I saw the movie first. I was a child of the 1980s, which means I still get Steven-Universe-starry-eyed over synth fantasy music and costumes culminating in big hair and head chains. It could just as easily have been “Labyrinth” or “Ladyhawke,” but in my case it was “The Neverending Story” that a babysitter had on VHS. She also had an infinite patience for watching (or overhearing) the same film over and over again.
It was not until I was twelve or thirteen that I laid my hands on the book.
There was no Amazon and I had no money. If it couldn’t be had for less than a dollar after someone else was done with it, I couldn’t have it. There was a library that had it on the shelf and I finally had in my hands what I considered the great mystery of my life: when Bastian Balthazar Bux screamed a name into the storm for the Childlike Empress to take, what in the hell had it been? I could never make it out, no matter how many times I watched. The book would hold the secret. I traced the auryn on the cover. I would know.
What I found inside surprised and enraptured me. Even as a baby, all my books had had their words printed in black ink. I had never seen a book printed in emerald green the way this one was. The table of contents was beautiful and strange; it reminded me of when I read on the playground in the full sunlight and then took a book into the dim, my blinking eyes printing the page in negative against my eyelids.
And then, the first page was written in deep red, with the name of a bookstore printed backward as if we were seeing it through plate glass from the inside. If I had not known that this book held the secret of my heart, I would still have been hooked.
The green scenes took place in Fantastica. The red in our own world. The shift between them thrilled me, doing the same job that Kubrick and all those orange/blue knockoffs pulled in the movies. It was shock, it was aposematism, it was pageantry.
The book itself was deeper and richer than the film, which only told a tiny corner of the story. The central theme, the one that tells children that is it important to imagine, remains the same at the core between the two worlds. It is just as recursive, a story about people in a story being read by people who know it’s a story, being written by someone who imagines the story, and so on. It sprawled into a world built for children: dreamy and emotional and unjust. I cried over Pyornkrachzark the Rockbiter, over Artax. It scared me and delighted me and pulled me along until I had forgotten I was looking for a name.
“The Neverending Story” was one of the first books I had read that was a translation (the Bible notwithstanding) and when I came to understand that it helped a little. The register of the book was strange, the prosody quite different from most things I had read. And then there was the name. The translated name of the Childlike Empress is Moonchild, like an Aleister Crowley b-side. It’s slightly better in German: Mondeskind.
The thrill of a fantasy adventure that just keeps it coming until you holler uncle is a gift forever. Understanding that having the answer is not as pleasurable as having a quest is priceless. If anybody knows that, it’s Bastian and Atreyu.
A small irony: the author of this book is Michael Ende. His name means end. He wrote a book without himself in it, or, he’s the only one who can bring it to an end. When I think about an author flexing, when I think about playing chess and not checkers, I think of Ende. He knew where to start.
This series was inspired by the latest round of the endless argument about what constitutes canon, a song of gasbags and bad taste, a newsletter by the unstoppable Sarah Gailey, and a neverending desire to tell people what to read. These books are the Canonical Meg.