He-Man, Jesus, and The Never Ending Story

I was a lot like Bastian, the main character in The Never Ending Story, when I was ten. My imagination was so powerful it sometimes frightened me. I could almost see and hear my daydreams. My family and teachers thought I was an odd kid who needed help. They complained I was always “in another world” and they were right. Even my grades suffered because of it. I remember having detention at least three times a week because I simply was unable to divert my mind to what we were studying. I forgot my homework, my books, my pencils, and the result was always detention. Even in high school, people assumed I was a drug addict. They didn’t know my secret, that I didn’t need drugs to get high. For most of my childhood, I was told this was a bad thing I had to grow out of, and I tried. Eventually, I succumbed to the jaded outlook of adult life. The world of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe I once so adored transformed in my eyes into a crass, half hour toy commercial. By studying the mechanics of fiction, the curtain was drawn back from the Wizard of Oz, and I discovered how my secret world was made up of writing techniques and plot devices. I knew all the magicians’ tricks and so the magic died. I am thirty-seven today, and the more I look back on my childhood, the more I cherish that other world. I now know that a vivid imagination is a gift not to be wasted. As a writer, I sometimes feel I’ve given up imagination for skill, and I often find myself wishing I could go back. Where? For every child, it goes by a different name, but for Michael Ende, the German author of The Never Ending Story, that world is Fantastica.

If The Never Ending Story is about anything, it’s the importance of imagination. Without it, life is gray and dull and meaningless, as the adult world must have seemed to Ende, to Bastian, and to me. The Nothing, an absolute void that can only be described as “making you feel as if you are blind” threatens Fantastica’s existence, a perfect metaphor for a world without imagination. But what’s truly remarkable is that, in a philosophical sense, Ende’s story deals with reality, because he never regards his characters as anything but fictional. Unlike many inferior pieces of meta-fiction, the characters here don’t need to “step out of the book”. Ende satisfies himself with the knowledge that imaginary characters are simply that, imaginary, but in that self same way, the life of those characters is a thing we enable in our minds. And here’s where the deep part comes in, because if you think about it, how different is memory from imagination? Though He-Man may have only been imaginary, his influence in my life exceeds every real person I’ve ever known. He taught me to be wise, brave, and compassionate. Much like Jesus, He-Man exists solely in people’s minds and hearts, yet his value cannot be overstated. Ende goes beyond the movie when he talks about imaginary things becoming “lies” in the real world. When the author describes how these imaginary “lies” are used to manipulate people, my mind turns to fundamentalism, to how religion is taught in a literal sense, which always has negative results (just look at the violence that came about after the recent Mohammed YouTube video). But if the products of our minds are seen for what they are, they take on their own reality, which can only benefit mankind. After all, who ever killed someone in the name of Superman?

But the movie by the same name, loved by so many, tells only one third of the novel, and if you never bother with the book, you’ll be missing out on a lot. As the film closes, a voice over states, “And Bastian had many more adventures, but that is another story . . .” which made it seem that the rest was superfluous. I thought that too, until I got deeper into the story. Since the world of Fantastica is made of human wishes, the second act deals with wishes, but Ende does not limit himself to the strict English definition, aka Aladdin, but with all human desire. When Bastian enters the world of Fantastica, he is given AURYN, a magical amulet which grants him the power to make anything happen, but with each wish he loses a part of his memory and a part of his identity. What Ende manages to convey with this plot device is nothing short of brilliant. On the surface, The Never Ending Story is children’s fare, but on a much deeper level, the land of Fantastica with its strange and magical inhabitants serves as a continuing metaphor for the many facets of human desire, from simple wants like strength and security to the need to be admired, respected, and even feared. Like many other books in the genre, The Never Ending Story explores themes of identity and “absolute power corrupting absolutely” but Ende works it into his story effortlessly and with deep insight. His one human character, Bastian, happens to be, not incidentally, the only fully fleshed three dimensional character, and his transformation from innocent child to jaded adult is conveyed with subtle mastery. 

To a child, The Never Ending Story is a fun adventure, but to an adult, it can be so much more. The story is continually inventive and the writing decent (perhaps a better translation from the German is needed) but what truly transcends the genre is the novel’s exploration of philosophical ideas. The very best authors know how to tell a story in multiple levels, the basic plot existing on the surface whereas on a deeper level, one can find insight into his or her very real life. It is truly a rare thing to find such a story, which is why this now takes the second spot, right below T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as my favorite fantasy novel of all time.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I can say I have been to Fantastica. Have you? 

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