Imagination Without Boundaries: Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story (1979) 
Written by: Michael Ende

Translated by: Ralph Manheim (1983)
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 377 (First Edition Hardcover)
Publisher: UK/Allen Lane

Why I Chose It: In January 2017, I resolved to reread The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. That seems so long ago and at the same time just yesterday, because this year rolled by pretty fast. I have owned a copy of The Neverending Story since I was a young Chic-in-training, and its imaginative fantasy quest story informed both my early reading and my early writing. Up through high school, I used to reread it every year. It was on the top of my short list of things to grab if there was a house emergency. Somewhere along the way, though, I quit rereading it. Maybe I felt I was too familiar with the story.  Maybe it was time to forget about it long enough to enjoy it the next time I was able to reread it. In any case, by the time this challenge presented itself, I’d been aching to reread it and see if it still had that same magic.

The premise: 

A mysterious book compels a young boy named Bastian to steal it. Bastian’s home life was destroyed by the death of his mother; at school, he is the target of bullies. He hides in the school attic and opens the book to begin a binge-reading session. The narrative introduces him to a dreamy storyland called Fantastica, which is disappearing bit by bit, swallowed up by a force called The Nothing, and no one knows the cause. The ruler of Fantastica, the Childlike Empress, is also dying; she calls for a young warrior named Atreyu to undertake a mission to find a remedy. Atreyu journeys far and wide, traveling through strange places and meeting many inhabitants (including Falkor the luckdragon), to discover that Fantastica is dying because the Empress needs a new name — and only a human child can give her one. But the human world has stopped making up stories — the same stories that make up the boundless realm of Fantastica — and has stopped caring about Fantastica at all. There is only one child who can save Fantastica, but he doesn’t want to believe he is the answer.

Bastian realizes the book is talking about him — insecure, downtrodden Bastian. He has been woven into the story, and he can save Fantastica. Just as The Nothing reaches the Ivory Tower, the home of the Empress, Bastian names her and in doing so is transported to Fantastica. The Empress presents him with AURYN, a medallion that guided Atreyu on his mission, and which will now empower Bastian to recreate Fantastica through his wishes and stories. Ende takes his readers on an imaginative tour of a strange, wondrous realm full of dragons, stone lions, silver cities, and all manner of inhabitants as Bastian travels through Fantastica, wishing everything into existence. But his companions Atreyu and Falkor soon realize that with every wish, Bastian loses his own memories and thus his identity. He has to return to the human world to show others the way to Fantastica — but how will he when he can’t remember anything about it and doesn’t care to try?

Spoilers: I gave away some in the premise, to be fair, but I think it’s important that anyone who hasn’t read the book should understand there is far more to the story than where the first film ends.  So there are a few spoilers throughout, mostly in reference to the movie version, since it is in the public consciousness.

Discussion: I own three copies of the book; one is a first English edition. I don’t go around buying first editions of anything, but the magic in that book never left me, so when I saw it in the bookstore, just like Bastian, I had to buy it or steal it. Unlike Bastian, I bought it. It then sat on my bookshelf for twenty years, and I’ve felt guilty for not rereading it. Fulfilling this resolution meant sitting down for a pleasurable read of the first edition. Also, there is nothing like a good fantasy story in the middle of winter.

Most people are familiar with the 1980s movie, but in truth that story doesn’t take up even the first half of the novel. There are significant differences between the movie and the book, but still I was impatient to get to the other 200+ pages of the novel — Bastian’s adventures in Fantastica — because I hoped that I would quit identifying the characters with their screen counterparts. 

To read the The Neverending Story is to examine its art; most editions of The Neverending Story include illustrator Roswitha Quadflieg‘s original artwork at the beginning of each chapter.  Fun fact: there are 26 chapters, in order from A-Z, and each chapter begins with that letter rendered in glorious red and green. The text also is multi-colored: green for what happens in our world (Bastian stealing the book) and red for anything that happens in Fantastica (the showdown between Atreyu and Gmork). There are several hardback editions, all of which have different covers. The first English edition is really pretty, although the depiction of medieval people on the dustjacket is off-putting because the people on the cover barely match the characters in the book. My favorite cover is the paperback cover. More on that below.

