Friday, April 12, 2013

Children's Fiction: The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

As a child of the 80s, I loved watching the movie The Neverending Story whenever it came on TV. But even though I enjoyed it, I admit I never understood very much of what was going on besides that there was a kid named Bastian reading a book in his school's attic and the title of the book bore the same name as the movie. When I was older I would watch the movie in hopes of getting some answers, but turns out my six year-old self was right: the movie makes no sense. So to finally get some answers, I decided to go straight to the source that was written by Michael Ende.

The Situation: Bastian Balthazar Bux is a "fat little boy of ten or twelve" who spends his time making up stories and being tormented by bullies at school. He lives with his father, as his mother passed away years ago. Bastian is the opposite of popular at school as even the teachers seem to enjoy picking on him. And when he returns home, he makes vain attempts to connect with his distracted and seemingly disinterested father who always seems somewhat disappointed in Bastian. One day when the little boy is once again trying to avoid the regular bullies, he enters the book shop of Carl Conrad Coreander, and ends up stealing The Neverending Story. Now that Bastian has become a thief, he has decided to hide out in the school's attic, a place that has become one of his favorite hiding places. It is here that Bastian starts off on a reading journey like nothing he could have ever imagined.

The Problem: As if Bastian's life wasn't complicated enough, the story he has unwittingly entered in on is even worse, and Bastian has no clue what he is in for. At first it appears that The Neverending Story is about a young boy named Atreyu who is sent on a mission by the ruler of Fantastica, the Childlike Empress. A dark force is slowly swallowing up his world, and the Childlike Empress appears to be deathly ill. Atreyu's mission is to find the cure before Fantastica is lost forever. Eventually, through events that happen to Atreyu that Bastian can hardly believe, it becomes clear that it is Bastian himself who must cure the Empress and save Fantastica. But even if he succeeds, that is only the beginning of his adventures, and his subsequent troubles. Turns out not only is Fantastica in trouble of being lost forever, but Bastian is also in trouble of losing the life he has here in our world, as well as all of his memories of it.

Genre, Themes, History: I can see why some have labeled this as young adult fiction as opposed to children's fiction, but I just can't let go of my own memories of watching the first movie on my parent's long ago discarded brown shag carpet, in front of the also long ago discarded box TV in the wood casing. One general theme is meta-fiction, as the book talks about itself in many different ways and at different times. Obviously, there is the instance where Bastian himself is reading The Neverending Story just like we are. But even the Childlike Empress mentions The Neverending Story and Bastian's role in it. And at one point Bastian and the reader are introduced to the man who has been writing it all down, for forever, and will continue to until the end of the time. And with this comes the theme of story-telling, as one of Bastian's roles in the second half of the book is to keep Fantastica alive with his gift of making up stories. Other major themes that pop up include memories, wishes, and true strength and power. There is a point where I was reminded of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and that even for the most innocent of characters, absolute power still corrupts absolutely.

My Verdict: First off, I'll go ahead and say that for the most part, this story still makes little sense, but now I am starting to think that may be the point, or at least part of it. The ultimate point is to tell stories, read books, use your imagination...all stuff I can easily get behind. It is just that some of the events that happen on the pages of this book are so incredibly random. Every chapter is another curve ball. And once the book comes to the point where the first movie ends, the rules completely change and what applied in the first half of the book is not longer true for the second half. However, that being said, I loved this book with all of its randomness and quirky characters and strange landscapes. The events aren't so random that they don't connect to each other at all, and by the end the bigger picture is revealed and the journey is definitely worth it. And the randomness helps hold the readers attention, because every chapter is completely different from the one that came before it.

Favorite Moment: When Bastian is faced with the realization that he isn't that special, and the road he is traveling has actually been traveled many times before.

Saddest Moment: Much like the movie, the saddest moment for me in the book is when Atreyu loses Artax, his faithful horse, in the Swamps of Sadness. It just seems so unnecessary. And while the movie manages to make it pretty sad, in the book, Artax can talk. Yeah...let that one sink in.

Favorite Character: As with the movie, my absolute favorite character was Falkor the luckdragon. I mean come on: he flies, he saves people in distress, he can sleep while flying in the air, and he's just plain lucky and isn't at all stingy with it.

Recommended Reading: For those out there ready for some advanced reading, I suggest J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, and Return of the King. For those out there who want to stick to children's books, I suggest C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Both are excellent reads and would make a great follow-up to Ende's The Neverending Story.

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