Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Michael Ende – The Neverending Story

Even though I grew up in Austria where Michael Ende’s books are put into most young readers’ hands early on, my first contact with The Neverending Story was through the movie (that Michael Ende hated, btw). I still have immense amounts of love for that movie, its music and imagery, and the way it shows how books can transport you to a different world. But – as anyone who has read the book knows – it only tells half the story.
I thought the end of 2020, that very strange and unsettling year, was a perfect time to revisit the old favorite and see if it holds up to the test of time.

THE NEVERENDING STORY
(OT: Die unendliche Geschichte)
by Michael Ende

Published: Thienemanns, 1979
Hardback: 428 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: [image] This inscription could be seen on the glass door of a small shop, but naturally this was only the way it looked if you were inside the dimly lit shop, looking out at the street through the plate glass door.

This epic work of the imagination has captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide since it was first published more than a decade ago. Its special story within a story is an irresistible invitation for readers to become part of the book itself. And now this modern classic and bibliophile’s dream is available in hardcover again.

The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the courage to face unspeakable foes and the mysteries of his own heart.

Readers, too, can travel to the wondrous, unforgettable world of Fantastica if they will just turn the page…

I clearly remember the first moment I opened this book and was struck by the colored print. The text is written in red ink, that is until you reach the parts that take place in Phantásien, which are printed in green. No matter how much time passes, I still get a surge of excitement and I wonder why publishers don’t do this more often. Of course, not every story lends itself to something like this – the only other example I can think of is House of Leaves – but especially for books aimed at younger people, it’s such an easy trick to make a book that much more magical.

I won’t go into too much plot detail here because most everyone has seen the movie anyway, but I’ll talk a little bit about the second half of the book which is unfamiliar to those who have only seen the movie. Because when Atreyu takes Basian all the way to the Childlike Empress, after many adventures, traveling on Fuchur the Luck Dragon, losing his horse Artax in the Swamps of Sadness and seeing the end of Gmork, Bastian’s story is only beginning. Unlike in the movie, Bastian doesn’t simply wish Phantásien back into existence in one sweep, but rather he is given Auryn and told to Do As You Wish.

Book Basian is a short, fat boy who doesn’t do well at school, flees into imaginary worlds, and is bullied by his school mates. More interesting is his strained relationship to his father who hasn’t been the same since Bastian’s mother died. The fact that father and son barely speek to each other and Bastian is yearning for the love of a family (a broken one, but a family nonetheless) is probably the most important part of this story.
But Bastian is also a 10-ish-year-old boy who wishes to be handsome and brave and admired by the people around him. So he uses Auryn to wish for it and thus (if you’ve seen the second movie, you’ll know this) forgets a part of who he was before.

I’ve read some reviews of this book recently and I find it striking how many people love the first half (Atreyu’s journey) and hate the second part (Bastian’s journey). I can’t help but thinking that these people were influenced by the movie – which, again, I adore and will defend forever to anyone who critizices it – and didn’t really see the book for what it was. It is not Atreyu’s story, it’s Batsian’s. On his journey through Phantásien, Bastian not only meets many curious creatures and constantly “improves” himself by making wishes, he also goes on a downward spiral to becoming a completely different person. He doesn’t remember ever having been chubby or afraid or bullied, so his personality turns into that of someone who has always lived with being admired and considered the best at everything. It does not make him very likable, as you can imagine.

As I said, this was a reread for me and I have watched the movie a billion times, so there weren’t all that many surprises. But there were some. I had forgotten just how imaginative Phantásien was! Michael Ende truly had amazing ideas and added in so many little details that made me smile. Whether it’s the well-known creatures that made it into the movie – rock biters are the best! – or creatures from Bastian’s journey like Graógramán the lion, I kept being surprised over and over at how lovely and original these ideas are. Amarganth, the Silver City, and the people Bastian meets there, particularly stick in my mind.

I also want to mention the ease with which Ende added some diversity into this story. Atreyu has olive-colored skin, the centaur Cairon is Black (with a zebra bottom half), the Will O’Wisp has no gender… You see, the whole “product of their time” argument doesn’t work here because this book was published in 1979 and yet, Michael Ende had no problem imagining a world where skin color was diverse, where not everyone has to be fit into a gender binary, where fantasy creatures come in all shapes and sizes, some ugly, some beautiful, some old, some young. When I first read the book as a young teen, I neither noticed nor thought about these things, but this time around, I did notice and was quite pleased.

All of that said, I don’t think Michael Ende was a particularly engaging storyteller. Atreyu and Bastian both have great adventures but Ende tells the story in a way that is more like a retelling. He doesn’t describe dangerous scenes in a way that make us fear alongside our heroes, he simply lets us know “There was danger. It was defeated.” I may not be a huge fan of some comtemporary YA practices, but I do enjoy being sucked into the story and feeling like I’m right there with the protagonist. In The Neverending Story, the thrill is taken out of it, there are no action scenes to speak of, even epic battles are simply described, rather than told in a way that made me feel involved. While Atreyu’s battle with Gmork in the movie is also over very quickly, at least there was some feeling of danger. In the book, Gmork’s end is moving on a different level, but there’s no showdown of any kind and not even really a feeling of danger.

It’s of course a matter of personal taste whether you like this writing style or not and I didn’t particularly dislike it – I simply felt that it kept me farther away from the characters than was necessary. Unlike Bastian completely falling into Atreyu’s story, I was kept at arm’s length and watched events as the unfurled from the outside, looking in. For a book that is all about the power of books and the imagination, I found this a weird choice.

Lastly, I need to mention the chapter illustrations. Not only does every chapter start with a different letter from the alphabet (alphabetically at that) but the illustrations are still magical. Green and red like the writing itself, they depict the creatures or places encountered in the chapter, wrapped around the first letter of that chapter. Some are more intricate than others, some show many characters, others only a few, but I found that each of them still works really well to give you an idea of what’s to come without spoiling the plot. In the illustration on the right from the beginning of the story, we see Cairon and Atreyu just before Atreyu starts his journey to find a cure for the Childlike Empress.

So what’s my verdict after many, many years of first having read this book? When I was 13 years old, it was beautiful and made me want to go to Phantásien myself, strengthening me in my belief that books were important and magical. But then, I only read it for the story, ignoring the deeper themes like Bastian’s realization that all his wishes are worthless if he doesn’t achieve the thing he wants the most, deep down inside. Reading it as an adult, the plot wasn’t all that important anymore. It was the little wisdoms imparted on Bastian along the way, it was seeing how wishes – even selfless ones – have consequences. And it was still about the importance of books and stories and keeping your imagination alive. For that, I will always cherish this book.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Michael Ende – The Neverending Story

  1. Andreas says:

    Now you have to dance to Limahl and ride Fuchur in the Bavaria Film Studios 🤣
    When I read it first at the start of the 80s, I never understood how the book could be only half done when Bastian entered that world and became the „hero“. It was much later that I watched the film … and didn’t like it.

    Liked by 1 person

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