The Neverending Story

Michael Ende

Cover of The Neverending Story

Rank: A
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 2008

Author Name: Michael Ende

Review: Wow! This is a children’s book par excellence, and the book to which other children’s novels should be compared. Once again, the Germans have come through for us, where so very many English and American authors have failed. Hurrah!

First, a word of caution. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of The Neverending Story, and have heard of it because of the movie. The movie, in its own way, is a classic of the fantasy film genre of the 1980s (whose king, of course, is Labyrinth), and is quite enjoyable, but it differs in a couple key ways. First, the movie only covers about half of the book, which is fine; it makes a good enough movie. Second, though, is it doesn’t capture what this book tries to do as a book—something that would be nearly impossible to film, as you’ll see. Bear this in mind as you read, and factor it into your decision to read this book (which I whole-heartedly recommend).

The Neverending Story is, in my opinion, a rather fanciful translation of Die unendlich Geschichte (literally, “The Unending Story”), written in German by Michael Ende in 1979. Many familiar with the movie are probably familiar with the basic plot of the novel. Bastian Balthazar Bux, a young rather unathletic boy whose father has become distant since his mother died, happens into a curious bookshop, and steals a book entitled The Neverending Story. He takes it to his school (which he doesn’t like very much), and wanders up to the attic to give it a read. The bulk of what comes next is Bastian reading the book, and it’s at this point that the book (the physical artifact) becomes rather interesting. Up to this point, the entire book is printed in red ink. When Bastian begins to read The Neverending Story (the fictional book that exists inside the real book), the print changes to green. This distinction (between the color of the text cataloguing the “reality” of the book and the color of the text describing the “fictional world” Bastian reads about) is maintained throughout the rest of the story, as we hear about what Bastian is reading, and about Bastian himself (primarily his reactions to what he’s reading).

The actual plot goes like this: Atreyu (auf Deutsch, Atréju) is entrusted with a quest by the Childlike Princess to save Fantastica (the land inside The Neverending Story). It appears that Fantastica is being eaten up by the Nothing: a kind of creeping black hole that swallows everything in its path. He goes on a series of incredible adventures only to discover that the way to save the childlike princess is for a human to enter Fantastica and give the Childlike Princess a new name—something no Fantastican can do.

Now here’s where things get good.

Somewhere around this point, Bastian becomes aware that the story is talking about him. First he just gets a hint of it, but this becomes evident when the Childlike Princess herself takes over Atreyu’s quest and attempts to call forth a human. To do so, she seeks out what amounts to a fictional representation of an author in the guise of a Father Time-type character. He records all stories, and in doing so, destroys them. The Childlike Princess asks him to show her the story called The Neverending Story, and then things get really trippy, as the Childlike Princess in the fictional book The Neverending Story (which contains nothing about Bastian, remember) reads the actual book The Neverending Story (which now includes the introduction with Bastian), and Bastian begins reading that, on an infinite loop, until Bastian realizes that what he must do is physically speak the Childlike Princess’s new name: Moon Child.

Once Bastian does this, then the story takes a new turn, as Bastian finds himself in Fantastica, wherein he’s been entrusted with the power of creation, and the color of the text of the physical book changes entirely to green until the end. Thus, the fictional “real” story of Bastian, and the fictional fictional story of Fantastica merge (or flatten) and become one.

And this occurs at the halfway point of the book.

That should give you a basic idea of what the book is like. Now let me tell you a bit about the high points.

First, since I haven’t mentioned it yet, each chapter begins with a letter, A through Z (we’re quite lucky that Ende had the foresight not to include the umlauted letters of the German alphabet, but also to include the little-used characters Q and Y), which serves as the first letter of the first word of the chapter, as well as the backdrop for a rather incredible picture done in red and green ink. Translating the book from German to English probably proved a little challenging, but can you imagine translating the book to, say, Japanese, or Arabic, or Hindi? I mean, the alphabetic character itself is a part of the illustration! If anyone can get a picture of such a translation, I would love to see it, because the translation must have proved quite challenging.

Second, I have glossed over a lot of the action of the book. Let me say that the action is fantastic. Ende has a wonderful imagination, and puts it to good use. The Fantastican parts of the book are a treat to read, and children will love them. (Plus, there’s no overt religious allegory at all, which is refreshing.) It might be for older kids (8 years plus), but once they’re ready for it, it could be one of their favorite books of all time.

One interesting feature of the book is this medallion called AURYN. It’s a medallion that both Atreyu and Bastian wear—a gift from the Childlike Princess—that has a unique design on the front: two snakes each biting each other’s tails. Several times in the story, the physical book The Neverending Story is referred to, and on the cover is AURYN, as it’s described. My copy of The Neverending Story (pictured above) has AURYN on the front, as I’m sure Ende intended, which should make it that much more interesting (or “real”) for kids.

[Linguistic Aside: Yes, throughout the text, the word AURYN is printed in all-caps. An English-speaking reader might find this annoying, but I think I know why it was done. In German, all nouns are capitalized, no matter where they occur in the sentence. If you’d like to see an Example of how this might look, I offer you this Sentence, which, unfortunately, doesn’t contain too many Nouns, but hopefully you’ll get the Idea. In English, if we want to emphasize a noun, or make it clear that it’s “special”, we often simply capitalize it. In German, though, what is one to do? If all nouns are capitalized, the fact that another one is capitalized doesn’t make it special. The result? Why not capitalize all the letters? I submit that if Ende had written this in English, AURYN would be Auryn.]

Anyway, if you’re reading this, you’re probably at least a teenager, and are more than likely quite a bit older. If you don’t have kids, then, you might wonder, “Why should I read this book?” Aside from it being a delightful tale, this book is an attempt to tease apart just what the purpose of fiction is, and why we read. If you’re me, you often hear things like, “Why should I read a fictional book? What does that have to do with the real world? It’s just a waste of time.” If you’re not me, then, trust me, these folks exist out there, and I imagine they spend their time reading nothing but newspapers, biographies and obituaries. In The Neverending Story, Ende tries to give us an answer. Within the context of the story, Bastian has to venture into Fantastica to get something that will fix his relationship with his father (this is allegorical, of course, and not difficult to figure out, which it probably shouldn’t be). And it’s there, of course. But curiously, as Bastian becomes the antihero when he enters Fantastica (an interesting twist), it becomes clear that fiction belongs in the world of fiction, just as the real world belongs in the real world—yet even so, the statement the book makes is clear: the two need each other to exist. More broadly, though, it’s not merely an argument in favor of fictional literature, but in favor of art itself (something the bookshop owner makes clear at the end: “And besides, it’s not just books. There are other ways of getting to Fantastica and back”). As art is continually under attack, a new defense is nothing to sneer at—especially one as wonderful as this book.

I, of course, highly recommend this book, as it’s easily one of the best (if not the best) children’s novel(s) I’ve ever read. Special thanks go out to my sworn enemy for recommending the book to me, and to my sister-in-law Anna, for getting it for me. And, man, let me just say that in a Harry Potter world, thank goodness for Germany! Without them, we’d be sunk.

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