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By Michael Ende
Translated by Ralph Manheim
New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1997
ISBN: 0-525-45758-5 (hc) 396 pages

Bob Corbett
June 2015

We humans live in the world of everydayness, and most of us seem to make our way with some difficulties, but, in the main, we live out our days with many successes . However, few of us are free from a few glitches of “mis-remembering” this or that event.

A typical such incident begins with a retelling of some actual event. However, in the retelling a few inaccuracies may slip into the story, yet the retelling goes over well with those who hear it and this slightly altered (or even significantly altered) version becomes the one which the teller remembers and the actual event, as it occurred, even tends to disappear from memory.

And so it is with Bastian Balthazar Bux. He is an elementary school student. He is a good deal heavier that he would wish, has virtually no athletic skills, isn’t much of a student, is the butt of jokes and tricks from classmates, and has a difficult home life. His mother has died and his father, in significant measure also missing his wife and Bastian’s mother, has retreated into a quiet world in which he seldom even acknowledges Bastian’s existence.

Bastian is a prime candidate for the sort of “mis-remembering” I mention above.

In his retelling of his story he is on his way to school one day and he chances upon a bookstore he’d never noticed before. He enters but is not only not welcomed by the store’s owner, but chastised for even daring to come into this shop which does not even carry children’s books. He’s told, in effect, to beat it.

However, the telephone in the backroom rings and the proprietor hurries in to answer it. In a very non-typical moment, Bastian steals the book the proprietor was reading and runs off with it.

Bastian goes on to school, but instead of going to his classroom, he sneaks up into the school’s dark attic, locks himself into a store room and begins to read the book he has stolen, THE NEVERENDING STORY.

The story is set in a wildly fictional land with magical creatures of every imaginable sort. He is presented with a magical universe called Fantastica and it is headed by a mysterious and hidden figure, The Childlike Empress. As the novel opens we learn that Fantastica is in major trouble. Various parts of the land are simply disappearing into nothingness, replaced by nothing, not even a hole in the ground. Further, The Childlike Empress is deathly ill. Things are looking pretty bleak.

However, The Childlike Empress has a champion, Atreyu. It becomes his task to find someone who can heal The Childlike Empress and thus save Fantastica. She has given to him the Auryn, a magical medallion which everyone knows of and anyone wearing it has her same authority and even magical powers.

What follows is a wild adventure tale of Atreyu’s going off all over the Fantastica universe seeking help and understanding to learn how to stop the “nothingness” and how to heal The Childlike Empress. His primary aid is the magical medallion, Auryn.

Atreyu goes from place to place seeking some help of some sort for The Childlike Empress and each seeking out of help is an incredible adventure. Bastian, back in his school attic, is completely absorbed with the story and worrying about The Childlike Empress as though she were real and present.

Eventually Atreyu learns from a seer that the only hope for Fantastica and The Childlike Empress is she must be given a NEW NAME, and it turns out that only a human being can “rename” her, thus saving her life and Fantastica at the same time.

Up in his attic reading room, Bastian is simply completely engrossed with the novel and the school day is speeding by. He is very worried about the future of The Childlike Empress, and then, while sitting on his little mat reading this novel his is utterly shocked to discover that he himself, Bastian, is now a character in the novel, he is the human that Atreyu is seeking out to give The Childlike Empress her new name and save Fantastica!

Bastian “sees” her without the book even describing her. He has been sitting up in this cold, dark attic of the school all day reading. Now it is 10 PM at night and he knows his father will be worried, but he continues to read on. He reads that The Childlike Empress tells Atreyu:

“Every human who has been here has learned something that could be learned only here, and returned to his own world a changed person.”

So Atreyu is off to find a human who could do the naming, and poor Bastian now realizes he is the one needed to save her but he doesn’t know how to get to Fantastica so that he can “rename” The Childlike Empress. Atreyu does get some advice from a werewolf who tells him that when he goes to the human world he needs to how know to get a human to help:

“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.”

Before long Atreyu and Bastian meet and Bastian leaves Earth with him, travelling to Fantastica and giving The Childlike Empress her new name, Moon Child. He has saved Fantastica and he even becomes an unimaginably great warrior as well and very handsome, well-loved by all and so much more. He is now living in “the story” and he himself gets to create it.

However, there is another side. I might have said a “downside” but Bastian is not at all sure it’s “down.” As he creates himself in this other world he begins to forget more and more of the world in which he lived. Slowly, day by day, Bastian is losing his memory of his “real” world and coming to live in his created fantastical world.

After many adventures Bastian does get back to Earth and real time. He’s been away all the night and his father’s shell is broken in his worry about what happened to his son, so father and son begin to develop a marvelous new connection and begin to build their new world together.

The novel is, indeed a romp of wild imagination. However, there are some very serious lines of human psychology throughout. We are indeed creatures of imagination as well as real life beings on Earth. In memory we create the history of our world and lives, but those memories, like Bastian’s world, are a mix or memories of real events as they occurred, and “altered” memories which are as real to us as the actual events we once lived.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal. While as fantastical as anything I’ve ever read, there were some powerful human truths in the relationship between memory and actual experience, and the process by which we humans recreate our lives in memory. I plan to read further works of author Michael Ende, he has definitely wetted my appetite for his writing.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett