Reading The Neverending Story as a child, I was delighted by the imaginative world and characters that Michael Ende created, and wished that I could visit such a magical place. Interestingly, for a child who loved books, and used books as an escape, I never really like Bastian, or identified with him – at least, perhaps I identified with parts of him I didn’t like, so I chose to ignore our similarity.
You see, Bastian is a boy who loves books, and, finding a book that claims to never end, hides away from the world and all the problems that come with it (bullying, bad grades, disappointed father) and, eventually, actually climbs into the story he is reading. Wanting to escape into a book because the world wasn’t as good, exciting, or kind as the outside world was something that I longed to do as a child (and to actually be in a book is still something I would love now), but I didn’t like Bastian, or what he became when inside the Neverending Story.
You might think that Michael Ende loved books, loved them so much that he created an imaginary ‘never-ending story’, a world full of amazing, enchanting, magical beings, that had no boundaries and endless possibilities. As a child, it seemed like that. I would have said, if asked, that The Neverending Story was a love-letter to books, and stories, and the way we love them.
But now, on rereading it, I’m not so sure.
You see, I still don’t like Bastian. I don’t like him as a child in ‘our’ world, running away from his problems, and I don’t like him in Fantasica either. He uses story as an excuse, as a way to fix things, and never really deals with any problems. In Fantastica, he becomes arrogant, and rude, and greedy, and forgets his real friends, and all sorts of other undesirable traits. He wants to be good (so he says) but only so he will be seen to be good. He forgets the real world, and his father and school. You see, he forgets all the good things, and the bad things, until Fantastica is the only real world he knows.
And that’s not healthy, right? If we ride out the metaphor that Fantastica is the world of books and stories, to live solely in this world means that you forget, or neglect, the real, physical world, and the people in it. I think that Michael Ende did not write The Neverending Story solely to explore his love of story – it was also a warning. You cannot live on stories alone. One day, someday, you will have to close the book, put it down, and explore the real world. And the real world is rather like a garden. You can’t neglect it too much, or all the good flowers will have withered, and all that will be left is weeds. And if you let that happen, of course you will think the world of stories is preferable.
But I think Michael Ende was saying that you need both worlds. Fantastica and the human world cannot exist without the other, he writes to us. Stories cannot exist without a real world to inspire them. However, the nice thing about this metaphor is that the real world can’t exist without stories either. And I like it that way.