Saturday, April 24, 2021

Michael Ende, The Neverending Story


Opening Passage:

ƨʞooᗺ blO ɿɘbnɒɘɿɿoƆ bɒɿnoƆ lɿɒƆ

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 plateglass door. (p. 5)

Summary: Bastian Balthasar Bux, a pale, fat child who is often bullied, who has lost his mother, and whose father has become distant in the wake of his mother's death, finds himself in the bookshop of Carl Conrad Correander, whom he sees reading a remarkable-looking book. The book, bound in copper-colored silk, is printed in two colors, red and green, and on the binding there are two snakes, one white and one black, biting each other's tails in an oval shape around the title of the book: The Neverending Story. Bastian steals the book, and frightened by his own boldness in doing so, 'runs away', which he does by hiding in the rarely used attic of his school. He begins to read.

From all over the realm of Fantastica, delegations are arriving at the Ivory Tower, the home of the Childlike Empress, the Golden-eyed Commander of Wishes, heart of all Fantastica, because all of the land is in dire peril. North, south, east, and west, realms are vanishing. They are not destroyed, exactly; they just cease to be. Only the Childlike Empress knows how to stop this, the Nothing, but she is deathly ill. She has, however, chosen a hero from the Greenskins of the Grassy Ocean to go on a Great Quest to find what is needed to heal her; to this hero, whose name is Atreyu, she entrusts the AURYN, the symbol of her power. Consulting with the great undying turtle, Morla the Aged One, Atreyu learns that he needs to consult Uyulala in the Southern Oracle. As he attempts to do so, he rescues the luckdragon Falkor, a creature of air and fire, and with the help of Falkor and the Gnomics studying the Southern Oracle, he finds Uyulala, a creature who resides in the Palace of Deep Mystery and exists only as song. From Uyulala, he learns that there are many worlds, and that in one of these worlds is a race of beings who have a divine power of naming:

But there's a realm outside Fantastica,
The Outer World is its name,
The people who live there are rich indeed
And not at all the same.
Born of the Word, the children of man,
Or humans, as they're sometimes called,
Have had the gift of giving names
Ever since our worlds began.(p. 118)

It is they who give the Childlike Empress her life in every age by giving her a new name. In Fantastica, the realm of imagination, which exists in a book, all creatures have their names and are what they are; but humans in naming can set the natures of the things of imagination and make them new. To save Fantastica, Atreyu must bring to the Childlike Empress a human who can give her a new name. But humans have stopped visiting Fantastica, and they live beyond its borders in the human world, so Atreyu sets out to cross the borders of Fantastica in order to reach the human world. However, in the course of his travels he learns that Fantastic is boundless and has no borders; north, south, east, and west, it goes on forever. He finds himself on the verge of vanshing into the Nothing, with little hope and apparently having failed his mission. But traveling with a luckdragon has some advantages; Falkor happens to find him and bring him to the Childlike Empress, who tells him that he has not failed. A human boy has been with him all the time. But the Quest was not pointless; it was the only way to make the human boy recognize that he was needed.

Bastian, of course, has difficulty believing that the book is speaking of him, but there is too much evidence from the Quest to deny it. But he is afraid to try to give the Childlike Empress her new name.Faced with Bastian's failure to give her a new name, the Childlike Empress falls back to a desperate last resort; she goes to meet her equal and opposite, the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, whom she is never supposed to meet. The Old Man of Wandering Mountain, ever-ancient as she is ever-young, spends his life dictating words that appear in a book. It is a book bound in copper-colored silk, with the words written in it in two colors, red and green. On the silk cover are two snakes, one white and one black, each biting the other's tail to make an oval around the title of the book: The Neverending Story. The meeting of the Childlike Empress, who is the infinite potential of the beginning of every story, and the Old Man in the Mountain, who is the consolidation of every story into its final form, locks all of Fantastica into a Circle of Eternal Return, with everything repeating always forever, and no way to break the cycle except one: the human power to name things anew. Faced with this, Bastian finally relents and gives to the Childlike Empress her new name: Moon Child.

And with this the Childlike Empress and Bastian come fully face to face, Bastian having crossed the border into Fantastica. All that is left of Fantastica is one grain of sand. But like a seed, it can grow by wishes. All Bastian has to do is make them. But then the Childlike Empress asks him why he had waited so long to giver her her name. Bastian replies that he was ashamed to do so, because surely it was a task for someone more heroic -- stronger, more handsome, more princely, the opposite of Bastian Balthasar Bux. The Childlike Empress shows him that he can wish to be anything in Fantastica, and vanishes, leaving him only the AURYN. The AURYN, the Gem, the Glory, is a talisman consisting of two snakes, one black and one white, forming an oval, and when he turns it over, he sees that it is engraved with the words: DO WHAT YOU WISH.

