BUTTERCUP AND THE SALEM WITCH HUNTS

Deni Dietz

I have lots to say about Bouchercon, and cons in general, but I’ll shelve it for a couple of weeks, or until my Bouchercon photos are developed and scanned – whichever comes first 🙂

Meanwhile, I read the following in the Peninsula News Review, a local paper. I immediately contacted the author, MICHAEL CULLEN — his email addy is news@peninsulanewsreview.com — and he graciously gave me permission to "cull" his article and run it on Kibbles & Bits. So, without further ado, I give you:

BLENDING REALITY: Buttercup and the Salem witch hunts

William Goldman’s The Princess Bride has become the benchmark for the classic fantasy romance. What started out as a skillful parody of the faraway story of swashbuckling "twoo wuv" has set itself as the best "romance" fiction ever.

One of the marvelous things about The Princess Bride is the simple manner in which a complete fantasy romance is created. We willingly suspend disbelief and allow people who die to return from the dead, we allow "true love" to flourish without concerns, we allow illogical logic to fall logically, we allow "Cliffs of Insanity" and R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size) to become antagonists. And all the while, a prince named Humperdinck, a princess named Buttercup, a rumoured pirate named "Dread Pirate Roberts" and even a horse named "Horse" propel us simply through a world that only exists if we wish it to. And if we have to wish upon a star, or escape once on a special vehicle called "upon a time," well, we touch our noses with our magic dust and our own very special magic finger and go for it.

It makes us happy as we imagine the landscapes of Guilder and Florin. It makes us happy as we follow the escapades of Inigo Montoya as he hunts for the six-fingered man (Count Rugen) who killed his father. We thrill when the battle between the two men plays itself out and Inigo repeats the famous phrase, "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

And we nod, yes, when Westley and Buttercup are finally reunited at the castle, jump on white horses and ride off into the "sunset." True love ends "happily ever after."

I guess that’s the dramatic irony for the audience, though. It’s more like "dreamatic." Dramatic irony, as you know, occurs when the audience or reader knows more than the speaker or a situation in a play or a text. The audience knows that Florin and Guilder are not actually city-states; they know that Miracle Max cannot bring Westley back to life; they know that Inigo Montoya should die from the sword wounds inflicted by Count Tyrone Rugen; they know that nothing they are watching or reading "actually" exists. The fantasy romance is in a place called "faraway", just like "Never-Never Land" and witches on the "yellow brick road." We all know that. It’s OK, though, cause that’s the way it is. Or that’s the way it isn’t.

This could raise a problem or two.

One of the concerns, however, happens when a text that’s imaginary gets "actualized." In this way, the metaphor of the story — the figures of speech and the similes, the things that are imagined, and all that stuff — get taken seriously. Whenever that happens, all hell breaks loose.

William Blake, or one of his friends, noted that whenever a metaphor (an "imaginary") actualizes itself, it becomes a monster. The French Revolution is, historically, a perfect example. The Salem witch hunts are another.

Women (characters who are real) were charged with being witches (characters who are not real). The imaginary witches were hanged or burned at  the stake. The whole metaphor of a "witch" was taken as an actual. The result was that a lot of horrible deaths happened in Massachusetts. If the witch hunts had been played out a little later, and in Kansas, the Good Witch of the South and the Wicked Witch of the North would both be piles of carbon.

And Dorothy would have been charged as an accessory.

So when we read The Princess Bride, or watch the movie, we fulfill our expectations of the fantasy. But we don’t go on a quest to find the awful Prince Humperdinck so that we can make his life (which is already "to the pain") more painful. We don’t actualize the metaphor. We don’t impose any of the characters or any of the story to the laws of physics and gravity. If we did, we would create monsters. And we would become monsters.

In some spaces we become incapable of distinguishing between the realm of the fantastical and the realm of the actual. Both are valid arenas, but one is a metaphor and one is a "reasonable."

The world of metaphor, like The Princess Bride, is intended to soothe and to comfort and to suspend time and disbelief. It is not intended to inspire hate, loathing and the nasties. William Goldman’s fantasy is probably on the shelf of those who aspire to impose their will through power, but it should not be referred to and quoted as an excuse to do anything that smacks. It’s supposed to make "twoo luv" an article of faith and "I love you" as easy as a song to say.

Which brings us to Eye of Newt, which is MY world of metaphor. Salem Village, of course, did exist. My three "witches" — Anne, Chastity and Mercy — did not. Furthermore, my readers are free to suspend disbelief and accept that my witch-spells really work. Only two were used to bring other humans "to the pain," and both were uttered at despicable characters.

Of course, that’s no excuse for inflicting pain. Except, without it, I wouldn’t have "conflict" or a plot or a mystery novel.

And that’s what Eye of Newt is — a novel. Salem witches don’t really "reincarnate" to the 21st-Century as cats, dogs and parrots.

Not unless we want them to.

Not unless, as Michael Cullen so aptly put it, we touch our noses with our magic dust and our very special magic finger and go for it.

As you wish,
Deni, who believes that "twoo luv" really exists and that war and violence and all things nasty should come from the realm of the "reasonable." Who also believes that we should never allow a metaphor to become a reason … or an excuse for anything violent and harsh that we do.

4 thoughts on “BUTTERCUP AND THE SALEM WITCH HUNTS

  1. Pari

    Deni,There’s so much in this post to think about. Thank you for starting my day so fully.

    I will say that it astounds me how fiction — of any sort — is so often thrust into a discussion of real vs. unreal.

    I know that when I use real places fictiously, there’s always fall-out (both positive and negative).

    Reply
  2. Deni Dietz

    Yes, Pari. The more I read Michael’s piece, the more I think about it. At Bouchercon I overheard people talking about book characters as if they really, truly existed. That’s the sign of a well-written book, I think. But, in some cases, it could also be an author’s…responsibility [or headache]: the subtle attempt — or maybe “ability” would be a better word — to keep over-the-top *fiction* from becoming reality.

    But then, that’s another blog! 🙂

    As you wish,Deni

    Reply
  3. Elaine

    Great post, Deni. And, as Pari said-much to think about. Particularly appropos re The DaVinci Code with all of the historical and theological mistakes. It’s astounding to discover how many people took his ‘words as Gospel’. Actually, it’s frightening.

    There are still too many people who believe all that they read – fiction, or not.

    Reply
  4. JT Ellison

    Ah, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, one of my favorites. I watch Mandy Patankin in Criminal Minds and just hope that one night he’ll use the Montoya line in the philosophical intro.A good link, Deni, really enjoyed the essay!

    Reply

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