Atreyu with a thousand faces

Until relatively recently, literary history has trended towards the fantastic. These were fairy stories, dealing with supernatural beings, forces of nature, and the oft-hapless humans who interact with each. Along with this tradition of magical circumstances came the popularity of human protagonists, fishes-out-of-water “with a thousand faces” upon whom readers might map their own experiences, questions, and significance. Even as the commonness of “fairy tales” in popular literature seemed to wane, this monomythic hero persisted and was adapted to explore entirely new fantastic realms. In The Neverending Story, the dichotomy of reader and hero is complicated by a third layer, a metafictional fantasy world that becomes indistinguishable, and perhaps one with, everyday reality. However, just like in blockbuster special-effects spectacles like Star Wars and the simple fables upon whom its mythic structure was based, Bastian in The Neverending Story functions as a “hero with a thousand faces” to become relatable and familiar to readers treading water in an impossible fantasy realm.

While heroes like those found in modern film trilogies were more commonly found in Greek and Roman epic poems, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm featured their fair share of human protagonists cast unsuspectingly into unfamiliar territories, like Hansel and Gretel combating cannibalistic forest-dwellers and Little Red Riding Hood fending off preying anthropomorphized wolves. Additionally, heroes such as Knight Huldbrand in Fouqué’s Undine and Anselmus in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Golden Pot, two ordinary humans who stumble one way or another into the domain of the magical, enrich this literary trope. It’s a tested and proven strategy for engrossing readers into your story and helping gently introduce headier or less realistic concepts, characters or events—working effectively in everything from the aforementioned tales to modern equivalents, such as the Harry Potter series with its raised-by-muggles titular hero, or the innocent hobbits from the remote Shire in The Lord of the Rings.

In both the film and novel incarnations of The Neverending Story, a mirror duo of such characters is seen. Both Atreyu, the plains-dwelling preteen “warrior” upon whom the fate of an empire is placed, and Bastian, the misfit human child who is engrossed in—and ultimately becomes a participant in—Atreyu’s quest, are prime examples of the sort of ignoramus young protagonists who stand to make readers more comfortable. These metafictional elements don’t change the function of Atreyu one iota, and his relationship with Bastian is actually a literal version of the sort of familiarity authors aim to project with their characters.

In classics like Homer’s The Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid, and even in more modern works like those found in the German fairy tale tradition, readers (or, in a contemporary sense, listeners) of the story were able to identify with the heroes’ struggles and thereby better navigate the often-fantastic events in the tale. This was a narrative technique that was aimed at immersing readers more fully into the texts at hand, and is a popular methodology even in our era of technologically constructed summer blockbusters. In The Neverending Story, Bastian’s participation in the once-fictional Fantastica is a direct manifestation of this sort of theme—through his identification with the characters in the story he reads, specifically Atreyu, he becomes a character in the world he invested so much of himself in.

This was an immersive practice which was, like so many other narrative structures and story arcs, in large part pioneered by the oral traditions of fairy stories which were commonplace and familiar by late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century in Europe, exactly the setting for the Grimms’ scholarship and collection. Many of the components which made these and imitating tales so successful, accessible, and memorable—the easily-identifiable protagonist who serves to introduce readers to the setting and themes, the struggle against evil in search of a boon—were first made available in early mythic tradition. And because these techniques proved so effective at driving home the morals of stories with readers, they survived with common usage even until today—enabling us to draw parallels between Huldbrand’s confusion at the supernatural water nymph Undine and Luke Skywalker’s awe at sight of the Death Star. Take it from Huldbrand: it’s no moon, it’s a space station.