|Posted on May 29, 2012 at 9:10 AM|
I remember reading a book many years ago, whose drop caps of all 26 chapters had stylistic designs starting with A, and running through the alphabet. In addition, the book had a creative frontispiece that announced the story in intricate scrollwork detail. The book’s title: The Neverending Story.
So when the movie came out, I just had to see it. As with most movies from books, there are significant differences. But here I will talk only about the movies—the second of which finished the book, and which I’ll be looking at next week. It’s impossible to discuss in detail all of the symbolism I found, but I’m going to try.
The Neverending Story opens on Bastian, a kid whose life is miserable. Probably what endeared me to him was his resemblance to myself. Though my mom still lives and his was dead, as a boy I was bullied, and I did immerse myself in fantasy to escape. Which created problems in school. Plus, his father doesn’t understand him, which also matches.
“Bastian, you’re old enough to get your head down out of the clouds and start keeping both feet on the ground, right? … Stop dreaming, and start facing problems, okay?”
On his way to school, Bastian chased by bullies who literally throw him in the trash bin, then chase him again after he climbs out. This never happened to me. Bastian finds refuge in a bookstore, where the owner, Mr. Koreander, is reading a large tome. On the hard cover, an image of two snakes intertwine each other in a circle.
“Look,” Koreander tells Bastian. “Your books are safe. While you’re reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe. … But afterwards, you get to be a little boy again.” His book is not safe, he says, and therefore he forbids Bastian from reading it. Instead, Bastian takes it and runs from the bookstore to school—which is exactly what Koreander meant him to do.
Between the bullies and the stop in the bookstore, Bastian arrives late to school and realizes his math class is taking a test. Math is his worst subject, so he retreats to the school attic to read his acquisition. The bulk of the movie draws him into the story of Atreyu, a warrior in Fantasia who embarks on a quest to defeat the Nothing. Coincidentally, the childlike empress is said to be deathly sick, and cannot help her people.
It’s impossible to show literal “nothing” in a dramatic medium, so the movie portrays it as a violent windstorm with black clouds, heavy lightning, and a powerful wind. Everywhere it goes, it uproots trees and razes landscape. “Even a hole is something”—but then, so are wind, lightning, and clouds. Oh, well.
Many characters in Fantasia are as clever and diverse as in Star Wars or Avatar. The rockbiter eats stones like food, the bedraggled night hob rides a gliding bat, and the little man travels on a racing snail. But the story centers on Atreyu and Bastian. Around his neck, Atreyu wears a magic medallion that matches the book’s cover image, called the Auryn.
Though Atreyu starts his journey on his horse Artax with all good intentions, immediately he runs into obstacles. He treads through the Swamp of Sadness, where Artax sinks into the mud and drowns, despite his owner’s best efforts. Names like Swamp of Sadness make me relate the story in some small way to The Pilgrim’s Progress, or perhaps The Princess Bride.
A flying “luck dragon” named Falkor rescues Atreyu from the swamp. This creature has a white, furry serpentine body and the enlarged head of a loveable puppy dog. Atreyu is told he must look for the Southern Oracle to stop the Nothing. A gnome couple, who reminds me of Miracle Max and his wife in The Princess Bride, directs him to a pair of glowing gold sphinxes facing each other, which is the first gate to the Oracle.
It is a little disturbing that these sphinxes have significant bosoms, whereas the one in Egypt is supposed to be male, but at least they’re not treated in any sensual way. In fact, for adventurers who lack confidence, they are deadly. The gnome Engywook uses his crystalline telescope to watch a knight ride between them, but soon the sphinxes’ eyes open and rays shoot out to fry him.
Though Atreyu sees it too, he decides he’s going to go through. The eyes open for him as well, but he runs and leaps out of the beams’ way. The second gate is a huge mirror encrusted with icicles, which can show a person his true nature, rather than how he thinks of himself. This is the first time Atreyu and Bastian see each other—and it freaks Bastian out.
The Oracle itself is also a pair of sphinxes, only they glow bright blue. “The empress needs a new name,” says a mysterious female voice. “No one from Fantasia can do it. Only an Earthling child can give her a new name.” As the voice speaks, however, the sphinxes start to crumble in pieces, because the Nothing is so close.
Then there’s Gmork, a large ferocious wolf with glowing eyes and a growl more ominous than real wolves. When Atreyu confronts him in ruins whose walls are decorated with pictures of his adventures so far, Gmork explains.
He says Fantasia is dying “because people have begun to lost their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.” The Nothing is “the emptiness that’s left. It is like a despair destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.” Why? “Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has the control, has the power.”
The whole purpose of this story is to warn against imagination being suppressed. Through imagination, people can survive because the fantasy brings them hope; but without it they begin to die, consumed by the void of Nothing. I certainly agree with this, but I also see a larger, more significant message.
The Bible is a never-ending story. When we read it, we can survive the Swamp of Sadness. We can sail the Sea of Possibilities. We can pass the sphinxes’ deadly gaze (perhaps representing life’s trials) with confidence, and view ourselves in the mirror of God’s grace. The Auryn in the movie can stand for Jesus Christ, who guides and protects us. The people who inhabit the Bible are many and diverse, standing as examples of faith, just as Hebrews 11 explains. However, unless we absorb the story with our own lives and link our souls with faith giants, the Bible is nothing. Gmork is the Devil, trying to steal our hope from us.
Then there’s the ivory palace, the capital of Fantasia where the childlike empress lives. The author and producers’ intent is that she represents the childlike wonder which must prevail if imagination can mean anything to us. I see the palace as Heaven and the empress as God, in spite of her youth and gender. It takes the faith of a child to see God, uncluttered by adult “logic” that argues against faith. But this analogy is pretty loose.
As Bastian reads the book, even after school is closed—and while a thunderstorm rages outside—he can’t believe he personally is integral to the story. The empress tells Atreyu the Earthling child “has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And now he has come here, with you. He is very close, listening to every word we say. … He doesn’t realize he’s already a part of The Neverending Story.”
Though Bastian rebels, when the empress tearfully addresses him by name and begs him to give her a name, he opens the attic window and screams into the storm: “Moon Child!” Suddenly the Nothing is gone, and Fantasia is restored, including Atreyu’s horse Artax.
Here’s where the analogy becomes loose: Even Satan’s Nothing cannot destroy God nor His Kingdom. On the other hand, for rebels who dismiss the Bible, God’s Kingdom might as well not exist because they prefer groping in the dark.
“Everyone practicing evil hates the Light and does not come to the Light, lest his deeds be exposed. But he who does the Truth comes to the Light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done by God” (John 3:20-21).
Seeing our true selves in the Lord’s mirror, the Bible, is very common. For us as Christians, this is not something to avoid, but an opportunity to improve—God’s way.