The Truth About ‘The NeverEnding Story’

Remember this?

Nostalgia needs no introduction, nor will I waste much time discussing it. Suffice to say, I just watched The NeverEnding Story (and yes, that’s the proper capitalization) and came to some funny conclusions that I’d never before noticed when watching the movie as a precocious child. My wife had never seen it before, and was mostly amused by the awful special effects and arbitrary narrative. Significantly, she thought Falcor (“the Luck Dragon”, let’s not forget) was mildly creepy.

As a quick recap of the movie’s overarching concept, the land of Fantasia is a place created in the dreams of humanity. When people cease to dream, Fantasia thus ceases to exist. The main character of the movie, Bastian, is a much picked-on child who seems to spend his days reading books and running from ruthless bullies. When attempting to escape from them one day, he enters an old, musty bookshop from which he absconds with a copy of The NeverEnding Story, a book which the shop-keep ambiguously warns him is “not safe”.

Thanks to a strange and arbitrary plot construction, which provides Bastian with a creepy attic atop his otherwise-normal public school in which to read, he spends the next two days cooped up, immersing himself in the tale.

Falcor, the aforementioned Luck Dragon, who appears randomly and with no explanation as to motive…

Reading the old volume, he follows the travels and travails of Atreyu, a brave and yet curiously young “warrior of the plains”. A horse dies, a weird dog-faced Luck Dragon appears, the world is destroyed, and in the movie’s strangest twist, the Empress of Fantasia reaches out to Bastian, breaking what for him would be the Fourth Wall, asking for his help. I didn’t even realize as a child that the Empress goes so far as to implicate the movie audience in the fiction as well, referencing people who are watching Bastian read, ostensibly breaking through some heretofore unknown fifth wall. Which is just, like, meta.

This ‘wall-breaking scene’ is preceded by the most significant scene in the movie, in which Atreyu stumbles across a ruin. Emblazoned on the walls are images, which paint every step of the journey he has taken throughout the film. Watching him look over the images in confusion, I started to wonder if maybe the movie was trying to make some sort of statement in regards Free Will and Determinism. As far as we can tell, this ruin is ancient and these pictures have existed here for thousands of years, which is how long the ancient turtle he visits earlier in the film has been alive. If this is true, Atreyu has been nothing more than a pawn in a grand cycle through which the world of Fantasia endlessly creates and destroys itself. This would mean that the plot of The NeverEnding Story is almost identical in concept to that of the Matrix trilogy, oddly enough.

Allow me to elaborate further.

Back to the ‘wall-breaking scene’ with the Empress. In this climactic sequence, Atreyu learns that he has been used. The Empress informs him that he has suffered through a torturous quest so as to capture the attention of “the earthling child”; in this particular cycle of Fantasia’s destruction/re-construction, the earthling child is Bastian. Atreyu is furious with the Empress for having used him, describing the numerous tragedies that have befallen him (most memorably the drowning of his horse, Artax).

Up to this point, the film has been very clearly in league with Determinism. No one involved has had much choice in the matter. Everyone has been used, the Empress acting as some sort of mercurial ‘Director’, staging the destruction and subsequent re-construction of her beloved world, a world in which she apparently has control and power; by extension, a world in which she would have a vested interest in maintaining power. The dark forces trying to destroy Fantasia claim that they are attempting to gain control, presumably away from the Empress. They clearly state, “Those who have control have power.” As far as I can see, the only force of power and control in the whole story is the Empress, who as far as we can tell is just as twisted and domineering as anything or anyone else. Even if her motives place her in the camp of realistic pragmatism – like the Architect from the Matrix films – she is nonetheless the founder of the system of control which she openly claims to be fighting against.

The Architect from the Matrix films. Are he and the Empress one and the same?

