7 Year-Old Vengeance Ed

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

Our seven-year-old guest was literally on the edge of his seat, watching The Princess Bride for the first time, and seeing Inigo Montoya fulfill his lifelong pursuit to avenge the death of his father at the hyperdactyl hand of Count Rugen.

“This is an excellent scene,” our young guest said precociously.

When we considered movies we had on hand that were PG-rated–his requirement–we came up with two, this one and Flushed Away. Afterward, he said both were good, but he much preferred Princess Bride; why? “Obviously, more chaos.” Was a bit puzzled by this, but his mom let us know that “obviously” and “chaos” were two of his favorite words lately.

Watching Princess Bride with a kid makes you recognize that it has some messages that were common in films of the period that were intended for younger audiences, but not so common today. While the arch villain is left by the hero to live with his own infamy, Montoya seems in many ways to be more heroic in his quest and in its completion. The theme–call it Count of Monte Cristo light–seems largely absent from youth literature today, and perhaps even to my own surprise, I find that unfortunate.

There is something in Montoya’s righteous indignation, his passion for justice, his sense of honor, that is comforting and wholesome. The idea that vengeance is always wrong, an idea that runs through much of modern Christianity, seems misplaced to me, just as misplaced as assuming that revenge is always just. French moralist Joseph Joubert wrote, “Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged.” (He also wrote “Children have more need of models than of critics.”) The standard escape these days–played so often as to be a cliché–is that the hero captures the villain and allows him to live, only dispatching him when the villain makes a last effort to kill the hero when his back is turned. This is present somewhat in Princess Bride I suppose; If Montoya was not seemingly mortally wounded early in the scene, I’m not sure it would play as just.

I realize that there is something in my core personality that sympathizes with Montoya, and I suspect this was installed in me at about my guest’s age. Seven is traditionally referred to as the “age of reason” among Catholics, when people start becoming responsible for the morality of their actions. Seven is also a pivotal age for many developmental psychologists; Piaget marks this as the onset of “concrete operational thinking” and the close of egocentric thought.

It seems somehow retrograde and old-testament, these ideas of vengeance and honor. But I’ve always liked those imperfect characters who nonetheless were honorable in their own way. I’ll take Montoya over Wesley, Solo over Skywalker, Batman over Superman. I am pleased, therefore, that a pervading sense of the avenger is present in the first book I am reading to my unborn son, Cory Doctorow’s new Little Brother. We are going through it slowly, a few chapters a week, and of course I like the way it introduces a hackerish ethics to issues of surveillance, but I also like its revival of the vow of retribution. No spoilers please–I hope Doctorow does not cave to more recent sensibilities, and dampen the release (or noble tragedy) of retribution.

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