Bastian is an unhappy boy that is bullied by peers for being fat and is alienated from his dad who is grieving the death of Bastian's mom. Bastian has stolen a book from a bookseller and is hiding out in the school's attic reading about the fantasy world of Fantasica that is being destroyed by the Nothing as the Childlike Empress lies ill in her Ivory Tower. Atreyu, a boy about Bastian's age, is called upon by the empress to cure her illness and save their world by finding a human that will cross the borders from the real world to the fantasy world and give the empress a name. Only humans can enter Fantastica and if the empress does not have a name then the Nothing will take over and the fantasy world will cease to exist. This requires Bastian and the reader to believe in the imaginary world of Fantastica that lets loose creativity and dreams in individuals. The Nothing is the denial of imagination and unbelief. The Nothing is human lies meant to manipulate people through propaganda. What begins as a parable regarding the power of imagination changes in the second part showing the nature of power and creativity.
In the first part of the story Fantastica is an escape for the miserable Bastian. He is an observer of the hero Atreyu's quest to cure the empress's sickness and he is rooting for Atreyu in his adventures. Atreyu discovers that humans have forgotten how to get to Fantastica which is causing its destruction. The sickness in Fantastica is also affecting the human world for it causes creatures from Fantastica to jump into the Nothing where they enter the human world causing despair and lies in the consciousness of humans. "When you've been through the Nothing, you won't be real anymore," explains the Werewolf to Atreyu. Creatures that enter the Nothing become lies in the real world, he says. Atreyu realizes that humans don't know that their world and Fantastica depend on each other for their health. Reality and fantasy are intertwined where one can't exist without the other.
When Atreyu returns to the empress to say that his quest has failed, the empress disagrees looking at Bastian from the text knowing that he has given her the name, Moon Child. Unbeknownst to Atreyu his quest was to hook Bastian into his adventures and be vested in the story, not find a cure for the empress. She always knew what the cure was for her ailment. She needed a human to believe in Fantastica and she got just that in Bastian.
The second part of the story has Bastian or the reader becoming the hero in the story while determining the plot's direction at the same time. Bastian is reluctant to say the empress's name out loud because he is afraid she will criticize him for being weak and fat. Bastian must learn to love himself if he is going to help both worlds. His reluctance to say the empress's name leads her to find the Old Man of the Wandering Mountains that is writing Bastian's story in a book called, "The Neverending Story." Here the Old Man rereads the Neverending Story again but adds himself as the narrator telling the story. The Old Man is doomed to repeating the story unless Bastian decides to be a hero and stop him. If he doesn't then Fantastica will no longer exist but be stuck in a circular unfinished story that leaves readers cross-eyed and bored. Fortunately, Bastian finds the courage to speak. Jiggety-jig.
When Bastian finally says the Childlike Empress's name, she gives him the same talisman that Atreyu had previously. Bastian learns that the talisman will grant him all of his wishes. He discovers that in Fantastica he can be whatever he wants by making up a story. One of the first things he does is fill up a library with books he has written; thus, fulfilling the bookseller's prediction that Bastian will become a writer. This moral that the constant renewal of fantasy through budding writers is essential to the health of both worlds and the Old Man's retelling the stories over and over all point to the allegorical nature of this story. It shows a partnership between reading and applying lessons learned to real life.
When Bastian is rewarded with the talisman, he uses the gift to save Fantastica from various enemies, but eventually gets tempted by the power it gives him and decides to become the Childlike Emperor. Even his good intentions at the beginning go bad. He tries to turn the Acharis that are ugly and sad into the Schlamoofs that are happy. He ends up stripping the Acharis of their dignity and ability to craft silver and turns them into clowns. The author is clear that there are no good dictators and as the story progresses, Bastian becomes even more stained by power listening to flattery of others with selfish motives and becoming self-centered and suspicious of those who care for him like Atreyu and the luckdragon, Falkor.
When Atreyu raises a rebel army and Bastian stabs him, Bastian realizes how corrupt he has become since landing in Fantastica. He is also losing his human memories from wishing too much. Bastian then attempts to find his way back to Earth and discovers other humans that have lost their way in the City of Old Emperors. None of them have human memories and flit about with no focus in life. The city's inhabitants demonstrate that fantasy as a pure escape is hazardous and unhealthy as opposed to fantasy that benefits humans in the real world. Bastian was given the talisman with the instructions of finding his truest wish, but he is just escaping from what he doesn't like about himself. He wishes to be all the things he isn't, handsome, courageous, benevolent, but his wishes show that he really does not love himself.
Even though almost all his memories are gone, Bastian decides how to best use his wishes. He must rely on the help of his friend, Atreyu and the luckdragon, surrendering all the power the empress gave him at the start of the story. By accepting himself for who he is, Bastian is free to be creative, believing he can become a writer. By loving himself, he can love others and is free from his misery. When he makes it back to his world, even though many years have passed in Fantastica, he has been gone only one night. His father is no longer neglectful and has snapped out of his grief noticing his son and trying to right the wrong of his past neglect. Bastian takes responsibility for stealing the book from the bookseller and goes back to tell him that he lost it. Just as he took responsibility for abusing the power of the talisman, he takes responsibility for his actions in the real world. He has changed from his quest in Fantastica and has found joy in learning to love himself. And even though the bullies are not talked about at the end, it is implied that Bastian has learned to be mentally strong and is better equipped to ignore his tormentors.
This is a brilliant work in many ways, but I found the second part as Bastian abuses his power slow in spots and his character not as interesting as Atreyu's in the first part. The allegory of fantasy as being a means of understanding reality is complex and challenging, but the author presents it quite well showing that crossing boundaries between reality and fantasy can help readers transform into better human beings if they glean some truth from the text. Actually, I am not particularly satisfied with my review but I have to stop and get back to running this madhouse library and getting ready to leave Taiwan. May. Oh May. For a more in-depth analysis there is an excellent review at http://www.stjohnkarp.net/the-neverending-story/. I must say The City of Old Emperors is very tempting to escape to at the moment. Can't you see Grandma Goose wandering its streets? I'd fit right in. Jiggety-jig.