the Little Red Reviewer

the universe in the turn of a page. A not-review of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Posted on: October 25, 2013

You know how sometimes I write reviews that look like a cross between a Jackson Pollock painting and a Monet painting? This is one of those. Impression, reaction, response, something that sticks with you.   tldr? scroll to the bottom for the meaty bits.

TheNeverendingStory1997EditionThe Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. translated by Ralph Manheim

published in 1979

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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Are you of an age with me? Did you watch The Neverending Story  all through the 80s? That beloved movie formed a large portion of my childhood, and made a mark on me deeper and more permanent than any tattoo ink. I was always looking for the door marked “attic” at my elementary school.  I had a crush on Atreyu long before I had a crush on Han Solo.

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And who couldn’t like a story like this?  Bastian is being chased by bullies on his way to school and takes refuge in a bookshop and ends up stealing an intriguing book. He sneaks back to school, hides in the attic, and reads all day and into the night. And what an adventure to be found in this book! The magical realm of Fantastica is dying, and only a certain warrior chosen by the Childlike Empress can save the world.  She chooses a young boy, Atreyu, who is around the same age as Bastian. Atreyu’s quest? To find a human child, and bring that human child to the Childlike Empress to give her a new name, for without a new name she will die, and all of Fantastica will die around her. But how is Atreyu to find this human child, when Fantasica has no boundaries? But Atreyu must succeed, otherwise The Nothing will destroy all of Fantastica.

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And what trials Atreyu must go through! With only the symbol of the Empress around his neck, he must leave behind everything he cares about, he must pass through gates and tests, he must prove that he is the only one who truly can bring a human child to Fantasica.  But Atreyu is brave, he doesn’t give up, he faces danger and death and never loses hope. He finds new friends everywhere he goes, and as he carries Auryn, the symbol of the Empress, everyone is happy to help him.  There are clues, however, that things aren’t what they seem, that Atreyu isn’t alone on his quest.

The Auryn

Atreyu both succeeds and fails in bringing a human child to Fantastica, and Bastian both succeeds and fails in saving the realm.  In a sneaky way, this is the ultimate coming of age story, the kind that shows us that we can succeed and fail at the same time, and  that we grow by the undertaking of the journey more than we do by the end result.

Chapters are episodic and short, with much introduction of amazing creatures and places, but not much complication, making this a perfect story to read to younger children, one chapter per night.  Each chapter begins with an illustration including the first letter of the first word, and imagery that matches what happens in the chapter. I’ve included some of those images in this review, so you can see the pattern that emerges. Convenient, how the author chose a few odd names for characters, such as Xayide and Querquobad.

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The movie (which is imprinted on the back of my eyesballs, having been seen so many times) only covers the first 40% of the book, and ends when Bastian realizes he is the one who Atreyu has been sent to find, that he is supposed to save Fantastica by giving the Childlike Empress a new name. He does, and then he does. The movie ends there. But the story continues.

In the second part of the book Bastian visits Fantastica and wishes it back into existence. Everything he wishes for happens, new jungles and deserts and kingdoms and creatures and castles and contests, he creates a new Fantastica, a new dreamworld.  On quite the power trip, he spends a few chapters being an obnoxious git, and insisting that the rules don’t apply to him. For the first time in his life, things are going well, how dare someone suggest that he stop creating Fantastica! Isn’t that what he was brought here for?  I spent quite a few chapters wanting to slap Bastian across the face.

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But some rules can’t broken, and everything has a price.  Bastian doesn’t seem to understand that every decision he makes in this fantasy world, it all has very real consequences for the people who live there. And it gets worse: everything Bastian wishes for, every time he creates something, he loses a memory of who he was before. He is trading his past for a fantasy future.  He certainly doesn’t mind forgetting about being a bullied clumsy fat kid, but the more he wishes for, the more he recreates Fantastica, the more Atreyu loses his best friend.

There’s a creepy scene at the end, where Bastian is brought to a city of people who tried to become emperors and empresses themselves.  These people have wished for so much that they completely forgot who they were, they forgot where they came come, they forgot they were supposed to be trying to get back home to the human world.  Fantastica does depend on humans to visit, but we can’t live our whole life there.  We have to find a balance between fantasy and reality. All of one and zero of the other isn’t healthy for anyone.

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I’ll happily admit that scenes from the movie continually flitted through my head as I was reading. What surprised me even more than how many changes were made was fast the book goes!  Barely page page 100, and it’s already time for the famous magic mirror scene?  Even though I didn’t understand it as a child, that’s the scene from the movie that’s stuck with me all this time.  Atreyu is told the magic mirror gate is the hardest, that this is where the strongest knights cry like children. And of course, Atreyu laughs at it.  He faces this mirror gate, and sees. . . a chunky pale boy, sitting in a dark attic, reading a book. They are both surprised, but neither of them scream or cry.  Because Bastian in a sense, *is* Atreyu.  Atreyu’s quest *is* Bastian’s coming of age story.  Yes, yes, we all figured this out like ten years ago, but there is a certain joy in that every time I figure it out, I’m figuring it out for the first time.  Every time Artax dies, is the first time,  everytime I see Atreyu for the first time, my heart flutters as if I’m nine years old again. The Neverending Story is the soundtrack of my childhood, and every time I experience it, I’m experiencing it for the first time. It’s a nice match up for the time loop scene in the book, too.

