I first read this book as a ten year old and have picked it up many times since. For me, the Neverending Story stands head and shoulders above any other children’s/YA book that I have ever read. Sorry Harry Potter but Michael Ende was responsible for a kind of awakening in me, where I realised the importance of living an examined life, and no other book has had that intense an impact.
Why do I think it’s so good? Well the Neverending Story is best described as being existentialism for children. It blurs the lines between reality, appearances and fantasy and makes you ask questions about yourself as a reader and as a human who gives meaning to existence.
The central premise of the novel is whether or not characters in books live, fully formed outside of their readers or whether readers are vital to these fantasy worlds to keep them alive and prevent them from disappearing into nothingness. Although this novel is essentially a fantasy tale, the plot acts as metaphor for some big questions about existence – such as does a person’s life need to be ‘read’ and to be witnessed in order for it to exist? What does it mean to be alive?
The plot itself centres around a young boy, Bastian, who, having stolen the eponymous book from a second hand bookstore, hides away in the attic of his school to read it. We then enter the world of the novel which Bastian is reading and learn that the Nothing is sweeping across the land of Fantastica – a great emptiness that is swallowing up the landscape and leaving a void in its wake. To make matters worse, the Childlike Empress, who is Fantasica’s beloved ruler, is dying from no apparent cause. A young warrior boy, Atreyu, is sent on a quest to find a cure for the Empress, which, he eventually discovers, is a human child who must give the Empress a new name.
It is at this point that the novel starts to demand some philisophical thought on the part of the reader. The lines between Bastian’s world and that of Fantastica begin to blur, and we soon realise that we, in turn, are creating meaning for Bastian’s life, by reading about him in our own.
Much of the novel symbolises the duality between reality and fantasy – the twin protagonists Atreyu and Bastian; the two worlds Fantastica and our own; the AUREYN – a magical amulet whose shape is that of two snakes biting each other’s tale; and also the distinction between the Nothing and existence. One reading of the book is that Atreyu is Bastian’s soul – such that Bastian and Atreyu mirror each other and are part of each other. The Nothing, then, is Bastian’s loss of creativity and individuality as he is forced to grow up and deal with the ‘real world’, which has little room for imagination. In essence, the story is a war between two worlds where the battles take place within Bastian’s own psyche.
All in all, this is an incredible read which I would recommend to anyone and everyone, young and not so young but be prepared for some soul searching.*
*You will be no doubt aware that there are three movies associated with the book. The first one is excellent but I would give the other two a skip.