Viewed through the lens of Determinism versus Free Will, even the film’s best-remembered element – Falcor the Luck Dragon – is utilized in a strange fashion, appearing as he does at the exact instant in which Atreyu is about to fail in his quest. Was he sent by the Empress, knowing as she does everything that has or will happen in Atreyu’s journey?

The Empress calls out to Bastian, asking for his help. By responding to her calls in this scene, Bastian seems to be acting out of Free Will, but what he’s really doing is playing into the Empress’ grand plans. She has already set up a role for him, and he is now acting it perfectly. He calls out to her from his reading space.

Suddenly, Bastian appears in a scene with the Empress; he has been transported into the world of Fantasia. She grants him a glowing grain of sand, explaining that this sand grants infinite wishes, wishes with which he can re-create Fantasia as he sees fit. In a sense, the film is now arguing in favour of Free Will. After all, while Bastian may have been a pawn of the Empress up to this point, she is basically handing him the opportunity to do whatever he wishes. Significantly, she tells him that he can re-create Fantasia “…exactly as it was before.” She’s ensuring that in the one place where she doesn’t technically have any power, she can still hold on to her deep-seated control.

With the magical infinite-wish sand in his palm, Bastian is being offered the opportunity to recreate the world with boundless scale and creativity. The possibilities open to him are quite literally endless.

Instead, he decides to simply recreate the world of Fantasia exactly as it was before, just as the Empress subtly suggested. The dead characters return, the land is restored. Presumably, significantly, the Empress is back in power. Weren’t we supposed to be making an argument in favour of Free Will right here? Is the world of Fantasia bound to suffer the same destructive cycle endlessly and for all time, with a brave new warrior chosen to suffer for all the denizens of Fantasia, and a real-world “earthling child” brought in for the sake of ensuring that the world remains identical every single time it’s re-made? Will the Empress always make sure to suggest that the earthling child remake the world “…exactly as it was before”?


The stated theme of the film is that we can only succeed if we believe in and follow our dreams. The implied and true theme, however, is that no matter what we do, we’ll all be pawns, bound to deterministic ends. Our collective dreams be damned.


I’ll only briefly mention the sad and strange climactic scene when Bastian rides Falcor – he of Luck Dragon fame – back into the real world, using his massive size to scare the bullies that picked on him earlier in the film. Naturally, this entire sequence is to be read as a dream, an imaginary construction that Bastian creates in his mind. What I find so strange about this whole thing is that instead of providing instructive and supportive strategies for coping with bullying, the movie seems to think that dreaming about chasing them on a dragon is a suitable tactic. The simple truth is, Bastian’s gonna walk out of that public school attic a few minutes later and get clobbered yet again for his lunch money, and no amount of dreaming can save him from that.

Not the most practical method to stop future bullying…

What this whole thing says about Bastians introverted and anti-social behavior throughout the film is overwhelmingly sad and speaks ill of his future ability to cope with others.

Then again, maybe I should just let the nostalgia wash over me…


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10 Responses to The Truth About ‘The NeverEnding Story’

  1. B0TT0M36 says:

    Great article!! I haven’t watched The NeverEnding Story since I was a kid, and I can’t believe how spot on you are; great observations, and an even better analysis….

    ….I say, let the nostalgia wash over you….all I know, is that this one movie does beat The Matrix Trilogy by and by….

  2. Will Jayroe says:

    I know this article is old but I found it fascinating. I remember discovering this film around 1989 or 1990 when we first got the Disney Channel on cable. They ran this film all the time and I loved it. I remember riding my bike down the street pretending I was on a flying dragon of my own.

    Anyway, by the time I got to high school this film had taken on a life of its own. I remember my senior year, there was a quasi-club devoted to screening and discussing 80s fantasy films (or sword and sorcery)…we ran the gamut from Krull to Willow to Mazes and Monsters to the Flight of Dragons cartoon.

