Bastian Balthazar Bux’s passion was books. If you’ve never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger —
If you’ve never read secretly under the bedclothes with a flashlight, because your father or mother or some other well meaning person has switched off the lamp on the plausible ground that it was time to sleep because you had to get up so early — If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whosecompany life seems empty and meaningless — If such things have not been part of your own experience, you probably won’t understand what Bastian did next.
— The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende
When I was 8 years old, my father handed me a book with a magical symbol on the cover, with text in red or green by turn, with a protagonist that for all intents and purposes was ME. I doubt I could ever adequately express what this book meant to me at that particular point in my life, nor in the subsequent years in which I read the book again and again, till the corners of the pages turned soft and the imprint on the cover became something you could only see in the right light at the right angle. I first met the characters of The Neverending Story when the movie was released in 1984. I was enraptured by every aspect of the film, but it was the book that truly captured me. The movie is a near perfect adaptation of the first half of the novel, but it misses some crucial elements that make this book a powerful masterpiece of Children’s fiction.
The Neverending Story is the story of a boy, Bastian Balthazar Bux, who lost his mother to cancer and his father to grief. When we meet him, he is, in all generally accepted measures, a bit of a failure. He’s unfit, failing school, and his only friend is the housekeeper’s much younger little girl who has been sent off to boarding school. Bastian takes refuge in a bookstore, owned by the imposing Carl Conrad Coreander, when he’s being chased by bullies, and subsequently steals the very book that the proprietor is reading. Knowing he’ll never be welcome at home again now that he’s a thief, he sneaks into his school’s attic, locks himself in, and begins to read the titular The Neverending Story. The book within the book is about the realm of Fantastica, a place straight out of your imagination, full of magical creatures like Rock Chewers, Will-o-the-Wisps, Night Hobs, and racing snails. Sadly, Fantastica is being eaten away by the Nothing and the heart and ruler of the realm, the Childlike Empress, is dying of a mysterious illness. The Empress sends a Greenskin of the Grassy Ocean, the young, not-quite-yet-a-hunter, Atreyu, to discover the root of the illness that is killing her and destroying their realm. Many adventures ensue and, along the way, Bastian slowly realizes that he is a key part of the story. The second half of the book, the half that fewer people are familiar with as it was so poorly told in later film adaptations, is about how Bastian recreates and adventures through Fantastica itself. But Bastian loses a piece of himself the more he gives to Fantastica and eventually he must find his way back to his real home and the father that loves him.
Reading this story now, when someone who has rightfully been compared to Hitler just took office in the United States, feels particularly appropriate. Michael Ende, a German citizen, was dramatically affected by Hitler’s rule and went so far as to fight for a Bavarian resistance group in Munich during the latter part of the war. The Neverending Story is very much about the power of stories — both for good and evil. The Nothing is specifically a symptom of our world’s telling of stories as a way to manipulate people, and the people of Fantastica are twisted into lies when the Nothing takes them. But, conversely, stories can be a powerful force for good, feeding the imagination of artists and inventors alike, connecting us with one another through love and hope. Ende ruminates in The Neverending Story on the ways that lies can be used through Gmork, the terrifying werewolf servant of “The Manipulators” who want the Nothing to destroy Fantastica: “Who knows what use they will make of you? Maybe you’ll help them persuade people to buy things they don’t need, or hate things they know nothing about, or hold beliefs that make them easy to handle, or doubt the truths that might save them. Yes, you little Fantastican, big things will be done in the human world with your help, wars started, empires founded…”
This is a powerful lesson to learn at any age, but it’s remarkable for a children’s book to do so explicitly. The dangers of fascism are very often an undercurrent of children’s fiction, spoken of in whispers and analogies, like the White Witch of Narnia. But Ende uses both analogy and exposition to speak to his readers. Bastian is about the same age as most children probably are when they first come across The Neverending Story. He’s desperate to disappear from the view of his bullies (children and adult alike), but also to be seen by his father. Not just as the chubby, pale, and meek boy we meet at the beginning, but as someone who can understand truths when they are spoken.
It is such that the turn in the story for the second half of the book at first seems so drastic and out of place. Bastian, after naming the Childlike Empress ‘Moon Child,’ is transported to Fantastica and given the Auryn with the directive ‘Do as You Wish.’ It takes him some time to realize that this directive, though necessary, comes with a cost to himself. Bastian’s wishes, right up until the very end, are incredibly selfish as he asks for strength, speed, power, and everything in between. This selfishness eventually leads to the destruction of the Ivory Tower (the home of the Childlike Empress), the deaths of countless Fantasticans, and the near death of Atreyu, when Bastian seeks to take the power of the Childlike Empress for himself. His journey to what is truly important in the world, love and the spreading of love to others, literally requires Bastian to become selfless — with no name and no memories — before he can return home.
This book is not without its problems. Atreyu, the Greenskin (the name itself reduces his people to their skin color), is an obvious throwback to a stereotypical idea of Native Americans, but thankfully it’s (to my white eyes, so I hope someone will correct me if I need correcting) a positive portrayal outside of the stereotypes and Atreyu is absolutely key to the story. Without him, Bastian would not be able to save Fantastica, but that’s precisely one of the problems. Why couldn’t the native-coded character BE the savior themself? For the first half of the book, he’s literally a conduit for the white man, leading Bastian into the pastoral Fantastica. There are a few other cases of POC coding and a specific mention of Bastian taking on the look of an “Oriental” prince. Meanwhile, female characters are a somewhat mixed bag. Though the Childlike Empress is an all-powerful figure, she’s relatively absent from the action and other women primarily exist as recognizable female tropes — a demanding crone, a damsel in distress, a power-hungry manipulator, and a mother.
Despite the problems, some issues with pacing, and the fairly major tonal shift halfway through the story, The Neverending Story remains an absolutely vital piece of my childhood. My copy is nearly worn beyond recognition, with the Auryn on the cover just a shadow, but it will always be the book that I recommend to children who were like me — children who feel safer in the pages of a book than they do in their own skin. This book teaches you to accept yourself; it teaches you that stories, community, and change, are all necessary to a vital existence. Conversely, it teaches us the corrupting influence of power and the danger of putting self before others at their expense. But its most important message is that love (love that you’re willing to fight for, mind), that ridiculously hippie concept, is the key to everything. If that isn’t great children’s fiction, I don’t know what is.