- Title: The Neverending Story
- Author: Michael Ende
- # of Pages: 445
SPOILER ALERT: mentions main characters and touches on major events, includes quotes without names or direct comments about the plot but that may give away points to attentive readers
Bastian Balthazar Bux is shy, awkward, and certainly not heroic. His only escape is reading books. When Bastian happens upon an old book called The Neverending Story, he’s swept into the magical world of Fantastica—so much that he finds he has actually become a character in the story! And when he realizes that this mysteriously enchanted world is in great danger, he also discovers that he has been the one chosen to save it. Can Bastian overcome the barrier between reality and his imagination in order to save Fantastica?
I recently read Momo, also by Michael Ende. A quick Google investigation led me to the conclusion that my review of it was going to be the only non-five-star review on planet Earth, which reminded me – I never liked The Neverending Story, when I read it as a kid, either. I also didn’t like the movie. (Fun fact: Michael Ende didn’t either. He asked the production to stop, or at least change the name, because in his opinion it was too different from the original book. He sued and lost.) I thought the book really was neverending. As with Momo, I seem to be the only person who thinks this way. So naturally I decided to read it again and attempt to solve this mystery once and for all.
Well… mystery half solved? I think the main conclusion I reached was that this was most definitely a children’s book. The story had very important lessons about friendship, self discovery and self acceptance, but ultimately it just wasn’t for my age anymore. Despite being well written, it still felt childish. The main character is a ten year old boy, and his point of view matches that. The way Bastian made up names for everything he encountered reminded me of the names I’d make up for my drawings, dolls and imaginary friends (and also the explanation for very weird usernames I have on accounts I still use).
A quick tangent on “cross-generational” books, a concept I find problematic. I often want to re-read books I absolutely loved as a kid, but worry that this time around the illusion will shatter. I still remember reading The Casual Vacancy and feeling relieved that the writing was good, as if it was proof that JK Rowling was not only this preserved, glossy image I’d been protecting since childhood. (I never actually finished that book, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.)
Nevertheless, as I said, The Neverending Story is definitely well written. I’ve read many fantasy books over the years, but it’s hard recalling the last time one had a world this colorful and vivid. Each place was completely different from all the others. Each creature had their own unique look, voice, personality and so on. The book is an impressive display of Ende’s imagination, creativity and writing skills. (There was one flashback moment to my days of A Song of Fire and Ice: “The Grassy Ocean”, a “prairie, as long and wide and flat as an ocean […] covered with tall, juicy grass“, whose inhabitants, “had blue-black hair, which the men as well as the women wore long and often in pigtails.“)
As with Momo, storytelling held a very important part in the book. In both books it was regarded as a highly respected talent, and a gift to the listeners. Guido Guide, Momo’s best friend, was a storyteller whose stories were loved by all. In The Neverending Story Bastian’s greatest skill is storytelling, and the people he meets along the way are all very impressed. In both cases, not being able to come up with new stories is a tragedy – both for the Fantasticans who cannot come up with anything new and need Bastian to provide new stories, and for Guido Guide who eventually runs out of ideas. Lastly, both tales touch upon the idea of stories enriching our lives, whether figuratively, such as when Momo and the kids make up games and go on adventures as sailors and captains, or literally, when Bastian enters the world of Fantastica through the book. “There are many doors to Fantastica, my boy. There are other such magic books. A lot of people read them without noticing. It all depends on who gets his hands on such books.”
One thing that did surprise me, considering this was, as we said, a children’s book, was the topic of death. Twelve years later I can still recall sitting in my third grade class, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in my hands, reading over and over the terrible words: “He was dead.” Cedric was dead. It’s not that nine year olds don’t know what death is, and Harry’s parents were dead from the start, but having it stated like that so simply – something about it threw me off. In The Neverending Story there’s a battle with many casualties. There’s blood. There is a creature literally trampled to death. What’s with children’s stories and being trampled to death? We all burst out in song when Hakuna Matata comes on, yet no one seems to seriously think about the fact that Mufasa is stomped on by a herd. Am I the only one who finds that terrifying?
I also found the female characters in the book slightly problematic. The main character and all of his friends were boys, as were the heroes on his journey, and the book seller was a man too. The evil, deceptive, conniving character was a woman. Another example are a couple Atreyu meets: a researcher and a sort of nurse. The women, the nurse, takes care of the wounded and comforts her husband while he, the researcher, is rude and obnoxious. When she tells him to help her out with the injured instead of sitting around discussing his theories with Atreyu (which she calls “rubbish”), he says “‘I am making myself extremely useful. […] Possibly more useful than you, but that’s more than a simple-minded woman like you will ever understand.’“, and he tells Atreyu “‘She can only think of practical matters. She has no feeling for the great overarching ideas.’” Bickering couples are not the problem here – it’s the husband’s insult, that goes beyond a bit of arguing, and seems aimed at women in general. One can argue that the most powerful creature in all of Fantastica is a woman – the Childlike Empress – but even then it’s presented as more of a motherly figure, who is carried around when she travels (as opposed to the strong heroes) and has some seriously flawed approaches when it comes to her treatment of Bastian once he enters Fantastica. Oh, and on one occasion, when boredom struck, the knights sometimes “staggered up and down High Street, molesting the fairies, elves, and other female denizens.” How lovely.
I liked the talking animals, for example Yikka, the mule, wanting to be alone because “The company of the horses, who could think of nothing to talk about but their distinguished ancestry, upset her.” I thought that line was absolutely hilarious. Yet, I did find it kind of ridiculous that even in a fantasy land of magic and talking animals the description of a relationship between a mule and a winged stallion mentions that “they married”. It’s the sort of conservative comment that makes me realize how human, and thus a part of society, writers are, even if their stories are often literally out of this world.
I’m glad I reread it, this time with a critical point of view. I was also glad when it ended. I learned new things that I was not expecting to discover in a children’s book, for example that “a Prince Albert” is an 1800s style coat, and not only the very disturbing image I found on Google when looking up the term (thanks for the info, Jason). All in all, the book was not bad. Then again, when I was still of the intended-audience age, I sort of hated it. So, which point of view is the one that should count?