What The Neverending Story tells us about personal storytelling
Now that we've worked our way through all the elements of The Neverending Story, I think we are ready to explore what the book has to tell us about the interplay between personal and public storytelling. The most exciting benefit I have gained from this journey of exploration has been something my previous essays were missing: a coherent solution to the problem of declining personal storytelling in today's society. I've explored some scattered practical ideas for bringing back personal storytelling in the past (on the blog and in the last chapter of Working with Stories), but before I started this essay I hadn't come up with a solid conceptual response to the problem. I didn't know it before I started on the journey, but now I think I've closed that gap.
We live in a world awash in commercial storytelling. That fact is not going to change anytime soon. The five cycles in The Neverending Story, one positive and four negative, show us a way forward. It's almost as though Michael Ende wrote this book specifically to show us how to live imaginatively in a world where folk tales come to us through blockbuster books and movies instead of the quiet fireside tales of our elders. It's an instruction manual for the modern imagination.
So what is the appropriate conceptual response to the cultural imperialism of commercial storytelling? We must enter into commercial stories and make them our own so we can embark on imaginative journeys of discovery through our inner worlds. To do this, we must avoid the four pathological cycles of denial, escapism, distraction, and withdrawal.
Functional characters in The Neverending Story
It takes a village to raise an imagination. Just as Atreyu ("Son of All") was raised by "all the men and women together," Bastian's transformation from lost soul to eager adventurer is supported by the actions and choices of several of the book's characters. These characters can tell us useful things about how we can support our own imaginative journeys in today's world.
In choosing which characters to consider out of the many that make up the story, I turned to a distinction from Mieke Bal's book Narratology. Bal contrasts functional characters who "cause or undergo functional events" with non-functional characters who exist primarily to enhance descriptions of other characters. An example of a non-functional character is the butler or maid who opens the house door to guests in many classic English novels. Such a person has no function in the story other than to indicate the elevated social status of other characters. They could be replaced by a fancy vase or elegant foyer without much change to the story. Such non-functional characters are not meant to be allegorical representations of real people in our world, so they can be put aside for the purposes of this essay.
To think about which characters in The Neverending Story qualify as functional characters, I asked myself: does this character make choices that change the story, or do their actions simply flow from the way they are defined? Do they choose what they do in the story, or are they just "drawn that way"? I also tried replacing characters with locations or objects or inscriptions to see if the story would change as a result.
I came up with six functional characters in the story: Bastian himself; Mr. Coreander; Atreyu; the Childlike Empress; the Old Man of Wandering Mountain; and Bastian's father. Each of these characters makes at least one choice that moves Bastian's story forward. Each can be taken to represent a person who has the potential to preserve the essential function of stories in today's society.
What Bastian's choices tell us about personal storytelling
I can think of three choices Bastian makes in The Neverending Story that move his journey significantly forward: stealing the book; entering into the book; and using his last few wishes wisely. Because Bastian is the dominant character in the book, and because Bastian represents all of us, I will examine both the virtuous cycle of his journey and the vicious cycles he (sometimes narrowly) avoids.
Stealing the book
In Mr. Coreander's shop, Bastian steals The Neverending Story. When he opens the book to read it, he crosses the border into the land of Fantastica.
Ende makes a point of featuring the way the book calls out to Bastian and connects to something deep in his essence.
He broke into a sweat as it occurred to him that he was already late for school. He'd have to hurry, oh yes, he'd have to run -- but he just stood there, unable to move. Something held him fast, he didn't know what. ... It came to Bastian that he had been staring the whole time at the book that Mr. Coreander had been holding and that was now lying on the armchair. He couldn't take his eyes off it. It seemed to have a kind of magnetic power that attracted him irresistibly.Does this description remind you of another "magnetic power" in The Neverending Story? It reminds me of the Nothing. The two powers are both identical and antithetical, like the two parts of an ouroboros. One force pulls the creatures of the imagination into manipulative lies, and the other pulls the creatures of reality into empowering truths. The fact that they both take place in the land of the public imagination draws them together even more.
Why did Michael Ende have Bastian steal The Neverending Story instead of receiving it, or buying it with his generous allowance? It could have been to heighten tension; but there might be an allegorical meaning in the theft. If we live in a culture of denial about the value of the imagination, it might feel like a crime to enjoy stories.
People are always talking about how guilty they feel for watching television and movies. It's supposed to "rot your brain." But novels are good for you, right? Not according to everyone. There wouldn't be blog posts titled "Six Reasons You Should Waste Your Time Reading Fiction" and "In Defense of Fiction" if everyone agreed that novels were useful. And novels were attacked in their day as strongly as television and video games are today. It's hard for someone like me to understand this (novels were my video game problem as a child), but for a large number of people, made-up stories still have no reason to exist.
By having Bastian break the law to read The Neverending Story, I think Ende was hinting that we should break societal norms by refusing to apologize for loving stories. Of course we ought to think about why we love the stories we love, and what they mean to us (more on that later). But we don't have to hide our stories in brown paper bags. We should also learn more about stories and their place in human life, so that when someone says "that's stupid because it didn't really happen," we can put together a cogent argument.
What is a cogent argument for fictional stories? Why aren't they a waste of time? I can't imagine that anyone who is reading this essay needs convincing; but I'll put together the argument anyway. I can think of three reasons.
Fact is fiction and fiction is fact. The dividing line between fiction and truth is more like a foggy field than a brick wall. On the side of fact, memory and planning are active constructions of meaning not far removed from the craft of storytelling. If you don't believe me, tell a family member or old friend some bit of information you remember from your childhood. See how factual your memory seems from their point of view. The facts we think we remember are not dispassionate data points. We habitually select and distort facts to make them fit into the stories of our memories.
On the other side of that foggy field, fictional stories can reach beyond superficial differences to reveal deep truths. Fiction is part of how people make sense of real life. If you don't think fiction is a part of how you make sense of real life, you haven't been paying attention. You might not think in stories as much as some people do, but nobody never thinks in stories. If you swear off fiction because you think it's a waste of time, you're probably fooling yourself about what you're doing and why. In fact, you're probably doing it so you can tell yourself a story about who you are and what you do. Even people who say "I never read fiction, I only read biographies" are telling themselves a story, because biographies are fictional stories.
I've seen people argue that fictional stories are useless because they are about "made-up worlds." That's a mistake novices make. Every fictional story, whether it's about talking animals or space-faring aliens, is about us, right here, right now. There are no made-up worlds, just lots of ways of talking about this one. All real-life stories are fictional stories, and all fictional stories are about real life.
Fiction makes you a better person. Research has shown that people who regularly read fiction score higher on tests of empathy and theory of mind (the ability to consider how other people might see things). It's not clear which causes which -- maybe empathetic people are more drawn to stories -- but the connection is clear.
Fiction helps you fix your life. If neither of those reasons moves you, consider this. Everybody needs solutions to problems in their lives. Getting a job, getting better when we're sick, dealing with loss, making friends. More creativity leads to more and better ideas for solutions. Creativity relies on the imagination. The imagination is fed by reading, hearing, building, and telling stories. Non-fiction stories are still stories, but when we enter into fictional stories we give our imaginations the most thorough exercise they can get.
So the advice this element of The Neverending Story gives us is: if you love fiction, step up to the microphone and say so loud and clear. Stories are good for us no matter where they come from. If you don't love fiction, give it another chance. Ask your friends to tell you about the best fiction they've ever read or seen or heard, and expand your horizons.
The cycle of denial
By making the choice to steal The Neverending Story, Bastian avoids the cycle of denial. We fall into the cycle of denial when we think of storytelling as an unimportant part of life, something to be left behind in childhood, something serious adults don't waste time on.
But we also increase the influence of denial when we delegate personal stories to second-class status behind the polished stories we find in art and literature. Everyday stories might be short and apparently trivial, but taken together they add up to most of what matters in life.
It bothers me when people refuse to use the word "stories" to include rough, raw, unscripted, spontaneous, messy, dynamic, everyday, personal stories. People call such stories anecdotes or antenarratives or narrative fragments or simply "accounts," reserving the word "stories" for polished, purposeful, structurally complete stories. I don't think this is necessary. Large or small, shy or bold, polished or rough-hewn, stories are stories. I don't think distinctions like these are helpful, any more than it is helpful to think of children as fundamentally different from adults.
