Excerpt of the article "Fantasy, Epic, and Farce"
by David Quammen
"The Neverending Story," by Michael Ende, in Ralph Manheim's graceful translation, is a fantasy epic with all the requisite elements of the genre: chimerical creatures, exotic forests and mountains, unpronounceable proper names, a picaresque plot predicated on a Great Quest, magical swords and amulets, chivalric protocol, high melodrama, a virtuous empress, a heroic little fat boy and a moral vision of Manichaean simplicity. The novel is splashed generously with literary color but, as though that weren't enough, it is also printed in alternate sections of red and green type. Over all, the effect is lighthearted and festive. This rather large book is full of small charms and seems admirably suited for reading aloud, in installments, at the bedside of a 7-year-old child.
But a curious thing about "The Neverending Story" is that certain adults are evidently inclined to take it quite seriously. According to its American publisher, the book was first published in Germany "rather quietly, as a children's book. It began to touch a wider and wider circle of readers, and was adopted as a symbol by the peace marchers." Now rights have been sold in 27 countries, and the German director Wolfgang Peterson is at work on a film version. All this over an ingenuous book, inventive in its frills, conventional in its pieties, that combines some of the better features of Tolkien, "Peter Pan," "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "The Little Engine That Could." But the fault is not Mr. Ende's. "The Neverending Story," to its credit, does not seem to take itself very seriously.
Bastian Balthazar Bux is the fat and lonely little boy who steals a book, an alluring volume bound in copper-colored silk, printed in red and green type, and itself titled "The Neverending Story." Having played hooky to read, through its miraculous pages Bastian enters a fabulous world where he performs great deeds of courage and evil.
Throughout the first half of Mr. Ende's novel, Bastian remains placed in the outer narrative frame, as the Reader; over his shoulder we watch while another young boy, Atreyu, pursues a Great Quest to save the life of the Childlike Empress. (The mythic resonance of Atreyu's name, in case you wondered, leads nowhere.) At the climax of that quest it becomes necessary for Bastian, the despised bookworm, to speak up himself and, in a moment of empathic transport, step across into the storybook world -- Pirandello as played by the Muppets. The novel's second half follows Bastian through a course of challenges every bit as bizarre as those he had envied Atreyu, and eventually toward a lesson of growth and fulfillment he carries back into his mundane existence. It is all broad, innocent fun; nothing less, nothing more.
Source: The New York Times, 6 November 1983, section VII, page 14
David Quammen's article also reviews the books The Knight on the Bridge by William Watson and The Silent Gondoliers by S. Morgenstern, which come before and after The Neverending Story excerpt respectively.