Meltdown: The story of a markdown parser

21 May, 2024 by flofriday

Getting nerd-sniped

A couple of weeks back my friend Luis asked me how my blog works and once I told him that I wrote a custom (very simple) static site generator, he got excited and started to build his own.

🦜 Chirpy the Parrot: Couldn't you just use an existing solution like substack or bearblog?

Of course, and that's also what I told him, however as developers we love to build stuff and it's not always about getting the easiest solution but about the fun of building stuff.

Anyway, a couple of days later I got a message which as a compiler engineer scared me:

Chat with friend

Well, there was only one obvious next step: Building a proper markdown parser and recording my-self doing so that he can learn more about parsers 😝.

Wait ... why not regex?

If you don't spend all day thinking about grammars, LL(1)-conflicts and the advantages of right-recursion over left-recursion you might be wondering why I was so terrified by the attempt to parse markdown with regex.

The simple answer is that regular expression can only express regular languages but most languages like Markdown are context-free. In less fancy terms this means that regex just isn't strong enough to understand Markdown.

I think about it in the terms that while regex can count it cannot remember previous counters. For example, the following regex can accept one to five opening parenthesis and one to five closing ones.


However, it doesn't enforce that all opening ones have a matching closing one and there is no way to express that in a regex.

🦜 Chirpy the Parrot: actually you can express it with: \((\((\((\((\(()?\))?\))?\))?\))?\)

Yes, Chirpy you are correct, as long as all counts are finite, we can express it with a hideous regular grammar, however we often don't want to limit us to an upper limit. Also, even if Markdown would enforce upper limits, I would argue that it easier to write a recursive decent parser than such regex.

Parsing markdown is hard different

Before getting lost in the weeds of consuming tokens and unexpected EOFs, we first need to address the most important question: what to name our baby. And this is especially hard when the competition is so strong with great hits like sundown, marked, parsedown and redcarpet. However, I quickly discovered that meltdown doesn't have a prominent entry, which is just a wrong that needs to be corrected. As a bonus the package name was also free on PyPI and to be honest I just like the confidence it emits.

With a great name at hand, I fired up VSCode and OBS and started writing a simple recursive decent parser. While there is no official Markdown spec the most common is CommonMark, since I am more comfortable with GitHub flavored markdown, I implemented something along those lines. The goal is to learn more about parsers anyway.

Pretty soon I discovered a pretty big difference between parsing Markdown and other programming languages, with which I had more experience: there are no errors in Markdown.

This means if you come across a malformed rule you just decide to interpret it as something else. For example, if the bold start ** is never closed than we just interpret it as text and not as formatting.

Unfortunately, this leads to quite some ugly code where we cannot insert a node into our tree until we also found a matching closing tag, and otherwise need to insert the opening tag as text.

def _parse_strikethrough(self: Self) -> list[Node]:
    self._inside_strikethrough = True
    children = self._parse_rich_text()
    self._inside_strikethrough = False

    if not self._match("~~"):
        # No closing tag found, insert start as text
        return [TextNode("~~")] + children

    return [StrikeThroughNode(children)]

This isn't too bad. However, sometimes we don't want to parse something as rich text but as unformatted raw input. For example, take inline code, once a backtick appears we parse everything until the next backtick as code and not as richtext. If however, no closing backtick appears we need to insert the initial backtick as text and go back (rewind) and parse the following content again, but now as rich text.

def _parse_code(self: Self) -> Node:
        start_index = self._index
        stop_symbols = ["`", "\n", "\0"]
        code = self._consume_till(stop_symbols)

        if not self._match("`"):
            # Malformed input, rewind
            self._index = start_index
            return TextNode("`")

        return CodeNode(code)

Other than this, meltdown was quite easy to implement. During the implementation I often tried some edge-cases in other parsers like which really helped. Meltdown still isn't the cleanest implementation but it has quite a few tests and a somewhat simple API to use:

from meltdown import MarkdownParser, HtmlProducer

doc = MarkdownParser().parse("# Hello **friends**!")
html = HtmlProducer().produce(doc)

Introducing meltdowns cousin: markberg

I recorded myself during the first two hours of meltdowns development and explained as I went along. At that point the parser could parse bold, italics and headers and could convert it to html.

🦜 Chirpy the Parrot: Where is the Youtube link?

Well, I am not that great on camera yet, there are minutes of dead time where I debug stuff, sometimes some German slips out and at some points I was frustrated and used profanities. Nothing too bad but also nothing I want to be on the internet forever.

However, if you are interested to learn more about parsers, interpreters and compilers, I cannot recommend Crafting Interpreters enough.

Anyway, those two videos were enough for Luis to get started on his own markdown parser, which he lovingly called markberg. Since he started out with the same base, both parsers have quite a few things in common. However, Markberg surpassed Meltdown's development quite quickly.

Currently all of Luis's blog posts (well at the time of writing there is only one but I am sure more will come) are rendered with markberg. But what's more important is that I could demystify parsers for a friend.

Porting my blog to meltdown

As I mentioned in the beginning my blog uses a super small (single file) custom static site generator. The script previously shelled out to pandoc which converted the markdown to html.

Now with a self-written markdown parser this didn't seem like the right solution anymore. So I expanded the markdown parser to be able to handle all my blog posts without needing to modify them, published meltdown on PyPI and converted my static site generator.

Which means that the article you are reading right now was parsed and converted to HTML by meltdown. I don't know if it will stay this way forever, it very well might be that someday I'll want to use a complex Markdown feature without messing around with my parser first, and I'll switch it out again. But for now, this seems like a fun side project.

You can find meltdown on GitHub and PyPI. It still doesn't handle all cases, but if you want an "understandable in an afternoon"️ small parser with a lot of low hanging fruit for contribution it might be the right choice for you.