This essay is in three parts, of which this blog post is the third. Click these links for parts one
What Mr. Coreander's choices tell us about personal storytelling
I said above that I was going to work my way through the significant choices made by each of six functional characters in The Neverending Story
. Now we're ready for the second one. Bastian's choices took up a lot of time, since Bastian represents all of us. We should be able to examine the choices made by the other five characters much more quickly.
Mr. Coreander is a playful, paradoxical man, with his bulldog face and his cheerful grumbling, and he invites Bastian to play as well. He's a joker, a facilitator, and a story caretaker. You can find people like Mr. Coreander in any community, from the smallest village to an entire country. Such a person might be a bookstore owner, a librarian, a teacher, a guidance counselor, a therapist, a town council member, a historian, the owner of a popular restaurant, or just one of those people who seems to know everybody. Mr. Coreander represents anyone who maintains custodial care over a body of stories important to any group. The longer you have been active in any group or community, the more likely Mr. Coreander's character is to connect with your life. But just being involved in a community isn't enough. To be a story caretaker you must develop a reputation as an excellent listener. When a story caretaker recommends a story they've heard to someone else, their suggestion is valued because they've listened to far more stories than they've told.
Let's look at Mr. Coreander's choices in The Neverending Story
and think about what they tell us about public and personal stories in our lives. I can think of three significant choices he makes that drive Bastian's journey forward. I will leave out his choice to create his enchanting bookshop in the first place, because his shop defines his role in the story.
Listening and responding
The first significant decision Mr. Coreander makes in the book is the first one you'd expect of a story caretaker: he listens
to Bastian's story. He tells Bastian plainly that he "can't abide children," but when Bastian works up the nerve to tell him that "all children aren't like that," he begins to question Bastian on the circumstances that led him into his store. (I get the feeling that his "can't abide children" speech is actually a test to see what kind of child he's talking to.) He asks Bastian two pages worth of questions, hears that Bastian likes to make up stories, and finds out that Bastian's mother has died. Then he suddenly
has to answer the telephone, leaving the book he knows Bastian has been eyeing, which happens to be just the book Bastian needs, available to "steal."
That's two choices, really; I can't help running them together, because one leads so quickly to the other. But first, Mr. Coreander listens. Obviously a good story caretaker listens; as I said above, that's how you know who the story caretakers are. And second, Mr. Coreander responds. It is exactly this quick and apparently effortless connection between listening and responding that makes a story caretaker truly effective. It seems effortless, but it's built on a foundation of many years of listening and connecting -- that is, paying attention to the connecting function of stories in society.
Actually, what Mr. Coreander does for Bastian has a name: creative bibliotherapy
. This branch of story work uses selected fictional materials to help people work on real-life problems. From a web page
Through the incorporation of carefully selected literary works, therapists can often guide people in treatment on a journey of self-discovery. This method is most beneficial when people are able to identify with a character, experience an emotional catharsis as a result of this identification, and then gain insight about their own life experiences.
Except for the part about actually entering into the book, that sounds a lot like what Mr. Coreander did for Bastian. I've been reading a bit about bibliotherapy and its uses. One guide
I found cautioned overly ambitious librarians against recommending books to troubled patrons without checking in with them afterward.
[T]herapy is not in the book. Nor is it in the act of reading. Therapy is in the subsequent discussion, guided by a skilled therapist.
Bastian's "subsequent discussion" takes place mostly between himself and Atreyu; but speaking to Mr. Coreander after his journey is undeniably important to Bastian's transformation as well.
Pointing people to literary tales is one way to help them find doors to Fantastica, but connecting people to personal stories and to the people who tell them is just as valid a connection. When someone says, "You should talk to old Joe on the fifth floor," or, "I think Jenny would like to hear you talk about old houses," they're doing the same thing as Mr. Coreander did for Bastian. When someone says, "Did you ever hear about the old Mason house?" or, "Have you looked at the library's collection of old tools?" they're doing the same thing as Mr. Coreander did for Bastian. Remember, it's not only books that lead to Fantastica. Sometimes it's a place or a thing or a conversation. Story caretakers know where the stories are, and they know how to connect people to them.
If you find yourself taking on the role of a story caretaker, by personality, interest, or need, think about how well you are listening to people and connecting them to the stories they need. What do you typically say to people who come to you for help? Do you listen to their stories? And what stories do you give them in return? Listen to yourself for a while to find out how you use stories when you talk to people. Don't just ask people what they need; ask them what happened that brought them to you, what happened that led them to feel the way they do, what they would like to happen, and whether what they've experienced reminds them of any other events they can remember. Listen to them so you can send them on a new journey.
Sharing the power of stories
I said above that Mr. Coreander made three significant choices in The Neverending Story. We've gone over the first two. I also think Mr. Coreander made a critical choice when he said this:
"Let an old Fantastica hand tell you something, my boy. This is a secret that no one in Fantastica can know. When you think it over, you'll see why. You can't visit Moon Child a second time, that's true. But if you give her a new name, you'll see her again. And however often you manage to do that, it will be the first and only time."
Mr. Coreander didn't have to share Fantastica with Bastian. He could have listened to Bastian and even appreciated his story without admitting that he had been to Fantastica and knew how Bastian could go back.
I find it deeply touching that Mr. Coreander did not hoard his status as a story caretaker. He shared
it with Bastian. I don't think it's any accident that these are nearly the last words in the book:
"Bastian Balthazar Bux," he grumbled. "If I'm not mistaken, you will show many others the way to Fantastica, and they will bring us the Water of Life."
What I see here is the handing over of a responsibility and a privilege. In this sentence Bastian is transformed from a traveler through his personal imagination to a guide who helps others find their way. So Michael Ende's ultimate advice to any story caretaker is to spread the responsibility and privilege of that position to anyone and everyone who shows themselves worthy of taking on the adventure.
What Atreyu's choices tell us about personal storytelling
I take the character of Atreyu to represent anyone who is emulated by others: celebrities, of course, but also anyone who is a role model, including coaches, teachers, and parents. Anyone to whom others compare themselves is allegorically represented by Atreyu in The Neverending Story.
Atreyu makes three significant choices in the story: he befriends, fights, and forgives Bastian. Let's consider these one at a time.
When Atreyu and Bastian first meet, they become instant friends.
Laughing, Atreyu held out his hand to Bastian. Bastian took it, and so--hand in hand--they went to the palace.
Atreyu seems to have gone to the Silver City of Amarganth prepared to befriend Bastian, hoping to meet him, excited to think that Bastian might be his friend.
That's pretty amazing, if you think about it. Atreyu only saw Bastian once, in the Magic Mirror Gate, but he knew a lot about what Bastian did and didn't do after that. Atreyu was the only person in the Silver City who knew that Bastian broke his initial promise to give the Childlike Empress a new name. He knew that the Childlike Empress had to take a long and painful journey to find the Old Man of Wandering Mountain because Bastian refused to say a few words. Bastian must not have seemed like much of a hero to Atreyu.
And then here comes Bastian into the Silver City, hailed by all as the Savior of Fantastica, the recipient of "a thousand cheers," while everyone ignores Atreyu, who did a lot more than say a few words and make a few self-serving wishes. I don't know about you, but I don't think I would have been as magnanimous as Atreyu. Maybe just after a nice hot bath, but not all day, and certainly not after seeing how huge of an ego Bastian was walking around with because he won a competition with the help of AURYN.
So why did Atreyu decide to befriend Bastian? I don't know. Ende makes it seem easy and natural, like the two boys met at summer camp. "Each knew that the other shared his feeling, a feeling of joy at having found a friend." But Atreyu already had many friends, friends who had never broken a promise or taken credit for something that was at least partly Atreyu's doing. Why did Atreyu accept Bastian so uncritically? He was a noble savage, so there's that. But I sense something else. I think Atreyu was still following his mission. It doesn't say anywhere in the book that the Childlike Empress asked Atreyu to look after Bastian, but he seems to treat Bastian like a little brother, or even like his son, throughout the second half of the book. Bastian resents this, as all children do, but in the end it is what saves him.
What could this possibly mean about public and personal storytelling? Well, I said that Atreyu represents someone people imitate and look up to, right? A person people tell stories about? If you are a person like that, and you have fans or students or kids or other people who look up to you, you have a mission. Your mission is to support your people in their journeys through their own personal imaginations. This means that their stories are more important than yours. Sure, you can inspire people by telling them stories from your experience. That's part of your unique role in their lives. But if you aren't listening to the personal stories your people are living through, you aren't really helping them; you're just using them to reflect light back onto yourself. You should be able to tell more stories about the people who admire you than they can tell about you. Then you'll really be worth telling stories about.
After Bastian and his followers arrive at the Ivory Tower and find the Childlike Empress gone, Bastian discovers that Atreyu is planning to steal AURYN from him. Bastian orders Xayide's metal soldiers to capture Atreyu. In front of the assembled throng, Bastian speaks:
"Atreyu," he said, "You tried to steal Moon Child's amulet and take it for yourself. And you, Falkor, were an accomplice to his plan. Not only have you both been untrue to our old friendship, you have also been guilty of disobedience to Moon Child, who gave me the Gem. Do you confess your wrong?"
Atreyu cast a long glance at Bastian; then he nodded.
Bastian's voice failed him. It was some time before he could go on.
"I have not forgotton, Atreyu, that it was you who brought me to Moon Child. I have not forgotten Falkor's singing in Amarganth. So I will spare your lives, the lives of a thief and of a thief's accomplice. Do what you will. Just so you go away, the farther the better, and never let me lay eyes on you again. I banish you forever. I have never known you."
The heartbreaking thing about Bastian's ridiculous speech is that he has strayed so far off his path, and so close to insanity, that he can't see why Atreyu nods to him. In trying to save Bastian by taking AURYN from him, Atreyu has been true to his friendship and to his mission. That's what he means when he nods: I've done all of this because I am your friend. (Also, did you notice Bastian's use of the phrase "do what you will"? It's another example of the mirror-image demon Bastian has become.)