The idea that children think in some primitive alien manner has led to many mistaken practices, such as believing that children can thrive in environments that would bore an adult to tears, or that children, unlike adults, must be forced to learn. In recent years, longstanding assumptions about how children think have been challenged through scientific research about the developing mind. A host of new studies shows us that babies are not blank slates but active interpreters of lived experience. Says Alison Gopnik in The Scientist in the Crib:
It turns out that the capacities that allow us to learn about the world and ourselves have their origins in infancy. We are born with the ability to discover the secrets of the universe and of our own minds, and with the drive to explore and experiment until we do. Science isn't just the specialized province of a chilly elite; instead, it's continuous with the kind of learning every one of us does when we're very small.Similarly, the artificial distinction commonly drawn between the fantasy life of children and adults frustrated Michael Ende. He famously said:
One may enter the literary parlor via just about any door, be it the prison door, the madhouse door, or the brothel door. There is but one door one may not enter it through, which is the nursery door. The critics will never forgive you such. .... I keep wondering to myself what this peculiar contempt towards anything related to childhood is all about.In the same way, I keep wondering to myself what this particular contempt towards anything related to personal storytelling is all about. Children are people, and personal stories are stories.
Of course it's useful to add an adjective to specify what sort of story we are talking about. That's why I talk about personal as opposed to public stories. But I don't like the idea of removing the word "stories" from personal stories. It seems to disqualify them, to deny them a status they deserve in our lives. Language becomes part of the cycle of denial that prevents people from going on transformative journeys through their personal imaginations.
Some people call everyday personal stories "small" or "little-s" stories and contrast them with "big" or "Capital-S" stories. I have mixed feelings about that, because in what way are personal stories little? Of little importance? Certainly not. They are of far greater importance than the latest blockbuster movie or corporate vision story. People might say that personal stories are "little" because they tend to be short and less complicated. But anything that even hints at reducing the relevance of the personal story contributes to the problem of denial. I'd rather we call personal stories just plain stories, and relegate public stories to a mangled term like "econo-stories" or "manunarratives" or something.
I think Michael Ende would agree with me on this point. As much as he believed that he did the world a service in writing his books, he would be the first to say that literary stories should inspire, not replace, personal stories in the lives of the people who read them. The Neverending Story is proof of that, paradoxically: even though it is a work of fiction, it is a work of fiction created specifically to venerate the personal story. Atreyu's story brings Bastian to Fantastica, but it is what Bastian does there -- and what we each can do in our own Fantasticas -- that Ende meant to show us.
Entering into the book
Bastian's second significant choice takes place when he finally says "Moon Child" and enters The Neverending Story. He doesn't seem to have much choice at this point, but that's not entirely true. He could have ignored the Old Man's reading of the circular story. He was still in the attic with the book, wasn't he? He could have closed the book, left the attic, gone home, and put aside the fact that some old man somewhere was droning on about him. That's what we do when we are moved by a book or movie that speaks to something important in ourselves or our lives, then wake up the next morning and move on without giving the connection a second thought.
What does Bastian's choice to enter The Neverending Story mean in the context of personal storytelling? This piece of advice is the yin-yang opposite of what I said above. Love fiction, but take it personally. Don't just watch; enter in. Think about why you love the stories you love. Ask yourself questions. What makes you want to see or read stories in that genre? What do the stories mean in your own life? What would you do if you were in those positions? What would your own story -- your own Fantastica -- be like?
I'll go first. Many stories have been important in my life, but I'll pick out one as an example. I swear that Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot for me. I didn't discover the book until I was in my forties, but I wish I had read it when I was thirteen, because it changed my life. The Idiot gave me permission to be who I am, which is much like Prince Myshkin: pathologically honest; perpetually naïve; slow to catch on; disastrously sensitive, yet fascinated by the manifold contradictions of social life; and more than anything else, simply overwhelmed by the mundane beauty of existence. It's fascinating to me to see how people react to Myshkin in the book, each person choosing to see him as a clueless fool or a deeply wise guru -- or both -- because that's just how people have always reacted to me. I've now read The Idiot four times and watched the 8-hour mini-series (in Russian with subtitles, the best book-to-movie transition I've ever seen) twice. It has become a touchstone.
I remember the first time I watched the movie version of The Idiot. There was a scene where Prince Myshkin was sitting on a bench in the park thinking about the gulf between him and the society he was struggling to comprehend -- if you know the book you know the scene -- and I found myself reaching out to stroke his face on the computer screen. I wasn't comforting the actor or the character. I was comforting myself. That's the life-changing power of a story. But it only works if you enter into the story. You can't stay on the outside; you have to reach in and touch the you that lives inside the story. Otherwise you really are wasting your time.
Now it's your turn. Why do you like the stories you like? What have you learned from them about yourself? Where are you in the stories you love? How have the dominant stories in your life entered into your personal imagination? And what have you done with the stories you have chosen? If you haven't thought about this yet, think about it now. Enter into the stories you have chosen and shape them to meet your needs. Build your own Fantastica. Embark on a journey through your inner world. If you don't, you run the risk of becoming trapped in the Nothing, where stories are little more than diversions, delusions, deceptions.
The cycle of escapism
My first thought about escapism in storytelling was: commercial stories are classic examples of supernormal stimuli, the giant neon eggs we can't help trying to incubate while our small dull stories perish inches away. (The idea of supernormal stimuli comes from Niko Tinbergen's research, in which he enticed birds to abandon their own eggs for huge, brightly colored fakes.)
So I pulled out my copy of Supernormal Stimuli by Dierdre Barrett and found this quote:
Entertainment has always functioned as a supernormal stimulus for social instincts, playing upon our urges to get to know people and attend to compelling events.That's just what I've been saying. Instead of getting to know the real people around us, instead of entering into fruitful journeys into our personal imaginations, we rush towards the candy of purposefully prepared stories. Like Bastian before the start of The Neverending Story, we read libraries full of books without ever going to Fantastica.
But the next sentences of Supernormal Stimuli are just weird:
It is also an area where supernormal stimuli can potentially have supernormal payoffs. A great novelist constructs characters who act out a drama that will move us, teach us, and leave us better for the imaginary interaction than we'd be if we had spent the same amount of time interacting with those around us.The giant neon story is better than the real story we ignore because it's a "great" novel? As much as I love novels, I can't go along with that. Barrett seems to be conflating the quality of storytelling with its ability to replace real social ties. It doesn't matter how well designed the giant day-glo eggs are; what matters is that the birds let their own children die as a result.
Barrett then goes on to spend pages making fun of the insipid wasteland of television. At this point I've lost my confidence in her book, and not only because TV is such an easy target. I'm not sure she understands what personal storytelling is for. Better than if we had spent the same amount of time interacting with those around us! Sure, if we already spent lots of time interacting with those around us, like we used to. But given how much time we spend doing that now -- not just sitting next to each other but actually exchanging experiences -- I'm not sure that reading any book could be a better use of our time. Saying great novels are better than personal interaction is like saying wine is finer than water. Normally that might be true, but in the desert, water saves lives.
But this is a distraction, and I'm on a trail, so I put my nose down again and start sniffing. Next I find that Guy DeBord keeps popping up in essays about the supernormal stimulus and attraction to the "better than real" alternative. From his book The Society of the Spectacle:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."Everything that is directly lived" is what we explore when we tell and listen to personal stories, and it's hard to miss the spectacle in the commercial stories we are fed every day. This is familiar ground, the same ground I've walked in every previous essay I've written on this topic. Next I blunder into Umberto Eco's concept of the "authentic fake" and how places like Disneyland attempt to improve on the mundane with the "hyperreality" of over-the-top escapism. Then I start reading about the Situationists and detournement and No Logo ...
And then I get this feeling. It's the feeling I always get after a visit from some very nice, caring, totally well-meaning friends who are adamant I-need-to-know-what-you-have-cooked-in-that-pan-for-the-past-twenty-years vegans. I would never want to say anything against these friends, or against vegans in general. But every time I wave goodbye to them, I find myself looking for some dairy or meat to eat (even though I don't eat that much meat). There's just something about strong stances against moderation in things that are partly bad for us that makes me want to indulge myself a little. Every time somebody says I shouldn't have sugar in my coffee, or coffee, I go and get myself a cup of coffee with sugar in it. (This is also why I reread Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, my favorite treatise on refusing to go along quietly, every few years. "Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four?")
So I get this feeling, as I said, and it causes me to start thinking about the whole issue of escapism and personal storytelling, and about the essays I've been writing. It can't have missed your attention that the two primary vehicles I have used to rail against commercial storytelling have been novels. Isn't that contradictory? Don't I undermine my own argument? Of course I do.
Also: I like to watch television. I am still reading "great" novels, and I stopped watching broadcast television a long time ago, but I've fallen into the binge-watching habit just like everybody else. A few months ago I absorbed the entire TV show Parenthood through a steady drip into my imagination. And you know what? For me, right then, it was a door to Fantastica. It led me on many journeys through my personal imagination, exploring issues of family, marriage, and the raising of children. It was television, and it was helpful to me.
