The Neverending Story is the story of a neverending cycle of bullying.
Bastian is a “fat, useless, cowardly” boy of ten who is unfortunately granted near-omnipotence when he enters Fantastica. Instantly, he begins to go mad with power, moved by his lust for certain things which ten-year-old boys should probably never acquire.
The first half of the Story is a simple fantasy romp for the most part – rich and highly imaginative – at least until Gmork begins to rasp out his final words, which are pretty dark and sobering. The first half of the Story is also what those of us who’ve only known the film version (up till now) think of as The Neverending Story, but there is a brilliant second half that delivers thematic devices that are both deep and intrinsic to the vision of the author, Michael Ende – who incidentally disowned the film entirely and demanded his name not be associated with it. Perhaps he felt he’d been lied to.
Lies are a major plot device in the Story, although they are so insidious and pervasive that it is hard to imagine what one can do to thwart them.
The werewolf Gmork counsels the adventurer Atreyu about the awful journey he must undertake if he truly wishes to visit the human world: he must succumb to the Nothing, the awful cancer eating away at Fantastica, and enter the human world transformed into one more in a pack of Lies. This is what Fantasticans – beings of pure fantasy – become if they come into the human world via the Nothing: a lie.
The Nothing is a symbol of our human negligence, as Fantastica is sustained only by human imagination. In our modern lives, we place very little value on imaginative thinking beyond what it brings us for our idle entertainment, or our commercial endeavours, and as such we are deprived of meaningful lives.
Atreyu, on the other hand, is the opposite, and so he represents everything we like to see in a male role model: he is brave and honest and caring. He was raised by a hunting tribe community, and has deep, meaningful connections with all the elements of his world.
Bastian, his mirror image and human counterpart, is weak and cut off, a lonely victim of mass bullying – doled out not just by his peers, but from his teachers, too, who jeer at him. The moral of the Story is laid on thick here, iterating the vital importance of fantasies and imagination for our spiritual development.
Grow up, the Story tells us, but, paradoxically, we must accomplish this by staying young at heart. What I discovered in that second half of the Story is a tale of innocence lost and then painstakingly regained. It counsels us to preserve our sense of childlike wonder and love – and this is represented by the oldest and wisest being in Fantastica, its heart and soul: the Childlike Empress.
Bastian, in his desire to finally be loved and admired, begins instantly to abuse his powers and to willingly forget his duty, which is to return with what he has learned. Only then can he work to undo the many lies that have flooded the human world from Fantastica and repair the damaged relationship between the two inter-connected worlds. He gives in to the temptation to stay and have his every whim and wish fulfilled, much like we in our hedonistic, consumer culture like to do. In other words, he lies to himself and tells himself that he is entitled to whatever pleases him because he is human.
Bastian changes his features so that he is now a handsome prince; he wishes to be strong and admired and wise – and all these too come to pass. Yet Bastian does see how he has been marked by his fear, crippled by it. This is the curse of the bullied, for at the critical juncture, when Bastian is called upon by the Childlike Empress – who is beyond a doubt communicating to him from within the book he is reading, locked away in an attic – he shies away because he feels unworthy. In his own world, after all, Bastian is a pariah and a joke.
The curse that bullying bestows upon its victims – a curse I myself am encumbered with – is an ugly duckling complex (if I can be permitted to mix fairy tales momentarily; I think such things are permitted at least in Fantastica). What they never tell you about ugly ducklings is that – long after they see their own swan-like beauty reflected in the waters – they continue at all times to feel ugly and unlovable, for they are helpless to believe anything else. They believe the lies of others before they can believe in the truth.
Bastian’s reinvention of himself is a fantasy we all like to entertain – how we would look if we were slimmer or more attractive. Yet the cost of this turns out to be the loss not only of his memory and identity, but his compassion as well. Casting that aside is a dangerous affair for Bastian, who nearly dooms himself by declaring himself the Emperor of Fantastica, setting himself up to usurp the Childlike Empress that he himself had only just saved.
Given absolute power, Bastian turns into a monstrosity – but it’s hard not to feel there was no other course for him to take. It’s a twisted path, and the stakes get ridiculously high at the end, but once he perceives the perils he escaped due to Atreyu’s intervention, he goes on and perseveres like a true hero. In a sense, all his folly is really just a series of training sessions for him to become aware, and ennobled. His wishes almost seemed designed to backfire and strip him of everything he’s created for himself so that he can learn real wisdom, to see through the lies and get to the truth.
His wishes arise naturally within him and are impossible to defend against. At one point, Bastian wishes not only to be admired, but feared – and later on he begins issuing commands to his friends and followers as if he is their leader, showing him as a ten-year-old tyrant. When Bastian’s wish to be feared and obeyed as a commander arises, it’s clear that he is reacting to how he’d been abused and teased by the bullies at his school. He is becoming drunk on the same power, and this was based on his choice not to return home, but to try to erase his old, unpopular self of which he was made to feel so ashamed.
So he is drawn by his awful wish to the witch, Xayide, who is the biggest bully in all of Fantastica. She nearly succeeds in turning Bastian into her empty-headed pawn. He is swiftly corrupted in a Lord-of-the-Flies-kind-of-way, to the point where he breaks his promise and draws the heroic sword Sikanda against its will, to deliver a deadly blow to the adversary who has risen up against him, for his own good. This is none other than his erstwhile and spurned friend, Atreyu.
Bastian’s journey towards wisdom is a hard one, and he comes dangerously close to losing his mind entirely and ending up just another demented Old Emperor. He confronts all the mistakes that he made: the misery of the Acharis, and the aftermath of the clownish Shlamoofs, as well as the destructive wake of the dragon, Smerg, which Bastian narrates into existence in order to give the depressed knight errant Hynreck a driving and renewed purpose.
All of these are his whimsical inventions, story elements he wishes into being in Fantastica, because he is a human and that is his right and power; but none of them turn out very well in the end, and seem to backfire on him in one way or another. So there is a very strong theme of responsibility. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but is there no such thing as absolute redemption?
This is the question the Story is putting to everyone who reads it: will you succumb to the Lies, or will you be united with those who know and seek the Truth?
To me, Atreyu and Fantastica clearly represent community and solidarity, while the humans in the Story – Bastian, Carl, and Bastian’s father – are all isolated, cut off, and bound in frozen blocks of ice. Stories are what can bind us together to help us form better communities – not just the stories we invent, but the stories of our lives. The two truly are intertwined.
We, like Bastian, must learn how to craft these stories into the most artfully woven creations we can make up with our dreams, wishes, and fantasies.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Inserted in my Top 10 Fantasy Books of All Time!