Later, when Bastian and Atreyu meet in battle over AURYN and the Ivory Tower, Atreyu tries once more to get Bastian to see reason.
"Give me the amulet," he said. "For your own sake."
"Traitor!" cried Bastian. "You are my creature! I created the whole lot of you! Including you! So how can you rebel against me? Kneel down and beg forgiveness."
"You're mad!" cried Atreyu. "You didn't create anything! You owe everything to Moon Child! Give me AURYN!"
"Take it if you can."
"Bastian," he said. "Why do you force me to defeat you in order to save you?"
Bastian is clearly losing his mind at this point. Of course he didn't create Atreyu, because Atreyu was in the book before he got to it. Bastian didn't create anything; AURYN and the Childlike Empress did. Atreyu was right when he decided that he had to get AURYN away from Bastian at any cost.
Atreyu seems pained only by the prospect of having to hurt Bastian to save him, but Atreyu also hurt himself by choosing to fight Bastian. Until Xayide got her claws into him, Bastian was Atreyu's biggest fan. Even when Bastian accused Atreyu of trying to steal AURYN, he still spoke of Atreyu with respect and a little awe ("Bastian's voice failed him"). I would guess that it took some courage for Atreyu to throw away his status as a role model to Bastian in order to save him. A less mature person might have walked away from such a challenge.
It always takes courage to disappoint the people who admire us, even if we know they will end up thanking us for it later. When any one of us finds that admirers have gathered around us, it's natural to enjoy the admiration, and it's natural to want to keep it going. But this can cause us to pay less attention to what it was people admired in the first place, and ultimately to ruin what we have to offer people by veering off course chasing praise.
It's like what happens with sequels. Our first work comes from somewhere deep inside, from a message that needs to be brought to the world. Then, when the work becomes unexpectedly popular, we can't help turning away from that place deep inside, because it's awfully quiet in there, and there are lots of appreciative fans somewhere else. As a result, the work starts to lose its purpose and its voice. By the time we realize we've lost the thing that attracted people in the first place, our admirers have disappeared, and we can't get them back even with our best work. My guess is that pretty much everyone whose work is the subject of stories told by others has encountered this fear.
But what Atreyu did to help Bastian was even harder than staying true to an idea through the distractions of attention. Atreyu had to actively work against his biggest fan. If Atreyu had been a rock band, fighting Bastian would have been like switching to playing elevator music. It could have been a blow to Atreyu's identity. Who would Atreyu be, and what would his heroism count for, if he could no longer claim Bastian as his protégé? He had to be secure in what he meant to Fantastica, or maybe just to himself, to actively work against his biggest fan.
I was thinking about Atreyu's choice and casting around for an example when I opened an issue of New York
magazine (July 25 to August 7, 2016) and started reading an article
called "The Case Against the Media, By the Media." One of its points was that people in the media are "desperate to be respected, which is a kind of blindness." The article went on to quote Glenn Greenwald, of the online publication The Intercept
"I think that a lot of coverage decisions that get made are often made subconsciously. Journalists want to be respected by their colleagues and they want to be mainstream... So if there's some sort of dispute between the two parties, that tends to get covered, because that's viewed as an important political debate. But on the issues where there's bipartisan consensus, which is far more common than disagreeing--those tend to get completely ignored."
The same article featured a survey of journalists that asked them to name the "biggest problem with the media these days." The problem most often chosen was lack of adequate funding for good work, but coming in at a close second was "A broken business model that causes media organizations to pander to audiences." Pandering to his audience is exactly what Atreyu did not
do. He put his sword to Bastian's chest. Can you imagine any creative artist today doing such a thing?
Another example came up when I was casting around the internet looking up things like "fans" and "angry." I found a recent article
titled "Why Star Trek Beyond
had to destroy the universe – and make fans 'very angry'." The article quoted Simon Pegg, who acts in the movie and co-wrote the screenplay:
Pegg is all too aware that if the new film is to succeed it has to appeal not only to diehard fans but also to the casual viewer. “You can’t make a story that the more casual viewer would feel alienated by,” he says. “I know some Star Trek fans get very angry at this. I think they believe you could make a movie that’s just like the original series and expect it to do well. It just wouldn’t, sadly. So it’s a fine balance that you try to strike.
Apparently there is tension between those who loved the older, slower paced, more thoughtful Star Trek
universe and those (mostly younger people) who have newer action-movie expectations. One fan reacted to the new Star Trek Beyond
trailer by calling it "just as stupid and splodey as the previous two movies," a sentiment with which many older Star Trek fans would concur (my husband among them; I'm more okay with reinvention).
quotes the actor Chris Pine, who plays James T. Kirk in the new movies:
“You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky."
If we consider older Star Trek
fans to be the most Bastian-like fan group, it is
probably necessary to make them angry, if we are going to get more movies and television shows that have anything to do with Star Trek
. It's not like movie producers can stand in front of a replicator and say, "Star Trek
movie, hot." Money likes money, and today's audience likes blockbusters. People who want a 1966 Star Trek
movie in 2016 are like Bastian wanting to be the Childlike Emperor. It just isn't going to happen.
However, whether saving Bastian means that we have to put up with nothing but Star Trek
action movies far into the future is a matter of legitimate debate. As of this writing, the Star Trek Continues
project has raised over $500,000 from small donors to create a web series "aimed at completing the final year (late 2269 – early 2270) of the original adventure." It's not necessary that there be one way of saving Bastian, or one Atreyu doing the saving. The Star Trek Continues
people are making fans angry in a completely different way, and that's a wonderful thing.
In software development there is an old saying: "Listen to your users, but don't do what they say." That's because users never understand what you need to do to get them what they need. They have all kinds of theories as to what will work, but because they don't know what you know, their theories are usually way off. You can try
to explain the underlying software architecture, but most users either can't follow what you're saying or substitute what they think you ought to say for what you're actually saying. In The Neverending Story
, Atreyu tries to explain what AURYN is doing to Bastian, and Bastian says the equivalent of, "But if I just click on this little tab, that should change my file format." Bastian's theory about how Fantastica works is way off, and Atreyu has to work against it to save Bastian from how Fantastica actually works.
Having followed the path of his wishes to its end, and having lost his last memory, a boy who no longer knows his name takes an amulet he no longer remembers from his neck and hands it to a green-skinned boy he no longer remembers. Atreyu refuses to take the amulet, so Bastian places it on the ground. This causes AURYN to expand until it is large enough for Bastian, Atreyu, and Falkor to enter. Because Bastian has lost his memories, the ouroboros that guards the door out of Fantastica refuses to let him leave. Atreyu vouches for Bastian and promises to complete all of the stories he has left unfinished, and the snakes allow Bastian to return to his world. If Atreyu had not forgiven him, Bastian would have ended up at the City of Lost Emperors in spite of his efforts. This is Atreyu's final choice in the story.
Why does Atreyu forgive Bastian? It seems to flow naturally from what Atreyu sees as his mission, to protect Bastian and help him get home again. It seems not to be a choice at all. Atreyu is never shown feeling anger or debating what to do. The last chapters of the book are written entirely from Bastian's perspective, even though earlier we did get some insights into the way Atreyu was feeling in conversations Bastian didn't hear but we did.
There is one interesting thing Atreyu says, when one of the snakes that guards the gateway wants to know why he is willing to vouch for Bastian even though Bastian wounded him.
"We were both right," said Atreyu, "and we were both wrong. But now Bastian has given up AURYN of his own free will."
By saying this Atreyu appears to be taking some of the blame for Bastian's mistakes. Is
he partly to blame? Could he have done a better job of convincing Bastian that he was going down the wrong path? I don't think so. Bastian's resistance to Atreyu's warnings seems to have come from the power relationship Bastian (alone) perceived, in which Atreyu was already a hero while Bastian struggled to see himself as one. In other words, Bastian was responding more to Atreyu's role
than to anything Atreyu actually did or said.
Bastian's obsession with Atreyu's role instead of his behavior reminds me of the way children respond to their parents. Both boys are somewhere between ten and twelve years old, but Michael Ende portrays Atreyu as so much more mature than Bastian that he seems like a father figure.
When I've read about how parents should respond to their children's mistakes, the advice I've seen most often is that parents must not hold their children fully accountable for their decisions because their brains are not yet fully grown. Even into a young adult's early twenties the prefrontal cortex, the seat of decision making, is still maturing. This is a fairly new finding that feels strange to those of us who remember a time when everyone was expected to be married and raising children by the age of 21. But it's a reasonable analogy for the weaknesses that led Bastian into being so easily swayed by the distractions of social comparison. Bastian couldn't listen to Atreyu because he wasn't capable
of listening, not until he had finished making his mistakes.
When you are a role model, you need to keep those two unavoidable facts in mind: that your children or students can't help responding more to who you are than to anything you say or do; and that your children or students may not yet be capable of making the best use of the gifts you have to offer. When we care about the people we set out to help, these are hard pills to swallow. We may become frustrated at our lack of success as mentors, and we may end up resenting the very people we are trying to support.
When I help people learn how to do story work in their own communities and organizations, people sometimes respond to my role as a "expert" in the field. They think I have some special quality that makes it easy for me to do story work. They don't believe me when I say that if they just get out there and start working with stories, they will find that the ability to do it well grows within them. I wish I could show people what it was like in my first year or two when I was bumbling around making every stupid mistake I could make. I make it a point to tell people those stories, about how my face burned when people said "this is a waste of my time" and walked out on story sessions I was struggling to facilitate, and how I lost confidence when clients ridiculed the idea of collecting "anecdotal evidence," and how I spent months chasing great ideas that turned out to be not so great. It seems sometimes that I have destroy my own image in the minds of the people I'm trying to help before they can gain confidence in their own abilities.
