The Neverending Story
by Michael Ende
“You can enter the literary salon . . .everywhere but from the children’s room,” Michael Ende wrote, describing his despair at not being taken seriously as a writer because of the success of his monumental children’s fantasy, The Neverending Story.
In fact, the book rewards reading by adults, who will find Ende’s surreal inventions as fascinating and his cultural commentary as pungent as any in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (see “A wolf in the Magic Theater,” December 23, 2011).
The book opens with an inscription only decipherable when read in a mirror, and mirror imagery pervades the narrative -- from the narrative structure (only half of which was realized in the initial movie adaptation), to the double heroes who see each other first through a magical mirror, even the fragilely glasslike appearance of the Childlike Empress whose presence sustains her magical land of Fantastica.
The unlikely hero from our everyday world, Bastian Balthazar Bux, enters the bookstore with the mirror image inscription only to escape his school’s tormenting bullies. But once inside, he finds his passion.
“If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end . . .you probably won’t understand what Bastian did next,” the story tells us. Confronted by a book with the title, The Neverending Story, he grabs it and runs.
Not daring either to go to his classes or return home now that he is a thief, he hides in his school’s unused attic reading the story far into the night, gradually realizing that he is the only one who can heal the dying Childlike Empress by giving her a new name.
His entry into Fantastica, already explored through reading, is only the first half of the book. The initial problem of stunted imagination gives way to its mirror image of misused imagination, a problem Bastian can only solve with the help of newfound friends -- fellow boy hero Atreyu, the luckdragon Falcor and the Empress herself -- who save him from becoming as lost in the world of fantasy as he once was in the everyday world.
However, the book’s success -- years on German bestseller lists, translation into dozens of languages, movie and TV franchises -- seemed to leave Ende wishing he’d never returned from his journey to the Childlike Empress’s realm.
Although he had initially collaborated on the script of the initial movie, he later sued to stop production, claiming the final result “changed the whose sense of the story.”
In retrospect, his verdict seems too harsh. Don’t let it stop you from watching the readily available movie (skip the unfortunate sequels). But read the book for the rest of the story.
And for an interview with Ende’s reaction to the movie, see www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20088527,00.html/.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a November of fantasy with the late Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. And the question -- how’s the movie coming along?)