The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

The Neverending Story book cover
Rating 7.9/10
Undoubtedly a classic in many ways. Nevertheless, a distinctly flawed gem.

The Neverending story is one of those films that truly made a major difference to my childhood. Though I was too young to watch it upon its first 1984 release, my junior school showed it in 1987 or so when I was five (I had a very nice junior school). I remember it distinctly as one of the films that really scared me, but at the same time equally fascinated. The idea of a world inside books was, for an avid reader like myself, perfectly logical, but this was not a nice friendly world of pixies and elves but a world of deadly dangers and fearful monsters. After all, for a child and indeed for an adult who hasn't completely lost all sense of wonder, each book really is another world which can be explored and understood, a world which is at the same time more beautiful and more terrible than the world we live in.

I did not read Michael Ende's original novel until a good while later, indeed about 12 years later, and rather fittingly for a film which was so profoundly imprinted on my consciousness, it is also the first book I have read specifically with the idea of writing a review in mind.

Plot wise the elements that made the film unique are all very much present, albeit the film takes up quite literally the first half of the novel. A young boy, Bastian Balthazar Bux is chased by bullies into a book shop where he steals a book called The Neverending story. The plot then fluctuates from Bastian in an attic reading the book to the tale of Atreyu, a young hunter being sent on a journey to save the land of Fantastica and its ruler, the mysterious Childlike Empress, from the encroaching Nothing that is rapidly making Fantastica vanish.

Eventually it is revealed that Fantastica is actually the land of human dreams and fantasy, and that the only way to save it from the Nothing is for a human child to enter Fantastica and give the Childlike Empress a new name, then revitalize the country with their wishes and dreams. At this point (after a little existential prevarication), Bastian is dragged into Fantastica and gifted the mystical Auryn by the Childlike Empress, a symbol of her power inscribed with the words "do what you wish", which had previously accompanied Atreyu on his quest.

I was quite amazed up to this point just how true to the book the film had been, with the exception of a few monsters who I suspect were cut for reasons of visual effects budget, and extremely pleased that the underlying philosophy of Fantastica was revealed in far more detail. Indeed one of the definite high points for me was Atreyu's confrontation with Gmork the Werewolf, in which Gmork revealed that the Nothing was not merely human apathy and loss of interest in fantasy, but that the things and people consumed by it were transported to the human world as lies or delusions, which the powerful were able to use to subvert the beliefs of others. This is a wonderful idea, since who hasn't seen their favourite book or film characters cheapened to speak a particular rhetorical message by some literary critic or used only as a way to fill the pockets of the wealthy.

I also appreciated the dark hints Gmork gave that he was free to travel between Fantastica and the human world, and that there were powers interested in the destruction of Fantastica.

Up until this point I was absolutely loving the book, the language and descriptions were short and somewhat clunky, which I suspected was a result of the book being a translation of an original German text. Indeed translation complexities can be seen in those names that were different from those in the film. For instance, Fantastica rather than the film's Fantasia, or the creatures called Rockbiters being called Rockchewers in the book. Likewise I missed a little tension that existed in several scenes of the film, for example, when a distraught Atreyu screams at his beloved horse as he sinks into the swamps of sadness, rather than the slower and more dolorous conversation Atreyu has with the talking horse in the book.

This however was made up for by a great deal more mystery and wonder. We got several more fairy tale style descriptions of Fantastican lands and creatures, and a good few literary illusions, from Atreyu's people, a group of buffalo hunters similar to Native Americans being called "green skins" recalling the "red skins" of J. M. Barry's Peter Pan, or Chairon the centaur, a figure from mythology. I also loved the way that it was brought home to the reader just how never-ending the story was, by having any element of the story about to drop out of the narrative scope typified by the phrase "but that is another story and will be told another time".