Have I just contradicted everything I said in the essays I wrote years ago? Not really. I've just placed some boundaries on my concern. I can get excited about a way of living we have forgotten without calling for the wholesale destruction of the way we live now.
Besides, something has changed in the past several years. There is something good growing in the world of storytelling. Of course many elements of commercial storytelling still cause people to withdraw into useless escapist fantasies. But people aren't staying there as long or as often as they did.
One example lies in fan fiction. This form of crossover between public and personal imagination is thriving and becoming more respected, as evidenced by the term fanon, or alternatively-canonical aspects of popular fan fiction. Here's an example from the page on fanon on the Harry Potter wiki:
[T]he character Nyota Uhura was officially given her first name Nyota after more than 40 years in the 2009 Star Trek film, and the name originated as fanon.There's even a term for fan ideas that are taken up by authors: ascended fanon (that is, fanon that becomes canon). Nyota's first name is a perfect example of ascended fanon.
And it's not just fan fiction. Today every television show has discussion groups, and these are not the internally focused "fan clubs" of the past. Some of these groups reach out and influence the plots of the shows they love. People are beginning to insist, for example, that television shows and movies better represent the diversity of their viewers, and writers are beginning to listen.
Another factor is the proliferation of anybody-can-play storytelling on the internet, such as on YouTube. My son watches lots of ordinary people chronicling their everyday lives on YouTube, and he doesn't make much of a distinction between a guy in his truck talking about his trucking business and a big Disney production.
In short, the audience isn't just sitting and watching anymore. We're up and moving around.
There are two ways for a commercial story to interact with public and personal imaginations: as a template and as a resource. When a commercial story is used as a template, people try to shape themselves to it, distorting their true identities (what they really and truly want) in the process. When a commercial story is used as a resource, the story changes shape to meet the needs of its viewers.
It's a difference of control. When people have control over the stories they consume, or when they believe they have control (which may be the same thing), the proportion of stories that lead people to Fantastica increases, and the influence of the escapist cycle decreases. That's what I see happening today.
Here's a representative tidbit from a recent report on the future of television from EY’s Global Media and Entertainment Center:
[V]iewer expectation of control will extend to control of the story arc through social interaction. .... Viewers increasingly want to be part of the experience. This is, in part, why celebrity Twitter feeds are so popular -- the most popular celebrities actively communicate directly with loyal fans, making the experience even more personal, which leads to deeper connections. Story is everything, but a story with a personal connection is unbeatable.Thus I have some hope that the increased quantity and intensity of discourse around commercial stories today signals a return of storytelling to a healthier balance between the public and the personal.
Sometimes I wonder if Michael Ende saw this coming, because The Neverending Story treats the escapist cycle as relatively non-threatening. The fact that only some books lead to Fantastica, and that some people read magic books without realizing it, is not presented as a positive evil. It's just an inevitable fact that the right fit for a journey into the private imagination will always be hit-and-miss. Ende reserves most of his ire for the Manipulators who deny the importance of the imagination.
When Bastian brings The Neverending Story back to Mr. Coreander, the old man says:
"Every real story is a Neverending Story." He passed his eyes over the many books that covered the walls of his shop from floor to ceiling, pointed the stem of his pipe at them, and went on:
"There are many doors to Fantastica, my boy. There are other such magic books. A lot of people read them without noticing. It all depends on who gets his hands on such books."
"Then the Neverending Story is different for different people?"
"That's right," said Mr. Coreander. "And besides, it's not just books. There are other ways of getting to Fantastica and back. You'll find out."Mr. Coreander doesn't say that all books, or even all works of fiction, take you to Fantastica. My guess is that in Mr. Coreander's view, and in Michael Ende's view, an imaginative work that invites people on a journey through both public and personal imaginations is a door to Fantastica. Works that don't invite people on such journeys draw them instead into endless cycles of escapism that lead nowhere. Audiences today are demanding more of the former type of work.
There's another hint as to what a "real story" entails later in the book, when Bastian's Fantastican companions are entertaining themselves with a song:
Their favorite song seemed to be one that began with the words:
"When that I was and a little tiny boy
With Hey, ho, the wind and the rain . . ."
As they explained, this had been sung by a human who had visited Fantastica long years before, name of Shexper, or something of the sort.The implication is that all works of great literature were born in Fantastica and can lead us back to it.
But the doorway into Fantastica depends on more than what kind of book one finds. Whether a book is a book or a doorway to Fantastica depends also on the reader and their circumstances. What I think Ende is saying here is that we can't rely on things like books and movies to take us into our private imaginations on their own power. We have to read or watch them in the right spirit and at the right time, and we have to apply ourselves to what they tell us. We have to make the magic work. It can't be done for us or to us. We have to be willing to go on our own journeys if we want to do more than just escape from life.
Thus the problem today is not so much that we have commercial stories, but that we have come to believe that only commercial stories are stories. The best way to counter the problem is not to remove or denigrate commercial stories; it is to develop our collective ability to use commercial stories as resources for fruitful journeys through our own imaginations.
Choosing the way of wishes
To think about Bastian's choice to use his last wishes to leave Fantastica, I think we need to consider what Bastian's wishes are like before and after he stumbles into the City of Lost Emperors. I count a total of twenty wishes he makes in the second half of the book, with only three after he leaves the City.
Bastian's very first wish is to see the Childlike Empress again. It isn't exactly clear that he can see the Childlike Empress immediately after he makes the wish, because it's dark, but she must be with him, since she hands him the seed of Fantastica. His second wish is that the seed come alive. These first two wishes are simple and seem to have no symbolic value. They represent Bastian's entry into the story, and they show us the power of his wishes to rebuild Fantastica.
Bastian's third wish is an interesting one. He wishes, explicitly this time, that "everything would stay like this forever." This wish is not granted, even though the Childlike Empress has just finished saying that he can have all the wishes he wants ("the more, the better"). She merely says, "The moment is forever" and does nothing.
It's an important refusal. A common thread runs through the Childlike Empress, AURYN, Sikanda (the magical sword Bastian receives from Grograman) and Al Tsahir (the magical stone Bastian receives in the Silver City of Amarganth). They all respond badly to the conscious use of force, to asserting one's will on a situation rather than letting events emerge from deep within.
When Cairon (the emissary of the Childlike Empress) gives AURYN to Atreyu, he says:
"AURYN gives you great power," he said solemnly, "but you must not make use of it. For the Childlike Empress herself never makes use of her power. AURYN will protect you and guide you, but whatever comes your way you must never interfere, because from this moment on your own opinion ceases to count. For that same reason you must go unarmed. You must let what happens happen. Everything must be equal in your eyes, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, foolish and wise, just as it is in the eyes of the Childlike Empress. You may only search and inquire, never judge. Always remember that, Atreyu!"Later, when Grograman gives the sword Sikanda to Bastian, he says:
"Nothing in all Fantastica can resist it," said Grogaman, "neither rock nor steel. But you must not use force. Whatever may threaten you, you may wield it only if it leaps into your hand of its own accord as it did now. It will guide your hand and by its own power will do what needs to be done. But if your will makes you draw it from its sheath, you will bring great misfortune on yourself and on Fantastica. Never forget that."Those are strangely similar warnings, don't you think?
Much later, Bastian forces Al Tsahir to light the sky so the Monks of Knowledge can see the attic where he once sat (now sits?) reading The Neverending Story. The inscription that introduced Al Tsahir in the Silver City of Amarganth didn't explicitly say that using the stone in that way would cause problems later on. But I knew something was wrong the first time I saw Bastian use Al Tsahir to light up the night sky. The consequence of forcing Al Tsahir to bend to Bastian's will became apparent in Yor's Minroud mine (as the inscription said it would):
"Weren't you given a light for your long journey?" Yor asked, looking through Bastian. "A sparkling stone or something that might help you now?"
"Yes," said Bastian sadly. "But I used Al Tsahir for something else."
"That's bad," Yor said again.
"Then what do you advise?" Bastian asked.
After a long silence the miner replied: "Then you'll just have to work in the dark."Skipping forward, Bastian's twelfth wish is to force the Childlike Empress to see him again. And again, his wish is not granted. He arrives at the Ivory Tower to find the Childlike Empress gone.
Moon Child must have known that he was on his way to her. Could it be that she didn't want to see him again? ... [H]e felt bitterly disappointed.... Whatever her reasons may have been, he found her behavior unbelievable, no, insulting.Soon after, when Bastian forces Sikanda out of its sheath, at the nadir of his journey, he wounds his best friend and destroys the Ivory Tower.
