Looking For S. Morgenstern

We here at Olivia Waite always dread April 1, because we are cursed with an awareness of our own gullibility. Cursed, I say, because knowing that you are gullible does not help you be less gullible. Instead, you find yourself in this particular trap:

  • someone offers a fact
  • you initially accept this fact as truth
  • you remember you are gullible
  • you become riven with doubt
  • the truth of the fact now depends on how much you trust that person not to fuck with you
  • you realize that all your friends are capable of fucking with you

And that's on a perfectly normal day. April Fool's makes things significantly worse.

One of many book covers for William Goldman's The Princess Bride

Sometime around the age of fourteen, I read The Princess Bride for the first time. I bought it because I'd remembered liking the movie, and because the text on the back read: "What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince in the world—and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?" They have since toned down the cover copy, which is a shame.

If you've read the book—and if not, why not?—you know that William Goldman is just the editor. The real author is the mysterious S. Morgenstern from Florin, and it was Goldman's Florinese father who used to read the book aloud to young William as a boy. When he had a son of his own, William procured a copy and was shocked to discover that his father had been abridging the narrative and changing certain parts of the story. And it turned out the original was a wordy political satire—including a 56-page scene of Buttercup packing her luggage—and it's no wonder William's son was unimpressed. So William excises all the dull bits and follows his father's alterations, and that's the version that's being published and that I had in my fourteen-year-old hands.

And, being fourteen and gullible, I wanted to read the original. I'd learned that many of the things people told me were boring—history, classical works of literature, archaeology, etymology—turned out to be otherwise.*

So I went to every bookstore in town in search of a copy by S. Morgenstern.

I think it was about a year before the other shoe dropped and I realized why I'd had no luck in my search.

It was some years after that, while working as a bookstore clerk in a marvelous independent bookstore, that a customer came up and asked for the original S. Morgenstern version of The Princess Bride. She was a bookish-looking girl of about fourteen.

"Oh dear," I said. "I've been there." And I explained. And all the while, she looked at me, and on her face it was plainly written: Is this person fucking with me?

And I knew precisely how she felt.

*Sidebar: in my Honors English class as a high school freshman, I remember being taught the different names for rhythmic units (feet) in poetry (iamb, dactyl, the lovely trochee, and so on) even as our teacher informed us there was no way this would ever prove useful in the rest of our lives. About ten years later, those types of feet helped me win on Jeopardy. Which just goes to show that usefulness is always a relative term.