have an excuse to start a war.

Many of the events and characters depicted throughout The Princess Bride are reminiscent of events and characters from Chariton’s Callirhoe. They both tell stories of lovers separated after an apparent death, trying desperately to remain faithful to one another while they are carried throughout distant lands by an underserving and dishonest man. While Westley and Buttercup both have characteristics reminiscent of Chaireas and Callirhoe and shared similar experiences, the antagonists, Dionysius and Humperdinck have different motives for misleading the women into marrying them.