    The NeverEnding Story screening drew the biggest crowd of any film…if I recall our tickets for that screening and discussion (we didn’t sell tickets but people were issued tickets at the door, we tore them in half so we could have an accurate count) was somewhere north of 150 people which was massive. I think our next biggest crowd was for Labyrinth and maybe 35 people showed up for that.

    Anyway, things got interesting after the movie because that was when the question and answer and then vaguely moderated discussion happened. We really weren’t prepared as our faculty sponsor couldn’t or didn’t want to make it that night and so us students were trying to corral 150+ of our peers into a somewhat controlled chaos.

    We had a very large pro-drug or on-drug segment of the crowd that night and I do believe some of them were on the way down after the film based on the discussion that was had. Something that still sticks with me to this day was a question someone had about a line from G’mork (the werewolf hunting Atreyu)…G’mork basically says that he is a servant of the power behind the nothing…and the audience member wondered who that power was.

    We had a kid that was pretty knowledgeable about Michael Ende as an author, Wolfgang Peterson as a director, and the tone and mood of the book and the circumstances under which it was written…he told us that this film only covers a rough one third of the book and that in the book, after Sebastian recreates Fantasia, he begins to lose his memory, the catch to the grain of sand is that it trades one earth-bound memory for every wish the holder makes.

    At some point toward the end of the book, Bastian wishes to become the Childlike Empress…and she flatly rebukes him telling him that it is impossible. All of this just adds credence to your theory that she is this nasty dictator wearing a mask of benevolence, child-likeness and innocence, none of which is real.

    It makes me believe that the Childlike Empress sent G’mork so that she could play her grand chess game against herself for her own amusement. If this is the case I wouldn’t be surprised that the Childlike Empress was not only Fantasia’s savior but also the Power Behind the Nothing that G’mork hinted at thus creating the false need for a savior.

    Your mentioning of the cyclical nature of Fantasia (known as Fantastica in the book) is also very eye opening and adds a dimension to the determinism vs free will debate. These creatures, landscapes, characters…who knows how many times they’ve had to experience these same circumstances and threats and yet have no memory of it as they are not the same individual each time but rather a carbon copy that has its own (albeit identical) experience each and every time. Not so much a reincarnation but a thousand copies sent out only to experience one way of being.

    It really makes the childlike Empress a frightening character. I think there’s a definite reason why she is known as childlike but is not referred to as a child…

    • Someguy81 says:

      Damn, that makes the whole thing very sad but the implications of it all show us that one thing makes us who we are. What we remember, who we care about and that our imaginations have more impact on what we do in reality than anything reality can ever provide to those in our life. Just like Neo said, “I’m going to show them a world without you…” We don’t need an empress, we can fly (with planes), we can create life (GMO’s [poor excuse]), and now we are on the verge of some super human stuff and where did it start; of course, in reality, but it was in our WILL and DETERMINSM to defy the boundaries we thought once unbreakable that have allowed us to breach that 4th, and that 5th wall. As I said, it makes it sad, but only for Bastian because what the empress really wanted was his imagination and she got it (according to the book). But for us… can you remember building bridges over vast rivers of water, putting out fires, catching bad guys, bringing justice to those who deserved it… all those thing are jobs now but it all started with imagination. What do you imagine now? A better job? A better economy? A better wife/husband? Its sad to see what ridiculous things we imagine for ourselves now so dream bigger, hope bigger and imagine bigger than Bastian? Maybe that was the point of the books?

  3. Sara says:

    This is difficult for me to read because I’ve read the books. In the books, the empress does not use any powers on her subjects. They specifically say they obey her because they know she won’t make them. Fantasia is also said to exist because she exists. In her mind there is no good or bad, right or wrong. All her subjects are precious in her sight. I think that’s why she’s referred to as childlike. Because she sees no differences between them. In the book, the luck dragon doesn’t show up just as he’s about to drown. Instead, he’s rescued by Atreyu from a gigantic spider. Another difference is that in the book Atreyu isn’t allowed to have anyone weapons. I think another statement of the book is pacificism. Also, in the book, she let’s Bastian take over Fantasia (Fantastica in the book) and he does create new things.

