The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

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Translated by Ralph Manheim, illustrated by Marie-Alice Harel

Review by Lory Widmer Hess

He picked up the book and examined it from all sides. It was bound in copper-colored silk, that shimmered when he moved it about. Leafing through the pages, he saw that the book was printed  in two colors. There seemed to be no pictures, but there were large, beautiful capital letters at the beginning of the chapters. Examining the binding more closely, he discovered two snakes on it, one light and one dark. They were biting each other’s tail, so forming an oval. And inside the oval, in strangely intricate letters, he saw the title:

The Neverending Story

When you pick up the new Folio Society edition of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, you may feel as though you’ve stepped into its pages, and that you’re holding an enchanted book indeed. The shimmering coppery silk, the snakes, the two-color printing … one of world literature’s most famous “books within a book” comes to life in your hands, and surely you won’t be able to resist opening its pages and seeing what you’ll find there.

When you do, you’ll enter into the tale of an unhappy boy named Bastian Balthasar Bux, who begins reading about  the endangered land of Fantastica and finds himself strangely drawn into its beauties and its terrors, as the interwoven strands of our world and the other world — represented by the two-colored type — begin to merge and come together. From reading about a hero, Bastian must become himself the hero of his own story; and this proves to be not so simple as it first appears.

Being a Folio Society production, this edition departs from the book’s description of itself in that it does include pictures: line drawings of Fantastica’s creatures in the margins of many pages, with illustrations of some of the most colourful and dramatic scenes interspersed through the text: the soulful gaze of the Childlike Empress, or “golden-eyed commander of wishes”; the horrific one-eyed countenance of Ygramul, the Many; the shifting sands of the Desert of Colors. A wonderful Chinese-inspired image of Falkor, the luckdragon, graces the page edges, and the endpapers display the beginning and ending scene, source of all the magic one could wish for: a bookstore crowded with books, with its mysterious reversed window lettering that opens the whole adventure. Marie-Alice Harel, who previously illustrated the Howl’s Moving Castle series for Folio [https://enterenchanted.com/a-new-folio-delight-castle-in-the-air/], has outdone herself in creating artwork that honors the traditions of the past, while touching it with her own fresh and inventive style.

Just two things are missing that I wish had been there: a new Introduction by a worthy writer, a highlight of many Folio books, to pay homage to Ende’s work and put it into context; and the “large, beautiful capital letters” mentioned in the description above. There are slightly enlarged capitals with generic floral decorations at the head of each chapter — arranged in alphabetical order, as in the original text — but putting a bit more imagination into them and making them reflect the contents of each chapter would have been the last detail needed to make this edition absolutely perfect.

The Neverending Story was picked by readers as the title to celebrate Folio’s 75th anniversary, offering the opportunity to produce this beautiful, magical volume. Fittingly enough, it contains a story about the power of the imagination, and of how both the real world and the imaginative world need and depend on each other. 

It’s not an escapist fantasy, for although halfway through Bastian finds himself in Fantastica and able to wish himself into his wildest dreams, he soon discovers that without responsibility, moral gravity, and love, such wishes turn against the one who wields them. In the course of a series of adventures with many different beings, which challenge him to know himself better and learn what is truly essential, he finds what so many adventurers in fabulous lands have discovered: that the way he has been seeking to escape from his life transforms into a quest to return home.

Ende, one of the most famous and popular German authors of the twentieth century, was working in the tradition of the German Romantic fabulists, from which was ultimately birthed the strain of fantasy literature that has become such a force in our time. Although the genre has lately exploded into a welcome diversity, The Neverending Story remains worth reading, retaining its charm and its power to divert and move the reader. 

Oddly enough, Ende himself underwent something of an unexpected journey in writing the book. It began in 1977 when his editor asked him if he had any ideas for a new book. He rummaged in a shoebox and came up with this one: “A young boy picks up a book, finds himself literally inside the story and has trouble getting out.” He thought it would take him less than a year to write, and worried about stretching out the idea to fill at least 100 pages.

Ende’s publishers heard nothing from Ende until late in the following year. At that point, he surfaced and confessed that he was having trouble getting the young boy, Bastian, out of Fantastica—in fact, he had refused to leave. But it was Ende’s duty as an author to follow him, and he persisted in the journey. The publishers were next dismayed to hear that this book required special treatment — two-colour printing and ornamental initials to start the chapters. In spite of the increased expense, they agreed, and after three years of struggle and during a winter of record-breaking cold, Ende finally broke through to the magical solution. The publisher’s faith in their author paid off; the first edition of The Neverending Story sold out immediately and it became a worldwide bestseller.

In spite of the book’s fame and many laudatory reviews, Ende’s whimsical style is not for everyone. My own son, when I read it to him years ago, became highly irritated by the repeated refrain of “But that is another story and shall be told another time,” with which Ende cuts off plot digressions that would lead us astray from the main thread. Other readers to whom “literature” means all that is gritty, grim, and firmly tied to the material world and its problems, will not be impressed. Ende’s wild inventiveness, tongue-twisting names, and elaborate descriptions (ably translated for the English edition by Ralph Manheim) will seem to them tedious rather than enchanting.

Some readers may have trouble with the second half of the book, which after the first half’s fairly standard quest narrative with a touch of metafiction, shifts into something more inward and philosophical. It probably doesn’t help that the 1984 film, a special effects extravaganza that was the most expensive ever produced in Germany at the time, is still a popular cult classic [https://www.dw.com/en/why-michael-endes-the-neverending-story-is-cult/a-50125069]. The movie only covers that first half (we won’t even talk about the increasingly dismal sequels), and though it’s not bad of its kind, it gets in the way of the book that Ende wrote, which should be an intimate experience between the reader and the page.

Fortunately, we can still enter into that experience, and find pure magic in word and picture, without technical assistance. If you love fairy stories and wonder tales, if you’ve been raised, as I was, on the curious creatures of Oz and Wonderland and their way of revealing the enchantment behind the everyday, through symbols, images, and dreams, this lovingly crafted exemplar of the bookish arts will bring your passion to a new level. I can only recommend embarking on such an adventure.

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Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.

Michael Ende, translated by Ralph Manheim, illustrated by Marie-Alice Harel, The Neverending Story (first published in German 1979, in English 1983, Folio Society edition, 2022). 432pp., hardcover with slipcase.

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