It can't be an accident that four important elements of the story follow the same pattern. Bastian is presented with a paradox: you must do what you wish, but you must never use the force of your will. You must let your wishes grow within you.
My feeling is that these conflicting rules symbolize the difference between our conscious rational plans and our deep emotional needs, which are sometimes at odds. Ende seems to be saying that when it comes to going on imaginative journeys through our inner worlds, we can only succeed if we put aside rational thoughts and let our subconscious wishes guide us.
What does this mean about personal storytelling? I can't help but be reminded of the observation I've often made about people and stories: that storytelling works best when we don't realize we are telling stories. When we're just living and talking, telling stories is a natural part of making sense of our lives. Personal stories well up in us like wishes well up in Bastian. This, Ende seems to be saying, is the true use of our imagination: to surprise ourselves with our deepest wishes and dreams. When our personal stories leap into our hands of their own accord, they are ready to be spread more widely. When they do not, we can still overpower them by the force of our will, but the action will not end well for them or for us.
We've now covered the first three wishes and the twelfth wish. What about the rest?
Wishes four (to be as handsome as a prince), five (to be strongest), six (to reign over a land), seven (to be inured to hardship), eight (to be courageous), and nine (to be admired) all compare Bastian to a figure who is dominant in his mind: Atreyu, the hero of the story he has been reading. Atreyu is all of these things to Bastian because his portrayal in the story draws on the archetypal qualities of all heroes.
Do you remember when I said above that a commercial story can be seen as a template or a resource? In this part of The Neverending Story, Bastian is using the story he has just read (and the folk tales it springs from) as a template for his own identity. He wants to be those things not because he needs them but because he wants to emulate them.
After his eighth wish, Bastian meets Atreyu in the flesh. Right away he feels that he doesn't measure up.
Somehow it seemed to him that Atreyu was less impressed with his victory over Hero Hynreck and even by his stay with Grograman since he heard that he, Bastian, was wearing the Gem. And true enough, he thought, maybe his feats didn't amount to much, considering that he had the amulet to protect him. But he wanted to win Atreyu's wholehearted admiration.So off he goes on another quest to become someone else, not in an abstract sense this time but to impress a particular person. Wishes ten (to be uniquely admired), eleven (to be in charge of the welfare of others), thirteen (to be seen as a benefactor), fourteen (to be seen as dangerous), fifteen (to be seen as important), and sixteen (to be seen as wise) are all directed at Atreyu.
Perversely, in Bastian's view, Atreyu doesn't care about these abundant proofs of Bastian's worth. That's because Atreyu never needed any such proofs in the first place. He was prepared to accept the fat pale boy he saw in the Magic Mirror, the boy he remembers when Bastian can't. Because he is Bastian's true friend, Atreyu is more concerned about the memories Bastian is losing and about his ultimate fate. This makes Atreyu a hero in both the first half of the book (where his mission is to reach Bastian) and the second half (where his mission is to help Bastian find his way home). Bastian is the protagonist of the book, but Atreyu is the more heroic figure. (We'll get to the allegorical meanings of Atreyu's choices later on.)
Let's look again at what Cairon said about AURYN.
Everything must be equal in your eyes, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, foolish and wise, just as it is in the eyes of the Childlike Empress.For most of his first sixteen wishes, Bastian has been on a quest to appear (to himself and to others) as good, beautiful, and wise. Every part of himself has not been equal in his eyes. He has been trying to mold his identity to a template provided by the stories he knows. (It's true that wishes fourteen through sixteen were suggested by Xayide, but she would not have been able to entice Bastian into them if he had not been already thinking of them.)
At this point we've considered nearly all of the wishes Bastian makes before he gets to the City of Lost Emperors. His last wasted wish is to replace the Childlike Empress and become the new Emperor of Fantastica.
This wish isn't like any other wish in the list. I said that some of the previous wishes were suggested by Xayide; but this wish was created by Xayide. In a move as dastardly as the Manipulators sending Gmork to kill Atreyu, Xayide uses all of her skills of persuasion (and all of the clout she has built by pretending to be Bastian's slave) to convince him to take over the Ivory Tower and become the Childlike Emperor of Fantastica.
And then Xayide spoke to him of a new Fantastica, a world molded in every detail to Bastian's taste, where he could create and destroy just as he pleased, where every creature, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, would be the product of his will alone, and he would reign supreme and inscrutable, playing an everlasting game with the destinies of his subjects.It is in this moment that Xayide draws up to her full and horrific strength, when she creates a danger to Fantastica equal to the Nothing in the first part of the story.
You might wonder: why shouldn't Bastian become Emperor of Fantastica? What's wrong with what Xayide has outlined here? There's a possibly subtle but critical difference in the way these two Empires are described. You may have noticed it already.
Let's look back at how the Childlike Empress was introduced into the story, way back at the start.
The Childlike Empress -- as her title indicates -- was looked upon as the ruler over all the innumerable provinces of the Fantastican Empire, but in reality she was far more than a ruler; she was something entirely different.
She didn't rule, she had never used force or made use of her power. She never issued commands and she never judged anyone. She never interfered with anyone and never had to defend herself against any assailant; for no one would have thought of rebelling against her or of harming her in any way. In her eyes all her subjects were equal.
She was simply there in a special way. She was the center of all life in Fantastica.Both figures -- the Childlike Empress and the Childlike Emperor Bastian could become, as Xayide describes it -- are godlike in their powers. But the Childlike Empress exists to support Fantastica, while Fantastica would exist to support Bastian.
Consider the contrasts. The Childlike Empress never interferes with her subjects; in Xayide's vision, Bastian would play with his. The words "good or bad, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish" are repeated in Xayide's speech, but in a grotesque distortion of their original meaning. For Bastian these would not be qualities to be appreciated and accepted, but playthings he would torture Fantasticans with, shaping them by forcing his will upon them (there's that word will again). Instead of being the "center of life in all Fantastica," Bastian would look down upon it from above, isolated by the use of his monstrous power.
The more I compare these two passages, the more I can see that Xayide was enticing Bastian to become not the loving god of Fantastica but its demented demon. It's no wonder that Atreyu felt he had no choice but to fight Bastian.
It is with relief that I feel we can turn to Bastian's last three wishes: eighteen (to be part of something larger than himself), nineteen (to be unconditionally loved), and twenty (to be capable of love). Finally, and with courage in his heart, Bastian discards his manipulative slave and follows the path of wishes he should have been following from the start of the story.
There's an interesting point of contact between Bastian's ninth wish and his eighteenth. The ninth wish starts in a promising way:
Since he was no longer afraid of anything, a new wish began, imperceptibly at first, then more distinctly, to take shape within him: the wish to be alone no longer. Even in the company of the Many-Colored Death he was alone in a way.But in the very next sentence Bastian goes astray:
He wanted to exhibit his talents to others, to be admired and to become famous.If Bastian had gone directly from the wish to be with other people to his nearly identical eighteenth wish, which led to his life with the communitarian Yskalnari, his journey through Fantastica might have been very different. He would never have lost himself in trying to impress others. He would never have made himself vulnerable to exploitation by Xayide. He would never have wounded Atreyu. I find this point of connection truly sad. If only Bastian had understood that what he truly wanted was not to be first or best but to be included.
It is only much later that Bastian comes to the wish he should have chosen at the start:
For days and nights he had been wandering all alone. And because of being alone, he yearned to belong to some sort of community, to be taken into a group, not as a master or victor or as any special sort of person, but merely as one among many, perhaps as the smallest or least important, provided his membership in the community was unquestioned.That's the wish that leads him to the Yskalnari. Why didn't Bastian wish this early on in the book? What does it mean that Bastian's journey brought him back to what was essentially the same wish, but finally considered in a more honest, authentic, and inward-looking way? And what can this tell us about personal storytelling?
Here's my guess. We humans compare ourselves to others. It's something we can't help doing. There are good things about social comparison: it helps people amend anti-social behaviors like bigotry and cruelty. But social comparison also makes us pay more attention to how other people look and what they say than to what we really and truly want. Bastian, because he represents you and me, falls headlong into the trap of social comparison, and it nearly strands him in Fantastica. At least twelve of his twenty wishes are linked to social comparison. He doesn't just want to be handsome and strong and courageous. He wants to be exceptionally so: "The strongest in the world!"
