The protagonist of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story is endowed with the ability to create and destroy the world of imagination as he sees fit. Is this the ultimate power? By Dr. Saul Andreetti.
The Neverending Story((Michael Ende, The Neverending Story. Translated by Raph Manheim. New York: Penguin, 1983. Henceforth NES)) is a novel by German fantasy writer Michael Ende. The novel, unlike the eponymous film released in 1984, eschews a simple-minded portrayal of fantasy themes, as it produces complex discourses on Being, Time and the nature of wishes and memory. One salient aspect of the novel foregrounds Power as a constant and recurrent element – where it is presented both in terms of destruction and creation – as Power entails the ability to create or destroy reality in its entirety. Further, Power is presented both as an object of desire, per se, something pursued by the Manipulators, and the werewolf Gmork, a worlds-traveller (Chapter IX) and as a means for the total control of reality; via the protagonist of the book, a child, endowed with the ability to create and destroy the world of imagination as he sees fit. Two examples of Ende’s treatment of power are the subject of the ensuing close-reading. First, the central theme of the novel, “the Way of Wishes” as the projection of one’s desires on to reality to the point of molding it. Second, and more acutely, chapter IX, where power is presented in terms of a manipulation of beliefs in the context of trespassing worlds and the destruction of the imagination.
Power and Imagination: the Destruction of Reality
The novel presents a simple and linear frame narrative. It is the story of Bastian, a little boy who steals a book called ‘The Neverending Story’ from a bookshop. He starts reading the book in the attic of his school. He soon discovers that this book is not just a normal book but a portal into the dimension of the imaginative. Ultimately, he saves this world from destruction in the nick-of-time, by entering the book, and thus Fantastica, (Ende’s term for the world of myth and imagination), finally returning to his own world, transformed.
“The more humans carry on with their humdrum lives and shun an existence where mystery and poetry enjoy an active role, the more the world of Fantastica is erased from existence.”
Conversely, the hero of the metadiegetic Neverending Story((For the notion of metadiegesis, see Gérard Genette, Figures III, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1999.)), Atreyu, embarks on his own quest of transformation. He sets out on a mission to discover the mysterious disease of the Childlike Empress of Fantastica, and crucially, how she is related to the Nothing, an ominous, all-engulfing force which is encroaching and destroying Fantastica. The reader soon discovers that this Nothing is related to a mysterious disease of the Childlike Empress – a character who functions as the balancing order of opposites in the imaginative – thereby granting it its very existence. The Childlike Empress is ill because she does not live in time like all other creatures, but in names. Consequently, it is only a new name, bestowed by a Son of Man, that can save her, and Fantastica along with her, from doom. Chapter IX of the book shows in great detail how such discourse on Power and Manipulation epitomises an original political reading of imagination versus mindless materialism. Imagination is presented as a life-saving and redeeming feature, enabling those who cultivate it to be free from the mind-control of those in power. The hero, Atreyu, reaches a place called Spook City where he encounters Gmork, a dying werewolf, chained to a well, and singing his own dirge. Atreyu approaches Gmork. After a brief conversation, he soon discovers why the world of Fantastica is in danger. Gmork explains the conundrum of how human disbelief in imagination brings about the demise of Fantastica. The more humans carry on with their humdrum lives and shun an existence where mystery and poetry enjoy an active role, the more the world of Fantastica is erased from existence. Fantastican creatures who then jump into the Nothing, Gmork explains, become lies and lies are instrumental in manipulating humans as:
Humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts. That’s why I sided with the powerful and served them – because I wanted to share their power.
As a result, the human world is flooded with Fantastican creatures, bereft of their true nature, lies in the human world. Likewise, humans have lost their ability to see Fantastican beings as they really are. Human disbelief in the existence of Fantastica dissuades them from trespassing the boundary between reality and imagination, and ultimately providing the Childlike Empress with a new name. This lack of a new name will eventually cause the demise of Fantastica.
Fantastican creatures who lose their ontological status to become lies are “nameless servant[s] of power, with no will of their own.” Indeed, Ende constructs a discourse on Power by means of an appraisal of the imagination as a life-saving force. Humans’ impaired vision leads them to the mutual destruction of both Fantastica and the human world. The opposite is also true: if a human gives the Childlike Empress a new name, this will not only restore life and being to Fantastica, but it will result in the healing of the human world. Ende envisages the world as a place where poetry can be found in life itself((Michael Ende declared this himself: „Denn danach suchen wir letzten Endes nur, die Poesie ins Leben zu verweben, im Leben selbst die Poesie zu finden.“ (to weave poetry in life, to find poetry in life itself “, translation is mine). This can be found in Ende’s publisher’s site, Thienemann: http://www.thienemann-esslinger.de/thienemann/autoren-illustratoren/michael-ende/biografie/)), rather than an ordinary and dull existence where there is no place for mysteries and miracles.
Power and Imagination: Creation and the Molding of Reality
The second part of the novel presents us with a different scenario altogether. Bastian, now himself a part of the metadiegetic Neverending Story, is the Saviour of Fantastica; a moniker earned by giving the Childlike Empress the name of Moonchild. Through the power of AURYN, an amulet he wears around his neck, Bastian embarks on “the Way of Wishes;” according to which, he must find his true will. This can be achieved by “going the way of [his] wishes, from one to another, from first to last. It will take [him] to what he truly and really want[s].” AURYN can, in fact, grant Bastian all his wishes, which come true to the letter. The more Bastian wishes, the more Fantastica grows rich and varied. Bastian, however, can wish himself forward only at the cost of his memories. Paradoxically, Ende makes it clear that without memory one cannot wish because “without a past, you can’t have a future.” Now it is Bastian’s inner world that is in danger. With every single wish he is granted, he loses a piece of himself. The narrative, however, informs us that Bastian has another way to contribute to the growth of a new Fantastica, namely, by the act of creating from within imagination itself. Accordingly, Bastian makes up stories and names, and they also become true, to the letter. Such craving for a total control of reality shows the demise of another world: Bastian’s inner world. Bastian’s power over reality is the result of both his changes and his dependence on his wishes.
Wishes, according to Ende, come from the recesses of the soul: “wishes cannot be summoned up or kept away at will. They come from deeper within us than good or bad intentions. And they spring up unannounced.”
In other words, Bastian wants to give his imprint to the world of imagination; but Fantastica itself, through AURYN, molds him into a new person, erasing his memory. Consider the episode where the evil and manipulative witch Xayde persuades Bastian that he should crown himself Childlike Emperor because Moonchild has probably left for good, nominating him as his successor. The text conveys the clear message that he does not merely want to have power on the boundless Fantastican realm, but to mold the imaginative dimension in his image:
“And then Xayde spoke to him of a new Fantastica, a world molded in every detail to Bastian’s taste, where he could create and destroy just as he pleased, where every creature, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, would be the product of his will alone, and he would reign supreme and inscrutable, playing an everlasting game with the destinies of his subjects.” (Italics mine)
Such neverending play with Bastian’s subjects, and their lives and destinies, is more than a solipsistic delirium of omnipotence. His power exceeds total surveillance. It is total creation, hence utter dominion over all that can be created and perceived. The act of nomination is not innocent. Bastian’s bestowal of names on things and beings grants them ontological existence. This is an intriguing image for power. Not only does it entail the godlike power to create life, but also the power to transcend time due to the strange laws of the world of Fantastica where things spring into being; and simultaneously, have existed since the beginning of time.
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Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. Translated by Raph Manheim. New York: Penguin, 1983.
Genette, Gérard, Figures III, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1999.