"If you have never spent whole afternoons with burning ears and rumpled hair, forgetting the world around you over a book, forgetting cold and hunger-
If you have never read secretly under the bedclothes with a flashlight, because your father or mother or some other well-meaning person has switched off the lamp on the plausible ground that it was time to sleep because you had to get up so early-
If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whose company life seems empty and meaningless-
If such things have not been a part of your own experience, you probably won't understand what Bastian did next."
Out of all the books I've read, there are very few that stay with me as long as this one has. And the story of how I wound up finding this one is about as long as that. When I was a lot younger and my mother was working late, my dad used to go above and beyond for us. This usually meant we'd go to the library, or do fake-fighting on the front lawn, or any number of things, always something special...something different from the usual nightly routine. But there were two things that always stood out to me: One would be that he'd read aloud to us to get us to settle down, and the other would be that we'd all watch a video together. We had a video store up the street from us, one with a seemingly endless collection of B movies, films from the eighties, and an astonishingly large horror/science fiction/fantasy section. We would pick out a film, go home for dinner, and then after bathtime, we'd all sit down-- me, my brother, and my father-- and watch it together. And one of those early films was The Neverending Story. It's actually one of my happier memories-- watching an effects-heavy movie on the futon in the den with my dad and my younger brother.
About three or four years later, I'd gotten bored with the books in the kids' section of the local library, and stumbled upon a copy of the book The Neverending Story in the well-hidden science fiction section. I barely remembered the movie, but I remembered it as a favorite, so I immediately clutched the book to my chest and took it home, where I started reading almost the moment I got in the door. It took me about two weeks to read, and I read it constantly: In bed by the light of my sister's tropical fishtank, in the middle of math class...whenever I could find a moment to read it and launch myself back into this world, this strange, beautiful world. And something like that, the joy and amusement I felt, it sticks with you. I immediately insisted my dad read it aloud at night because I wanted to share, to have him find the same things I did in all of it. And those memories just add to what it means to me.
The Neverending Story is about a young boy named Bastian Balthasar Bux. Bastian is having serious problems at home because his father has walled himself off emotionally, and he's getting picked on at school by all of his fellow students, so when he's being chased, he runs into a used bookstore where the curmudgeonly owner promptly insults him and leaves to take a phone call. In the meantime, Bastian is drawn to a large book with a copper-colored cover-- a book called The Neverending Story. The plot splits between the epic quest of a warrior named Atreyu trying to save a world called Fantastica, and Bastian reading the book in the loft of his school. And as the quest continues, past some really freaky creatures and odd situations (such as a giant turtle that talks to itself as if it's two separate people, and the fearsome Ygramul The Many, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like only poisonous), the line between Bastian's world and Fantastica begins to blur. And then things get weird.
Bastian, because he's a boy with an imagination, is summoned to Fantastica to help heal the Childlike Empress (the world's goddess figure) and remake the world anew. To help with the task, he's given the amulet AURYN, which grants his every wish...but with a price, as the longer he stays and plays with the world he's been given control of, the more corrupted, power-mad, and divorced from himself he becomes. Bastian faces outer conflicts, like the evil sorceress Xayide (who accellerates and plays into his corruption), and internal ones as he comes more and more to believe he is a god. In the end, Bastian must rediscover who he is and return home if he is to protect himself and the world he fell in love with.
The Neverending Story is, at its core, a book about trying to find one's self in the midst of distraction and all kinds of outside obstacles. It's a universal theme, which just makes the framework easier to understand and relate to. But it's not just about that, either. It's also about getting lost in a good book, reconnecting with those close to us, and in the end, it's about realizing that, much as we need that world to (in the words of Barry Hughart) curl up into on those cold, dark nights, we need this one as a counterbalance, and if we lose our anchor to reality, we lose part of what makes us us. But the central theme isn't what makes this a great book. What makes this a great book is that it tells a good story first, and lets all of this stuff shake out second. It never attempts to lecture its audience, but instead lets them discover what it is for themselves.
To add to this, Michael Ende did a wonderful job with sketching out his world. Fantastica is a very well-realized place, to the point that even the small details can be visualized. Ende describes his world as boundless and beautiful, but to craft something like this without even much illustration-- though there is that, too. The twenty-six illustrations (one for each chapter, and also one for each letter of the alphabet) are done in the style of illuminated manuscripts, or stylized tapestries, lending to the overall feel of the book. The archaic feel gives it the atmosphere of old legends, which, with the actual integration of some old and legendary concepts (djinn, werewolves and the like) creates something rather interesting to read and behold.
And finally, along with the wonderful descriptions and the relatable themes, the characters are much more than two-dimensional. Most authors would make the fantasy world a deliberately "lesser" place, something for their character to add to. Ende instead creates a fully realized world that doesn't completely need Bastian, but that Bastian can still add to and make his mark on. Bastian and all the characters save the Childlike Empress herself have motives and means, desires, and underlying motivations. Instead of simply being constructs, they're all very real and very three-dimensional within the story. Bastian, in particular, despite being an everyman, is quite well put-together, and his transformation from cowardly little boy hiding underneath blankets to hero to power-hungry tyrant and then back towards a more beneficial medium.
The book isn't without its fault, though. And there is one major one. Despite all his development, despite all his trials and tribulations, Bastian comes off as the biggest Mary-Sue ever in a credible work of fiction. He immediately goes about setting things up so he's the fastest, strongest, smartest person in all of Fantastica, and then lets all his fabricated power go to his head as he humiliates his enemies and raises up his friends. Sometimes, this gets really wearing, almost as much as the rather heavy setup of Bastian as a sad sack. But where the book is heavy handed, it more than makes up for it when it isn't. It balances out wonderfully, and works out all its kinks as it goes. Though sometimes the whole setup feels contrived, it's brief and in short fits.
But overall, this is far and away one of my favorite books. Ende is moving, touching, and uses some wonderfully vivid imagery throughout, the characters stay with me and are easy to identify with, and the underlying themes are strong as ever. This is also one of those books you can return to again and again, finding something different each time. Every time I've read it, and at different times in my life, I've found a new way to look at it and a new way to enjoy the book. There's always something new to draw me back in. So between the constantly-changing nature of the work, the vivid imagery, memorable characters, and interesting events and plotline. Never does it really approach the frivolous or the contrived, and when it appears to, it at least takes it in new directions. You should read this book. You should own this book. The Neverending Story is one of the five or ten books I will always own a copy of, and would never dream of giving up even to borrow. If that doesn't tell you something about how good this book is, then I really don't know what else to say.
There are only two books that have ever affected me in the same way aside from The Neverending Story. Sadly, like the book says:
But that is another story and will be told another time.
Next Week: We drop back into metafiction with the very strange mushroom and squid-infested City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanDerMeer.