The unsatisfying nature of revenge

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“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

This is, without a doubt, the most famous line from The Princess Bride. It’s remembered because it is repeated so many times, and so much a part of the character played by Mandy Patinkin. Inigo Montoya is the Spaniard who joins up with Fezzik (Andre, the “gentle giant”) and Vizzini the Sicilian (Wally Shawn) as paid mercenaries to capture and ultimately kill the Princess. (They’ve actually been hired by the evil Prince Humperdinck to make it look like mercenaries from a neighboring enemy country killed his bride-to-be, so he could start a war with them). Westley ends up besting all three of them to briefly gain the Princess back only to lose her again, outmanned by Prince Humperdinck and his soldiers.

When Inigo finds out that the six-fingered swordsman who killed his father is the Count Rugen, Humperdinck’s first in command, he and Fezzik join up with Westley to rescue the Princess and allow Inigo an opportunity to meet up with the Count and avenge the murder of his father.

This revenge has defined Inigo’s life so far. It consumes him. It’s the one thing he must do before he can do anything else. He’s been training as a swordsman for this one purpose, and he’s been practicing what he’s going to say when he finally faces the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

As the story goes, Inigo was eleven years old when he witnessed the killing of his father for no other reason than the six-fingered man didn’t like the sword his father had spent a year making for him, and only wanted to pay a tenth of the asking price. When his father refused, he ran him through the heart right in front of Inigo, who, as a brave eleven-year-old, challenged him to a duel right then and there. The six-fingered man left the boy with a scar on each cheek to remember him by, but let him live. From that moment on, Inigo vowed to grow up, become the best swordsman in the land, find the six-fingered man and avenge his father’s death.

Which he does, but not without difficulty. When the two first meet in a corridor in the castle, the Count orders the five guards with him to take care of Inigo. Inigo immediately dispatches all five of them with his sword so fast that the first one has barely fallen when the last one goes down. Inigo then looks at the Count and utters very slowly and deliberately, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” At which the Count turns and runs.

Inigo chases him through rooms and corridors until he comes around a corner and takes a dagger thrown by the six-fingered Count in his stomach. Inigo falls to his knees and whispers, “Sorry, father. I tried. I tried.”

“You must be that little Spanish brat I taught a lesson to all those years ago,” Count Rugen taunts him. “Simply incredible. Have you been chasing me your whole life, only to fail now? I think that’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. How marvelous.”

Slowly, Inigo pulls out the knife and struggles to stand. “Good heavens,” marvels the Count, savoring his superior position. “Are you still trying to win? You’ve got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance. It’s going to get you into trouble someday.”

At which the Count draws his sword and slashes twice at Inigo, but Inigo is able to thwart them both with his sword. Then with newfound confidence, he says calmly, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Now with his strength returning, he takes the offensive over the Count, pushing him back further and further and uttering, more loudly with each blow, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Until the Count screams, “Stop saying that!”

Finally Inigo unhands the Count and now it’s his turn to taunt. Slashing his cheeks the same way he received it as a boy, he starts asking the Count what he would give him for his life. The Count offers him anything and everything, at which Inigo runs him through while uttering, “I want my father back, you S.O.B.”

Revenge is a major thread in most adventure stories, and often seems justified, as this one does, by the cruelty and unjust behavior of the villain. And although you tend to be drawn to the Inigo character in this story, and his focus and determination, there is something yet unsatisfying in his killing of the Count. The unsatisfying part is exactly what the Count can’t deliver. He can’t give Inigo his father back. So now we just have another person dead, and how does that feel? Somewhat empty.

Actually the Count was right. Inigo had an “overdeveloped sense of vengeance.” Inigo even says to Westley at the end, “You know, it’s very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”

Justice is a prominent human value. It’s built into all of us, because we all have been born with a sense of right and wrong, and along with that comes the desire to see right rewarded, and wrong punished. This is all good, and why we all identify with Inigo’s character. But whenever we take retribution into our own hands, that’s when things go wrong. That’s because God says, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay.” You see, God is the only one qualified to make evil doers pay. There is too much evil in all of us to make any one of us the judge and jury of anyone else.

My suggestion: If you’ve been in the revenge business, get out, now, while you can. Inigo really had a pretty wasted life. The revenge business doesn’t pay very well. He was either getting odd jobs or getting drunk. And when he was done with his revenge, there was nothing left for him to do. Don’t let this happen to you. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. God’s way is to turn this whole thing upside down, which may not make for a great movie, but it will make for a better life.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)

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