I mentioned in another review that everyone has their book candy. That’s kind of a misleading way to think of today’s book, because it’s as sweet and yummy as a red velvet cake with buttercream frosting, but it also satisfies me same as a steakhouse dinner does. Except I don’t turn to steak when I need comfort. The point is that Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim, is swift and delightful reading for a bad day, but is gently wholesome and thought-provoking all the same.
Most people who hear this title think of the 1984 movie, which contains green-eyed wolves, half-nude Sphinx statues, and a scene involving a swamp and a horse that exercises children’s tear ducts. Both versions are wonderful, but the book is a special case to me. There are few times I can think of where I was so enthralled by a book that I carried it with me to the school bathroom. Yes—I skipped class to go to the bathroom to read the book because I thought that much about it. It takes a special book to make a rule-breaker out of me. Which couldn’t be a better lead-in to the plot of this book.
Ten-year-old Bastian, or Bastian Balthazar Bux if you want his full name, escapes from bullies into an old bookstore, where he finds an intriguing book called The Neverending Story. He takes it from the store when the strange owner, Carl Conrad Coreander, is not looking, and sneaks into his school attic to read as classes go on below. He is soon pulled into the quest of a young boy named Atreyu, who must find a cure for the ruler of his vast and magic world, or else, everything will be lost. The narrative cuts back and forth between what Bastian reads in the book, and what is happening with Bastian in the real world. But Bastian finds that the further he is drawn into Atreyu’s adventure, the more real the world of Fantastica becomes…and not in an imaginative, make-believe sort of way…
So much story and character is packed into this book, and each chapter is different from the next. It was probably the first fantasy book I read where I could not guess what kind of creature Bastian or Atreyu would encounter. The imagination in this book is on par with The Wizard of Oz series and any Roald Dahl book. I wished I could have come up with half these creatures and their different ways of talking, thinking, and the worlds they come from. There are many standouts, but my favorite is, and perhaps shall remain, Atreyu’s luckdragon friend, Falkor. His wisdom and optimism is just the warm, bubbly thing I need when I feel scared or sad. And who hasn’t entertained the wishful notion of having a dragon friend to fly with?
Something those familiar with the movie will notice is that the movie only covers half the book. Spoiler-not-spoiler alert: Bastian falls into the book, and becomes part of the story, making friends with the characters he read about. He is also granted the power to make his wildest wishes come true, but with each wish, his memories slip away. Bastian almost literally loses himself in the book. It sounds very innocent in concept, for after all, we technically forget about our outside selves the further we explore a story. But it’s a very melancholic turn, as Bastian begins to question the consequences of leaving his old life behind for this supposed literary utopia he has created, which he doesn’t initially realize is destroying him.
This book also has something to teach about crafting a fantasy novel. Because there is so much packed into this book, not a word is wasted. Discoveries are made and questions that forward the story happen on every page, and everything is crafted to be different and memorable from the rest of it. Between my very first reading and my next a year or so later, I still remembered so many characters and scenes because the descriptions are so magical and concise (however much of this is the work of Ende or his English translator I don’t know, but they both deserve equal credit). And that is the word to generally describe this book: magic. I pick it up and I still feel the excitement, the terror, the despair, but most of all, the wonder of reading a story. It enforces why I’ve always wanted to be a writer: to cast a magic spell and create something that will make someone feel safe, excited, scared—something that will take them to places they might not have expected to go.
It is at this point that I should think of some flaws with this book, but…I can’t. This book is so special and has brought me such joy that it’s hard to think of what could be done better. I suppose some scenes could have been cut, since the second half is kind of rinse and repeat: Bastian meets a strange creature in a new place, makes some wishes, loses his memories, learns a lesson, moving on. But I’ll be darned if it isn’t still so compelling and so engrossing in its overall magic.