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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending Story - Roswitha Quadflieg, Michael Ende, Ralph Manheim

“Are you and I and all Fantastica,” she asked, “are we all recorded in this book?”

He wrote, and at the same time she heard his answer: “No, you’ve got it wrong. This book is all Fantastica - and you and I.”

“But where is this book?”

And he wrote the answer: “In the book.”

Ah, metafiction for children. Books within books within books, and all the same book. The Neverending Story. The two snakes, red and green, biting each other’s tails and forming an oval: the amulet AURYN. Mirrored in the red and green printing throughout the book - red for events in the real world, and green for Fantastica. And the twenty-six chapters, each headed with an illuminated letter, starting with A (“All the beasts in Howling Forest...”) and proceeding to Z (“Zigzagging unsteadily...”).

As a physical object, this is one of the most beautiful, and certainly the most treasured, books I own. I own it in both English and the original German, and the German copy, especially, is so completely gorgeous I hesitate to handle it too often.

picture of my German copy

But the story inside the book is so much more dear to me.

This is my favorite book. That’s not a shared honor. I don’t think it’s possible any other story could ever mean as much to me, or shape my life in such a significant fashion.

I learned German so that I could read this book in its original language. I still wear the double-ouroboros AURYN pendant I spent years combing through jewelry stores searching for. I still fly into a frothing rage whenever somebody mentions that abomination of a movie adaptation. My love of this book is pretty freaking monumental.

And it all goes back to when I was eleven.

You have to understand, The Neverending Story is really three books (which are, as I said, all the same book). It exists within Fantastica (which is the landscape of the human imagination, and where most of the story takes place), where the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, the omniscient chronicler of all that happens, is writing it.

[The light] came from an open book, which hovered in midair at the center of the egg-shaped room. It was tilted in such a way that she could see the binding, which was of copper-colored silk, and on the binding, as on the Gem, which the Childlike Empress wore around her neck, she saw an oval formed by two snakes biting each other’s tail. Inside this oval was printed the title: The Neverending Story.

And it exists in Bastian’s world, where he steals it from an old bookstore.

He picked up the book and examined it from all sides. It was bound in copper-colored silk that shimmered when he moved it about. Leafing through the pages, he saw the book was printed in two colors. There seemed to be no pictures, but there were large, beautiful capital letters at the beginning of the chapters. Examining the binding more closely, he discovered two snakes on it, one light and one dark. They were biting each other’s tail, so forming an oval. And inside the oval, in strangely intricate letters, he saw the title: The Neverending Story.

And it exists in the real world too. My world. Where the book essentially matches the same description, although neither of my copies are bound in silk, and only the German version actually has AURYN embossed into the cover, surrounding the title.

So when Bastian discovers he’s reading the same book the Old Man is writing, and I, at eleven, discovered I was reading the same book Bastian had stolen from Coreander, it was basically the coolest thing to ever happen to me.

But it’s not just that.

The book is about Atreyu, a ten-year-old boy hero on a quest, and it’s about Bastian, a ten-year-old boy loser who isn’t good at anything but reading. And when you come across those nested stories as an eleven-year-old girl outcast whose entire life has gone straight to hell in the past year, and whose only escape is reading, let me tell you, something clicks. This book was for me. This book was written for only me, just as Bastian’s version was written for only him.

He, Bastian, was a character in the book which until now he had thought he was reading. And heaven only knew who else might be reading it at the exact same time, also supposing himself to be just a reader.

It’s a magical kind of perfection that can only rarely be duplicated (though if you know any bookish kids around ten or twelve who are going through a rough time, by all means, get them a copy of this book!)

So there’s a heaping amount of nostalgia coloring my opinion, sure.

But this book holds up. There is a lot here that I didn’t get at eleven, and a lot that I’m still trying to figure out now. It’s a story that works on so many levels and with so many themes and fascinating details that I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I completely have a handle on it.

So I’m just going to try and get some of my thoughts down.

First, let’s get the movie issue out of the way. I know a lot of people like it. I am not one of those people. The acting’s bad, the puppets are atrocious (THEY MADE FALKOR LOOK LIKE A FLYING DOG OH MY GOD), the effects are laughable (I know it was the 80’s, but STILL). I won’t get into ALL the reasons why I think it’s shit, except for the main one: IT ENDS HALFWAY THROUGH THE BOOK.

Remember how there are twenty-six chapters in alphabetical order? The movie ends before we even get to M. And I’m probably in the minority, but I think the second half is by far the more interesting, complex portion of the story.

Now, I can see why you couldn’t put the whole book into one movie, and I can see why the halfway point was a good place to end it. But it means that most of my generation thinks that the story ends with Bastian spending like thirty seconds in Fantastica (called Fantasia in the movie) before terrorizing his former bullies on a flying fucking dog (yelling “wheeeeeeeee!” over a techno soundtrack), the end, roll credits.

Oh no, my friends. Oh no. That is not what happens.

The second half of the book is concerned with Bastian’s adventures in Fantastica. And while the plot is less directed than in the first half (Atreyu’s quest is over; Fantastica has been saved), this is where the story gets really dark and becomes a fascinating character study of this boy who is given absolute power and an infinite number of wishes granted at his command.

If you’re not familiar with the book or the film, the basic premise at first is that Fantastica is dying because humans no longer care about the imagination. So the boy Atreyu is sent on a quest by the monarch/avatar, the deathly ill Childlike Empress, to find a cure for her and a savior for Fantastica.

Atreyu succeeds, but not in a traditional way. The quest itself is fruitless - he only ends up finding information that the Empress already knows. But the story of his quest, as written in The Neverending Story succeeds in capturing Bastian’s attention and concern, and he is what they need. Because all that is needed is a new name for the Childlike Empress, which will renew her and Fantastica. But only a human can give her one, because everything and everyone in Fantastica is a creation and cannot themselves create. As Uyulala, the Southern Oracle, puts it:

Who can give the Childlike Empress
The new name that will make her well?
Not you, not I, no elf, no djinn,
Can save us from the evil spell.
For we are figures in a book--
We do what we were invented for,
But we can fashion nothing new
And cannot change from what we are.

So Bastian saves the day by calling the Empress “Moon Child”, and as a reward she brings him to Fantastica and gives him her emblem AURYN, which will grant him an infinite number of wishes.

And that’s when Bastian begins his decline.

As a character, I have always found Bastian fascinating. It was Atreyu that I loved (my first literary crush!), but Bastian that I identified with. At the beginning, he’s such a completely pathetic and pitiful character. Fat, awkward, slow (both physically and mentally), he seemingly has no talents except for making up stories. And he’s recently lost his mother to death and his father to crippling grief. He’s essentially an orphan. But despite his lack of any enviable qualities, I couldn’t help but like him and root for him and identify with him.

But then he gets everything he ever wanted, and he becomes... well, the asshole you might expect, but also something even more sinister. Because every time he makes a wish, the price is that he loses a memory, a piece of himself. By the end of the book, he doesn’t even remember who he is, and he has committed atrocious, unforgivable acts against his friends, his idols, and Fantastica itself. It’s a really dark, haunting story, the second half of this book, and I really wish it were given the credit it’s due instead of completely ignored (as in the movie), or written off as some extended coda (like I’ve seen in a lot of the reviews here on GoodReads).

The second half affected me far more deeply than the first, and I will never forget how completely, literally breathless with shock and horror I was the first time I read about Bastian stabbing Atreyu. Holy SHIT! It’s freaking INTENSE!

And then Atreyu coming back at the end, after everything Bastian has done to him, and vouching for Bastian when he no longer remembers his own name, so that Bastian can go home again. There’s that question AURYN asks: “By what right do you do this?” And Atreyu simply responds: “I am his friend.” Oh my god. I cried so hard. I may never love any real person as much as I loved Atreyu when I was eleven.

There’s a lot more I could talk about - I took over 10 pages of notes on this read-through. Things like, the theory that Atreyu is really an aspect or avatar of Bastian (the Mirror Gate, y’all!), or my thinky thoughts on who and what the Childlike Empress really is (“No one in Fantastica knows, no one can know. That’s the deepest secret of our world. I once heard a wise man say that if anyone were to know the whole answer, he would cease to exist.”), or the freaking awesomeness of Gmork and his soliloquy on lies, or just allll the incredible side characters (Urgl and Engywook most especially!) and alllll the evocative places (the picture mine!)

And the prose! The illustrations! The symbolism! The Nothing!

There’s just so much here.

If I had the time I could write The Neverending Review.

But that is another story and shall be told another time.


19 December 2012