I wonder if Atreyu should have tried harder to show Bastian his
faults. Atreyu was so completely unrippled by everything that happened in The Neverending Story
. Even when he failed he failed nobly and calmly. He never panicked; he never freaked out and blamed everybody around him; he responded to every setback with humility and quiet determination. How annoyingly perfect. He was almost too
noble for Bastian to take him as anything but a challenge.
was Atreyu's mistake: he didn't go out of his way to make it clear to Bastian that he had no special secret, that he was just like Bastian, only a bit more experienced. I wonder what prevented Atreyu from taking Bastian aside and saying, "You know, Bastian, I have no idea what I'm doing either. I screwed up when I was supposed to bring you to Fantastica, and the Childlike Empress had to fix things for me. I don't know what advice to give you. I'm doing the best I can, but I'm not perfect either." It almost seems like Atreyu's pride stopped him from admitting his limitations. I've said all along that Atreyu was brave and humble, but maybe he wasn't as humble as I thought. A truly humble role model would have made sure that Bastian knew as much about his failures as his successes.
one moment when Atreyu sorta-kinda admitted to Bastian that he might have done something stupid, but he ruined the moment. It was when the traveling companions were wandering around in circles because Bastian took Atreyu's advice not to make any more wishes for fear of losing more of his memory. Atreyu said:
"Listen, Bastian. Falkor and I want to apologize. The advice we gave you was meant well--but it was stupid. We just haven't been getting ahead. Falkor and I talked it over last night. You'll be stuck here and so will we, until you wish for something. It's bound to make you lose some more of your memory, but that can't be helped, there's nothing you can do. We can only hope that you find the way back before it's too late. It won't do you any good to stay here. You''ll just have to think of your next wish and use AURYN's power."
I don't know about you, but that sounds more like a command than an apology. Atreyu admits that he was briefly and temporarily wrong; but he says it in such a managerial way that the blame-taking is hard to find in all that heavy-handed advice. "Falkor and I talked it over last night" sounds an awful lot like "Your mother and I talked it over, and we think you should keep taking piano lessons." No wonder Bastian rebelled. I've been thinking all this time that Bastian put Atreyu on a pedestal, but now I'm seeing Atreyu's part in it differently.
So that's some advice for a role model: get down off that pedestal you're on, no matter who built it, and get down on the ground with the people you're trying to help. Do what they do. Eat what they eat. Listen to their music. Watch their insipid television shows. Play their unfathomable video games. Live in their world until you understand it as well as you understand your own. Forget everything you know about what's important so you can find out what matters to the people you're trying to help.
Okay, so what about the thing about children's brains not being fully developed? I'd say that applies to every type of mentorship as well. That's probably the single most common mistake teachers make, is to forget that they didn't always know what they know now. Some people call this "the curse of knowledge." Avoiding it has been a big part of the effort I've put into helping people work with stories. Most of my readers have said that my writings are approachable and intuitively appealing, but a few have characterized them as too dense or academic. (Once I showed my book Working with Stories
to an old friend, who took one look at it and said, "That's a lot of ten dollar words!") So I've given up trying to figure out whether I'm succeeding or failing on this point. I'm doing the best I can.
Did Atreyu have the curse of knowledge? He couldn't have, because he didn't know any more than Bastian did about the way Fantastica worked on humans. Maybe Atreyu had the curse of an unusually reasonable disposition. He seems to have thought logically and dispassionately about Bastian's wishes, much like a middle-aged parent might respond to dilemmas faced by their teenaged children. His "you'll just have to think of your next wish" must have been unnerving to Bastian, who was trying to appear authoritative in front of Hynreck, Hykrion, Hysbald, and Hydorn, the knights who saw him
as a role model.
That's an interesting thought: if you are a role model to someone, what if your attempts to help them are damaging their own attempts to help someone else who sees them
as a role model? It could happen. That's another reason to listen to the people you're trying to help, so you can find out what invisible sore spots your blundering feet are stepping on.
So in coming back to Atreyu's decision to forgive Bastian, I think I have to amend my initial response to the question, "Is Atreyu partly to blame for Bastian's mistakes?" Yes, I think Atreyu is
partly to blame, and I think he realizes that when he is standing in front of the snake that guards the way out of Fantastica. You could say that Atreyu forgives both Bastian and himself, and that finishing the stories Bastian started is more of a penance than an indulgence.
That idea reminds me of some advice I found in one of the best parenting books I've ever read. I bought it when my son was still in the age range where he thought I controlled the world. Whenever it rained or a toy broke or an amazing dump truck didn't come back from wherever it had been going so he could see it again, he would get really angry -- at me
. I'd say, "But I can't control the weather!" And he'd say, "Yes you can! And you won't!" Nothing I could say could shake him from this conviction.
My sister says that every time I have a problem I read ten books about it. That's, um, true, and it's what I did in this case. One of the books I found was Redirecting Children's Behavior
by Kathryn J. Kvols. The title of this book sounded like just what I needed. I thought it would give me lots of tricks I could use to manage my son's stubborn refusal to face reality. Imagine my surprise when I got the book, opened it up, and found out that the first chapter was called "Take Care of Yourself." Here are the first few sentences I read.
Your son has just spilled his juice on the carpet. It's no big deal, but you really lose your temper this time. Why do you react so strongly now and not the last time he spilled juice?
One reason we parents become irritable, overwhelmed, depressed, or sick is that we have not been doing a very good job of taking care of ourselves. How long has it been since you had thirty minutes by yourself to do whatever you wanted?
Okay, yes, when I read those words it had been years since I had been able to pee without somebody sitting outside the bathroom door asking if I was done every thirty seconds; but that wasn't the point! I wasn't reading this book to control my own
feelings; I was reading it to fix my son's problem. I flipped two pages further into the chapter and found a section on anger management. What? Anger management for me
? Ridiculous. I put the book down. But it had planted a seed in my mind, so after a while I came back. As I read, I realized that at least some part of the reason my son was being so hard to handle was that I was letting myself drift into mistaken assumptions about his current capability to understand the world.
So I decided to enter into his world and find out what it was like in there. I started asking him questions about how he thought the world worked. I'd say things like, "Where do you think the rain comes from?" and "Why do you think toys break?" As he answered, I began to understand why we kept having problems. The problem wasn't that he had these beliefs about my god-like status. The problem was that I wasn't taking his beliefs seriously. I just couldn't believe that he really
thought I could fix everything. But he truly did. At that age, that was how his brain worked.
When I accepted his perspective, his frustration made more sense. I mean, what if I really could
control every aspect of your world, but I wouldn't? Wouldn't you
be frustrated? Of course you would. So I started responding to his frustration not with my own frustration but with understanding. I started saying things like "I really wish I could
make it stop raining" and "I'm so sad your nice toy broke" and "Don't you wish we could ask that truck driver to turn around?" Because I was no longer responding angrily to his sincere statements of belief, he gradually began to see that I really did have no control over these things.
The way I reacted to my son's beliefs was a lot like the way Atreyu reacted to Bastian's belief that he could take over Fantastica and rule as its Emperor. I wonder if Atreyu also failed in his mission by not listening to how Bastian felt about what he wanted.
There was one point in the story when Atreyu might
have been able to help Bastian figure out why he wanted what he wanted. But Atreyu let the opportunity pass by, mostly out of his own frustration that Bastian wasn't taking his responsibilities seriously. It was just before they started walking in circles.
"To tell the truth," said Bastian, "I don't want to go back anymore."
Atreyu was horrified. "But you have to go back. You have to go back and straighten out your world so humans will start coming to Fantastica again. Otherwise Fantastica will disappear sooner or later, and all our trouble will have been wasted."
At that point Bastian felt rather offended. "But I'm still here," he protested. "It's been only a little while since I gave Moon Child her new name."
Atreyu could think of nothing to say.
I know what Atreyu should have said. He should have said, "Why
don't you want to go back?" and "What do you think will happen if you don't?" and "What would make you want to go back?" and "What can we do to help you figure out what you want?" Atreyu reacted just like I reacted when my son blamed me for the rain. We both got frustrated and didn't listen to the reasons behind the refusals, and we both had higher expectations for our children than they were capable of handling at that time in their journeys. Atreyu should have found a book called Redirecting Your Human's Behavior
, and he should have found a chapter called "Take Care of Yourself." Then maybe he would have calmed down about saving Fantastica and listened to what Bastian needed from him right then. That's probably good advice for all parents and teachers and role models. Throw away your schedule of milestones and find out what your child or student needs you to help them with right now.
What the Childlike Empress' choices, and those of the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, tell us about personal storytelling
Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course doesn't have to work hard to recognize the relationship between the Childlike Empress and the Old Man of Wandering Mountain. In every writer there is an interplay between the creative aspect, which generates ideas without evaluation, and the editing aspect, which prunes and hones ideas, preparing them for transmission to others. The Childlike Empress "draws no distinctions" because the unbridled imagination generates both groundbreaking ideas and useless garbage. The Old Man of Wandering Mountain, the translator of events into things, keeps the groundbreaking ideas and trims out the garbage. These two forces are opposites, yet they work together and are inextricably intermingled. (Sound familiar?)
Speaking in a societal sense, anyone who is in any way involved with a creative enterprise fits somewhere on the spectrum between the Childlike Empress and the Old Man. In solitary efforts like a novel, one person spans the spectrum alone, though an outside editor might bolster the side of the Old Man. In a large production, some people take on roles that can be represented by only one of these characters. If you look at the credits at the end of any movie, you'll see the spectrum spread out before you, from screenwriter to director to actor to producer to editor.
