“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
The Princess Bride is a cultural phenomenon at this point, as a loving satire of the fantasy genre. The movie catapulted this story to its popular culture status, and audiences fell in love with the heroic Westley saving the Princess Buttercup from the evil Prince Humperdinck. But is Westley truly the hero of this movie? The answer to this question draws some interesting parallels with another culturally significant movie, and points to the idea that while the movie is about the love between Westley and Buttercup, the truly heroic character in this movie is Inigo Montoya, the man who will stop at nothing to avenge his father. To provide basis for this claim, one must first look at Westley’s characteristics. Westley is most definitely the protagonist of this story, and the lead character. His suave demeanor, wit, and cleverness lend him an almost godlike stature. He is a better swordsman than Inigo, a better fighter than the giant Fezzik, and a smarter man than Vizzini. While Westley’s skill gives him the means to play the hero, the movie instead portrays him as a mysterious force, and someone who may not be wholly good.
In The Princess Bride, Westley is intended to be attractive to young boys. He is clever, conniving, and occasionally chaotic. Westley is an rugged, world-weary man who is in love with an idealized fantasy girl. To make Westley’s role in the movie far more apparent, Westley’s character in the movie is altogether reminiscent of a genre-switched Han Solo. Both men are suave characters who dance perilously close to the realm of illegality. Westley is the Dread Pirate Roberts while Han Solo is a smuggler. Both men are extremely competent in whatever task they set their mind to, and both of them are somewhat cruel to their love interests over the course of the film. While Westley is, by this measure, a very important character in the movie, it leaves the role of fantasy hero open, as Westley is not the idealized hero that a fantasy story tends to thrive on. While Inigo Montoya is not an idealized character in this story, either, in the satirized world that The Princess Bride takes place in, Inigo’s quest for revenge fulfills many more of the requirements for a traditional fantasy hero than Westley’s quest for his abandoned love.
Inigo’s father was murdered by a six-fingered man after the man refused to pay for a fancy sword. Inigo, scarred and abandoned in the world, grew up with the goal to become the best fencer in the world in order to defeat the six-fingered man in honorable combat. It just so happens that the man is Count Rugen, an evil man who has dedicated his life to the study of torture. At this point, one can begin to see the beginnings of a fantasy story developing in the subplot between Inigo and Rugen. While this is not the main plot of the story, the climactic battle is between Count Rugen and Inigo Montoya, and the battle shows Inigo’s almost superhuman desire for revenge, shaking off multiple stab wounds in order to defeat Rugen. To oppose this burst of heroism, Westley, rendered literally immobile by Rugen earlier in the novel, instead outthinks Prince Humperdinck, somewhat denying the audience the conflict that the movie has built up towards. In this sense, Inigo is idealized as the hero, and given his means of revenge, while Westley is shown not as a hero, but as a pragmatist, banking on the prince’s cowardice to outweigh his belief that Westley is truly injured. While this is a clever resolution of the issue, and by no means shameful, it does not lend the same dramatic tension as Inigo’s battle with Rugen.
Perhaps the most interesting way to look at the difference in heroism between the Westley and Inigo would be their effects on the common person in the story. The two have equally despicable individuals standing against them over the course of the story, and yet only one of them is truly defeated. Inigo kills Count Rugen, and thus rids the world of a powerful man with an affinity for torturing innocents. This is inarguably a noble goal. On the other hand, when we begin to analyze Westley’s goals, he wished nothing more than to save his love for himself. Westley does not kill Humperdinck or even majorly inconvenience him. He merely leaves him tied to a chair for someone else to find and escapes with the princess. As Humperdinck’s plan was originally to kill Princess Buttercup and frame Guilder for the entire ordeal, the fact that the princess has been taken and presumably killed in a siege on his wedding night actually works into his plan admirably. Westley doesn’t seem to care for the people who are inconvenienced by the rule of Prince Humperdinck, or for the war he might have brought upon an innocent people. He is content to retire rich and happy with the person he cares about. While this may be a happy ending, it is assuredly not a heroic one.
While Westley is an admirable character, and his novelized form is assuredly the prototype of lovable, charismatic characters like Han Solo, his actions over the course of the movie show that he is only out for himself and Princess Buttercup, and thus he is not fit to be an archetypal fantasy hero. Inigo, however, while on a quest for vengeance, overcomes adversity, helps Westley get the love of his life back, and conquers his flaw of alcoholism in order to defeat the man who killed his father, showing himself to be the true hero all along.