Intertextuality Between The Princess Bride and Daphnis and Chloe

Tess Fischer

Writer’s Comment: I wrote this essay for my Classics Senior Seminar on the Second Sophistic, a Greek literary era of the 2nd century, A.D.  Reading translations of Greek romantic “novels” from that era compelled me to think about the evolution of romances in all eras and media. My essay evaluates Rob Reiner’s 1987 film The Princess Bride in the context of the Greek novel, comparing the film with Longus’ second century Daphnis and Chloe. Both works share the Greek-derived literary conventions of elaborate plotlines, shallow characters, and an incessant assertion of the power of love; but nearly two millennia of hindsight add a layer of irony not available to Longus and other Greek authors. Further, The Princess Bride uses the timeless quality of its romantic themes to its comedic advantage. My essay acknowledges this new spin on the romance genre as a testament to the longstanding traditions of the Second Sophistic.

Instructor’s Comment: Tess Fischer wrote this paper as a term project for CLA 190, the capstone seminar for the classics program. The seminar topic of 2010 was the Ancient Novel. A contradiction in terms? Perhaps. But the often-neglected genre of ancient Greco-Roman romantic fiction does appear uncannily similar to that (putatively) modern Western invention, the novel. As such, the subject offered (among other things) a great chance to explore the differences and overlaps between the classical and the modern, and Tess responded to the challenge with her excellent paper on the 1987 US film Princess Bride and the imperial Greek romance (novel?) Daphnis and Chloe. Tess’ original paper maps out the clichés of romantic love that have been endlessly recycled in the Western (and now perhaps global) narrative tradition. The particular endpoints she chose, the modern American film and the ancient Greek novel, are perfectly suited to her interests and abilities as a culturally aware contemporary citizen and a student of classical languages and literature. I am proud of the choices she made and the final product of her research.
—Akihiko Watanabe, Department of Classics

Rob Reiner’s 1987 film The Princess Bride is difficult to place in any one era.* Following a farmhand-turned-pirate (Westley) who overcomes a series of obstacles to re-unite with his lover (Princess Buttercup), the film has all the elements of an archetypal fairytale in the Grimm tradition: pirates, giants, swordfights, torture, and the rescue of a princess. The work is an adaptation of William Goldman’s 1973 novel of the same title, but tracing the content back to its historic origins, the film may actually be an adaptation of another adaptation of something much older, finding its true roots in prosaic Greek “novels” of the Second Sophistic, and specifically Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe. Daphnis and Chloe tells the story of two young lovers who endure suitors, pirates, and the pain of their own lovesickness before they are finally able to marry and live out their lives together. Jacques Amyot’s sixteenth century translation of the work renewed western European interest in the Greek romantic novel, whose themes gradually tangled with vernacular European folklore. The mixing of ancient and Renaissance storytelling formed the stock from which the Brothers Grimm pulled their folktale collections in the early nineteenth century;1 The Princess Bride revisits these folktale traditions nearly two centuries later, when one might expect any ancient Greek elements to be considerably diluted. However, the basic aspects of the Greek novel have reached the film fully intact.

In his prologue, Longus promises that his story will “cure the sick, comfort the distressed, stir the memory of those who have loved, and educate those who haven’t.”3 The Princess Bride opens with a similar offer from a young boy’s grandfather, who reads to him from the Goldman novel when the boy is sick in bed. The boy’s initial disgust at the prospect of listening to a romantic fairytale unwittingly reflects the common modern attitude toward pastoral romances: The popularity of the psychological novel over the last two centuries has dampened our taste for the early Greek romance, which is relatively lacking in character development and psychological introspection.4 Reiner’s narrative-driven story and archetypal characters epitomize the very aspects we criticize in the works, adding a source of humor while honoring the timeless themes of Daphnis and Chloe. The latter focuses on two young sheep and goat herders who fall in love in rural Lesbos, typifying an even older literary style by appropriating verbal patterns and pastoral themes of the poet Theocritus (3rd century, BCE).5 Although both The Princess Bride and Daphnis and Chloe draw from older literary traditions, the difference is that Daphnis and Chloe is not self-conscious about this conventionality, evoking Theocritean pastoral themes without irony. This is not to say that the work is entirely humorless, as Longus’ text occasionally evokes elements of ancient comedy and Greek puns occur throughout; rather, the work doesn’t derive its comedy from its borrowed literary styles.

Conversely, The Princess Bride adopts the formula of the Greek romantic novel in order to poke fun at it. This Greek formula revolves around a young couple who prove their love and fidelity through a near-impossible series of obstacles, only to arrive at a happy ending together.6 Its long-winded storyline comes at the price of any substantial character development, an aspect that The Princess Bride uses to its comedic advantage.4 Placing an absurdly treacherous set of barriers between Westley and Princess Buttercup, the movie bypasses any obligation to their psychological profiles. Our understanding of these characters, then, is based solely on their relation to the plotline. Their motivation to overcome their obstacles is simple: “true love,” the grossly amplified theme that consumes the otherwise flat hero and heroine.