The Childlike Empress and the Old Man of Wandering Mountain make only one important decision in The Neverending Story
, and they make it together. It is the decision to embed Bastian's story in The Neverending Story
. You might argue that the Childlike Empress' decision to send Atreyu on his mission is a choice; but she is never seen deliberating it. It seems to be an automatic response to her illness, like taking aspirin for a headache. So I don't think it merits attention in an allegorical sense.
So what's the allegorical meaning of the decision to entrap Bastian in The Neverending Story
? I think it's about the ways in which works of fiction reach out and connect to people in their audiences.
Every story has a message; otherwise it wouldn't be a story. Even stories that think they don't have messages have messages. Remember Seinfeld
, the television show about nothing? It was most definitely not
about nothing. It was about the intricate negotiations we enter into every day as we decide what makes a person fit to participate in society. The ending of the show made that point clear. Jerry Seinfeld debunked the "about nothing" idea in a 2014 "Ask Me Anything" exchange
The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.
A commenter in the same discussion suggested that Seinfeld
was actually about everything
In some stories the message comes out loud and clear, and in others it only emerges after several readings or viewings. The question of how strongly to bring out the message in a story connects to the decision of whether to write Bastian into The Neverending Story
Let's take a closer look at how the Childlike Empress makes that decision. Atreyu returns to the Ivory Tower, having been rendered colorless by the Nothing and bitten by the dying Gmork. Next there's some expository talk about the Manipulators and the human world. Then we have a sort of conversation between Bastian's misgivings, Atreyu's guesses about Bastian's misgivings, and the Childlike Empress' attempts to dispel Bastian's misgivings. As in all good fairy tales, there are three repetitions of this sequence.
- Bastian doesn't know if he's chosen the right name. Atreyu says maybe Bastian doesn't know if he's chosen the right name. The Childlike Empress says he has.
- Bastian says he doesn't know what to do. Atreyu says maybe Bastian doesn't know what to do. The Childlike Empress says he just has to call her by her new name.
- Bastian wonders if he might be the wrong person. Atreyu says maybe Bastian isn't sure he's the right person. The Childlike Empress blurts out in exasperation, "He can't be that stupid."
It is in the next expression of Bastian's misgivings that things begin to go wrong. Bastian voices several doubts, thus:
What if it actually worked? Then he would somehow be transported to Fantastica. But how? Maybe he would have to go through some sort of change. And what would that be like? Would it hurt? Would he lose consciousness? He wanted to go to Atreyu and the Childlike Empress, but he wasn't at all keen on all those monsters the place was swarming with.
These seem to me to be perfectly reasonable doubts. I would ask the same questions. Heck, I'd probably want something in writing. But look at what happens next. Atreyu rightly guesses that Bastian is feeling nervous about the dangers of Fantastica, and the Childlike Empress responds as follows:
"Maybe he hasn't got the courage," Atreyu suggested.
"Courage?" said the Childlike Empress. "Does it take courage to say my name?"
That's a pretty cruel joke, given what we know is in store for Bastian. He will
be changed, and it will
hurt, and he will
have to deal with monsters, of a sort. I can forgive Atreyu for interpreting Bastian's legitimate concerns as a lack of courage; after all, he's a one-dimensional character in a story. But the Childlike Empress isn't a character in a story. She has done this before, and she knows
that Bastian will have to do a lot more than just say her name. Still, she tosses off his concerns with a flippant dismissal.
The most critical moment in these few pages, I think, lies in the next exchange. The Childlike Empress reminds Bastian that he promised her he would come, apparently by looking at her in a promising sort of way. Bastian replies:
"Yes, that's true. And I will come soon. I just need some time to think. It's not so simple."
Again: perfectly reasonable. You ignore my legitimate concerns and remind me of my maybe-binding look of promise; I need some time to think over whether those terms are acceptable. In response, the Childlike Empress could have said something like, "I respect the human's right to choose his own destiny. I await his decision." That sort of gracious response might have stirred Bastian's sense of honor and moved him to action.
But she didn't say that.
When at last the Childlike Empress looked up, the expression of her face had changed. Atreyu was almost frightened at its grandeur and severity. He knew where he had once seen that expression: in the sphinxes.
"There is one more thing I can do," she said. "But I don't like it, and I wish he wouldn't make me."
The sphinxes? The monsters whose pattern of killing with their gaze is indistinguishable from chance? And we're supposed to cheer on Bastian to help her? And look at what she says next: she wishes he wouldn't make
her trap him. Isn't that just what abusers say? That their victims "ask for it"?
I was thinking about how this is further proof of the Childlike Empress' villainy, if we needed it, when I was struck by a thought. I've been thinking of her all along as some kind of impenetrable mixture of god and demon. But what if she's not evil but limited? What if she is another flawed character like Bastian and Atreyu? Is that not just as likely? She never seems to admit
to making any mistakes, like the other characters do, but maybe that's another flaw.
it a mistake to push Bastian into The Neverending Story
? I think so. If Bastian had been given the time and space to make his own decision about whether and when to enter Fantastica, the beginning of his journey would have been different. He would have developed a sense of personal responsibility for what he set out to do. He wouldn't have felt so bewildered by the course of events. He might have been more critical in his thinking about his wishes.
I mean, think about it. What difference would it have made to Fantastica if Bastian had slept on the decision? What if he had taken the book home, saw his father, got a good sleep, had a hearty breakfast, and set out on his journey? The Nothing was a time pressure, of course, but it had no particular timetable, and there was no indication of how time passed in Fantastica as compared to the human world. For all we know, the Childlike Empress has a long history of jumping the gun and ruining perfectly good visits to Fantastica because she can't sit still long enough for people to think through their decisions. Maybe she's not just Childlike. Maybe she's childish. It would certainly fit her allegorical counterpart, because the imagination is impulsive and unrealistic. I like the Childlike Empress better as a flawed, tragic character than as a villain, because how else could she be part of us?
Let's compare Bastian's entry into The Neverending Story
to the start of Atreyu's Great Quest. The centaur Cairon came to Atreyu, greeted him respectfully (if sceptically), answered his questions, and delivered -- not a command, not a manipulative lie, but a polite request. He repeated the Childlike Empress' words: "Ask him if he's willing to attempt the Great Quest for me and for Fantastica." She wasn't stern and sphinx-like then
. She was considerate and respectful. What made her such a tyrant now? I don't know. Maybe it was
a mistake. She was tired and frustrated and scared, and she broke her own rules.
She did break her own rule rules, you know. Just before Bastian starts voicing his misgivings, Atreyu asks her about the Manipulators and the human world. And she says:
"When humans, children of man, come to our world of their own free will, that's the right way."
But Bastian doesn't
come to Fantastica the right way. The Childlike Empress drags him in, just like the Nothing drags Fantasticans out. Sure, Bastian gave a half-promise, but I'm not sure that counts. In my family you have to say the exact words "I promise" for it to count. You don't have to keep a promise when all you did was say "Sure maybe I'll help you clean out the garage" or have a promising sort of look in your eyes when somebody's talking about fixing the lawn mower. I think the Childlike Empress trapped Bastian on a technicality that he could very well have challenged. She played him. She manipulated
him. Don't worry, I'm not back to the "she's an arch-villain" thing again. Sometimes people manipulate others because they care too
much about them. Parents do that all the time. Maybe Bastian was the means to an end for the Childlike Empress, but it was an end she felt everyone, including Bastian, badly needed. Her desperation blinded her, and she reached out too far.
Okay, so we've established the fact that the Childlike Empress either made a huge mistake or acted wrongly in trapping Bastian in Fantastica, and that the Old Man of Wandering Mountain helped her do it. What does that mean about the people these two characters represent?
When I looked again at the list of Bastian's reasonable concerns about going to Fantastica, I was struck by its similarity to the list of concerns I often have about books and movies that I've heard are good but that have a strong message. I think, "This sounds good, but would I have to go through some sort of change? Would it hurt? I'd like to see this part, and this part, but I'm not keen on these other parts." I've seen lots of other people react to books and movies in the same way, as soon as they find out that a book or movie has "something to say."
I've been reading through some articles, opinion pieces, and comments on the topic of "preachy" movies and books. I've noticed three themes running through them:
- Preachy books and movies depart from good story structure. By creating weak stories that don't hold up, people do a disservice to the very messages they hope to promote.
- Preachy books and movies are boring. Nobody wants to listen to a character droning on and on. If we wanted to be instructed we'd go to a lecture.
- Preachy books and movies break a bond of trust with fans by forcing them to listen to lectures when they thought they were going to be having fun playing with a story.
Of these three it's the last that I find the most interesting, because it's the most prominent, and because it connects most strongly to The Neverending Story
. Of course, some discussions of preachy books and movies confine themselves to the first point, but these are usually among writers debating the fine points of story form. When regular people talk about preachy books and movies, they talk about three things: force, manipulation, and disrespect.
People use a variety of terms to indicate force. A preachy book or movie is "heavy handed." It "hits you over the head." It "grabs" its viewers by the eyeballs or throat or neck, or places lower down. These are descriptions of power and control, or maybe descriptions of abuses
of the legitimate power and control we give to creators of public works.
Manipulation is described when a book or movie guilts or scolds or harangues its viewers, and when it tricks them into expecting a more interesting story than they actually get. People talk about "blowback" from misleading book and movie promotions. One web site
put together a series of hilarious movie posters that "preach nothing but the truth" about popular movies, including Brooklyn
("America Welcomes White Immigrants"), The Big Short
("The WTF of Wall Street"), and Bridge of Spies
("Spy Movie Without the Action Bits").
People describe disrespect when they say that a book or movie insults its viewers, talks down to them, underestimates them, or, as one commenter put it, "doesn't really give the audience a chance to personally interpret or disagree with the agenda being pushed."
It comes down to a choice between depth and breadth. The more you reach out and grab your viewers, the more deeply and strongly you will be able to deliver your message. But the more you do that, the fewer viewers you will have left. People who don't like the message will walk away. Bastian could have walked away after he was written into The Neverending Story
. The Childlike Empress and the Old Man knew they were taking a huge risk by forcing Bastian's hand. It paid off, but it might not have.
