How to have the perfect duel.


Princess Bride DuelSome of us fight for a living, and for those of us who do it is extremely refreshing to face a worthy opponent. This is not just an opponent who pushes the boundaries of our skills, but one with whom we are able to engage fully in our “martial” art according to its conventions and rules. In this post I look at what makes for the perfect duel, which is a contest of skill, rather than a mere struggle.

There is no better example of the perfect duel than the one between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black from William Goldman’s book The Princess Bride. This was well represented in Rob Reiner’s 1987 film of the same title, the plot of which I will discuss below to enumerate the ingredients of the perfect duel.

Three RoguesIn the story three rogues have abducted Buttercup, Prince Humperdinck’s bride, and escaped across the sea and up the Cliffs of Insanity, but are pursued by a mysterious man in black. The Man in Black is climbing up after the rogues when their leader, the mastermind Vizzini, cuts the rope. However, the Man in Black does not fall; clinging to the cliffs he continues to climb to the top. Vizzini, dismayed at the continued pursuit, instructs his swordsman, Inigo Montoya, to stay and finish him off. Inigo is then left to wait for the Man in Black to either fall or climb to the top.

Man in Black on CliffsTrust

The interaction between the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya begins as the Man in Black is clinging to the sides of the Cliffs of Insanity. Inigo asks him whether he could hurry up, and the Man in Black asks for a rope or a tree branch to help him to the top. Inigo then brings up that he could do that, but that he thinks that the Man in Black will not trust him because he is just waiting around to kill him. Eventually the Man in Black agrees to Inigo’s lowering a rope after Inigo swears on the soul of his father that the Man in Black will reach the top alive.

The first ingredient in the perfect duel is trust. The type of trust is that the contest is going to be the one expected – in this case a duel of swords. The Man in Black needed to know that Inigo would not drop him on the rope, or otherwise try to dispose of him by tricks or treachery. This allowed the Man in Black to accept Inigo’s help, and to know that when it came to the contest for his life it would be by the sword and not some hidden means.

Inigo MontoyaCourtesy

Once the Man in Black reaches the top of the cliff he begins to draw his sword. Inigo quickly tells him to wait until his is ready. He allows the Man in Black to sit and remove the rocks from his shoes. During this time Inigo relates the story of quest for revenge against the six-fingered man, and even at one point hands his sword to the Man in Black.

The second ingredient in the perfect duel is courtesy. Inigo, who clearly has the advantage of not having climbed the cliff and having had time to rest, does not immediately press his advantage. He extends to the Man in Black a chance to rest. Further, the Man in Black does not take advantage of Inigo having handed him his blade. This is going to be a fencing match, and each will begin the fight when the time arrives, not sooner.

Princess Bride DuelExpertise

The duel begins when the men draw their swords and assume their stances. Each initially tests the other with a few cuts. Then begins what is described as the “Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times”. The men fight over the rocky terrain, all the time exchanging remarks that I never understood until later when I discovered they were discussion of fencing terms. The dialogue is reproduced below:

Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
Inigo: Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capa Ferro?
Man in Black: Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels out Capa Ferro. Don’t you?
Inigo: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have.

The third ingredient in the perfect duel is expertise. In the Book, William Goldman gives a significant back story to Inigo’s life which includes a pronouncement from the greatest  swordsmith in Madrid that Inigo was the equal to the greatest swordmaster in his memory. Nothing is said about the Man in Back except that during the fencing match, Goldman writes, “The man in black was superior. Not much. But in a multitude of tiny ways, he was of slightly higher quality.”

Expertise is necessary to keep the conflict a duel because the men both stay engaged in pitting one’s skill against the other’s. Neither needed to change the rules, or employ outside tricks or tactics. It was a technical exercise of fencing – not just fighting.

Inigo is VanquishedRespect

At the end of the duel, the Man in Black disarms Inigo, who in conceding defeat kneels and asks, “Kill me quickly.” The Man in Black replies “I would sooner destroy a stain glass window as an artist like yourself, however since I can’t have you following me either,” before he knocks Inigo out with the hilt of his sword. He then apologizes by saying, “Please understand, I hold you in the highest respect.”

The last ingredient for the perfect duel is Respect. The Man in Black expresses his deep respect for Inigo’s mastery of the sword. Clearly, as one who was Inigo’s equal if not better, he had a deep appreciation for the ability, skill and training that goes into becoming a fencing master. Now that the contest was at the end, the Man in Black chose to disable rather than to kill. This was because Inigo was not the Man in Black’s enemy, but his adversary. Once Inigo was beaten, the duel was over, and each man could return to their pursuits, which for the Man in Black was to recover Buttercup, not kill Inigo.

You can watch the whole scene here:

This is how to have the perfect duel. You need all the ingredients. Otherwise, you are just having a struggle. Most of life is about struggles brought about a lack of one of the above ingredients. Sometimes people have no trust and don’t know when the fight begins or ends. Other times there is no courtesy and each seeks to disadvantage the other before the contest begins or take advantage of the others courtesy to harm the other. You may also find that without expertise neither party can stick to the rules of the battle and instead employs outside tricks or techniques. Further, without respect for the adversary the struggle is about dispatching one’s enemy other than defeating one’s opponent.

As a lawyer, it is my business to square off with other attorneys over matters that are important to our clients. At the very best these conflicts are duels. They are the conflicts that I actually enjoy. The other attorneys are my adversaries, not my enemies. When we are finish, one of us is defeated, but we can both appreciate the other’s skill.

In contrast to the above you may wish to compare Inigo’s duel with the Man in Black with his fight with Count Rugen, and you will see how a lack of the above change a duel into a struggle.

Evan Taylor is a traveler, lawyer, and returned Peace Corps volunteer. He is a strong believer in that we need a science of morality as comprehensive as our currently understanding of the physical world. Otherwise, he an avid listener of EDM and wants to learn to dance Bachata.