The Princess Bride (film)

The Princess Bride (film) Summary and Analysis of Section 3: The Fire Swamp - Buttercup Threatens Suicide to Humperdinck

Westley and Buttercup see the prince and his men following them from atop the ravine and run into the Fire Swamp, from which Westley claims no one has ever come out alive. In the dark, ominous swamp, the two navigate thick trees and vines. They hear a deep popping noise in the ground, followed by a burst of flames that light Buttercup’s skirt on fire. Westley puts it out and they continue on, avoiding another bout of popping and a second fire plume.

Deeper in the swamp, Westley recounts how it was true that he asked the Dread Pirate Roberts to spare his life so that he might return to Buttercup, but that in fact Roberts took pity on him and took him on as a valet, though he threatened to kill him just about every night. For three years, Westley lived as his servant, learning fencing and other skills, and eventually he and Roberts became friends. One night, Roberts revealed that he was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts, nor even was his predecessor, but that the real Roberts had been retired 15 years, and that each man that took over his position as captain took on his name to continue his fearsome reputation. He offered Westley the job, and for two years Westley assumed Roberts’ identity and captained the ship. But now that he’s found Buttercup, he says that he too shall retire, and pass the job on to someone else.

As he finishes his story, Buttercup is sucked suddenly and completely into a small patch of quicksand. Westley thinks quickly and dives in after her, holding a vine. During the silence while the two are submerged, a hideous, grunting rat the size of a small bear comes along and sniffs at the sand before wandering off. Westley and Buttercup use the vine to climb out of the sand, gasping for breath. As they recover, Westley realizes that they’re surrounded by giant rats. They continue walking, listing off the three dangers of the Fire Swamp: the flame bursts, the lightning sand, and the ROUS’s: Rodents of Unusual Size. As Westley expresses skepticism of the rodents’ existence, he is attacked by a lunging rat who tackles him to the ground and bites his arm. He wrestles it off, and it charges instead at Buttercup. She attempts to beat it with a stick, and Westley wrestles with it again, suffering another bite to the shoulder. Hearing a popping noise nearby, he rolls himself and the rat toward it and throws the rat into the subsequent flame burst. He then grabs his sword and strikes it through, killing it.

They reach the other side of the swamp and enter a pleasant wood. There, they are met unexpectedly by Prince Humperdinck and his men, who demand that they surrender. Westley refuses, but when Buttercup realizes that they’re completely surrounded, she bargains for Westley’s life in exchange for her quiet return to Florin, saying that she can’t bear to experience his death twice. The prince agrees to see Westley brought safely back to his ship, but quietly orders his right-hand man, Count Rugen, to throw Westley in the Pit of Despair when they return to Florin. He then takes off with Buttercup. When they’ve gone, Westley admits to Rugen that he knows he’s not going back to his ship. He comments on Rugen having six fingers on his right hand, and Rugen knocks him unconscious with a blow to the head. The screen goes black.

In the next scene, a rugged, homely man with ashen skin comes into a large, underground chamber full of instruments of torture and lit by dozens of candles, carrying a tray of food. He tends to an unconscious Westley’s wounds. When Westley awakens, the man tells him he’s in the inescapable Pit of Despair. He is healing Westley so that he’ll be healthy when he is tortured to death. Westley claims to be able to withstand torture, but the man says that no one can survive “The Machine.”

A forlorn Buttercup wanders the castle halls aimlessly. The prince comments to Rugen that it must be his father’s failing health that’s upset her. The grandfather’s voice narrates that the king died that night and Buttercup and Humperdinck were married by morning. The boy interjects that that’s an unfair way to end the story. The grandfather says that life isn’t fair, and asks for no more interruptions. He continues, saying that Buttercup was greeted by the townsfolk as their new queen, and we see Buttercup enter the square as before, this time with a much larger crown. As the commoners bow before her, a single old woman in the crowd boos her, claiming to the whole square that Buttercup had true love but treated it like garbage. She continues to insult and boo at her repeatedly, and Buttercup awakens in her castle bed, revealing that it was just a bad dream. The grandfather narrates that it’s 10 days until the wedding, and though the king is still alive, Buttercup’s nightmares are growing worse. The boy is happy to hear he was right about the unfair ending, and the grandfather tells him to shut up.