But this makes it seem like audience manipulation is just a cost-benefit decision. It's also an ethical choice. Manipulation through storytelling is particularly insidious because, like Bastian, a lot of book readers and movie viewers aren't savvy enough to be aware of what's being done to them. Says Paul Asay in an post
on the blog Watching God
Because movies can be so persuasive, we often forget they’re teaching us at all. Sometimes, because they move us so, we forget to analyze them critically. We forget to question them the way we might our other institutions. We can be shaped by them in ways we’re not even aware of.
To think about works of fiction and how they reach out to audiences, I tried to recall experiences where I've been pushed away or drawn in by the message in a story. Two situations quickly came to mind.
I've mentioned that I read a lot of novels as a child. Most of what I read was in the areas of fantasy and science fiction. One of my favorites was C. S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia
. I must have read the whole set of books three or four times by the time I got to college. I had no idea that the story was a Christian allegory; I only found that out a decade later. But there was something at the end of the last book that bothered me more and more each time I read through the series. It was what happened to Susan. The feeling of unease I got from Susan's fate stuck with me strongly enough that I never went back to Narnia after high school, and I've never read the books to my son either. It doesn't feel right.
(If you haven't read the Narnia books: here's what happens. Skip this explanation if you haven't read the books and want to. Though I suppose you won't understand what I have to say about Susan if you don't read either this explanation or the Narnia books. I respect your right to choose your own destiny, and I await your decision.
Ready? Of the four Pevensie siblings who go to the magical land of Narnia, Susan alone turns away from her experiences there, coming to believe that they were childish fantasies. She also commits the unforgivable sin of showing an interest in such sordid things as "nylons and lipstick and invitations." Then, at the very end of the last book, her three siblings and their parents die in a train crash and are carried to a special part of Narnia that represents the Christian heaven. Susan alone is left behind, apparently because she is "no longer a friend of Narnia." This is especially troubling in relation to her brother Edmund, who got off with nothing but a stern lecture after he betrayed his siblings to an evil witch
in exchange for some tasty candy.)
I was not the only one bothered by "The Problem of Susan," as it is commonly known. Many essayists have pondered it; many people have discussed it; the novelist Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about it. The problem of Susan is even said to have been one of the factors that influenced Philip Pullman when he was writing His Dark Materials
. A New Yorker article
on Pullman's work quotes him thus:
Pullman also makes the argument that Lewis really isn’t all that Christian. The fate of Susan Pevensie, he told me, indicates “some sort of crazed, deranged Manichaeism. Here’s a simple test: What is the greatest Christian virtue? Well, it’s charity, isn’t it? It’s love. If somebody who knew nothing about Christian doctrine, and who had been told that Lewis was a great Christian teacher, read all the way through those books, would he get that message? No.”
The problem of Susan relates to The Neverending Story
because it represents a choice very like the one the Childlike Empress makes when she refuses to wait while Bastian thinks over his options. When C. S. Lewis created the problem of Susan, he pushed a message -- in a forceful, manipulative, and disrespectful way -- onto a vast number of fans who were otherwise delighted with his story.
In fact, one of the reasons I have come to see the Childlike Empress as not evil but flawed is because I've been thinking about C. S. Lewis and what he did to Susan. Clearly he did this in a misguided attempt to instruct and guide his readers. Though his form of "muscular Christianity" has fallen out of favor, I can see that he meant well in making his choice. But it was the wrong choice, and it has led many people away from the values he hoped to promote. It was certainly one of the first cracks in the belief system I grew up with. I don't want to live in a world where Susan has a problem, and a lot of Lewis' other readers don't either.
Now let's contrast that example of overreach with a positive story about reaching out to an audience. This was another experience that popped right into my head when I thought of stories and messages. It was a moment that happened the first time my son and I watched the movie Cars
. He was probably six or seven, and he was in love with cars and racing. But more importantly, at that point in his young life, he was having a very hard time with the idea of losing or failing at anything. If any game could be lost, he would refuse to play it. He wouldn't even color or paint with me, because he could see that I could do it better than he could. I tried to color and paint badly, but I like
coloring and painting, and I couldn't help myself.
Every kid I've ever known or heard of has struggled with learning to "accept defeat gracefully," as the parenting blogs say. Perfectionists have a particularly hard time of it, and it was clear early on that my son had inherited that trait from both of his parents. I remember going through my own "I must not lose" period as a child. For several months, as I recall, I was banned from all board games because I had developed the habit of dumping the whole board on the floor the moment I started to lose. I got over the habit pretty quickly, because we were a board-game-playing family, and I missed out on a lot of fun until I convinced everybody that they could trust me again.
Anyway, so there we were watching a movie called Cars
because my son loved cars. When it dawned on me what Lightning McQueen was about to do in the race he so desperately wanted to win, I found myself starting to cry -- not for the character or for myself, but out of sheer gratitude. Here I was, trying my hardest to teach my son the values I wanted him to grow up with, trying to help him over this hurdle in his life, and this silly movie reached out and touched us both in a way that I knew would stay with us. I felt like I had been given a gift.
I've looked at reviews from other parents to see if this view of that moment in Cars
was widespread. It wasn't. But I've seen parents express a similar feeling of gratitude for the messages in other movies that we liked but didn't love, like Frozen
and Inside Out
. It must have something to do with particular parents and children and where they are in their journeys. For us, right then, the message that "there's more to racing than just winning" was exactly what we needed, and it hit home. It wasn't forceful, manipulative, or disrespectful. It was perfect.
Thinking about how grateful I felt for the message in Cars
, and reflecting back on other books and movies I've felt grateful for having encountered (like Dostoyevsky's The Idiot
), reminds me of how people react when I help them tell stories. One of the things I've learned to look for when I help people gather stories is gratitude. If we set up the project right, some proportion of the people who tell stories will always take the opportunity to express their gratitude for having had the chance to tell their stories. They do this without anyone having asked for feedback. They just burst out into little expressions of gratitude.
So I wonder if gratitude is the connection I've been looking for. We've already established how every story must start from the personal imagination of its author and move into public reality in order to reach the public imagination. We've talked about how escapist stories stop there, never reaching into the private imaginations of anyone who reads or sees them. But just as there are two ways to enter Fantastica, there are two ways to enter the personal imagination. The right way is to enter with gentleness, authenticity, and respect; the wrong way is to enter with force, manipulation, and disrespect. It is only stories that enter into the personal imagination in the right way that generate gratitude.
Here's one more example of an experience of a story with a message, one that stopped short for a different reason. I remember reading Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls
, enjoying the story and its message about the value of all human life, and reading the line "in that before us the future looms dark, and that we can scarcely" -- and wondering if my copy of the book was misprinted. It wasn't. The book stopped in mid-sentence because Gogol burned the rest of the story, including a fully written and revised second volume. Apparently he did this because he was struggling through a depression that began with the death of a friend when an orthodox priest convinced him that all writing was sinful. What a loss to the world.
What I felt when I discovered Gogol's destruction of his work was similar to what I felt when I threw Anna Karenina
across the room. I felt that I had a pact with both of these authors, and I felt that they both broke it. Tolstoy broke the pact in the same way that C. S. Lewis did: by overloading it with a forceful attempt to control my thoughts and beliefs. Gogol broke our pact by throwing it away. Each of these betrayals was forceful and disrespectful. Each broke the trust we had established. Gogol's action was not manipulative, but it was dismissive, and it was still a breach of trust. The way I see it, Gogol and I were engaged in an intense conversation, and someone came up and whispered in his ear that our conversation had no value. He should have asked me
, and all of his readers, what we thought -- no, what we needed
-- before he walked away.
Let me see if I can sum up this section of the essay. If you are a person who plays some role in bringing works of the personal imagination into reality as publicly available stories, you have a responsibility. Your responsibility is to find a way to help your story make a journey into many diverse personal imaginations, with the ultimate goal of helping people change their personal realities for the better. Even if you think you are "just entertaining people," that's still a goal, and you still have a message. To accomplish your goal, you have to reach out to your audience, just like the Childlike Empress did. But to avoid making the mistake she made, you must bring your story to people in a way that is gentle, not forceful or controlling; truthful, not manipulative; and respectful, not dismissive or condescending. If you can do these things, your stories will not become escapist fantasies, and they will not lead people to wander distractedly, never getting to where they need to go. Your stories will enter into many thousands of personal imaginations, and they will grow into new stories that will help people change their lives. And people will be grateful for this. You will notice their gratitude. It will be a sign of the bond you have forged.
I don't think the authors of "preachy" books and movies, like the Childlike Empress, set out to alienate their audiences. They simply fail to understand them. In each of the situations we've been considering, from the Childlike Empress to C. S. Lewis to Tolstoy to Gogol, story creators have misunderstood the nature of their relationships with audiences. The Childlike Empress should have been more patient with Bastian, and she should have given him answers to his questions. C. S. Lewis should have finished his book series as carefully as he started it, and he should have been aware that his readers would have grown to love "Susan the Gentle." Tolstoy should have understood the same thing about Anna Karenina, and he should have realized that while killing her strengthened his argument, it weakened his story and his bond to his readers (thus, ultimately, his argument). Gogol should have felt his readers, then and in the hundreds of years to come, pulling on his sleeve as he fed the second part of Dead Souls
into the fire.
