Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: The Neverending Story

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Doubleday, 1983).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 5(3): 1.

A fat little boy about ten or twelve years old named “Bastian” enters a book shop, falls in love with a strange volume bound in copper-colored silk and decorated with two snakes biting each other’s tail. Bastian steal the book, plays hooky from school, and holes himself up in the school attic to read the
book.

The story Bastian reads is a story within a story. Indeed, since the book Bastian steals is also called “The Never­ ending Story,” it is the Neverending Story within the Neverending Story. In the “outer” story (printed for us in red), Bastian is soon moved to enter the story he is reading (printed for us in green) so that, like the snake emblem, one tale begins to swallow the other. Finally, after many episodes of high adventure, Bastian falls out of the world of fantasy and back into the world of ordinary fiction where we first encountered him.

The Neverending Story is certainly as much for adults as it is for kids, but not, I think, more. It has been a bestseller in Germany, it has been translated into 27 languages and, as one might have predicted, it will be made into a movie, to be distributed by Warner Brothers.

Being a story of 396 pages, it is an epic fantasy, as well as a fantasy epic. The fun for the reader is partly in the grand sweep of archetypal adventure, but partly also in the fine details and suggestive asides. Those details include fascinating descriptions of mythical creatures and fantastic places, but they also include intriguing philosophical motifs and psychological ruminations.

The land of fantasy Bastian reads about is Fantastica. Like the world Alice visits through the looking-glass, Fantastica depends for its existence on the “real” world. But then the “real” world, we are told, depends for its health on the well-being of Fantastica. The threat to Fantastica is presented as the encroachment of “the Nothing.” In the style of Heideggerian philosophy, the Nothing in The Neverending Story really nothings.

Fantastica, we learn, will slip into malaise and eventual nothingness unless a human being gives its superheroine, the Childlike Empress, a new name. When we realize that the events of Fantastica rest on forgotten and unprocessed human dreams, we are able to appreciate that our very mental health may require us to reclaim archetypal stories by giving their superheroes and super­ heroines new names. So far the message is psychological. But The Neverending Story has philosophical morals, as well as psychological ones.

About a third of the way through the book, the story in green print begins to recycle the story in red print. This, then, is a story about stories. It prods us to raise many of the most intriguing questions we can ask about stories.

What is a story? Must there be some truth in any good story? Must there be some falsification in any good story? Is there such a thing as what really happens, against which the accuracy of a given historical account can be judged? Or is “what really happened” itself a fiction to designate raw material for stories?

Is any good story about fictional characters also, in some way, about real people? Can we understand real people without trying to learn ”the story of their lives”? Can they understand them­selves without being able to tell the story of their own lives?

The Neverending Story is a good story to read and think about. It’s a good story in which to think about stories, what they are, and why we tell them.