Michael Ende’s 1979 fantasy novel (English translation by Ralph Manheim in 1983); made into a classic fantasy film in 1984. I borrowed a hardcover edition from the library.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
The plot: Bastian Balthazar Bux is an unpopular, lonely boy who has recently lost his mother. After swiping an intriguing book while escaping a group of bullies, he skips school to read it. The book (called The Neverending Story) tells the tale of an incredible land called Fantastica which will be doomed unless a mortal from Earth intervenes.
The biggest surprise in reading The Neverending Story after watching the film is finding that Bastian saving Fantastica is only an extended prologue to the real story. For the majority of the book, we follow Bastian in his travels through Fantastica, watching as he wishes for greater things while losing more of himself.
The edition I read had some nice touches: the text was printed in two colors (reddish while the action was on Earth, green while in Fantastica); each of the twenty-six chapters opened with a full page illustration of the first letter of the chapter (and yes, these ran from A to Z. Maintaining this while translating from German to English must have been a bit of a challenge for Manheim).
 It’s clear from the start that Ende knows what he’s doing; he is aware of the obvious routes and tropes in fantasy. Even when he seems to be following them, he adds just the right touch to make the story fresh. He makes this clear right away while establishing Bastian, describing a boy outside of the expected stereotype.
Bastian explains to the shopkeeper, Mr. Coreander, that his classmates tease and push him around and he’s too afraid to fight back. Mr. Coreander sees a chubby weakling standing in front of him and assumes:
“[You’re] probably a hopeless grind? Best in class, teacher’s pet? Is that it?”
In any other book like this, the answer would be yes. But instead:
Bastian hung his head.
“No,” said Bastian, still looking down. “I was put back last year.”
“Good Lord!” cried Mr. Coreander. “A failure all along the line.”
We feel more for Bastian because of this. He’s not perfect or even the best in any category. He’s the kind of odd duck many of us were at that age.
“Screwball? Why do they call you that?”
“I talk to myself sometimes.”
“What kind of things do you say?”
“I think up stories. I invent names and words that don’t exist. That kind of thing.”
“And you say these things to yourself? Why?”
“Well, nobody else would be interested.”
Mr. Coreander fell into a thoughtful silence.
“What do your parents say about this?”
Bastian didn’t answer right away. After a while he mumbled: “Father doesn’t say anything. He never says anything. It’s all the same to him.”
“And your mother?”
“She’s – she’s gone.”
“Your parents are divorced?”
“No,” said Bastian. “She’s dead.”
 When I tried to read The Neverending Story as a kid, I took Ende’s layers of cleverness for granted. I didn’t realize how rare intelligent cleverness would be in the world.
Leafing through the pages, he saw the book was printed in two colors. There seemed to be no pictures, but there were large, beautiful capital letters at the beginning of the chapters (…) He saw the title:
The Neverending Story
 A repeating motif:
During the long waiting period, the four so unalike messengers became good friends. From then on they stayed together.
But that’s another story and shall be told another time.
These act as a sort of creative Rorshach test and make the world of Fantastica massive, with a history stretching forward and back as far as the imagination can conceive
 The sphinxes play with our expectations as fantasy readers (like Bastian’s earlier explanation of himself to Mr. Coreander):
“The sphinxes shut their eyes for some travelers and let them through (…) You mustn’t suppose they let wise, brave, or good people through, and keep the stupid, cowardly, and wicked out. Not a bit of it! With my own eyes I’ve seen them admit stupid fools and treacherous knaves, while decent, sensible people have given up after being kept waiting for months. And it seems to make no difference whether a person has some serious reason for consulting the Oracle, or whether he’s just come for the fun of it.”
“When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.”
“Oh!” Bastian cried. “I thought you had turned to stone.”
“So I had,” the lion replied. “I die with every nightfall, and every morning I wake up again.”
“I thought it was forever,” said Bastian.
“It always is forever,” said Grograman mysteriously.
“A story can be new and yet tell about olden times. The past comes into existence with story.”
“Then Perilin, too, must always have been there,” said the perplexed Bastian.
“Beginning at the moment when you gave it its name,” Grograman replied, “it has existed forever.”
“What do you suppose it means?” he asked. “ ‘DO WHAT YOU WISH.’ That must mean I can do anything I feel like. Don’t you think so?”
All at once Grograman’s face looked alarmingly grave, and his eyes glowed.