This begins the second part of The Neverending Story, in which Bastian reconstitutes Fantastica through his wishes. He regularly makes wishes that will make him more heroic and impressive in some way, and lands and creatures come into being fully formed (yet having always from their perspective existed) as a result of these wishes. But it soon becomes clear that every time Bastian makes a wish he loses memories. While he wishes to be friends with Atreyu and Falkor, his insecurities about being heroic continually raise tensions between them. Atreyu and Falkor are what they are by nature, and are also the first to recognize the Bastian's wishes are draining him of his human memories; Bastian is jealous of them, but convinces himself that their repeated expressions of worry about him are really a result of their jealousy of him. The problem is exacerbated when one of Bastian's wishes leads to crossing paths with and besting the wicked sorceress Xayide, who surrenders but begins to whisper poison in Bastian's ear. At her behest, Bastian tries to replace the Childlike Empress, and he and his friends come to war. Bastian is wounded and finds himself in the City of the Old Emperors, where dwell humans who tried to make themselves ruler of Fantastica and ran out of wishes and memories doing so, and thus who can never get back to the human world. Bastian has only barely been saved from this fate (so far) by Atreyu's war against him, but he retains only two of his human memories: his memory of his father and his memory of his name. To leave Fantastica and avoid becoming like the Old Emperors, Bastian will have to find his true wish and the Water of Life, which will let him leave with his human memories restored. The meaning of 'Do What You Wish' is not to make wishes; it is to discover what you really wish and to do it. Bastian's true wish is to love (he loses the memory of his father to discover it), but he cannot find the Water of Life. In this pitiable state, all his memories but his own name lost, and only one more wish by which he might return to the human world, he is found by Atreyu, and Bastian takes off the AURYN and lays it at Atreyu's feet. They discover that they can enter the AURYN, and it is there that they find the Water of Life. Bastian has had it all along, but he had to go through the peril of his wishes to find it. Bastian partakes of the Water of Life, which restores him to what he was, and he is no longer unhappy about who he is. He returns to the human world and his father, naming himself again: Bastian Balthasar Bux.

I am sometimes coy about endings when I summarize the Fortnightly Book, but it's actually necessary here, because I think the point of much of it only makes sense when you see the whole. (And if you are one of those who find that being told how a book goes spoils it for you, you need to read the book, which is in great measure about a truth you need to learn: Having something all along doesn't mean you've already found it.) We can see this by pressing an initially puzzling point, which is that Michael Ende hated the movie adaptation of this book, to the point of trying to stop it from being finished and distributed. This is puzzling because he was not opposed to the movie originally -- he wrote the original screenplay for it. It's true that they modified his script, and he would not be the first writer to throw a fit over having his script rewritten, if that were what it is about, but in general even such writers do not go to such lengths in their protest. And on the surface, this is an odd case to get fired up over, because the movie The Neverending Story is vastly, vastly more faithful to the book than most movie adaptations are. Most of the changes are elisions to make the story easier to grasp, and some deviations from descriptions that were clearly for practical cinematic reasons.

One of things I've seen Ende quoted as criticizing is the fact that when Bastian saves Fantasia, Fantasia's restoration doesn't depend on Bastian, which was the whole point. And here I think is the key. The movie only gets us a little under halfway through the book. The restoration of Fantasia, whose counterpart in the restoration of Fantastica takes up the entire second part of Ende's book, is accomplished in a moment, and Bastian, riding Falcor, makes a comment to everything is exactly the way it was before, and then Bastian wishes to ride Falcor in the human world. This, while changing none of the story and spectacle before it, in a sense throws everything into disarray. The Childlike Empress has a new name: this should mean that Fantastica/Fantasia in its previous form is not returned, but starts over. It has to be done again. Fantastica is not 'out there'; it is the world of wishes of imagination, and thus every new name of the Childlike Empress gives us Fantastica anew. This the movie in effect denies; Bastian just wishes for everything to be like it was. But nothing is ever just like it was.

The two parts of the book have a sort of loose parallel to each other. Both Atreyu and Bastian, each bearing the AURYN (and thus being the protagonist representing the Childlike Empress), each already carry with them what they seek but still must undergo the quest to find it. Each quest reflects something of who they are, so they are very different, but they both come to the verge of complete and utter failure, and in both cases are saved by luck. The culmination of Atreyu's journey is Bastian naming the Childlike Empress; the culmination of Bastian's journey is Bastian naming himself. There is a genuine circle between Fantastica and the human world, and like the AURYN, one white snake and one black snake, it circles back on itself, part Fantastican and part human. Both worlds need each other, and the cycle must be completed for either to be healed of their wounds.

The Childlike Empress is, as I said, the infinite potential in the beginning of every story; the tale makes clear that although she is the heart of Fantastica, and all Fantastica depends on her, she is not Fantastican. And indeed, it cannot be otherwise; the creative imagination is not a product of the imagination. All that infinite potential cannot yield Fantastica, however, unless it is set in place, which occurs by the human naming of it. There is a human tendency, especially in the modern age, to treat the world of imagination as if it did not matter, as if it weren't something to be respected in its own right, as if it had no power and danger of its own. (We see this on a small scale, as Ende himself occasionally noted, in the relegation of certain stories to the category of "children's stories", an entirely made-up category that serves no purpose but to pretend that stories have only fundamental value to the extent that they are just reiterations of our own lives, and thus to relegate free play of imagination to the prison of 'something that's just for children'.) This is not just wrong, it is corrupting. It destroys the world of the imagination, of course, but it also destroys our own. When Fantasticans are taken by the nothing, this is the works of the imagination being emptied of their substance and value as works of the imagination; they stop being things in their own right in fantasy and become lies in the human world. Lies are rooted in the same power as imaginative fantasies, but they are stripped of their character as imaginative fantasies and are used to manipulate other human beings in the real world. Only the proper cycling from the human world to Fantastica to the human world, continually, can keep both worlds healthy.

Each part of the story shows us an abuse of the imagination. In the first part, the imagination is turned to lie. In the second, Bastian nearly loses himself in imagination. Both are perils to be avoided. But both need also to be faced squarely. Through much of the twentieth century, there was extended disparagement of fantastic literature as 'escapism'. The standard (and correct) response, such as you find in Tolkien or Lewis or L'Engle, was that much fantastic literature is quite clearly not escapist regardless of how fantastic it is; treating it as escapist is a falsehood that cuts us off from the benefits, and our birthright, of real fantasy. Ende to some extent implies this point as well, but he adds another. Even if we look at actual escapism -- such as Bastian fleeing from himself, of whom he is ashamed, into his imagination-wishes, until he almost loses himself -- that is to say, even if we look at the actual abuse of our free play of imagination, we find that it can in a sense be necessary. Bastian nearly fails to save Fantastica because he is ashamed of who he is; the Childlike Empress shows him that in Fantastica he can be anyone he wishes to be. And most of Bastian's wishes are very selfish; even when he is helping others, he does so in order to seem more impressive and more noble to himself. It is an important difference between the Childlike Empress and Bastian that the Childlike Empress makes no distinctions; all the people of Fantastica, of whatever kind, good or bad, are equal to her. Bastian, on the other hand, is continually trying to do things that are good, but he does it wholly out of his own insecurity. He creates a righteousness and nobility and heroism for himself in his own imagination. But the words of the AURYN are not 'Wish what you'd like to do' but 'DO WHAT YOU WISH', and it's only by the very perilous journey through his wishes that Bastian learns the folly of his original shame -- that Bastian learns that if he had been handsomer, stronger, braver, more princely, he would still not have been what he actually wished to be. Becoming these things in wish was the only way to learn that. Bastian saves Fantastica and then falls into a gravely dangerous escapism, one in which he could lose who he is (indeed, in which he thinks he wants to lose who he is). But going through the escapism and overcoming it (laying down his role as protagonist in his own wishes) to reach the Water of Life was the only way for Bastian to save Bastian.

And thus he goes the long way around to learn the truth. What kind of person saves the Childlike Empress by giving her a new name? He is not what one would imagine, not what one would imagine at all. He may even be an ordinary boy, fat, pale, weak, bullied, unimpressive. But you need Fantastica to see that being Bastian Balthasar Bux, or whoever you are, with infinite power to imagine and a divine power to fix those imaginations into form by naming them, is an extraordinary, extraordinary thing to be.

Favorite Passage:

'Gmork, the werewolf, told me,' said Atreyu, 'that when a Fantastican is swallowed up by the Nothing, he becomes a lie. Is that true?'

'Yes, it is true,' said the Childlike Empress, and her golden eyes darkened. 'All lies were once creatures of Fantastica. They are made of the same stuff -- but they have lost their true nature and become unrecognizable. But, as you might expect from a half-and-half creature like Gmork, he told you only half the truth. There are two ways of crossing the dividing line between Fantastica and the human world, a right one and a wrong one. When Fantasticans are cruelly dragged across it, that's the wrong way. When humans, children of man, come to our world of their own free will, that's the right way. Every human who has been here has learned something that could be learned only here, and returned to his own world a changed person. Because he had seen you creatures in your true form, he was able to see his own world and his fellow humans with new eyes. Where he had seen only dull, everyday reality, he now discovered wonders and mysteries. That is why humans were glad to come to Fantastica. And the more these visits enriched our world, the fewer lies there were in theirs, the better it became. Just as our two worlds can injure each other, they can also make each other whole again." (pp. 176-177)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Michael Ende, The Neverending Story, Manheim, tr. Firebird (New York: 1997).