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I’ve prattled on long enough, let’s get to what makes this book so damn important: Every story you read, every book you pick up, every tale someone tells you, IS a never ending story. it’s always being told, it’s always being heard, someone is always deciding to turn the page, to read the next chapter, to take the next step with the characters.   A piece of Vlad Taltos’s story is my story, a piece of September’s story is my story, a piece of Fitz’s story is my story, a piece of Locke Lamora’s story is my story. I allow their stories to continue because I am turning the pages of their lives, I am living through them and with them, I am going through what they go through.   Every time I pick those books up again, I’ve aged a little, they’ve aged a little, we see each other as slightly different people, we see each other through the Mirror gate and it changes a little each time.  And that my friends, that is the legacy of The Neverending Story.  That this is every story, that by opening a book, you are recreating that universe so that the story can take place.

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13 Responses to "the universe in the turn of a page. A not-review of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende"

Ah yes! I know exactly how you feel.
Even though I grew up in a German-speaking country and pretty much every kid reads The Neverending Story fairly early, I also saw the movie first (and also had a huge crush on Atreyu). I only picked up the book when I was 15 or so. My favorite part about it is how it is printed in two colors – did they keep that for the English editions?
Everything that happens in the real world was printed in green, and everything in Fantastica (Fantásien, in German) is printed in red… or the other way around, I can’t remember. As a teenager, that was the coolest thing I had every seen in a book. And I’m sure it helps younger children keep the two worlds apart.

It does come as a shock to most readers that the movie’s story is over when there is still more than half a book to go. But at least the book explains its title during the second half. The movie, as far as I remember, never does. Either way… The Neverending Story is pretty special (although I admit to loving the movie more than the book. Because childhood memories. ) :)

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the version I read was a fairly recent paperback printing, so alas, no two color printing. They did real world in italics, and Fantastica in regular type. It’s been ages since I’ve seen the movie, but I don’t remember them explaining much of anything at the end. Even though the book gives the explanations, and goes into more detail on everything, I too like the movie better! three cheers for childhood memories!

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Fabulous book, and my Dutch version had the two-colour system. Red for Bastian, blue for Atreyu. I’d call it a masterpiece of children’s literature.
And god yes, did I have a crush on Atreyu. I watched that film so many times that when I went on holiday and couldn’t watch it, I wrote the whole thing down word for word.

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absolutely a masterpiece! And now I need to track down a printing that is in two colors. Forget netflixing the movie, I think I need to own it! I think it’s adorable that you wrote it all down when you couldn’t watch it. :)

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It sort of reminds me of Peter Pan. Everytime you say you don’t believe in fairies a fairy dies. claps hands quickly *I do believe in fairies, I do believe in fairies, I do ……” I loved the film and I really, absolutely will, without doubt, read the book.
Lynn :D

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and i have a weakness for Peter Pan stuff too. Deep down, I just do not want to spend my whole adult life in grown-up land!

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Damnit. Now I’m going to have the movie’s theme song stuck in my head for the next couple of days.

Way to ruin my weekend, Red.

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and the only way to get the song out of your head will be to watch the movie, which will put you in a haze of happy childhood nostalgia. you’ll get to school/work/whatever on Monday with a beatifically happy look on your face.

so actually, I’ve made your weekend AWESOME.

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Like one of the other commenters, I read this in Dutch in the two color print edition. This was before I really spoke English – I think I was maybe 9 or 10. The book made a lasting impression on me. It was actually the first time I read through the night – my mom found me early the next morning, still reading and close to tears.

Thinking about it now, I believe it may have been the first time I encountered something like metafiction or metatextuality – a book that literally dealt with the act of reading, the effect of reading a text on the reader and on a character. It’s also one of the first examples of escapism in fiction I remember.

(By the way, I was utterly stunned when Lev Grossman told me he hadn’t read The Neverending Story, as I assumed it had been a profound influence on him when he created Quentin – another character whose fantasy turned out to be real and who discovered it wasn’t as easy or as great as he thought it’d be.)

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I loved this book! I had a hardcover version with color print, and honestly the movie paled by comparison. Reading a book and finding out while you read that they can hear you in the book… what a fantasy! I think running away and camping out in a rainy attic with a book was a sort of fantasy for me too. I could definitely relate to Bastian. Thanks for a non-review with good memories.

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That was a beautiful post. I have the book on my tbr list, but maybe I’ll have to bump it up a bit.

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That was a lovely not-review that brought about some warm childhood memories. Atreyu pretty much defined my taste in men, and I never grew out of it. I never read the book but it seems like there was a trio of movies (Neverending Story, Flight of the Navigator, and The Boy Who Could Fly) that were played constantly on the Disney channel or somewhere and pretty much solidified my loyalty to sci-fi before I even knew it as a genre.

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I’m currently singing the theme song in my head. . .

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