The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

A review of the children’s fantasy novel The Neverending Story by Michael Ende.

Spoiler: It does end.

It was 1979 when Michael Ende first saw his fantasy book published in Germany, and it wasn’t until 1983 that the English-speaking audience was gifted with a translated edition. Most famously, however, is how ‘The NeverEnding Story’ film adaption was completely rebuked by Michael Ende and saw him remove his name from being associated with the production at all. He wanted nothing to do with the piece, citing it had deviated away from the story he was trying to tell.

Skip forward two decades, and I’m being slowly traumatised by the giant animatronic Falkor, the luckdragon. So, it is quite a wonder why I was interested in reading the book to begin with. When I heard that the writer disliked the film, it made me all the more curious as to what had happened and what was translated so poorly to the big screen.

The book focuses on Bastian Balthazar Bux, sadly suffering from the dead mother trope, and neglected by his father. In an attempt to escape a ceaseless group of bullies, Bastian hides within an antiques bookstore of Carl Conrad Coreander. If these names are a bit much for you, well, we’re not even in the fantasy aspect yet. I have no issues with odd names, but I do know it can throw some readers off. Just letting you know now before you get excited. Here, Bastian finds a book, The Neverending Story, so enticing he steals it and hides in the school attic to read.

Now, I don’t know whether I’ve seen a book so enticing that I’ve been tempted to steal it, but I do know what it’s like to wish to escape into the world of a story, and that is exactly what Bastian decides to do. In this book, Bastian reads about the world of Fantastica, of the benevolent ruler, the Empress, and how her world is under threat of a formless entity known as The Nothing. Not just that, the Empress is dying and a boy warrior has been sent out to find a cure for her. That warrior is Atreyu.

Of course I was going to want to read this book. I have a love of fantasy stories and this reminded me so much of ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ by C. S. Lewis, with the crossing between the real world and a fantasy one. It has the same ‘it could be me’ appeal that fed the imagination of Harry Potter readers, and so forth. As well as a benevolent luckdragon there is also Gmork, master of nightmares, apparently. Then there’s Morla, the giant turtle that surely played a part in my budding interest in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

I could go into great detail of all the plot points and what I love about the Neverending Story, but the main piece is that little thing I mentioned earlier, the escapism. Bastian, as a reader, has so much power and purpose in the novel, demonstrating many of the emotions I have felt towards characters within works I have read, and it is easy to wish myself in the shoes of this lucky protagonist.

Bastian plays a central role in the book he is reading, and for some time he doesn’t realise it. Once he does, he is pulled into the magical world of Fantastica and truly begins his journey as a protagonist. Here he does what every fan wishes they could do, he interacts with the characters he has been reading about, and goes on quests to help, but at a price. With every adventure, Bastian loses a memory of his human life and some of the power to leave Fantastica.

Some people might argue that’s a good price, but I doubt that is what Michael Ende is trying to tell with this story.

Within the first half of the book, there appears to be an underlying message of the importance of fantasy, not just in the world of Fantastica, but also the real world. That doesn’t just mean Bastian’s real world, but ours as well. There is magic in the mind and it is the reader that brings these characters to life, gives them meaning and finishes their stories. The fantasy genre often prides itself as being the ultimate exercise for one’s imagination, and the Neverending Story is a good example of this.

It is in this lesson of fantasy that Bastian learns about himself, and what it is he truly desires in life. Not the superficial trivial, things such as being stronger and more confident, like we as an audience experience day to day. Bastian has to discover the fundamental issue that brought him to Fantastica in the first place, what drove him to steal that book and escape within it. What makes us, a reader, relish in reading the lives of fictitious or otherwise characters?

What is his lesson? Well, you’ll have to read it.

Bastian goes through a grand old change in character throughout the novel, developing along with the rest of the characters as Fantastica and its stories are explored. Their struggles are real, and even haunting, with metaphors subtly intertwined with the world that Ende has carefully and creatively constructed. These enable the reader to understand the same lesson that Bastian has to learn, and it is effective.

One of the many criticisms and jokes regarding this book and/or film is that it is called the Neverending Story and yet it does end. The book ends. The film ends. When written correctly, a story doesn’t—the author’s input is superseded by the reader and the rest of the story is filled in by the wandering and insatiable imagination of the readership. This is what an author should strive towards. It is why fan-fiction, adaptations, and derivative works exist, and whilst now feels like an opportune time to discuss The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes, I won’t; that is an essay for another time.

Ende achieves his goal. The characters are so alive and Fantastica so well-established in the reader’s mind by the turn of the final page that it is hard to imagine that is where the story finishes. It is a similar feeling to realising that even though you have ended a phone call with your mother, she doesn’t cease to exist.

Maybe I was too young to appreciate the film properly, but I am old enough to know I much preferred the book. There are so many aspects of the story that I could write about, from the villainous Gmork to the mirror opposite Falkor, right through to the impact of Artax, but this is a review and is already getting quite long.

With that said, it should be clear now how enthusiastic I am about this book and how it has impacted me as both a writer and a reader. If that’s not enough to get someone interested in it, I’m not sure what else will.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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