I saw a movie once that has stuck with me because it directly addresses what happens when authors fail to understand their relationships with audiences. It's called Sullivan's Travels
, and it was made in 1941. In the movie, John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a Hollywood director who made his fortune working on fun, stupid comedies. He feels like a fraud, so he decides to make a socially conscious movie, a movie with a strong message that will reach out and change people's minds. He embarks on a journey disguised as a homeless tramp, determined to learn how the other half lives so he can depict "the sorrows of humanity." Through a series of complicated mishaps you would rather I not explain in detail, Sullivan ends up being hit over the head, mistaken for a murderer (and not the good kind; a poor one), and sent to a forced labor camp. While in the camp, Sullivan attends the showing of a movie with the other prisoners. The movie is a fun, stupid comedy. Instead of watching the movie, he watches the laughing, happy faces of the people around him; and he realizes that he had been changing lives all along, because he made people happy. He thought his stories had no message, but he was wrong. He thought he was not changing lives, but he was wrong. There was gratitude all around him, but he couldn't hear it, because he didn't know who he was telling stories to or why.
Remember when I said above that people hate preachy books and movies because they don't conform to good story structure, and because they're boring, and because they break the bond with audiences? Only the last reason matters. The other reasons are just ways
authors break the bond with audiences. A lot of writers, especially beginners, get caught up in crafting the perfect story, but they lose sight of why
we tell stories in the first place. We do it because telling a story helps us to put forth our opinions, beliefs, and values gently, without force. We do it because telling a story helps us to express our truths by looking inward to examine our own experiences instead of looking outward to think of ways we can manipulate others. We do it because telling a story helps us to respect our audiences, to understand their worlds, and to meet their needs. The purpose is built in to the method; we just have to learn how to use it well, and we need to learn how to respect its power and limitations. If we do that, we will show many others the way to Fantastica, and they will bring us the Water of Life.
What Bastian's father's choices tell us about personal storytelling
Bastian's father makes three significant choices in The Neverending Story
. He listens to Bastian's story; he believes Bastian; and he goes back to Fantastica with him. (Okay, that third choice isn't in the physical
book, but it's in the book I've got in my head.) These are easily collapsible to just one choice. Bastian's father opens himself up to the new experiences Bastian brings into his life.
How long has it been since Bastian's mother died? The book provides a few clues in its description of Anna the housemaid. It seems that Anna has been coming to clean and cook "three times a week" ever since Bastian's mother died, because she is "seldom able to bring a smile" to Mr. Bux's "worried face."
Anna used to bring Christa, her daughter, with her to work. Bastian "spent hours telling her his stories," which Christa enjoyed very much, "watching him wide-eyed." The book goes on:
She looked up to Bastian, and he was very fond of her.
But a year ago Anna had sent her daughter to a boarding school in the country. Since then she and Bastian had seldom seen each other.
So Bastian's mother must have died at least two
years ago, because Christa left one year ago, and she had been coming to the house long enough for Bastian to become fond of her. After all, Christa was "very shy," so it must have taken a while.
Michael Ende included this little history to tell us three things: that Bastian likes to tell stories; that Bastian once had a friend; and that Bastian's father has become mired in a prolonged state of acute grief.
Psychologists call this condition "complicated grief," or "Persistent complex bereavement disorder." As I write, the condition is under consideration for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), the standard that defines a condition as a mental illness in need of diagnosis and treatment.
Complicated grief is defined as the inability to pass from the acute
stage of grief, in which the daily activities of life are difficult or impossible to keep up, to integrated
grief, in which people still experience frequent sadness and pain but are able to cope with everyday tasks and experience at least some degree of pleasure in life. Most bereaved people make this transition in six to twelve months; but when the transition has yet to take place several months or even years later, the grieving person might need professional help.
While I was reading about complicated grief, I came across a model that sums up the pathology of the condition in a way that makes perfect intuitive sense to me. It's in a recent Ph.D. dissertation
by Donald J. Robinaugh, which is probably why it's not widely cited. But I think it captures so well what's going on Mr. Bux's life that I wanted to show it to you anyway. Robinaugh's model postulates three intermingled positive feedback loops that together prolong the agonies of acute grief and prevent people like Mr. Bux from returning to active engagement in life.
- A preoccupation with thoughts about the death of the loved one leads to emotional pain, which leads to an attempt to avoid thinking about the death. This starts the cycle over again, because "efforts to avoid thoughts related to the death may have the ironic effect of heightening their accessibility." It's the well-known "don't think of an elephant" phenomenon, only in a much sadder context.
- A preoccupation with thoughts about the deceased leads to a feeling of yearning, which leads to "approach behavior," or the deliberate seeking out of memories about the deceased. (Thus this cycle starts over again).
- Difficulty thinking about a future without the deceased in it leads to a feeling of blankness, emptiness, and emotional numbness, and this leads to "behavioral inactivity," which brings the grieving person back to difficulty thinking about the future.
Each of these feedback loops operates within its own cycle and also provides fuel for the other two cycles. For example, someone who is having difficulty making plans for the future is more likely to drift into a preoccupation with their loved one's death.
All grief follows these patterns, but with typical bereavement the strength of the feedback loops begins to diminish over time as new thoughts and activities, such as seeing other family members and having new experiences, grow in importance. In complicated grief, people are unable to shift the balance of their thoughts and remain trapped in these potentially endless cycles of pain.
It's never mentioned in The Neverending Story
that Bastian's father is mired in either of the first two cycles in Robinaugh's model of complicated grief. He is never seen mentioning his wife, for example. But he is clearly trapped in the cycle of behavioral inactivity. He watches the television without seeing it; he pretends to read books; he ignores his son, who is, after all, "still there."
Bastian doesn't have complicated grief.
He himself had cried for many nights, sometimes he had been so shaken by sobs that he had to vomit--but little by little it had passed.
It's true that Bastian works on his grief in his last three wishes in Fantastica, but it's also clear that even when he starts on his journey, he is living in a state of integrated, not complicated, grief.
So how does this connect to the imagination? What is Mr. Bux's relationship to Fantastica at the start of The Neverending Story
In a research paper
published by Robinaugh and Richard J. McNally, groups of bereaved people with and without complicated grief were asked to remember or imagine a series of situations with and without their deceased loved ones.
We found that individuals with CG [complicated grief] exhibited deficits in their ability to recall or imagine specific events only when those events did not include the deceased. When recalling past events or imagining future events that included the deceased, individuals with CG were just as specific as bereaved controls were.
In other words, people living through complicated grief experience an exceptional and prolonged difficulty making up stories without the person they lost in them. Thus complicated grief works on the personal imagination exactly as the Nothing works on the public imagination. It erodes the ability of the grieving person to remember a different past and imagine a different future.
Do grieving people need
imagination? Of course they do. It is part of the process by which we grieve. Imagination enters into the process in a variety of ways. I haven't found any published research on this topic; but based on my own experiences with grief and what I've heard and read about the experiences of others, I've noticed some common aspects of imagination in the experience of grief.
First there is the feeling of amputation, of feeling less than whole, as we try to stumble around with one leg gone. We are imagining what is not real: that our loved one is still here. We walk into a room with a question for her. We pick up the telephone to tell him a joke. We wait to make a decision until we can get her opinion. This is imagination in an everyday sense, the way we usually envision our ordinary plans. I call this sense of the missing person the "afterimage," because it's like what you see after a light is turned off. Something of the person remains in our patterns and routines, and it's enough like what it was before that we mistake it for the real thing. But it's not real, not any more. It's suddenly imaginary.
Then there's the "stop the world" feeling, where we are consumed with anger that the world doesn't -- no, won't
-- stop working. Cars still drive. People still eat and drink. Rain still falls. Grass still grows. Babies still cry. None of this should happen. Everything should stop, must stop, because he or she has stopped. This is again our imagination at work, because life does not choose
to go on. It has no other way of being.
Next come the searchings. So many people look like him from behind or from far away, in a crowd, in the car, in a shop, on television. She's everywhere and nowhere at once. The act of searching is an act of the imagination, an attempt to will a coincidence into relevance. And we do find coincidences. I have a personal theory that if we do go on, we may be given the opportunity to create coincidences, as little maybe-messages of love. We might get three coincidences, or seven -- that's another good folk-tale number. I've taken to looking for coincidences when somebody dies, and I usually find them. It's my own way of searching, I guess. It's a story I wrote for myself. It's comforting, and who knows, maybe it's true. It can't hurt to entertain the thought.
I've found that the amputation, the world-stopping, and the searchings come first. Next come the arguments. On waking up, on coming back from some intensive mental exercise, on realizing that the phone won't make the call we want it to make, the arguments begin. I'm just going to --- you can't, he's gone -- that makes no sense -- but it's true --- it can't be true -- it really happened -- show me some proof -- remember the funeral? -- we could have been wrong -- and so on. These are imaginary dialogues, conversations with possibility and impossibility. We're stuck at the border between Fantastica and the human world, pacing back and forth, or maybe flying up and down, trying to make it all make sense.
Behind all of this there are the dreams. So many dreams. First there's the "it was just a silly misunderstanding" dream. Everybody laughs, and the wake turns into a welcome-home party, and we're so, so happy that it was only a mistake. Those are the worst dreams to wake up from, because you don't cry until after the dream is over. Another variety is the "none of it ever happened" dream, where he never got the disease in the first place, and he's just as young and strong as he ever was. Then there's the dream where she did die, but so did all of us, and that's just okay
. Soon after these come the dreams of blame and guilt, where it's not about death at all, but about the things we never said when we still could.
After the dreams come the memories, and this is when we know that we have begun to heal. We're getting out some flour for bread, and we suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to call someone who also remembers the time she spilled flour all over the table and we all laughed. Or we put a coin in a slot and start crying about the time he bought us a candy bar in that bus station. The memories come back, not as dreams and not as negotiations, but as appreciations of the connection we still have to a person who will always be part of our lives. And in time, possibly much time, the sadness that they are gone begins to be accompanied by a happiness that they lived, that we loved them, that we had -- have -- this person in our lives.