This means that the real danger Bastian faces is not so much getting lost in his personal fantasy but getting lost in his personal interpretation of the public imagination. The Nothing creeps into Fantastica from the "human world," and the public imagination creeps into the personal imagination and disrupts Bastian's journey. That's why in my diagram I separate the personal imagination into two parts: the outward-looking portion, where Bastian is absorbed in social comparison, and the inward-looking portion, where Bastian is finally ready to drill down to the core of what he really and truly wants.
In some ways the most important passage in the book is the one that comes after Bastian has left the Yskalnari and is on his way (without knowing it) to Dame Eyola.
He no longer wanted to be the greatest, strongest, or cleverest. He had left all that far behind. He longed to be loved just as he was, good or bad, handsome or ugly, clever or stupid, with all his faults--or possibly because of them.
But what was he actually like?Even now, at nearly the end of the book, Bastian is still only beginning to embark on his real journey. I get the feeling that he will soon be back in Fantastica, with his father, going on the journey he should have been on the first time. Also notice how those words are repeated once more: "good or bad, handsome or ugly, clever or stupid." These are the things Bastian was obsessed with achieving, and proving he had achieved, during most of his journey. These are the things that led him astray and nearly drove him insane. It is only when Bastian understands their equivalence, as the Childlike Empress does, that he finds his true path.
Stories and danger in Bastian's path of wishes
Recall that AURYN represents two balances: the intermingling of imagination with reality, and the mixed power and danger of stories. The path of Bastian's wishes opens up the power and danger of stories to find two more balances nested within: between subconscious desire and conscious will; and between introspection and social comparison. This, according to Ende, is what it means that stories have both power and danger.
While thinking about these balances, I remembered that I've thought about the power and danger of stories for quite a while now. In my book More Work with Stories I list a series of dangers people face in telling stories to themselves and others about topics they care about. These dangers are derived from my reading of the research literature around storytelling and my observations of people sharing stories. I wondered if these dangers might relate to the dangers Bastian faced in his journey through Fantastica.
My list of dangers was:
- Audience danger: those listening to the story won't find it worth hearing. People wonder: will my story be well received?
- Character danger: those represented in the story won't like the way I represent them. People wonder: will they mind my story about them?
- Performance danger: I will fail to meet a requirement or expectation based on my involvement in the community. People wonder: is this what I was supposed to do?
- Self-disclosure danger: I will have to confront painful truths about myself and my life. People wonder: will dredging up this memory hurt?
- Technology danger: my story, perhaps told in the heat of emotion, could be spread far and wide without my control or consent. People wonder: will I read this on the internet?
- Community danger: I will draw out memories and facts the community has tucked away by implicit consensus. People wonder: will they say I was the one who told?
One thing that people often don't understand about story sharing is that when people feel nervous about telling stories, they don't stop telling stories. They just tell different stories. Like Bastian, they choose stories that distract them from the journey they need to make. Getting past these perceived dangers is something I pay a lot of attention to, because my job is to help people work with their stories to get to where they need to go.
Let's go through the exercise of considering how the dangers of storytelling connect to the reasons Bastian went off course in Fantastica.
Audience danger: will my story be well received? Bastian's awareness of how the stories of his adventures will be received, by Atreyu and by others, is clearly foremost in his mind right up until he reaches the City of Lost Emperors. Here's a telling piece from his adventures in Perilin, the Night Forest, that shows his outward focus:
He spat on his hands, took hold of a liana, and pulled himself up hand over hand, without using his legs, as he had seen acrobats do in the circus. For a moment a vision--a pale memory of the past--came to him of himself in gym class, dangling like a sack of flour from the bottommost end of the rope, while the rest of the class cackled with glee. He couldn't help smiling. How they would gape if they saw him now! They'd be proud to know him. But he wouldn't even look at them.Notice that even the way he climbs the liana is formed as a social comparison. He doesn't just climb; he climbs like "the acrobats in the circus." It's not so much the danger of being ugly, weak, or stupid that propels Bastian; it's the danger of being perceived as such by others. When Bastian first meets the Childlike Empress in person, nearly his first thought is about how he can't measure up to the kind of hero she must be expecting.
Bastian felt that he was blushing. "I mean," he said, "somebody strong and brave and handsome--maybe a prince--anyway, not someone like me."She reprimands him for not realizing that she is happy to accept him in any form, but the lesson is lost on him. Then before he discovers (and creates) the Desert of Colors:
He was handsome and strong, but somehow that wasn't enough for him. He also felt the need to be tough and inured to hardship like Atreyu.Before he meets Grograman:
"I wish I could run into a great adventure, something calling for great courage. How grand it would be to meet some dangerous creature--maybe not as hideous as Ygramul, but much more dangerous."As strong and brave and handsome as Atreyu; as tough as Atreyu; capable of facing an even more dangerous monster than Atreyu.
It's funny that I never noticed Bastian's focus on Atreyu when I was just reading the book. It was only when I copied out the twenty paragraphs that described the moments of Bastian's wishes that I could see how consumed he was with his appearance in front of others. Atreyu was more than a hero to Bastian. He was everything Bastian was not. It's no wonder that Bastian used most of the energy of his wishes to follow the template Atreyu set out for him.
Character danger: will they mind my story about them? Bastian's journey reminds me of that old joke: "That's enough about me; what do you think about me?" He is so centered on himself (even though he is obsessed with how other people think about him) that he never seems to give a thought to the feelings or experiences of those around him. There are moments when he seems to act compassionately towards others -- when he conjures up a dragon for Hero Hyreck; when he sends Yikka the mule to meet her dream lover -- but really he is only using these characters as means to display his power and magnanimity.
It is only when Bastian sees his father in Yor's mine that he has a genuine feeling of compassion for someone else.
[H]e saw a man wearing a white smock and holding a plaster cast in one hand. His posture and the troubled look on his face touched Bastian to the heart. But what stirred him the most was that the man was shut up in a transparent but impenetrable block of ice.Nothing in Bastian's journey "touched Bastian to the heart" until this moment. Even when he wounded his best friend, when "blood spurted from a gaping wound," Bastian felt no compassion. He "wiped the sweat from his brow" and kept fighting.
Actually, I'm partly wrong when I say that nothing touched Bastian until he saw his father. Remember the wish that led Bastian to join the Yskalnari, and how it connected to Bastian's earlier wish to be with others? There's another touchpoint, another place where the story circles around, in the two moments when Bastian felt compassion for Grograman and for his father.
The lion's eyes were black and as dead as the rock. Grograman had turned to stone. The lights flared for an instant and went out, leaving the cave in total darkness.
Bastian wept bitterly. The stone lion was wet with his tears. In the end, the boy curled up between the great paws and fell asleep!Both Grograman and Bastian's father endured their pain in darkness, and both caused Bastian to feel a surge of compassion. If Bastian had followed that compassion after he left Grograman, instead of becoming enthralled by his own image in the mirror of social comparison, his journey might have been different. Grograman seems to have been aware of what was next for Bastian when he admonished him for thinking simply and naïvely about "good" wishes. But like any good parent, Grograman knew he had no choice but to let Bastian make his own mistakes.
Surprisingly, I think a stronger perception of character danger could have had a good impact on Bastian's journey. I suspect Ende meant to urge us to pay more attention to the respectful inclusion of other people in the stories we tell. (More on that later.)
Performance danger: is this what I was supposed to do? I can see quite a bit of this type of danger in Bastian's behavior, and it's not all his fault. When Bastian finds Hero Hynreck and his traveling companions, they are abuzz with news of a tournament whose goal is to choose adventurers to find the Savior (and it is capitalized) of Fantastica. Bastian can't be held accountable for the celebrity worship bestowed on him. In fact, he might not have wasted so many of his wishes if he hadn't been held up by so many Fantasticans as some kind of conquering hero.
I wonder what Ende meant by having Bastian find himself treated as a celebrity. It could follow from Bastian's wish to "exhibit his talents to others, to be admired and to become famous." But Ende could have had Bastian endure new trials to earn his fame instead of simply walking into it. Or he could have had Bastian go through his journey without ever being known as the Savior of Fantastica.
I wonder if Ende might have been referring to his own journey by pointing out that fame can be thrust upon people whose only goal is to follow their journey where it leads them. Here's a telling excerpt from Ende's biography on his web site:
Michael Ende was by no means the first writer to find popularity burdensome, but on occasions the intrusion into his private life became intense. Enthusiastic readers would make the pilgrimage from Germany to visit 'their author' in Rome. Turning up at Ende's villa in Genzano, they entered the grounds unannounced and strolled into the house. 'Once they've ticked off the Basilica, it's time to visit Ende,' the author once commented. 'Before I know it, I’ve got mum, dad and the kids just metres away from me, watching while I eat.' Ende was aware that his life was becoming public property, but found it hard to get rid of his readers, especially since they often took offence.
