Thursday, February 26, 2015

Doing Battle with the Nothing: The Challenge Within Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story.”

In these dreary, late winter evenings, wrapped in a blanket and yearning for the soft signs of spring, I am re-reading Michael Ende’s masterful The Neverending Story.  The novel is a modern fairy tale, wonderfully replete with surreal characters, magic, heroism, and bold adventure. It is extremely entertaining. The Neverending Story, however, is a very special fantasy to me, one that provides a bountiful share of spiritual applications in its thrilling and memorable pages.

The Neverending Story has much to excite and inspire the reader — exemplary lessons about imagination, creativity, honesty, loyalty, bravery, sacrifice in the pursuit of virtuous causes, kindness, and friendship. But I find the most compelling arguments of The Neverending Story are that evil truly exists; that evil has deliberate and sinister designs upon men and women, even boys and girls; that modernity’s prime evil spreads through the lies of nihilism; and that evil must be fought hard and uncompromising.

In our age of moral relativism, to expose such evils is a daring thing. To dramatize the dire importance for men to actively resist those evils is even more rare…and thus more necessary.

Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (first published in German in 1979 with the standard English translation by Ralph Manheim printed in 1983) is not a Christian novel.  But using classic fairy tale themes, he effectively presents realistic human problems in ways that Christians can respond to, particularly how evil manipulates and uses people for its own ends, destroying them after their usefulness is up. And how evil thrives upon ignorance, confusion, hatred of moral tradition, and fear.

But standing in the way of the Nothing (Ende’s apt term for the evil force which is destroying the world of The Neverending Story) and its vicious servant, Gmork, are the young warrior Atreyu, a luck dragon, and a human boy who begins reading the book in a deserted school attic but who is drawn into the story himself. Their courage and resolve and loyalty to the prime cause; namely, service to the sovereign of Fantastica, ultimately wins the day.

As most of you know, I read quite a bit and my reading winds its way from novels to theology, from politics to popular culture, from mysteries to history and biographies.  Nevertheless, The Neverending Story remains (on my fourth reading) one of the most inspiring and memorable books I’ve ever read. Probably because it inspires me to continue fighting the Gmorks of our own day, the servants of the Nothing who, like the devil himself, revel in lying, stealing, and destroying.

Reading the novel this time around has me thinking especially about parallels I see between The Neverending Story and the fairy tale tradition…also to other writers who have added their own spice to that literary genre, writers like Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and Barrie. (Hmm. Maybe a research project is in the wings.) Regardless of how that works out, though, my late winter re-reading of The Neverending Story is providing fresh and vivid inspiration to keep fighting the Nothing and the culture of death it spawns.

Postscript. If you don’t plan on reading The Neverending Story (it is 444 pages), at least consider watching the 1984 film version. It is a beautiful and remarkable film that effectively captures much of the spirit of the things I’ve written about above. It’s one of the very rare examples when a movie may be as good as the book. (Claire thinks it's even better!)

And, by the way, don't bother with further film productions. They were not very good.