by Martha Rasmussen
Seldom does a really outstanding fantasy come along. Even the word outstanding is not enough praise for "The NeverEnding Story," which has been on the best-seller list in West Germany for three years and which has just been published in this country.
The novel's status as a best-seller is well-deserved: It is an original, witty and entertaining tribute to the power of human imagination.
In the tradition of quest stories like "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" and of humorous fantasy like "The Phantom Tollbooth," Michael Ende's "The NeverEnding Story" depicts the struggle between good and evil, this time in a world called Fantastica. At the same time, in a story-within-a-story format, Bastian, a lonely fat boy, reads "The NeverEnding Story," a book he has stolen from an antiquarian bookshop.
Guilt-ridden over the theft and fearing repercussions from his strict, bereaved father (Bastian's mother has recently died), the boy hides in the attic of his school and begins reading this story...
Fantastica, which depends for its very existence upon human imagination, is in danger. The Childlike Empress, the kingdom's ruler, is dying. She sends Atreyu, a youth of the Greenskin hunting culture, on a quest to discover a cure for her before The Nothing, the villainous presence of human disbelief in Fantastica, devours the kingdom.
As he reads of Atreyu's adventures, Bastian experiences them vicariously. And because he ultimately provides the cure for the Childlike Empress, Bastian is looked upon as their savior by the inhabitants of Fantastica, to which he has been magically transported. A new adventure begins with Bastian as the (unlikely) central figure. The Childlike Empress grants him whatever he wishes, which leads him first to an adventure on Goab, the desert of colors, with Grograman, a fiery red lion known as the Many-Colored Death, and then to a tournament of knights and warriors at the Silver City of Amarganth.
Bastian's adventures change him from a fat, unhappy boy to a handsome, strong and courageous hero. Because he wears the Auryn, the Childlike Empress' precious amulet, each wish he fulfills in Fantastica causes him to forget more and more of his human identity. He wants to stay in Fantastica and, because of that desire, almost becomes stuck forever in the City of Old Emperors.
The American publication of Ralph Manheim's English translation of Ende's novel coincides with the release of German director Wolfgang Petersen's movie version, in English, of "The Neverending Story."
Although there were parts of the film, which has been widely praised by reviewers, that I liked, the movie lacks the depth of characterization and the philosophical musings that make the book such an enjoyable emotional and intellectual experience.
What's more, Petersen's movie covers only half of Ende's book, surely an indication that Bastian's adventures will turn up in a movie sequel.
Ende's novel teems with original creatures, including Ygramul, the giant spider; the Wind Giants; the Rock Biter, and Yor, who "mines" pictures that are "the forgotten dreams of the human world." Yor's appearance at the end of the novel and his role in Bastian's return to the human world makes his absence from the movie a real loss to the story.
As the novel's plot progresses, Atreyu meets Professor Engywook, a gnome who is researching the Uyulala, the mysterious Southern Oracle from whom Atreyu learns the cure for the Childlike Empress. The charming luckdragon Falkor, Atreyu's friend, assists him in his search.
Fascinating for his invocation of evil is the werewolf Gmork, one of those "creatures who have no world of their own, but are able to go in and out of many worlds." Gmork tells Atreyu that when The Nothing takes him to the human world, he will take the form of a lie.
As for those Fantastica creatures taken by The Nothing, Gmork says: "They will become delusions in the minds of human beings, fears where there is nothing to fear, desires for vain, hurtful things, despairing thoughts, where there is no reason to despair." It is the Manipulators who will use these lies to control human beings. Gmork relishes the corollary to all this: "... When it comes to controlling human beings, there is no better instrument than lies. Because you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. That's why I sided with the powerful and served them--because I wanted to share their power."
Coming from a writer who lives in a country that 40 years ago was dominated by Adolf Hitler's Nazi totalitarianism, Gmork's world-view is a significant one, especially in that Ende makes clear that Gmork's ideas about the relationship between Fantastica and the human world are based on a half-truth.
The Childlike Empress explains to Atreyu: "When humans, children of man, come to our world of their own free will, that's the right way. Every human who has been here has learned something that could be learned only here and returned to his own world a new person. Because he had seen you creatures in your true form, he was able to see his own world and his fellow humans with new eyes."
Upon Bastian's return to the human world, Mr. Coreander, the bookshop owner, tells him: "Every real story is a never-ending story. ... There are many doors to Fantastica, my boy. There are other such magic books. A lot of people read them without noticing. It all depends on who gets his hands on such books."
"Then the never-ending story is different for different people?"
"That's right," says Mr. Coreander. "And besides, it's not just books. There are other ways of getting to Fantastica and back. You'll find out."
"The NeverEnding Story" challenges the reader's imagination and celebrates the contribution of fantasy to human life. Like Bastian, some of us are drawn to living in our dreams and fantasies, but also like him, most of us return to reality with new eyes and new energies stimulated by Fantastica and its creatures.
Source: Des Moines Register, 19 August 1984