Buttercup goes to Humperdinck’s office and professes her eternal love for Westley. She threatens to kill herself if she can’t be with him. Humperdinck calls off the marriage and says they’ll find Westley on his ship to tell him. He questions if Westley will want her back after she left him so willingly, but Buttercup says that he will always come for her. Humperdinck decides to send four copies of a letter written by Buttercup on his four fastest ships in different directions to find Westley’s ship and deliver the news that Buttercup wishes to be with him. Humperdinck says that if he comes for her, she can be with him, but if he doesn’t, she should consider marrying him over killing herself. Buttercup agrees.

Section 3 Analysis

Buttercup is, by all accounts, a standard damsel-in-distress for the majority of the story. She is consistently pushed around, told what to do, and alternately endangered and saved by others, and this is perhaps best exemplified in the Fire Swamp scene, in which all three of the swamp's dangerous trials befall her in rapid succession. First, the fire plumes light her skirt up and she screams as Westley puts it out. Subsequently, he has to lift her out of harm's way of other plumes. Next, she falls straight into a patch of lightning sand from which there would've been no return if Westley hadn't thought on his feet to save her. Finally, when Westley is attacked by the ROUS's, she does little to help—although, at one point, she does pick up a stick to hit the rodent with; this is actually one of the only times we see her try to take matters into her own hands, suggesting that perhaps underneath her helpless facade is a bit of bravery.

Westley’s story about his time aboard the Dread Pirate Roberts’ ship is one of many instances of there being a story within this story (which is already within another story). Storytelling is no doubt a key theme in The Princess Bride, perhaps the most obvious one, and the many stories its characters have to tell reinforce this. Westley isn’t even the only one with a backstory worth sharing: Inigo’s story about his father plays a big role in setting up the tale’s secondary plot line in which he seeks revenge on his father’s killer. Without these stories within the story, much of the meat of the film would be lost or unexplained.

Until Buttercup and Westley encounter Humperdinck and his cavalry after the Fire Swamp, we aren’t yet clued in to the fact that the prince is actually an antagonist. Indeed, as he plays the part of the forlorn lover missing his fiancé to his men, so too does he play it to us. Only when we hear his aside to Count Rugen that Westley is to be taken to the Pit of Despair do we see him acting maliciously and deceptively, and for the rest of the film, we understand that he’s the source of the primary plot’s problems.

That is not to say, however, that Humperdinck's evil becomes absolutely clear at this point; one of his defining features is his ability to manipulate by playing a part. This is particularly apparent when Buttercup confronts him and threatens to kill herself. Rather than grow angry and show his villainous colors, he deescalates the situation by calmly lying to her, and even displays sadness for which she (and perhaps the audience) might be tricked into being sympathetic. For a brief time, we wonder if he’s not as bad as we might think. Of course, we soon realize he’s all that and more, but that he masks his evil plans with a calculated, charming facade.

The boy’s interruption when the grandfather narrates that Buttercup did indeed marry Humperdinck (although only in her dream, we later learn) is one of two instances where the boy shows disbelief and frustration at how the story is unfolding—the other being when Westley appears to be dead. This brings about a key lesson from the film that not all stories will cater to one’s desires and wind up being “fair.” Indeed, though The Princess Bride by and large ends up being "fair" (i.e. resolving its plot with a "happy ending"), there are moments that one could argue are very unfair and don’t give the audience proper closure, the most notable of which being that Humperdinck’s survives the story despite his crimes. We the audience (as with the boy) might wish him dead to satisfy our desires, but we must learn that stories are not always written to tell us exactly what we want to hear, but rather to reflect unfair realities: sometimes, bad guys get away with their misdeeds. As at many other points in the film, we find ourselves learning and experiencing this lesson in parallel with the boy.