  4. Karl says:

    You left out the most important point, that the Empress broke the 4th wall with the viewing audience itself…with us! Still gives me chills.

    The Childlike Empress: It was the only way to get in touch with an earthling.
    Atreyu: But I didn’t get in touch with an earthling!
    The Childlike Empress: Yes, you did. He 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.
    Bastian: What?!
    Atreyu: Where is he? If he’s so close, why doesn’t he appear?
    The Childlike Empress: He doesn’t realize he’s already a part of The NeverEnding Story.
    Atreyu: “The NeverEnding Story”? What’s that?
    The Childlike Empress: Just as he is sharing all your adventures, others are sharing his. They were with him when he hid from the boys in the bookstore.
    Bastian: But that’s impossible!
    The Childlike Empress: They were with him when he took the book with the Auryn symbol on the cover, in which he’s reading his own story, right now.

  5. Michael Wegner says:

    I couldn’t read this without having to say a word or two on it! Also spoilers from the novel below, which if you don’t want anything spoiled, please don’t read!

    I think you made some very interesting conclusions, but they felt to me to come from more of a pessimistic view of the movie. But I might be biased because I love it, and I absolutely love the novel it was based on. The two are very different, and deliver the message differently! Of course, in the book, there are written statements that are left as implied facts in the movie, that unless you don’t know it, won’t know it.

    I’ll start with your interpretation of the world of Fantasia(Fantastica as in the novel.) Fantasia is a world filled with creatures from human dreams, and imagination. Fantasia doesn’t exist without humans. The Nothing started to appear when more and more humans stopped dreaming, stopped imagining. In the book, instead of being a storm, it was literally just random spots of the world not existing anymore, and being replaced with nothing. It was often said to make someone feel blind looking into it. Anyways, back to the point. It was not the empresses doing. She also needs human imagination to exist. That’s why she needed Bastian to give her a new name. She needed him to believe in her and Fantasia before it was lost forever. In the book, the implications of that event were much more grave and explained in detail.

    And if you know of the novel, you’ll know the first two movies in the series technically make up the first and second half of the book, though in reality they tell different stories. In the book, it is stated that the humans need Fantastica as much as it needs them. They need to imagine and believe in order to enrich our world. And it’s a very vicious cycle, because as The Nothing grows, it draws in the residents of Fantastica into it. As soon as they are consumed by it, they enter the human world! But not as anything good. They aren’t reborn or remain themselves. Instead, they become lies that infect our world and make it worse. And the more lies, the more people stop believing… I’m sure you can read where I am going with this.

    And as for the whole restoring Fantasia to exactly what it was before, it can’t be helped. In the book, he created Perilin the Night Forest, and he also created Goab the desert of colors. However, in creating them, they have always existed as well. Once something is in Fantastica, it has always been there. So he can’t help that the rest of it was restored as well. There is nothing he can do to avoid it.

    I have to agree with that last paragraph, though. It was a very weird way to end the movie. I consider you to give the novel a read, hopefully you’ll enjoy it better!

  6. I think the film was perfect and really smart and has a lot of points that we can relate to! is not a superficial movie! and Bastian was really living the Neverending Story! so yes! he scared those stupid kids away with Falcor and brought back the best things in fantasia! and Falcor also represents his will to be brave and go till the end!

  7. Adri says:

    its 3am and i seem to have been researching theories on the neverending story and id like to point out something i noticed: the auryn is essentially a very detailed ourobourus; which, in greek mythology, symbolizes the cycle of life, death and rebirth – the cycle that fantasia seems to be stuck in for eternity. in the beginning of the movie, when the tall bearded man who seems to be assisting the empress gives atreyu the auryn he tells him that it speaks for the empress and that he must let it guide him, insinuating that the empress may be controlling atreyu’s journey through the auryn.

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