William Goldman's The Princess Bride is famous (among other reasons) for a literary device it employs - it pretends to be an abridgment (or "the good parts version") of a longer work by S. Morgenstern, and Goldman's "commentary" asides are constant throughout.

Of course, Morgenstern and his book do not exist.

Was pretending to be an abridgement of a made-up work invented by William Goldman as a literary device for published literature? If not, where did it originate and what is its history?


2 Answers 2


Much of J.R.R. Tolkien's work is presented as an abridgment/translation of the "original", usually in Elvish. Much of The Silmarillion is presented as a gloss of epic poems, some of which Tolkien partly wrote, and Lord of the Rings is supposed to be a translation of the Red Book of Westmarch.

Dune is similarly a re-telling of stories from books, many of which are excerpted as chapter headings.

Fictional diaries are a very old device; just off the top of my head is Nikolai Gogol's 1835 Diary of a Madman. These are at least tacitly abridged, as they rarely contain a lot of the dull day-to-day stuff in real diaries. Similarly, the epistolary novel (collections of fictional letters, again at least tacitly edited) is an old device, dating back at least to the 17th century. (The original novel of Dangerous Liaisons was such an epistolary novel.)

The device is undoubtedly much older; medieval examples wouldn't surprise me. But I do know that Goldman wasn't unique.

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    More examples for a "translated older work" would be Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (as a rather new one) or Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto from the 18th century. But yeah, the gist of it is that it's quite an old and common practice. Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 23:59
  • Thomas Mallory uses "as the French book rehearseth" a lot, this way. But he is referring to actual texts. Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 13:22
  • Ironically enough, as C.S. Lewis observed, Chaucer frequently said, "as I find in my source," when he was diverging from the work he translated.
    – Mary
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 13:39
  • James Branch Cabell's 1919 fantasy novel Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice may be an example of the sort of thing you're asking about.
    – user14111
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 2:46

This technique is arguably as old as the novel itself! Don Quixote employs a literary device where Cervantes suggests the story is a translation of an earlier Arabic work:

One day, as I was in the Alcana of Toledo, a boy came up to sell some pamphlets and old papers to a silk mercer, and, as I am fond of reading even the very scraps of paper in the streets, led by this natural bent of mine I took up one of the pamphlets the boy had for sale, and saw that it was in characters which I recognised as Arabic, and as I was unable to read them though I could recognise them, I looked about to see if there were any Spanish-speaking Morisco at hand to read them for me; nor was there any great difficulty in finding such an interpreter, for even had I sought one for an older and better language I should have found him. In short, chance provided me with one, who when I told him what I wanted and put the book into his hands, opened it in the middle and after reading a little in it began to laugh. I asked him what he was laughing at, and he replied that it was at something the book had written in the margin by way of a note. I bade him tell it to me; and he still laughing said, “In the margin, as I told you, this is written: ‘This Dulcinea del Toboso so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand of any woman in all La Mancha for salting pigs.’”

When I heard Dulcinea del Toboso named, I was struck with surprise and amazement, for it occurred to me at once that these pamphlets contained the history of Don Quixote. With this idea I pressed him to read the beginning, and doing so, turning the Arabic offhand into Castilian, he told me it meant, “History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cid Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian.” It required great caution to hide the joy I felt when the title of the book reached my ears, and snatching it from the silk mercer, I bought all the papers and pamphlets from the boy for half a real; and if he had had his wits about him and had known how eager I was for them, he might have safely calculated on making more than six reals by the bargain. I withdrew at once with the Morisco into the cloister of the cathedral, and begged him to turn all these pamphlets that related to Don Quixote into the Castilian tongue, without omitting or adding anything to them, offering him whatever payment he pleased. He was satisfied with two arrobas of raisins and two bushels of wheat, and promised to translate them faithfully and with all despatch; but to make the matter easier, and not to let such a precious find out of my hands, I took him to my house, where in little more than a month and a half he translated the whole just as it is set down here.

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    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. This is very interesting information, thanks. Is there any indication that Cervantes claims to be abridging, not merely translating, the Arabic pamphlets?
    – verbose
    Commented Mar 7 at 21:25

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