When we are grieving, we may feel like we have left behind our personal imaginations, but we have not. In fact, the more we try to ignore our imaginations, the harder they pull us in, and the overall effect is one of intensification. But the intensification of imagination during grief has a distinct focus. When we grieve we simplify the stories we tell ourselves. All of our scenes become two-shots: pictures with only two people in them. Everyone else becomes a minor character and fades into the background. This is natural and healthy, because we need to focus in to heal our relationship with our lost one. But like Bastian's journey into Fantastica, the path that heals us can also trap us. This is the role of the imagination in complicated grief.
That's what happens to Bastian's father. It is only when Bastian wakes him up and widens his focus that his imagination begins to expand. Mr. Bux's first words to Bastian are:
"Bastian, my boy!" he said over and over again. "My dear little boy, where have you been? What happened to you?"
Notice how he repeats two things in this first statement. He says "my boy" twice, indicating that his focus has widened. Bastian, whom he had been pushing aside as a minor character in his drama, has come to center stage. He asks where Bastian has been, which indicates that his imagination has begun to work on new scenes that do not include his wife.
After Bastian has completed his story, his father says one more thing that makes it clear that he has begun his journey out of complicated grief:
"From now on," said his father, "everything is going to be different between us. Don't you agree?"
This is an imagined plan that includes only Mr. Bux and his son. He has done what he could not do before. He has broken out of the three feedback loops that were holding him in complicated grief. He has turned away from his preoccupation with his wife and with her death; he has ended his behavioral inactivity; he has remembered his connection to Bastian; and he has imagined a future with his son.
I've been writing "if you are this character" advice in each of these sections about functional characters in The Neverending Story
. But I can't possibly write any advice to the grieving. Grief is unique to each person and each situation. We can create models of grief, and we can reflect on generalities, but we cannot advise without full knowledge of context. If you recognize yourself in Bastian's father, if you think you might be suffering from complicated grief, seek professional or clerical help. There are many caring people who can help you find your way.
The most hopeful thing I've learned about grief is that it works
. It may seem like a disease when we're in it, but in most cases it's more cure than curse. Grief is the wound that heals.
We've been talking about imagination in the process of grief as it occurs spontaneously
. But what if it doesn't occur spontaneously? What if you aren't negotiating with possibility and impossibility? What if you aren't having dreams? What if your imagination has abandoned you and you feel nothing? In that case you might need to take a more active role in the process.
People have been actively invoking the imagination in support of grief for thousands of years. Many of the rituals passed down in families are rituals of the imagination: sending prayers to the dead; the burning of incense and the lighting of candles; rituals of singing and crying; shrines, memorials, letters, gatherings. When we participate in these rituals, we aid our imaginations in reconciling what we wish with what we know to be true. Social rituals after a death give us things to do so we can get through the first days and weeks, and they bring us together to support each other. But our rituals also support our imaginations.
Carl Jung was deeply interested in the imagination and in death. His technique of active imagination
is still in wide use by psychotherapists who help people cope with the death of loved ones. The idea of active imagination didn't originate with Jung, but his work on it was seminal, and he is its best-known proponent. Jung observed that when people reflected on and discussed the elements in their dreams, those dreams tended to subside in frequency and intensity. He said:
From this I have drawn the conclusion that dreams often contain fantasies that "want" to become conscious.
Thus the goal of active imagination is to build bridges between our conscious (outer) and unconscious (inner) worlds. Just like Bastian's journey, active imagination is a deliberate intermingling of imagination and reality. Says the psychotherapist Robert Johnson, in his book Inner Work
Often when people begin a series of Active Imaginations, what comes out has little to do with any immediate issue in their personal lives. ... Unless we understood that such adventures are symbolic experiences of some great theme being played out in our unconscious, we would jump to the wrong conclusions. We would think this was merely entertainment, some fictional story that the writer has tossed off merely for enjoyment. ... Sometimes great works of fiction do begin as Active Imagination. But at the moment that the story came out of the author's mind, it was not fiction; it was a true representation of a dynamic deep in the unconscious, expressing itself symbolically through the imagination.
That sounds a lot like The Neverending Story,
doesn't it? When Bastian enters the story, it seems to have little to do with any immediate issue in his personal life. But the story is not merely entertainment; it is a true representation of a dynamic deep in his unconscious.
Here's even more evidence of a correspondence between The Neverending Story
and active imagination, in Johnson's warning for those entering into the process:
Before starting Active Imagination be sure that there is someone available for you to go to or call in case you become overwhelmed by the imagination and can't cut it off.
For most people this is not a problem. In fact, for most people the difficulty is in getting the Active Imagination started. But some few people are subject to being so totally possessed by the flow of images, once they start a particularly powerful segment of Active Imagination, that they can't pull out of it. Their minds get lost in the realm of fantasy and can't find the way back to the here-and-now of the ordinary world.
Again, this sounds uncannily like Bastian's journey through Fantastica.
The more I have read about active imagination, the more I have become convinced that its strong resemblance to Bastian's journey is no coincidence. Michael Ende read widely, and he had a great interest in psychology as well as spirituality. It's more than plausible that he read Jung's work on active imagination -- but even if he didn't, he would have encountered similar ideas in the writings of Steiner, Goethe, Corbin, Swedenborg, and others on the same topic.
In the sections of this essay previous to this one, I've been considering The Neverending Story
as an allegory of storytelling in human society. Based on what I've read about active imagination, I believe that Bastian's journey in The Neverending Story
can also be taken as an allegorical representation of the Jungian process of active imagination. This doesn't mean the interpretations I've already written are wrong; it just means that this alternate interpretation may be equally valuable.
Johnson describes four steps in the process of active imagination: invitation, dialogue, values, and rituals. I'll show you the connections to The Neverending Story
as I describe the steps.
. In the first step of the process, a participant removes their attention from the "external" world and focuses on their imagination, allowing themselves to fall into a sort of waking dream. In this stage it is critical that the images that arise be welcomed, not criticized, and allowed to emerge naturally and without pressure. Jung called this step "letting the unconscious come up." Johnson explains that "We direct our inner eye to a place inside us, then we wait to see who will show up."
In The Neverending Story
, this first step is represented by Atreyu's Great Quest and by Bastian's entrance into the story. The name Bastian gives to the Childlike Empress is the first thing that "comes up" from his unconscious self.
. In the second step of the process, the participant engages in an imagined conversation with "inner figures" of their imagination, "listening" to the figures by speaking or writing or in some way expressing what the inner figures are saying.
Johnson points out a critical difference between the technique of active imagination and that of guided visualization. In active imagination, the participant is encouraged to let the figures of the imagination play out their stories without constraint or control.
We must participate completely. There is, however, one line that should not be crossed. We must not stray from the zone of participation into the zone of control. In Active Imagination we cannot exert control over the inner persons or over what is happening. We have to let the imagination flow where it will, let the experience develop, without trying to determine in advance what is going to happen, what is going to be said, what is going to be done.
There may be conflicts and arguments with these "inner figures," but the participant must not override their choices by seizing control over them. The figures must be allowed to manifest themselves in any way that feels authentic, such as in writing, speech, drawing, dancing, sculpture, or any other kind of creative endeavor. Clearly the telling of personal stories, factual, fictional, or both, fits perfectly into this element of the process.
In The Neverending Story
, the character of Bastian as a strong, brave, and handsome prince is the "inner figure" with whom Bastian the boy converses throughout the second half of The Neverending Story
. The Childlike Empress and Grograman represent other aspects of Bastian, the parts that know he is a boy reading a book in a school attic. They stand back and refrain from controlling what Prince Bastian chooses to do. In the same way that "we cannot exert control over the inner persons," the Childlike Empress and Grograman cannot exert control over Prince Bastian, as much as they would like to, without ending the journey too soon.
. After a participant in the active imagination process has held a meaningful conversation with representative elements of their imagination, they are encouraged to bring their whole selves back into the picture by applying their moral values to what they have imagined. Johnson stresses, as Jung did before him, the importance of introducing this ethical element into the process. If we don't, we are in danger of harming ourselves and those around us.
The great powers of the collective unconscious are so overpowering that we can be suddenly swept away by a flood of primitive energy.... When this sort of fantasy gets going you become convinced that you are going to resolve all your conflicts, settle everything, by simply laying down the law with everyone around you, telling off those who have stood in your way or opposed you, and doing exactly what you want.... We are seized by a fantasy of what it would be like to solve everything with a pure, clear act of power and will. But if we take this message literally and try to act it out in its raw, unevolved form, we are led to behave like Attila the Hun. We leave a path of destruction behind us.
Is this not a perfect description of what happens to Prince Bastian in The Neverending Story? And what saves him from "leaving a path of destruction" behind him? Atreyu, the noble savage who represents Bastian's moral self. Prince Bastian is indeed "swept away by a flood of primitive energy," and he does attempt to do exactly what he wants, scorning all consideration of consequences to those around him. He is saved from this fate by Atreyu, his better half. Atreyu is Prince Bastian's companion in Fantastica because the two companions coexist inside Bastian the boy.
This idea of a separation between Prince Bastian and Bastian the boy helps me to understand a problem I've always had with The Neverending Story. After Bastian transforms into a splendid prince, his behavior departs more and more from the Bastian I came to know and love in the first part of the story. I remember reading the book as a teenager and feeling angry at Bastian for acting in ways that didn't match the image I had of him as a person. Now I realize that Prince Bastian was only a part of Bastian the boy, and that he essentially split himself into Bastian and Atreyu when he entered the story. This doesn't mean that Atreyu no longer represents a role model; it just means that he was a role model to a part of Bastian, not his whole self.
Also notice that Robert Johnson attributes the "flood of primitive energy" to the collective unconsciousness, that ocean of existence we all swim in. It makes perfect sense, then, that Prince Bastian is consumed by thoughts of social comparison, because the source of his wishes is not internal but universal. We are all affected by what we think the world wants of us, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. This does not mean that Bastian's wishes before he arrives at the City of Lost Emperors are not his own wishes. It only means that Bastian is never as alone as he thinks he is. None of us are.