The title characters of Daphnis and Chloe are similarly love-stricken, succumbing to their devotion despite a number of challenges that prove the depth of their loyalty. Here the storytelling mechanisms are fundamentally identical: (1) lavish plotlines, (2) reduced characterization, and (3) an overlying assertion in the power of love.6 In this way Reiner uses the ideals established by the Greek romantic novel as a structural support for his story while humorously exaggerating its three facets.

The first of these facets, the lavish plotline, is accomplished through a series of trials and tribulations that prove Westley’s and Buttercup’s ever-enduring love for one another. Like nearly all surviving Greek novels, the film is fundamentally an action-adventure, constantly whisking away its lead characters to extreme new locales: the Cliffs of Insanity, the Fire Swamp, and the Pit of Despair. The difference is in its use of tongue-in-cheek names, which lighten the mood while maintaining a certain distance from the Greek romantic novel’s seriousness. The accompanying orchestration and set design are equally outrageous, with swelling orchestrated passages intensifying even the slightest hint at love or danger, and old-fashioned painted skylines comprising many of the sets. Over the top could be an understatement when describing Westley and Buttercup’s first kiss, set to sentimental guitar music and timed with the sunset at Buttercup’s picturesque country farmhouse.

While Daphnis and Chloe proves its lead characters’ loyalty through a similarly elaborate plotline, its story is unique to the Greek novel genre in its rather static environment. Longus’ preference for this fixed location stems from a literary interest in the Theocritean pastoral ideal, which prevents the characters from traveling far outside their idyllic country environment.7,5 Nevertheless the work demonstrates the same directional pull as the Greek romantic novel, using time rather than space as a landscape on which to base the events of the story. Daphnis and Chloe become gradually more enamored with one another as the seasons change and Chloe’s parents decide she is ready for marriage. Foreign visitors and invaders promise adventure but often fail:7 a gang of pirates attempts to kidnap Daphnis to a faraway land, but Chloe uses a herd of cattle to sink their ship before it leaves the bay (I.30); a naval battalion takes Chloe and her livestock as spoils of war, but the Nymphs appear to the commander in a dream and demand that he return them before he reaches his final destination (II.23).3

Although the story never strays far from its rustic setting, the Greek sense of adventure is maintained with Daphnis’ and Chloe’s sexual exploration, which begins when a local farmer suggests kissing and nude embracing as a means of easing their lovesickness (II.7).3 Daphnis remains sexually curious throughout the novel, going so far as to lose his virginity to a married seductress (III.17).3 Daphnis’ and Chloe’s final consummation of their sexual desire upon their wedding is matched by the sense of adventure in The Princess Bride’s final scene, in which Westley, Buttercup, and their comrades ride away on white horses into an uncertain future. Not only does the prospect of new adventure for the travelers parallel Daphnis’ and Chloe’s “adventure” of breaking new sexual grounds: Like Longus’ highly conventional marriage/copulation ending, the ending scene of The Princess Bride likewise echoes a cliché of its own American film context, riding off into the sunset. It is a hopelessly overused ending by contemporary standards, but a humorous analogy for the equally conventional ending of Daphnis and Chloe.

The second convention or facet of the Greek romantic novel is a lack of psychological characterization relative to the characters of modernity. The benefits of these minimally developed characters to the overall works are threefold: By nature of their simplicity, these characters are (1) more accessible to their audience, (2) more easily recalled in oral tradition, and (3) do not distract from the intricacies of the aforementioned plotline. Unlike the complex personalities to which we are accustomed in modern literature, the characters of Longus’ work are distinguished by archetypal features. Daphnis and Chloe typify the young peasant couple of Greek lore, physically beautiful and desperately in love despite their naiveté.5 But Daphnis is “cleverer than a girl” (III.4) as the Greek bias maintains, and capable of much of the critical action that advances the plot.3 Not only does he guide their relationship sexually, but he also attempts to earn the right to marry by impressing his master with his goat-herding and musical abilities (IV.15),3 celebrated aspects in the Theocritean pastoral tradition which add to his heroism.5

