Almost as soon as I write this I can hear the theme song from the movie in my head. That cheesy, eighties, swoony tune. The book is NOTHING like the movie, so if you are here looking to read a review of your favorite childhood flick you can forget it. The book was written by Michael Ende, one of the most well-known German children’s authors of the 20th century. Ende wrote the following in 1985, and one can assume he meant his success with Neverending Story and the frustration he must have felt being dismissed as only a ‘children’s author’:
“One may enter the literary parlor via just about any door, be it the prison door, the madhouse door, or the brothel door. There is but one door one may not enter it through, which is the child room door. The critics will never forgive you such. The great Rudyard Kipling is one of a number of people to have suffered from this. I keep wondering to myself what this peculiar contempt towards anything related to childhood is all about.”
I think that the literary world has grown wider, but there are a few ‘old school’ snobs that cling to the idea that writing must be dense and flowery and difficult to interpret in order to have any depth or meaning. While they may be right to a point, they are also short-sighted and so deeply immersed in the world of academia that they have forgotten that 95% of the world reads Oprah Winfrey’s book club or other general bestseller trash and therefore the layers involved in Ende’s work -as trivially as they were interpreted by Hollywood – are just as difficult for the layman to analyze as it would be for the literary student to dissect anything shelved in the classics section.
For me? Well, I’m really no literary student or snob or otherwise and the message of Ende’s novel touches me deeply. Finding out who you are by stumbling onto a path that changes your life, struggling with self-interest and pride, making horrible mistakes, losing friends, losing everything, being loved unconditionally, facing the weakness of your true self, delving down into the dark places of life to discover what really matters to you, only to lose it in order to find the pathway to redemption, and finally, bringing back what Ende called ‘the Water of Life’ to share with the people closest to you that need it the most.
The message is beautiful; even somewhat biblical. It’s simplicity appeals to me in the light of mythology and Campbell’s Hero Journey as well as my own stumbling pathway through life.
From reading a stolen book in an attic to becoming the hero of his own story, Bastian makes the leap into Fantastica and is given Auryn to do what he wants with. Everything he wishes comes true. He wishes to be clever, handsome, admired and loved. His wishes range from the selfish to the good-intentioned ones he makes for others, with some of his wishes ending badly, and some happily. Ende is making a point here. He is saying that everything we do results in some destiny, whether its ours or someone elses, and that destiny can turn out mediocre, wonderful, boring, or tragic. It has little to do with our wants and desires, but our actions do matter, whether they matter a little or a lot.
Eventually Bastian figures out that for all his wishing; he really doesn’t know what he wants. Auryn ends up costing him his two true friends. Filled with remorse he wanders off to figure out who he really is and what he really might be looking for. And here comes my favorite part.
Bastian has forgotten everything about his former life; every wish he made chipped away a piece of his memory. He only has one memory left: his name. He meets with an old miner man and is told that in order to find his way back to his world he must go down into the mines every day, working in complete silence to find a picture that will show him the way back to his world. But he must give up his last memory to find it. So he does. The Boy Without A Name crawls on his belly through two foot wide tunnels and digs silently for the picture that he will recognize. It takes him months of silence and hard work. The whole scene reminds me of a monastery; the silence, the contemplation, the delving deep into what is metaphorically one’s inner self.
When he finally does find that picture he takes it carefully up to the surface and lays it in the snow. If you speak too loudly the picture will crumble, so Bastian has to be insanely careful with it. Off he goes to find his way home. On his way he comes across these creatures who he changed from sad to happy. They cavort around him and beg him to change them back. He desperately tells them to be quiet, but its no use. They laugh and scream and the picture breaks.
Think about it. To find what you most love and need in life and then lose it. The one thing that will save you and its all your own stupid fault that you lose it.
This is where the redemption comes in – when all hope is gone.
If life were like a story, but it isn’t – and our lives run jaggedly and unevenly along and don’t have that marvelous climax and conclusion we all seek. But if I had to close my eyes and point, I would say that I am about where Bastian is in my life. Crouched in the snow with the broken fragments of the thing I wanted most and no hope in sight. Unfortunately, we all suffer through these experiences in a spiral, sometimes winding up and sometimes down with redemption usually kicking you back to the beginning to start over and get it right this time.
But perhaps that is the point of Michael Ende’s title. Our lives are a Neverending Story. No real beginnings or endings, always including those who follow after us and those who came before.
I realize this is a personal interpretation of the novel, but I feel a personal kinship with the characters. Their struggles become mine as I read. The humanity that Ende has graced with them with puts him among the circle of master storytellers, despite the critic’s feeling.
Someday I’d like to see a critic write a novel as good as the ones they trash.