I therefore began the second half of the book in high spirits, expecting to learn more about the Nothing, the Empress and the nature of Fantastica. What I got however was a radically different story. Rather than a quest to save a world from a rapidly approaching and very frightening danger, the book suddenly turned into a view of Bastian wandering around Fantastica with the power to create anything by his wishes, and to create more of Fantastica just by telling a story, all thanks to the power of Auryn. The lands created no longer appeared quite as wonderful and threatening since it was always emphasized just how unbelievably invincible Bastian was, and though it became clear as time went on that Bastian's wishes were affecting him negatively, making him lose parts of himself and becoming more and more petty, this process wasn't fast enough to stop the book from dragging extremely, exploring less than interesting side turnings into rather more familiar literary territory such as Bastian winning a contest of arms with a magic sword or magically creating happy endings for minor characters. In short this transformed Fantastica from the quite literally grim land of fairy tales it initially appeared, to a place rather like the Magic Far Away Tree of Enid Blyton, a jolly romp where the merry children meet strange creatures, but woe betide anything bad should actually happen to them.

It also became clear during this half of the book that Bastian is a very different character to the imaginative, but lonely child of the film. While the book initially begins with the book shop owner describing Bastian as weak and cowardly, this I put down to the grumpiness of the old man rather than any inherent flaws on Bastian's part. Likewise when the narrative described him as fat and pasty and bow legged I believed this translation error.

As Bastian gained power however he also became far less pleasant. Indeed his very first wish is to transform into a strong and handsome prince rather than his actual self. This made the friendship between Bastian and Atreyu (not to mention the several suggestions of a kinship between the two), rather harder to understand particularly because Ende doesn't show any actual evidence of it before it starts going progressively more wrong as Bastian loses his memories through ever more wishes, a process which eventually leads Bastian to become virtually the book's villain.

I will say Ende managed to reach a satisfying conclusion in the end, albeit by that point in the story I really didn't care whether Bastian returned to the human world or not since I'd long since really been bothered about him. Indeed Bastian's redemption is far quicker than his corruption, which is a shame since the redemption was beginning to be interesting and finally introduced back some element of danger since it was not certain that Bastian would actually make it back to the human world.

A major problem I find upon rereading the novel is the philosophical inconsistency between the first and second parts of the book.

In the first half we learn that Fantastica is the world of human fantasy, and must be continued by the creativity of humans in the form of giving new names to the Childlike Empress, and that this process is threatened by those who cheapen fantasies into lies and delusions.

In the second half however, we are told that Bastian must discover what he truly wishes for by carrying out many wishes and changing Fantastica in the process, but each wish destroys part of his memory and that if he loses all memory of the human world entirely he loses all purpose and indeed the ability to make more wishes.

The ethical position of a person needing to discover what they truly want is a quite reasonable one (I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on that very subject) and it is also reasonable to assume that a person who gets overcome by desires loses themselves and their purpose. I do not however see a correspondence between the sort of fantasy found in literature, and determining what a person truly desires in their life.

It might be that Michael Ende equated fantasy (as its worst critics do) with wish fulfilment, that some sad loser (usually male) in a humdrum or purposeless life reads fantasy literature in order to live vicariously through characters being a great hero or adventurer or having romantic encounters they can't get in the rest of life. This however seems directly incorrect, since manifestly any good fantasy novel will be far closer to reality and will say as much about ourselves as anything else. Indeed the best rated fantasies are usually rated so precisely because of their realistic grounding of character and consistency, likewise a desire isn't fulfilled through fantasy but through actually working to acquire it in reality, meaning that the gap in definition between desires, i.e., what a person wants in their life, and fantasy wishes, i.e., wishing to be a handsome prince or fight a monster is extremely large.

Of course it is entirely possible that both as a lover of fantastic literature, and as a philosophy graduate who has studied desire fulfilment I am reading far too much into this. Nevertheless it is this contradiction, as well as the writing style or digression of the book's second half that I found most disappointing, especially considering that what I wanted for the second half was more about the Nothing, the Childlike Empress and the nature of Fantastica.

It almost feels that Ende had two separate visions for novels, one about fantasy and one about wish fulfilment and purpose. The second of these could quite well have been set in our own world and didn't need Fantastica as a setting, and indeed seems to denigrate the entire concept of Fantastica because of it.

The Neverending Story is undoubtedly a classic in many ways - unique world and philosophy, and some extremely nice concepts. Nevertheless, it feels a distinctly flawed gem. Had the whole book been of the quality of the first half I would gladly rate the book much more highly despite possible translation errors. As it is, this is likely the one occasion when I would break my own rule and recommend people watch the film before reading the book, since the film preserves much of what is best, and avoids what I felt were the worst aspects of the book. And only if you really enjoy the film should you try Ende's original novel.

This The Neverending Story book review was written by

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