From a historical standpoint, German folklore of dark tales and teachings has rightfully earned an esteemed place in classical literature. Stories such as Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Rumpelstilskin, and Hansel and Gretel are just a few that have been enjoyed by many generations and cultures. Then in the early 20th century, in an attempt to control the masses, there was a surge of propaganda by the Nazis and other military forces after the First World War that was aimed at the citizens of Germany. These leaders used this tool to cause restrictions in everyday life that eventually found its way into literature. Bans were placed on poetry and all manners of literature alike, which caused a hard blow to the pride of German culture. No one was allowed to write unless it depicted a victorious hero or heroine. Michael Ende became a famous writer from this period in Germany’s darker history. He was born in Munich, Germany, in the late 1920’s and although he lived in the southern parts of the country, he experienced oppression from the military political leaders of the time. As a child in grade school he witnessed classmates as young as twelve get drafted into the army and perish within the first few days. This experience among others that Ende undoubtedly faced as a writer caused him to view the increase in technology of the modern world as a cultural problem, because it opened the door for more exploitation by the government.
His classical literary piece The Neverending Story on the surface appears to be just a fairytale of learning to control what one wishes for, but delving deeper into the composition reveals a political undertone into the issues that the author’s native country was experiencing. Within the story, strategically suggestive literary elements such as narrative style and symbolism may have been purposely used by Ende to open the eyes of his fellow countrymen as a stand for imaginary freedom.
Ende italicizes the real world passages in the story and prints in regular font the magical world events of Fantastica. He even starts the introduction chapter with a square sign that spells ‘Carl Conrad Coreander Old Books’ backwards, as if the reader is looking through their door into the fantasy world of Fantastica. This subconsciously makes the reader identify Fantastica as the true realm that they should be in and the natural world as fictitious. Also, he chronologically starts every chapter with an alphabet and has pictures of the creatures that will be discussed in that particular chapter. This guides the reader to envision the characters in the way that the author desires for them to be portrayed, instead of the reader using his or her own imagination to conjure the image. The alphabet and illustrations give structure and consistency, and is often a tool used in early age children’s literature. The reader doesn’t have to imagine many details and leans on the author to supply him with aids.
The Childlike Empress is a character throughout the story that symbolizes emotions. This assumption is gathered in part by the passages “She didn’t rule, she never used force or made use of her power….And every creature, whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, merry or solemn, foolish or wise-all owed their existence to her existence. (36)” She is described as the center of all life in Fantastica, and in retrospect, in the real world. Another important passage that hints at the injustices that Germany was facing appears when the character Atreyu has a discussion with Gmork, the werewolf initially sent to devour him, about wanting to travel to the real world in order to get the assistance from a human child that was needed in order to save Fantastica from the Nothing. “Don’t you see? If humans believe that Fantastica doesn’t exist, they won’t get the idea of visiting your country. And as long as they don’t know you creatures of Fantastica as you really are, the Manipulators do what they like with them.” (152) Gmork goes on to state that lies and Fantastican characters all come from the imagination of humans, and that some people can use this imagination for good or evil. The Nothing in this story symbolizes the attitude of some Germans in not having a desire anymore to dream or imagine. This sort of complacency may have seen by Ende as sure destruction of fiction literature and the Arts as a whole.
Atreyu goes on to ask about the Manipulators “What can they do?” and Gmork simply replies “Whatever they please.” (152)These double meaning messages are seen sporadically throughout the whole story, especially in the character of Xayide, who was able to manipulate her army of evil henchmen because they were only empty shells. The ultimate symbols that speak measures into the danger of over nationalism are the group of characters known in the story as the Yskalnari, which in the text means ‘the partners’. Bastian, attempting to find his way out of Fantastica, wished to belong to a community where he was unknown. This was after his many wishes of great wisdom, speed, agility had been granted. He was accepted into this community and had to abide by the law of always being within a group to move around, and was out at sea with his fellow men when one was picked up by a large mist crow and taken away. When Bastian becomes astonished and questions their emotionless demeanor the response is ‘Why should we grieve?…. None of us is missing. (392)” In American literature, how destructively imagination can be manipulated in the hands of others is not so directly touched upon. This excerpt shows the damaging effects of when a group of people start to see themselves as only a whole and forget about their individuality. It is an extreme example, but Ende may have felt that Germans were heading in that direction, especially after the Holocaust and continued oppression by the government following this awful event. American literature typically speaks of inner self issues of one’s imagination, and as a nation this topic has been under represented because it has not yet personally experienced the turmoil of this sort of enemy.
Ende, Michael. Translation by Manhem, Ralph. The Neverending Story.Puffin Books, 1997.Originally
published in Germany, Die Undendliche Geschichte. K. Thienemanns Verlag, 1979.