Rituals. In the final step of the active imagination process, the participant brings their attention back to physical reality, creating a ritual that will integrate what they have imagined into their everyday reality. One person might write a letter to a lost loved one; another might resolve to take more long walks in nature; a third might bury a physical representation of some emotional problem. Each participant is encouraged to take some meaningful physical action that will bring the insights gained in their journey into reality.
In The Neverending Story, this step of the process is represented by Bastian telling his story to his father, by the real tears in his father's eyes, and by the plans they make to "give ourselves a little holiday" in celebration of the new relationship they will build together. These are all indicators that Bastian's journey has ended well for himself and for his father. As I may have mentioned already, I envision Bastian's father entering into his own journey of active imagination with Bastian's help.
Now let's bring our exploration back to the topic of grief. As I said above, Jung's active imagination process is widely used in grief counseling, and it is used to help people who are enduring complicated grief. I am not a psychologist or counselor of any kind, but it seems to me like this form of therapy must be a valuable resource for those who find themselves trapped in the same place as Bastian's father found himself. I've never experienced complicated grief, but I'm glad that by exploring The Neverending Story I've found something I might need to draw upon at some point in my own journey.
The links between The Neverending Story, active imagination, and complicated grief connect as well to Ende's motives in writing the novel. Remember how he was criticized for writing "useless escapism," and how he was told that he should write "socially conscious" books instead? What better response to his critics than to illustrate the power of the imagination as a means of resolving one of the most crippling problems we human beings ever face? What better way to prove the value of storytelling than to show its healing power?
I even wonder if Ende meant to hint at active imagination as a way to deal with the collective grief of German society as it struggled to recover from two devastating wars. Bastian's father could be taken to represent Germany after the war, reeling from loss yet dismissive of the conversations it needed most. Maybe Ende thought The Neverending Story could bring the Water of Life to his shattered homeland.
We're almost done. I just need to tie up a few loose ends related to Bastian's father.
In my diagram of the forces at work in The Neverending Story, I located the "cycle of withdrawal" in the lower right hand corner of personal reality. Was I right to place the cycle there, outside the realm of the imagination? For a while I wasn't sure. It seems like complicated grief should be represented at least partly in the imagination. But then I realized that the cycles of both denial and withdrawal have more to do with perception than fact. Imagination permeates our lives from birth to death, but people like the Manipulators don't see it that way. In a similar way, imagination permeates the process of grief, but many people don't see it that way.
Usually the same people hold both perceptions at once. You could even say that the cycle of denial creates the cycle of withdrawal. If you don't think imagination belongs in the life of a serious adult, you're not going to turn to it when you need it most. You might dream about a loved one you've lost, but you're likely to turn away from your imagination, like Ebenezer Scrooge did when he told Jacob Marley he was nothing but "an undigested bit of beef." It certainly sounds like Bastian's father did this. Before his wife died, he enjoyed listening to Bastian's stories. Afterward, he turned away. But in the end it was Bastian's story that saved him.
The one thing I haven't yet explored in this section on Bastian's father is the connection between grief and storytelling. Let's consider personal storytelling first. If we tell personal stories to those around us about those we have lost, will our grief become easier to bear? Yes, of course. That's part of why we tell stories, to remember. But we also have to tell stories about other aspects of our lives. We have to let the minor characters we have pushed aside step forward and heal us. Sometimes we need those around us to give us a nudge, to remind us that it's time to let them back in to the stories we tell ourselves. Bastian gave his father a nudge (well, probably a shock) by disappearing, and it helped Bastian's father remember that he could shift the frame of his attention.
Another way to let people in is to listen to the stories of others who have gone through their own journeys. That's why support groups aren't just stupid things people make you do so they can feel like they did something to help. You never know what you'll find in a support group. One person's trivial detail might be another person's epiphany. The only way to discover connections like this is to keep listening.
Most importantly, telling ourselves new stories does not mean we have to stop telling the stories we love about the people we have lost. It doesn't mean we have to "move on" or "let go." We can integrate all of the stories of our lives, those with and those without the person we have lost. That's still sad. Maybe it's unbearable, for a while, maybe for a long while. But it's not impossible.
Now let's consider stories in the public imagination. Let's say you are a creative writer and you want to help people deal with grief. How should you write? To begin with, the usual guidelines apply: be gentle; be truthful; respect your audience. But what should you write about?
I've been looking through a lot of essays and comments on this topic, and I can find only one consistent thread. It's that people find relief and insight in such a variety of ways that no fictional work can help every grieving reader; and that grieving is such a universal experience that many works of fiction reference it in some way. When you mix one diversity with another, many connections are possible.
I remember one such connection. It was some fifteen years ago, a month after my father-in-law's death. My husband and I went to a movie hoping to forget and laugh a little. We carefully chose a silly children's movie, Monsters, Inc., in hopes that nothing in it would trigger our feelings of grief. About halfway through the movie was a brief scene in which the monster Sully was trying to catch the little girl, Boo, as she -- I don't remember exactly, but somehow Boo was moving away from Sully and he couldn't follow her. I burst into tears in the movie theater, surrounded by laughing children. The strange thing was that my husband didn't make the same connection. He didn't notice anything about that scene. He noticed other things in other places.
Another time, about six months after my own father died, I was playing Stardew Valley, a silly video game where you grow crops and tinker around on your little farm. An icon told me that I had got some mail, so I opened the mailbox to find a letter from my dad. He said he was proud of the hard work I'd done on my farm, and he said he hoped to see me soon. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that fake letter felt so much like the real thing that I've looked at it many times since, cherishing it as if had been real. I take it as a coincidence.
I've since read many stories like ours, that the most trivial piece of nothing in some random TV commercial or magazine article sets off one person and not another. It reminds me of how some books lead to Fantastica and some don't, for any particular person at any particular time. That's why I don't think it's possible to write works of fiction that help every reader through grief, even if they are stories about people working their way through grief. The only reasonable advice I feel I can give is to write about life, because life contains death within it. If you write about whatever you find in life, people will find the connections they need.
So here we are at the end of our journey. It has turned out to be much longer and more fantastic than I imagined it would be. Years ago I had an inkling that The Neverending Story
had something to say about storytelling. I had no idea it had this
much to say. My appreciation for Ende's masterwork has increased tenfold.
Let me take a moment to reflect on the experience I've had in these past few months. What have I learned by looking deeply into The Neverending Story
and by putting my thoughts into words? I'll tell you the three lessons that have impressed me the most.
It really is in there
. When I started working on this essay, I wasn't sure if my hunch that The Neverending Story
had something to do with personal storytelling was real or just wishful thinking. Now that I've explored the many parallels between
the book's plot and the lessons I've learned by helping people share
their own stories for nearly two decades, I'm very
Michael Ende meant to write about the interplay between personal and
public storytelling as well as the more obvious interplay between the
imagination and reality. In other words, both axes on my diagram are
important to the novel, which means that Ende did
mean to send a message
about how novels and other public works of fiction can fit into our personal "inner"
lives. My idea wasn't an escapist fantasy after all.
Everybody screwed up
. Every single character in The Neverending Story
made mistakes, and still Bastian's journey ended in success. Why? Because the people in the book connected to each other, forgave each other, and supported each other. I see this as a hopeful sign for the future of personal storytelling in our distracted world. Yes, the "boob tube" is still glowing in a billion houses around the world. Yes, we're still mostly clueless about how important everyday stories are to our lives. We're still screwing up personal storytelling on a global scale. But if we keep connecting to each other, forgiving each other, and supporting each other, maybe we'll figure it all out anyway. Maybe a thousand years from now, people will talk about "the twentieth-century dip in personal storytelling" the way we talk about the tulip mania or phrenology. Maybe a hundred years from now this essay will seem ridiculous for the simple reason that it's no longer needed. I'd like that.
Storytelling as the active imagination of the world
. When I realized that there might be a link between The Neverending Story
and Jung's process of active imagination, I was floored. I had already read everything I could find about the novel -- blog posts, academic papers, book sections, Ph.D. dissertations, comments -- but I never found a link between the book and active imagination until I started reading about complicated grief and blundered into a description of active imagination on a grief counselor's web site. I'm enthralled by the idea of storytelling as active imagination at the societal level
. This means that everyone who is involved with stories in any way, from facilitators and therapists to authors and directors, can be part of the global process of active imagination. The distinction I've always made between those who create public stories and those who help people work with personal stories need not be a barrier -- as long as we all hold true to the essential cycle that bridges the public and personal worlds of reality and the imagination.
A new model for storytelling
. The five-cycle model put forth by The Neverending Story
shows us how storytelling, in all of its forms, can be the solution we need rather than the problem we must solve. I'm excited about the possibility of using Ende's model beyond this essay, in other writings and discussions about ways to fruitfully integrate public and personal stories for the benefit of everyone in our society.
I would like to believe that if I could speak to Michael Ende today, he would like what I have written about his most famous work. I'm encouraged by this statement
from his web site:
Michael Ende was often asked about the meaning of The Neverending Story, but the author was always reluctant to offer an interpretation. When confronted with the question as to the ‘real’ meaning of the novel, Ende kept his silence. In his view, it was not a question of simply ‘deciphering’ the novel with the author’s help. Readers eager to know whether their own interpretations were correct had to content themselves with an unusual answer: according to Ende, a good interpretation was a correct interpretation, regardless of whether it mirrored the author’s intentions.
I've spent quite some time working out my own interpretation of The Neverending Story.
I think it's a good one. I can't guess at whether it mirrors the author's intentions, but I hope I have guessed right more than I have guessed wrong. In any case, I have learned a lot on the journey, and I hope you have too. If you would like to talk about any of the ideas in this essay, please leave a comment or send me an email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com). And thank you for joining me on the journey.