A mountain of post gathered every day, usually from enthusiastic readers who congratulated him on his work, asked questions about individual passages, and wanted to know more about his ideas. But Ende also received letters from people asking him to share their problems, whether psychological, financial, romantic, clinical, philosophical or political in origin. At first Ende replied to each and every letter, although he was soon forced to be more selective as the volume of mail increased.Bastian's life also becomes "public property," and he also has trouble dealing with the pull of celebrity toward vanity. I believe, from what I have read of Ende's life, that he succeeded in walking this difficult path; but it seems to have taken some effort to remain humble and true to his beliefs.
Incidentally, when I was searching in More Work with Stories for the list of storytelling dangers I copied here, I blundered onto these paragraphs of advice to story facilitators:
To reduce performance danger, make sure your expectations in collecting stories are both clear and low. Why low? Because the more you pressure people to turn out useful stories, the less useful their stories will be. ... People can feel your need for their contributions; so reduce that need. Give people permission to perform poorly so they can perform well. ...
Why not challenge people? Won't pressuring them spur them to succeed? Not in my experience. Look, telling stories is not like running a race; it's more like growing a garden. It is a project full of serendipity and unexpected discovery. ... Ask any great gardener how they "succeed" at gardening and you will hear not rules and recipes but profound respect for the mysteries of soil health and plant growth. It is only the novices who believe they know how to make a garden do what they want it to do.Whether the Childlike Empress pressured Bastian to perform, and thus failed as a story facilitator, depends on the origin of his fame. If it came from his own wish, she acted well, because she was letting Bastian follow his own path. But if Bastian's fame came the influence of the Childlike Empress, or from some essential features of Fantastica, then she (and Fantastica) did not act as a good facilitator of Bastian's stories.
I suspect the latter is the case. From her first few words to Bastian, the Childlike Empress impressed upon him the responsibility he bore for recreating Fantastica. Everything depended on him. On the other hand, maybe she couldn't do anything about Bastian's celebrity. Maybe it was structural. Ende seems to imply that Bastian had to be famous in order to bring Fantastica back to life. He certainly doesn't give any reason for Bastian's celebrity. It just happens.
I can't help thinking that Ende made Bastian famous as a comment on the social phenomenon that tends to coalesce around a person who is particularly good at coming up with stories. It's probably not a coincidence that both Bastian and Michael Ende were naturally good at making up stories. I've said before that Ende saw himself in the Old Man of Wandering Mountain and in Mr. Coreander; but in this respect I think he saw himself in Bastian, the creator of a new world.
A long time ago, I assume, it was not considered strange or unique to tell a lot of stories, real or made up. But today it's considered a rare talent, and the world notices it. This is not because we've stopped telling stories. It's because we've stopped believing that we tell stories.
I myself am a person who habitually tells story after story. For me it's mostly compensatory. I do it because my episodic memory is spectacularly bad. If I don't have something visual or coherently narrative I can connect events to, my memories of what happened slip away. I'm always talking to people and they say, "You said that last week when we talked," and I say, "That sounds plausible." I actually said that ("that sounds plausible") once in a classroom, and everyone laughed, and I was confused and embarrassed, because I hadn't realized until that moment that other people could actually recall conversations. I thought everyone was piecing together plausible stories about the past.
Also, like Bastian, I make up a lot of stories that haven't happened. I've always done this, ever since I was a child. When I'm planning an important event, I've already rehearsed it fifty times, with fifty different plots and endings, by the time it actually happens. Every book I read and movie I see expands out into many other stories, some in dreams and some in daydreams. The book or movie itself is just the seed that starts things growing. Sometimes I forget how much of the story is inside the book or movie and how much of it grew afterwards.
This is all to say that I feel I am in a reasonable position to tell you what people say when they find out that you habitually tell and make up stories. I'll bet you can guess what people say. They say, "You should write a book." Every time I'm talking to someone and I mention some circuit of stories I've compulsively created around some event, real or imagined, I get the same response: "You should write a book." I find this frustrating. I always say something nice, but what I really want to say is, "I shouldn't write a book; you should tell more stories!"
To me, stories are abundant, everywhere, like air, like water. But a lot of people seem to see stories as scarce things few people can create. That is simply not true. I'm sure of it. But no matter how I see it, to many people today, the world of stories is a dark, empty place, and at night a candle's brighter than the sun.
So I wonder if Michael Ende meant to represent that same reaction, which he must have experienced, when he had the citizens of Fantastica push Bastian, for the most part unwillingly, and certainly disastrously, into a state of celebrity. Maybe part of what happened to Bastian was linked to what happened to the Childlike Empress. Maybe Fantastica put Bastian on a pedestal because the Childlike Empress was still not perfectly healthy, even with Bastian's help.
Performance danger in The Neverending Story is more connected to matters of the will than to social comparison. It seems like it might be the most connected to social comparison, but as I said, the energy of comparison in this case doesn't come from Bastian. He doesn't try to take over the Ivory Tower because he wants others to see him as strong or brave or handsome. By that point in the story, everyone already sees him that way, and he has forgotten he was ever seen in any other way. No, Bastian tries to take over the Ivory Tower because Xayide convinces him that it is his role, his place, even his responsibility, to do so. She is of course doing this for her own purposes, but there is an extent to which the Childlike Empress and all of the creatures of Fantastica have colluded in bringing him to this point.
This makes me think that Xayide could also be seen as a representation of the will. Her metal soldiers are empty and powered by nothing but her will. Her hold over Bastian takes place in a battle of wills. She encourages Bastian to enter into another such battle with Atreyu and Falkor. Finally, after Bastian leaves her behind, she is trampled to death by the distorted application of her own force of will. She seems hollow herself, filled with nothing but the willful determination to overpower whatever circumstances she finds herself in. I wonder if, in addition to the manipulators of the imagination, Xayide also represents those who urge writers to revel in their celebrity and treat their fans as so many empty shells to be exploited and controlled.
Self-disclosure danger: will dredging up this memory hurt? It's hard to say whether Bastian's perception of the danger of self-disclosure is larger than the others we've considered so far. He only begins to directly explore his experiences in real life with his last three wishes. Before that part of the story, he seems so caught up in his fears of appearing to be weak, stupid, and boring that his feelings of loss barely surface. The book doesn't drop any hints that Bastian has deliberately crafted his wishes to avoid considering his real-life problems (and this book drops a lot of hints when it has something to tell us). It seems more like Bastian avoids his problems out of ignorance of how much they actually matter to him.
I said before that Bastian's compassion for Grograman was linked to his compassion for his father. But Bastian's connection with Grograman isn't just about compassion. The lion also accepts him unconditionally, just like Dame Eyola does at the end of his journey. Grograman calls Bastian "master," but they become good friends. Leaving behind his magnificent apartment and soft bed, Bastian chooses to sleep each night on the hard stone "between the petrified lion's paws."
I wonder if Bastian was not yet ready for the depth of exploration he needed when he left Grograman. Can you imagine him going directly from Grograman to Dame Eyola? I can't. He wasn't ready to admit that he needed her embrace. In a way, Bastian needed to bluster and blunder through his mistakes before he could arrive at the place of humility and introspection he found when he left the City of the Old Emperors.
I wonder if Michael Ende sent Bastian on his journey of errors to point out that deep understanding isn't something we can buy or receive. We can't just jump effortlessly into a state of enlightenment about who we really are and what we really want. I'm certainly ready to admit that I've learned more from my mistakes than from my successes. One of my favorite sayings is, "The worst thing you can do to a person is to take away their mistakes."
This connects to something I've seen when I've helped people work with their own stories. I've noticed that nearly all of the deepest and most valuable discoveries in any group story session happen in the last quarter of the time. There's always a lot of blundering around in distractions before people get to the heart of what they need to talk about. If you try to streamline things by trimming away the blundering part, the deep and valuable discoveries never come. And you can't tell people that they'll be beating around the bush for most of the session; if you told them that, they'd get up and leave. You've got to be like Grograman and lash your tail quietly while you watch people wander around in their distractions, knowing that the process of sharing stories will eventually bring them to where they need to go.
Consider what would have happened, for example, if Grograman had accompanied Bastian and guided him on his journey. Bastian might never have achieved the transformation he needed. Sure, going directly from Grograman to the Yskalnari and Dame Eyola would have helped Bastian, but it would not have been his journey. It would have been a journey someone else prepared for him. I can imagine Bastian building a much better trip for himself and for his father on his return to Fantastica; but he needed to do it wrong before he could learn how to do it right. (In fact, I wonder if an experienced Bastian might wisely allow his father to blunder through his own mistakes on his first trip to Fantastica. Only I think he'd keep a wish count the second time through!)
