German Fantasy Best Suited for Teen-agers
by Dan Cryer
This fantasy from Germany is a child's dream come true. Bastian Balthazar Bux, an overweight schoolboy who suffers from his classmates' taunts, steals a book from a bookshop and discovers that he is the story's swashbuckling hero in the magical land of Fantastica.
Although "The Neverending Story" has been a runaway adult best-seller in Europe for some time (and reportedly already is selling heavily to adults in Denver bookstores as well), it's hard to see why. The book's appeal seems limited to readers about Bastian's age. It is bereft of psychological insight or depth of characterization. It seems geared more to "Star Wars" viewers than Tolkien readers. Anyone over 12 who gushes over this book ought to be kept in at recess.
Michael Ende's problem, however, is certainly not plotting. The story begins in suspense and darts from adventure to adventure. Ferocious dragons, ancient seers, giant snakes, a wicked sorceress and a faithful dragon roam through these pages. Heroes must best their rivals, endure unspeakable trials, conquer their fears.
As the story opens, Fantastica's ruler, the Childlike Empress, is suffering from a mysterious malady and her kingdom is in danger of engulfment by a terrifying void called the Nothing. Fantastica, it seems, needs periodic infusions of human presence in order to survive and prosper, but most humans dismiss the world of fantasy as hogwash. Where is the hero who will save the empress and the kingdom?
Bastian doesn't immediately come to the rescue. His John the Baptist in this narrative is Atreyu, a 10-year-old hunter-warrior who might have stepped out of an adventure book about Plain Indians.
Atreyu is an orphan--Bastian can identify with that; his mother has died, and his father is immobilized by grief--but he is blessed with all the courage and resourcefulness that Bastian lacks. He learns soon enough that his heroism will have to be supplemented, for Morla the Aged One (a giant tortoise) reveals that only a human from the Outer World can give the empress a name and hence restore her to health.
Bastian, reading "The Neverending Story" while playing hooky in the school attic, realizes that he is the human meant to be Fantasica's hero. But to get there he will have to overcome his view of himself as a loser.
Needless to say, he does enter the story and is bestowed with a variety of magical powers essential to his task. He is transformed into a lean, handsome prince with a magic amulet urging him to "Do What You Wish." And whatever he wishes to do he has the power to do.
This power is a two-edged sword. For while the rewards of triumph are exhilarating, the temptations are many. After learning courage, for instance, he must learn to sort out whimsical wishes (creating a vast forest or a multi-colored desert) from the real thing. Discovering what he truly wants, he is counseled sagely, is "the most dangerous of all journeys."
Every time Bastian is granted a wish, paradoxically, his memories of the Outer World are diminished. If he makes too many wishes, he won't be able to return home. Atreyu and his steed, a dragon named Falkor, both faithful friends, continually remind of this danger.
Meanwhile, the sorceress Xayide fires his ambition to take over the kingdom and turns him against his friends.
Since the tale is fantasy and aimed at the junior-high mind, everything will turn out all right in the end. Courage, readers of this primer will learn, can work wonders for the most faint-hearted; friendship is more nourishing than ambition; love is the highest good of all.
Readers of this review shouldn't be surprised to learn that the movie of "The Neverending Story" is already in the can. Send the kids.
Source: Denver Post, 23 October 1983