The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The movie version of The Neverending Story was first introduced to me in the late 1980s by Anja, the German exchange student who lived with us during my junior year in high school. I didn’t realize at the time–though I should have–that the book behind the movie was originally written in German. And it wasn’t until my South African mom friend gave copies of the book to our mother-daughter book club this past Christmas that I acquainted myself with Ende’s now-classic 1979 work.

Confession: I didn’t love this book, though not for any easily identifiable reason. I didn’t find it objectionable. I simply suspect that, like Geoge MacDonald’s Phantastes, the somewhat meandering and seemingly haphazard nature of the narrative (particularly in part II) didn’t hold my interest.

However, I did love the discussion Ende’s novel engendered in our mother-daughter book club. The layered symbolism, moral dilemmas, and sometimes puzzling plot provide much to ponder, question, and debate. Given that The Neverending Story originated in the land of philosophers and fairytales, its success on these points isn’t too surprising.

For those unfamiliar with the book or the 1984 movie, the protagonist, Bastian, becomes engrossed in an old volume he steals from a bookshop. Hidden away in the attic of his school, in evasion of teachers and bullies alike, he discovers he is reading about himself. The book is essentially two volumes in one. The second picks up where the movie leaves off, with Bastian physically entering the book and taking the place of Atreyu as principal hero.

The episodic nature of The Neverending Story reminded me of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, which I breezed through very inadequately last year in audiobook form. Like Spenser’s knights, Ende’s protagonists undergo a series of seemingly isolated tests. They’re all linked of course, but rather loosely. Ultimately, Ende’s novel wraps up more satisfactorily than The Faerie Queen; a comparison to George MacDonald’s Phantastes might be more apt.

Our book club discussion touched on topics such as identity and responsibility, love and sacrifice, imagination and belief. I was impressed with the degree of insight and reflection Ende’s work generated in our fifteen-year-olds.

After considerable reflection on my lackluster response to the book, I concluded the principal–and highly subjective–cause is my preference for fantasy anchored in a universe more closely akin to the real world. Ende’s literary universe abounds in impossibly exotic settings, alienesque creatures, and dreamlike catastrophes (i.e. the disappearance of whole landscapes into nothingness).

Many members of the group (mothers included) enjoyed the book more than my daughter and I did. We all agreed that our satisfaction increased as the book progressed, and the points to ponder made it a worthwhile undertaking. I recommend the 1997 Dutton Young Readers edition, with its alternating moss-green and magenta text to represent the parallel story lines and medieval-style illustrations by Roswitha Quadflieg heading each chapter.


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