Maybe that's why Atreyu was Bastian's companion on his journey. I have wondered why Ende paired them up after the midpoint of the book. For all his nobility, Atreyu was spectacularly incapable of helping Bastian navigate the way of his wishes. Maybe it's because Atreyu was unable to see further than Bastian that he was best able to help him in the end, the best prepared to love him in spite of his flaws. Only someone as similarly clueless and bewildered as Atreyu could help Bastian on his journey.
Of the two balances that represent the potential danger of the imagination (the will and social comparison), self-disclosure danger in The Neverending Story is most related to the balance between will and desire. In the beginning of the story, Bastian's will (what he thinks he wants) and his desire (what he really and truly wants) are at odds. In his first few wishes the two forces are balanced, but in searching for Atreyu -- not as a friend but as a competitor -- he chooses the path of his will.
I wonder if you might be getting annoyed at how concerned I am about Bastian. I wonder if it has something to do with my role as a parent. I don't recall being all that upset about it when I read the book as a child. Indeed, my hand-wringing about the dangers Bastian faces feels a lot like the concerns I have for my own son. I know that the more I try to control his experiences the more I take away from him. I know that the more I stand back and support without controlling, the better his journey goes. But it's hard to stand back. I can't help lashing the sand with my tail. It doesn't seem fair that people should have to blunder through so many mistakes to arrive at the place they need to be. But that's the way of the imagination, and it's the way of life.
Technology danger: will I read this on the internet? Obviously I shouldn't have called this "technology danger." I should have called it the danger of gossip. There is definitely an internet of gossip in Fantastica; word seems to get around pretty quickly, especially when the news is about Bastian. It's clear that he is under scrutiny by the public, and it is partly for this reason that Bastian is so acutely aware of his image. Xayide makes him even more so, for her own purposes. But Bastian doesn't seem to be bothered by the lack of privacy in Fantastica, so I'm not sure a perception of this type of danger has much influence on his choices. I don't think it applies.
Community danger: will they say I was the one who told? I would place this danger, along with character danger, on the side of things Bastian needs more of in his journey.
There are two indications that Bastian arrives at a full awareness of what he owes to Fantastica and its inhabitants after he leaves the City of Lost Emperors. First, he recognizes his betrayal of Atreyu:
All night he had the same unchanging vision before his eyes: Atreyu, with the gaping wound in his chest, stood there looking at him in silence.A little later, Bastian buries his sword Sikanda:
"Sikanda," he said, "I am taking leave of you forever. Never again shall anyone draw you against a friend. No one shall find you here, until what you and I have done is forgotten."These are surprising words to come out of the mouth of a boy who up until now has given nary a thought to what he owes to the land of Fantastica.
Bastian's belated awareness of community danger is linked with the balance between will and desire, in a positive direction. At first, his ignorance of community danger causes the power of his performance danger to increase. Instead of asking what he can do to help Fantastica, he focuses on how he can bend its inhabitants to his will.
When I think of this aspect of the story, the phrase "servant leadership" keeps coming up in my mind. Instead of serving the community as the Childlike Empress does, Bastian tries to force it to serve him. But -- and this is what breaks my heart -- Bastian does none of this out of malice. All through the story he sincerely tries to do what he thinks is right. He just doesn't understand what he ought to do, and Xayide drives away his best advisor, Atreyu, so she can manipulate his ignorance for her own purposes. This is ultimately why Atreyu forgives Bastian and saves him from the City of Old Emperors. It's also why Michael Ende's story has touched so many lives. We are all Bastian. We all try our hardest, and we all understand too late, and we all fail, and we all depend on the forgiveness of our friends.
Let me see if I can draw the threads of this long section together. Of the six dangers I examined, two I think we can put aside when it comes to lessons for personal storytelling in today's society. The importance of finding one's own path and making one's own mistakes, as explored in self-disclosure danger, doesn't seem to be uniquely linked to storytelling. It is simply a fact of life. The problem of gossip is ancient, not unique to storytelling, and not given much attention in the book.
It is in the two balances between paired dangers that I find the most interesting messages: audience and character danger; and performance and community danger. Let's look at audience and character danger first.
Ende tells us that Bastian is overly concerned with his public performance in a role thrust upon him by a world out of balance, while at the same time being too little concerned with his deeper obligations to that world. Does that sound like every one of us? It certainly connects to my sense that we are constantly being called to "share our story" with the world, to seek our fifteen minutes of fame, while simultaneously being absolved of any real responsibility for positive change in our own communities. People seem to gather more respect when they "go viral" than when they actually make useful things happen in the world. I don't mean to mock the woman who put on a Chewbacca mask, laughed, and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts; she didn't plan any of it. But her story tells you something about the world we live in.
I've been subscribing to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper for about thirty years now, starting soon after a college professor touted it as the only newspaper worth reading. One of the reasons I like the Monitor so much, beyond its neutral political stance and international focus, is the fact that it continually and deliberately brings to the forefront unsung heroes who are doing good things in the world. In the Monitor's profiles, I've never come across anyone who is widely known, and I've never come across anyone who doesn't have an amazing story to tell about the work they are actually doing to change lives.
It's not unreasonable to argue that Bastian's story, of being distracted by celebrity and social comparison from what he really and truly wants, is the story of our contemporary society. As a collective body, our obsession with what glitters leads us far from our true path. What can we do about this? We can pay more attention to what's actually working in the world, and we can pay less attention to shallow triumphs.
Now let's look at the second pairing of storytelling dangers. Bastian is overly concerned with his image in the eyes of others while simultaneously being too little concerned with the feelings and needs of those around him. Yes, it's another spot-on analysis of unbalanced storytelling in our narcissistic society.
Narcissus was obsessed with his image in a mirror-like pond. Michael Ende often used the image of a mirror in his work. In a letter to Werner Zurfluh, he referred to a connection between his book Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) and The Neverending Story. He said (or Google Translate said he said, and then I cleaned it up a little bit, so he sort-of said):
The title "Speigel im Spiegel" refers to several things. One is the famous Zen koan "What is a mirror which is reflected in a mirror?" Which is indeed cited even in the "Neverending Story".I'm guessing that here he is referring to the moment when Atreyu passes through the Magic Mirror Gate, which is "both open and closed," on his quest to save Fantastica. Atreyu is warned about the Magic Mirror Gate by Engywook:
[W]hen you stand before it, you see yourself. But not as you would in an ordinary mirror. You don't see your outward appearance; what you see is your real innermost nature. If you want to go through, you have to--in a manner of speaking--go into yourself.Engywook goes on to explain that this experience is different for every traveler. Some have run back in fright and others have passed through calmly, but "it still cost every one of them an inner struggle."
What Atreyu sees in the Magic Mirror Gate is Bastian, a fat, pale boy sitting in a school attic reading a book. After Bastian enters Fantastica, Atreyu becomes Bastian's mirror, reflecting his doubts and fears back onto himself. The difference between the two boys is that Bastian doesn't enter into his magic mirror until the very end of the book, when he discovers that Atreyu is not a reflection but a friend. It is the creation of this bond that saves Bastian from oblivion.
Stories have three functions in human life: as communications, as mental constructs, and as connections. Since the rise of commercial stories, we have come to see stories as primarily communicative devices and secondarily aids to thought. The role of storytelling as a means of building bonds between people has been largely forgotten. Of course people still connect by sharing stories, but the activity is starved for time and attention -- partly because we have forgotten how much we need it. You could say that we have covered our story gateways with mirrors of social comparison and billboards of advertisement. We need to remember how to "go into ourselves" as we step through the mirror of storytelling and rediscover its power to bring us together. Seeing life as other people see it can indeed bring on a period of "inner struggle." But that's a big part of why we tell stories in the first place.
The cycle of distraction
Now that I understand that Bastian's whirlwind of mistaken wishes was about social comparison and the force of will, I am eager to explore how these forces connect with contemporary storytelling.
The nature of our reactions to commercial stories has been well studied, mainly in the fields of psychology and sociology. To summarize a huge body of research in one sentence: people react to stories in books, movies, and television in two ways: identification ("you're like me") and parasocial interaction ("you're my fictional friend"). Let's consider identification first.
Creating characters people can identify with is nothing new; it's a foundation of fictional writing that goes back to ancient times. It's how stories help us see through the eyes of others and explore their experiences vicariously.