Likewise, Reiner’s hero possesses a great many talents, though these are often exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Lacking any discernable personality traits, Westley nevertheless proves himself to be a man of many strengths: sailing, rock-climbing, sword-fighting, intellectual gaming, hand-to-hand combat, and land navigation. Moreover he shares Daphnis’ capacity to drive the plot toward the inevitable union between hero and heroine. On the evening that Princess Buttercup is to be unwillingly wed to Prince Humperdinck, he orchestrates a plan to sabotage the marriage with the help of his friends Inigo the Spaniard and Fezzik the Giant. Wheeling an ominously cloaked Fezzik to the castle where the wedding is taking place, Westley and Inigo prepare to storm the building while Fezzik, pretending to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, frightens the guards with a staged bursting into flames, a theater gimmick reminiscent of the mock sacrifice in Achilles Tatius’ novel Leucippe and Clitophon (second century CE). The act is successful and Westley is reunited with Buttercup by means of his own skill and ingenuity. Furthermore, the scene captures the essence of the male hero of Greek romantic novels: ever capable and powered by love. Both Westley and Daphnis showcase their masculine heroism when they find their heartbroken lovers just in time to prevent their suicides. Daphnis finds Chloe weeping and contemplating taking her life out of an erroneous belief that Daphnis has forgotten her (IV.27);3 the timing for Westley’s arrival is predictably over the top, as Buttercup, believing she has been married to Humperdinck, has already touched the tip of her dagger to her chest.

Just as Daphnis and Westley are mere archetypes of the love-struck heroes of the Greek romantic novel, the other characters of the works are likewise formulaic. Many of Longus’ characters such as Daphnis’ and Chloe’s parents do not appear to have any defining personality traits at all. The developed characters that do exist in the text serve only as they contribute to the storyline and are not characterized any further than the plot demands: the cowherd Dorcon dies from a pirate attack upon giving Chloe the pipes that would sink the ship which has taken Daphnis hostage (I.29); Lycaenion (“she-wolf”), the deceptive and manipulative seductress who tricks Daphnis into accompanying her to the forest where she teaches him about love-making, disappears from the story as soon as her lesson has been taught (III.16-17).3 These characters’ superficial traits exist to rattle the relationship between Daphnis and Chloe rather than enhance our understanding of the emotional interiors of these particular characters. Like other authors writing in the tradition of the Greek novel, Longus makes use of stock characters with easily identifiable sets of characteristics: the braggart, the drunkard, the conniving woman.8 But Reiner seems to view the stock character tradition with a modern bias which takes character diversification for granted, and he compensates by exaggerating character clichés to the point of mockery. His Inigo Montoya, the swashbuckling Spanish swordsman with a drinking problem, resembles the classic hero of Spanish picaresque literature with his blundering mannerisms and bragging habits. Although Inigo becomes an unlikely hero of a subplot involving his vengeance on an accomplice of Humperdinck who killed his father, this is presented as a tangent from the main narrative of Westley and Buttercup, to which Inigo has little use other than comic relief.

Like Reiner, Longus also employs an archetypal drunkard character for comedic purposes. Daphnis’ brother’s sidekick Gnathon (“full mouth”) arrives in Book Four, accompanying his alcoholism with an insatiable appetite for food and sex. In Longus’ words, “He was nothing but a mouth and a stomach and what lies underneath the stomach” (IV.11).3 In short he is a parasitos or moocher, a stock figure in ancient comedy that seems humorously out of place in Longus’ pastoral setting.8 His alcoholic tendencies lead him toward sexual impulsivity, and his lust for Daphnis poses a more serious concern. But the simplicity of his motives makes him laughable as well as despicable. In describing Daphnis’ appearance within a pseudo-philosophical musing on the nature of love, he uses overblown flowery language reminiscent of ancient comedic monologues: “Don’t you see how his hair is like a hyacinth, his eyes shine under his brows like a jewel in a golden setting, his face is very rosy, while his mouth is full of white teeth like ivory?” (IV.17).3 This stylistic allusion to ancient comedy provides an easily relatable source of humor while repressing any serious character development that might complicate Gnathon’s role as a parasitos.

In a world of shallow characterization, even character names weigh heavily. Where Longus does not have room for complete character archetypes he includes characters with symbolically significant names, and Reiner follows suit. As Westley tells Buttercup about the legacy of Dread Pirate Roberts, his recently inherited name, he explains, “The name is the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear.” While Longus favors idyllic pastoral names like Philetas (an Alexandrian poet revered by Theocritus) and Dionysophanes (“Dionysus made manifest”),3 Reiner throws in cutesy made-up names like Buttercup and Humperdinck, advertising his tongue-in-cheek treatment of the romantic genre. While characterization is already reduced via archetypes, Reiner goes on to simplify the names of even bit characters to whom this reduction is not applicable, applying literal names to characters such as The Impressive Clergyman and The Albino. In this way the work emphasizes its lack of unique characterization, the second facet of the Greek romantic novel.