“No,” he said in his deep, rumbling voice. “It means that you must do what you really and truly want. And nothing is more difficult.”
Five richly caparisoned horses and a pack mule were standing in the background. A white cloth laid with all manner of viands and drink was spread out on the grass.
noun – an ornamental covering spread over a horse’s saddle or harness
verb – (of a horse) be decked out in rich decorative coverings
noun – (literary) – an item of food.
As for Hero Hynreck, he actually succeeded in reaching Morgal, the Land of the Cold Fire. He ventured into the petrified forest of Wodgabay, crossed the three moats of Ragar Castle, found the lead ax, and slew the dragon Smerg. Then he brought Oglamar back to her father. At that point she would gladly have married him. But by then he didn’t want her anymore. That, however is another story and shall be told another time.
This is another great interpretation left to the reader. What’s your first thought to why Hynreck would no longer want the women he had fought so long for? You could go so many ways with this. Maybe Hynreck realized he didn’t want a wife who would only love him if he was perfect; maybe Oglamar had been disfigured by the dragon and Hynreck had only loved her for her looks. Maybe he fell in love with another woman on the way. Or maybe it just didn’t work out. Who knows?
I’d love to read a series of short stories by authors giving their take on all of these “That is another story and shall be told another time” asides.
Their favorite song seemed to be one that began with the words:
“When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…”
As they explained, this had been sung by a human who had visited Fantastica long years before, name of Shexper, or something of that sort.
Lyrics from “Feste’s Song” in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Feste is a fool attached to the household of the Countess Olivia.
“Falkor,” Atreyu asked, “do you suppose the Childlike Empress cares what becomes of Bastian?”
“Maybe not,” said Falkor. “She draws no distinctions.”
“Then,” said Atreyu, “she is really a…”
“Don’t say it,” Falkor broke in. “I know what you mean, but don’t say it.”
I don’t know how Atreyu planned to finish this sentence and I don’t know if Ende expects me to. Like the “another story for another time” bits, this works as another hanging bit of ambiguity. You could believe that Atreyu was going to call the Childlike Empress anything from a god to an animal.
 Elaborate invention fills almost every page. Ende creates dozens of races, people, places, plants – many who only pass through for one or two lines. It’s an incredible feat of imagination.
The second pedestrian was what was known in Fantastica as a headfooter. His head was connected directly with his long, thin legs, there being neither neck nor trunk. Headfooters are always on the go and have no fixed residence. As a rule, they roam about in swarms of many hundreds, but from time to time one runs across a loner.
Each finger was a tower, and the thumb was an oriel surmounted by yet another tower.
noun – a form of bay window which projects from the main wall of a building but does not reach the ground.
A person’s reason for doing someone a good turn matters as much as the good turn itself.
He no longer wanted to be the greatest, strongest, or cleverest. He had left all that far behind. He longed to be loved just as he was, good or bad, handsome or ugly, clever or stupid, with all his faults – or possibly because of them.
This a typical lesson/desire in children’s fiction (to be loved for who one is). But Ende takes this idea farther and I admire the extra lesson here:
A longing of a very different kind made itself felt, a desire that he had never felt before and that was different in every way from all his previous wishes: the longing to be capable of loving.
Joy filled him from head to foot, the joy of living and the joy of being himself. He was newborn. And the best part of it was that he was now the very person he wanted to be. If he had been free to choose, he would have chosen to be no one else. Because now he knew that there were thousands and thousands of forms of joy in the world, but that all were essentially one and the same, namely, the joy of being able to love.
His father sat motionless. Bastian stood up and switched on the light. And then he saw something he had never seen before.
He saw tears in his father’s eyes.
And he knew that he had brought him the Water of Life after all.
The Neverending Story accomplished the feat of making me (as a thirty-something) laugh, tear up, and stay up late to read the last hundred pages because I was “almost at the end” and couldn’t bear leaving it unfinished.
This is a children’s book that works better read from an adult’s perspective. I can’t imagine an eight- or ten-year-old sitting down on their own and getting through this (if you were one of those kids, kudos – you knew what was up much sooner than most), though I can see it being a great read-aloud between adult and child.
I’d recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy and fable. The only thing keeping it from a 5-star rating is its length; the four-hundred pages drag in a couple of sections. Tightening it down fifty pages would have made it perfection. But complaining about something being a step from perfection is hardly a complaint at all.
Next week, we’ll start a three-week look at Cloud Atlas. (Spoiler: I really liked it.)