Identification with fictional characters has a host of effects on our behavior, both positive and negative. On the positive side, studies have shown that "experience-taking," or taking on some of the feelings and thoughts of a fictional character, can lead to positive behavioral changes. An article in Ohio State University's Research and Innovation Communications describes two studies in which people who read stories changed their behavior. In the first study, students who read a story about a character overcoming obstacles to voting were more likely to vote in the next election. In the second study, heterosexual students who read a "day in the life" story about a fellow student whose homosexuality was revealed only late in the story were more likely to report "significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals" than students who read the same story with the character's orientation described up front (or never described at all).
In another study, students who played Superman (a hero) in a video game were more likely to return a lost letter than students who played the Joker (a villain) in the same game. In addition, students who played either character were more likely to return the letter when they first read a fictional article describing the back story of the character they played (a loving family for Superman, an abusive family for the Joker). These and many other similar results combine to present the view that identification with fictional characters can increase empathy and prosocial behavior.
These studies are matched, however, by a similar number of studies that show the negative effects of identification with fictional characters. One study explored the phenomenon of wishful identification, or "the desire to become more like a media character." Researchers asked 208 young adult students to identify their favorite fictional television characters. The students named 140 different characters, most often of the same gender and race, and with similar attitudes ("is like me; thinks like me; behaves like me"). The most interesting result was this one:
[M]en identified with male characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, and violent, whereas women identified with female characters whom they perceived as successful, intelligent, attractive, and admired.This finding links to several similar studies showing the negative effects of such identification. In one study, girls were found to identify most with the thinnest fictional characters, causing their self-images to suffer in comparison. In another study, boys who played as a violent video game character were more likely to act aggressively toward another player; and those who identified most strongly with the characters they played were the most likely to choose to cause harm.
There's also the problem of progressive desensitization to violence and anti-social behavior through repeated exposure. In a fascinating study, 1000 parents were asked to assign a minimum age for children to watch a series of three movies (considering both violence and sexual content) by watching brief scenes from each movie. Across the three movie clips, their assignments consistently declined by as much as three years. In other words, simply watching movie scenes long enough to evaluate them caused enough desensitization to drastically alter parents' views of what their children should watch. That's scary.
Now let's talk about identification in The Neverending Story. It's curious that Bastian's wishes before and after he meets Atreyu in person are pretty much the same. Even after he has the real Atreyu right in front of him, he continues to act and react as though he was faced with the mythical Atreyu in the first part of the book. The funny thing is that the real Atreyu isn't much like the Atreyu Bastian wants to emulate. The real Atreyu doesn't care about fame or power or being handsome or seeming important. He's humble and kind, and he only wants to help his friend. Unlike Bastian, Atreyu has no need to be seen as "the Savior of Fantastica," even though he could reasonably claim to share that title with Bastian. But Bastian looks past the real Atreyu to an unrealistic fabrication, just like girls and boys who look past the real role models around them and focus on the unrealistically attractive, powerful, and successful characters in the television series they love.
So what's the solution to misplaced wishful identification? I'm not sure. In The Neverending Story it almost traps Bastian in insanity. He is only saved by the real friendship that develops with Atreyu in the times between Bastian's attempts to identify with an Atreyu who doesn't exist. Ende seems to be saying that we cannot save our loved ones from the perils of wishful identification, but we can build real relationships with them in the quiet times when they put down their stories and look around for a moment; and we can help them find themselves again when they wake up from the spells they fall under.
I'm not happy with that solution, though. It seems to say that our personal stories must be content to scuttle around like tiny shrews under the giant crushing feet of commercial stories.
I'd like to describe to you something I've been doing with my son since he was about two. I don't hold this up as any kind of solution, mind you, but it is related to wishful identification. Anyway, when my son was two, as I said, I made up a little story about a frog and a newt who were good friends. He asked for another story, so I kept going, and eventually we had a whole folk-tale collection of our own, with about fifty stories centered around the little animals who lived around a bend in a tiny stream. I worked in a lot of contemporary themes, like scary things that had happened to us recently and moral lessons I hoped to sneak in somewhere. For a long time his only participation in the effort was to keep saying "nother one" or to ask for particular stories to be told again (and again and again). But around the age of four, he started to amend my story plots, suggesting alternative endings; and in another year or so he was doing as much of the character and plot construction as I was.
Around the same time, I started reading him books, like Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows and (of course) The Neverending Story. Then he experienced his first movie, My Neighbor Totoro. Probably because we were so used to it, all of these stories got the frog-and-newt treatment, expanding out into dozens of related stories, many of them about things he was concerned or excited about at the time. (There were a lot of digger-related and dentist-related plots.)
My son is just about thirteen now, and we're still making up stories. I'd say we've spent an average of two hours a day making up stories for the past ten years. Every movie or book or television show we encounter, if it's memorable enough and has characters he'd like to play with, works its way into the story worlds we create. Real-life elements enter into our stories too, like places we visit and people we meet or read about.
The benefit I think this habit has had on my son and on myself is that when we watch movies or read books, we don't react to them by identifying with characters in them. It's more like we find stuff we can use. We'll even say that sometimes, after we've watched a new movie. We'll say, "What do you think? Can we use this?" Or we'll say, "Do you think this character will work for us?" In other words, we use the stories we find as resources for our imagination, not as templates to follow.
That reminds me of a time when one of my son's friends came over to visit. At the time my son was in a huge LEGO phase, and he had a box in his room full of collapsed boxes from LEGO sets. His friend looked at the boxes, and this conversation took place:
Where are all the models you built from these LEGO sets?
We took them apart, of course!
Why did you do that?
So we could build other things, of course!
Why would you want to build other things?It turned out that his friend also had many LEGO sets, but after he built the models he kept them just like that, forever. This baffled my son, who was far more interested in the parts that came with the sets than he was with LEGO's "suggestions" as to what he could build with them. Some sets never got built at all. Instead, the newest and most interesting pieces (each of which he immediately knew to be new) started up whole constructions based on their unique abilities.
This is not to say that there's anything wrong with building LEGO sets and keeping them just like that forever. Of course not. I'm not trying to make a point about LEGO. I'm talking about stories, which want nothing more than to be taken apart and put back together lots of times. It's how they're supposed to work. It's printed on the box. The problem is that we've lost the box, and we've lost the instructions that came with it.
I always feel awkward when I put forward my own example of what you can do with stories. I feel like I sound all "holier than thou" and "be like me." I don't mean it that way. I'm just bumbling through life the same way you are. Once in a while I find something that works for me and my family, but quite often I don't. You do not want to hear about our many forays into Baby-Mozart-style electronic toys that were supposed to turn any child into a rarefied genius (more like, turn any new parent into a gibbering mass of inadequacy). I didn't base our style of story exploration on some vast storehouse of story-related wisdom. I'm not even sure why it happened. One day I told my son a story so he'd sit still while I brushed his teeth, and he said "nother one," and it grew from there. But it is a lot of fun, and even though he clearly does identify with some of the characters in the books and movies he experiences, it's more of a LEGO piece identification than a LEGO set identification. It's a mix-and-match game, and it's fully under his (our) control.
I think what I'm trying to say here is: as human beings, stories are our playthings. We should play with them. We should not let them play with us. Everyone has to find their own way of playing with stories, but everyone should try, if they want to avoid the fate of the Lost Emperors.
I also think the people who create commercial stories share a certain amount of responsibility for helping children and adults play with the stories they create. But I'm going to save that bit of exploration until later, when I get to the Neverending Story characters who represent the creators of public-imagination stories.
I said above that people relate to fictional stories in two ways: identification and parasocial interaction. Surprisingly, I don't feel like The Neverending Story has much to say about parasocial interaction. Bastian seems much more intent on exploring his identity in relation to Atreyu than he is on exploring their friendship. In fact, it is his inattention to their friendship that I find the most curious. I'm not sure what Ende meant to symbolize by having Bastian do this. Maybe he saw identification with fictional characters as a bigger problem. In fact, because Bastian solidified his relationship to his real father, and found a new mentor in Mr. Coreander, as a result of having read The Neverending Story, it might be that Ende didn't see parasocial interaction as a problem at all.
If I were to think about my own recommendations with regard to parasocial interaction, I think I'd say something pretty similar to what I said about identification. As long we see the stories we encounter, and the people in them, as resources we can draw from in creating our own imaginative worlds, parasocial interaction can be a positive force in our lives. It's only when we take stories as inviolable templates we cannot pull apart or challenge to suit our needs that we are in danger of distraction from what we really and truly want.
A technical note before we go on. I have now considered three vicious cycles linked to Bastian's choices on his journey: denial, escapism, and distraction. I was originally going to write a section here on the cycle of withdrawal, but I realized that it has mainly to do with Bastian's father, not Bastian. So I'll deal with that cycle later in the essay.
Continue to part three ...