Monday, December 26, 2011

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

First published in German, 1979

What an important, amazing and imaginative book The Neverending Story is. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that can balance such magic and imagination with such insight and perception into the human psyche and the real world, and have the two inform understanding of the other. And then, above all, to do it within the framing device of the central character literally stepping into a book that teaches him all these things, and at the same time relies on him to keep creating the stories within. So clever, and so much fun.
I have read Momo by Michael Ende, and wasn’t such a fan – it was just a little too preachy and twee for me. The Neverending Story has a similar sort of intellectual whimsy, but I found I could stomach it better. Perhaps because the over-arching message is quite beautiful, and the way the central figures, Bastian and Atreyu, discover these things is through exposure to such wonderful things and creatures, whose beauty and magic helps them realise very human things like courage and individualism and selflessness and my personal favourite, imagination. When the fantastical comes to reflect and impact on the real, this is my kind of story.
To begin with I found The Neverending Story a little fussy – there was so much going on, and I wasn’t quite feeling the writing style (especially the parts told wholly in italics!), and there were so many strange creatures coming and going that I had to keep reading back to keep up. But as soon as Cairon the centaur went to find Atreyu, then I got swept up in his quest and all the fabulous lands Ende takes us to and the even-more fabulous creatures he has us meet. And I also didn’t mind Ende’s plot device of ‘but that’s another story and shall be told another time’ – this reinforces the idea of the book living on long after we close the pages (the neverending story), of wonderful things still to discover and stories to tell.
The Neverending Story has a lot of colour and vibrancy. It seems Ende’s imagination never runs out. The places we go to are not the same old places we might find in a fantasy book (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but just marvels of strangeness and wonder. In this way, The Neverending Story reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth. We go from the magnificent, like the Sphinxes guarding the three gates, to the spectacularly strange and creepy, like Spook City, to long ladders formed out of letters of the alphabet, to the beauty of Perilin, the Night Forest. And then all the creatures we discover inbetween – it never ends, and it never feels like too much. One of my favourites was the idea that forgotten dreams fall out of a person’s sleep and into the earth where they are mined, and collected, waiting for the moment when a person needs them again. I love it when an author  can take something from the human world that we don’t really think about much, and turn it into something entirely new and full of meaning.
This book also has a lot of heart. It feels like Ende really did have a lot to say about the power of the book and of the imagination, and a way of making you believe it yourself. The Neverending Story is also full of themes, but the big ones concern memory and choice, power and compassion. I wasn’t such a fan of Bastian in the real world (I found those scenes just a little too sentimental), but in Fantastica his story is powerful and engaging.
And this book also has much sadness, which I love. I love the tragically beautiful in books and movies. I love when characters come to an end that isn’t wholly sad, but certainly bittersweet. This, I find, is when the worlds and creatures authors create come the closest to real life.
And so I loved Morla, who has lived so long she finds the world ‘empty and aimless’, who knows so much that ‘nothing really matters anymore, because it’s all the same’. And I loved the Spook City ghosts who leapt into the nothing because they have given up hope and become weak. And Gmork, the bitter old werewolf.  And the City of Old Emperors, whose inhabitants have used up all their memories and so wander around aimlessly, because ‘without a past they can’t have a future, and they can never change so nothing changes for them’. What a sad, beautiful idea. And of course Dame Eyola, who waits so long for Bastian and then gives him all of her love and affection so that all her vibrancy wilts and she becomes like a ‘black, dead tree’.
I have seen The Neverending Story film of course, but I am so glad I’ve now read the book. I did like the first half (the movie half) better for adventure and excitement, but I found that the second half really reinforced the thematic material, and was just as important in its own right. A wonderful book that should not be forgotten, because in every way it reinforces the idea of what a book is really about.

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