The third facet, the theme of abiding love between the hero and heroine, is stressed to the point of exhaustion in these ancient works, providing a leverage with which the author can manipulate the lead couple. The Princess Bride adopts this concept, renamed “true love,” as a central unifying theme which bonds the main characters, propelling their actions and subsequently the plotline as well. The movie tagline establishes true love as the driving force behind Westley’s pursuits: “Scaling the Cliffs of Insanity, battling rodents of unusual size, facing torture in the Pit of Despair: True love has never been a snap.” True love’s ability to endure these sorts of extremities derives from the Greek romantic prototype, in which love in and of itself is a cause of suffering. In the Greek novel, love is treated as a debilitating disease contracted by violent means of Eros’ archery; it is a “tragic madness” (C.S. Lewis)10 with physical as well as behavioral symptoms.2 As Longus writes of Chloe’s love-struck condition:
Her heart ached; her eyes wandered uncontrollably…She took no interest in food;     she lay awake at night…her face went pale and then, in turn, blushed red. Even a cow stung by a gadfly does not behave so madly.” (I.13)3

Daphnis’ love displays similar symptoms:

He ate none of his food except just a taste; when he had to drink, he did no more than moisten his lips. He was silent, although before he had chattered more than the grasshoppers; he did nothing, although before he had been more energetic than the goats…his face was paler than the grass in the summer. (I.17)3

He felt a pain in his heart, as though it were being eaten by poisons; sometimes he panted as though someone was chasing him, and sometimes he was short of breath, as though it had all been used up in the attacks he had just survived (I.32).3

Unlike Daphnis and Chloe, who suffer with or without each other’s company, Westley and Buttercup only agonize when they are separated. Westley’s agony is physically manifested when Prince Humperdinck, angered by Buttercup’s insults and undying infatuation with Westley, literally sucks the life out of Westley with a torture machine in the Pit of Despair. Before starting the machine, Humperdinck warns Westley, “No man in a century will suffer as greatly as you will.” Westley endures this excruciating torture, proving the strength of his love for Buttercup, and it is for this love—coupled with a personal grudge against Humperdinck—that the semi-retired Miracle Max agrees to help Inigo and Fezzik and revive Westley. As Miracle Max tells Westley’s companions, “True love is the greatest thing in the world, except for a nice M.L.T. — mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.”

While true love in The Princess Bride is depicted as a noble cause, the maddening effects of its equivalent in Daphnis and Chloe rouse sympathy from other characters in the story. Philetas, an old man who has observed Daphnis’ and Chloe’s relationship, relates the painful symptoms of his own experience with lovesickness and suggests kissing and nude embracing as an antidote for their troubles (II.7). The antidote fails to cure Daphnis and Chloe of their ailment, and as a result the characters suffer without being physically separated. On the other hand, Westley and Buttercup do require separation to feel heartache, and although they suffer deeply while they are apart, love itself is never the instrument of their torture. Despite this more sanguine attitude toward love, The Princess Bride shares the Greek romantic novel’s overlying assertion of love’s thematic power, which also allows the characters to endure great suffering.

Borrowing this and other structural elements from Longus’ work, The Princess Bride profits from the relative simplicity of the Greek romantic novel, exaggerating its lavish plotlines, simplified characters, and thematic love while also poking fun at these longstanding conventions. As Roger Ebert remarks in his review of the film, “Reiner does justice to the underlying form of his story… The Princess Bride looks and feels like…any of those other quasi-heroic epic fantasies—and then it goes for the laughs.” 9

Despite the unpopularity of ancient Greek literary conventions in the modern context, Reiner delivers a lighter version of the classic overblown love story that so many modern audiences despise. Rather than dismiss the aspects that disagree with literary modernity, Reiner emphasizes these differences so that modern viewers are able to laugh at the contrast. It is a new spin on Longus’ venerable formula.

1.    Reeve, Michael. “The Re-Emergence of Ancient Novels in Western Europe.” The Greek and Roman Novel. Ed. Tim Whitmarsh. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

2.    König, Jason. “Body and Text.” The Greek and Roman Novel. Ed. Tim Whitmarsh. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

3.    Longus, trans. Christopher Gill, “Daphnis and Chloe.” Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Ed. B.P. Reardon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

4.    Fusillo, Massimo. “Modernity and Post-Modernity.” The Greek and Roman Novel. Ed. Tim Whitmarsh. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

5.    Chalk, H.H.O. “Eros and the Lesbian Pastorals of Longus.” Journal of Hellenistic Studies 80 (1960): 32-51.

6.    Morson, Gary Saul. “Dialogues in Love: Bakhtin and His Critics on the Greek Novel.” The Bakhtin Circle and Ancient Narrative. Groningen, Netherlands: Groningen University Library, 2005. 

7.    Romm, James. “Travel.” The Greek and Roman Novel. Ed. Tim Whitmarsh. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

8.    Lever, Katherine. The Art of Greek Comedy. London: Methuin & Co. Ltd., 1956.

9.    Ebert, Roger. “The Princess Bride (PG).” Chicago Sun Times, 09 Oct 1987. Web. 8 Dec 2010. <

10.    Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 1936, 1985.