I thought I would love the idea of sitting down and rereading this book. Instead I felt disconnected from Atreyu’s mission; no nostalgic feeling came through at all. That might have been due to the text, or due to my familiarity with the film, which really influenced how I envisioned the characters and the setting for the first part of the story. So I dug out my childhood paperback and resumed reading where I left off. Much better! Inside, the paperback is an exact copy of the hardback, but everything is rendered in standard black, substituting italicized print for green and standard for red. The paperback cover does a far better job of depicting an Atreyu and Bastian as portrayed in the book. This is important, because there are all manner of folk inside Fantastica. 

I switched back to the first English edition by the time I got to the second part of the novel, and this time I was not distracted by the color of the text or anything else. I was able to completely immerse myself in and enjoy the story. 

The Neverending Story is a quest story, but really unlike any I’ve read before. Michael Ende’s imagination ran wild, and each chapter introduces new inhabitants and settings — all of whom are bound to each other as much as to Bastian, who recreates Fantastica through his stories. Ende (1929-1995) was a German author who came to writing late in life. He wrote several children’s books that are often viewed not as stories but as “mythic parables” whose plots center on the agency of children – a reflection of his belief that a person’s “inner world” is connected to their values. His stories and books won many German and European literary awards, but they were also criticized as romantic and escapist, and so he exiled himself to Italy, where he completed The Neverending Story, one of his last books, in 1979. 

In Conclusion: Even though I hadn’t read the book in years, I still remembered how certain scenes made me laugh or cry, or what was going to occur next, or the hours I spent staring at the artwork and characters on the paperback cover, and tracing the letters at the chapter headings. I recalled how I used to act out certain bits of dialogue. When I bought my first sword, I even named it Sikanda after the sword Bastian is given on his travels. All of it was just like meeting up with an old friend, especially after I finally made it past the first part of the story. What also was partly distracting in the beginning were little grammatical choices that probably didn’t bother me when I was ten; for instance, the translator was rather fond of commas and liked to use them especially where he could have used semi-colons. I noticed that hiccup disappeared after Bastian’s arrival in Fantastica. It’s a ridiculous thing to pick on, especially concerning such an esteemed translator (though Ralph Manheim was known for translating Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he preferred to focus on translating works by German writers exiled by Hitler’s regime). 

The range of Michael Ende’s imagination, as espoused by all the different types of inhabitants in Fantstica, and all their locales, just amazes me. I think The Neverending Story is an important book for anyone interested in the link between creativity and personhood. I especially think young readers and budding artists, or hell, everyone, would definitely benefit from reading it early on in their reading life, just as Ende intended. Understanding that link between imagination and the world around me opened up a lot of creative opportunities for me, just because I was exposed to that rich trove of boundless imagination at a young age. Even though I had difficulty separating the first part from its screen counterpart (which, to be fair, Ende denounced), I loved the experience of rereading the second part, and will likely read the whole book again because The Neverending Story is still a special, wonderful story.


  • Shara White December 26, 2017 at 10:31 am

    So I was telling my husband about this first edition and he was so intrigued that he got a copy off of ebay! He’s a graphic designer, so he’s a huge fan of interestingly-designed books. The copy arrived very quickly, and he’s looking forward to reading it!

    Also, I had no idea the original book was way more than the movie. Have you seen the movie’s sequel(s)? Do those follow the rest of the book’s plot?

    • Carey Ballard December 26, 2017 at 7:16 pm

      I hope he enjoys it! The hardback editions really are pretty.

      I have seen the Neverending Story II, with Jonathan Brandis (RIP) as Bastian. But while it pulls characters and places from the novel, it has a completely fabricated plotline. The third one I have never seen; likewise, the animated series. Part of the reason I’ve never seen the third movie is because it definitely has VERY little to do with the actual story.

      The best way to adapt TNS is miniseries with at least six episodes, I think.

      • Shara White December 27, 2017 at 10:10 am

        You know, I can barely remember the second movie, though I’m sure I watched it in college. I’m not sure if I ever knew there was a third movie, but I know I wasn’t aware of the animated series! Wow.


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