OBITUARY:Michael Ende

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The Independent Online
Michael Ende was one of the few 20th-century authors able to satisfy vast child and adult audiences alike with rich works of fantasy.

Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and more latterly Ursula le Guin, he was adept at inventing imaginary worlds in which protracted battles between good and evil always seem more vividly clear-cut and engrossing than most things experienced in human reality. Yet when still a child himself, Ende knew about evil at first hand. As an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth at the age of 15, he lost three of his friends on their first day of active soldiering. Ende himself, the son of a Surrealist artist forbidden by the Nazis from working, destroyed his own draft and so avoided involvement in any fighting.

Born in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the German Alps, Ende trained for the theatre before turning to writing. His first literary success was published in 1960, translated into English as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver. This describes the imaginary country of Lummerland from which Jim and Luke depart on their train for various adventures. It won the Jugendbuchpreis for adolescent literature in Germany, and was later televised.

Ende's greatest triumph was to come in 1979 with The Neverending Story. Translated into 30 languages and selling over 16 million copies, it starts when 10-year-old Bastian, overweight and undervalued, decides he will read a fantastic book rather than endure another day's bullying at school. He is attracted by the book's title, The Neverending Story, since for him fiction has always been preferable to life. A story that promises never to end is his ideal option.

But strange things happen as his reading progresses. When he utters a cry of alarm the characters in the story seem to hear it. Later he reads about someone who exactly resembles him. Finally he enters fully into the story as a principal character. Things are going badly in the land of Fantasia where he now finds himself, yet he and his gallant new friends still manage to come out on top. Returning to the real world, Bastian quickly makes things up with his depressed father. The book ends in an orgy of optimistic self- assertion. This note was faithfully reflected in the three spectacular film versions of the story made since, all peopled with exotic monsters and mystical creatures: the first appeared in 1984; the sequel in 1990; and the most recent version was released earlier this year.

Ende's vision of a community threatened by overwhelming destructive forces struck a powerful chord with the German Green movement. Those who believed he was really describing the nuclear menace sometimes went to sit at his feet, or at least camp in the grounds of the Italian villa he had moved into in the 1960s. Other readers both young and old simply indulged themselves in his artful piece of ultimate wish- fulfilment, still selling well today and top of the German best-seller list for a record-breaking three years.

Several plays followed and a number of essays, but nothing Ende wrote was as successful again. Returning to Munich in the late 1980s after the death of his first wife, he married Marika Sato, his Japanese translator. At a time when other German writers were playing different, often more pessimistic, tunes, his mixture of Gothic fantasy and ultimate confidence proved a popular counter-attraction.

Even though he had no children himself, he had an excellent understanding of what young readers like. In return, they were happy to read his most famous book from cover to cover - just under 400 pages - in complete contradiction to those who feared that attention spans in the young were declining through too much exposure to television.

Nicholas Tucker

Michael Andreas Helmuth Ende, writer: born Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany 12 November 1929; married 1964 Ingeborg Hoffman (died 1985), 1989 Marika Sato; died Stuttgart 28 August 1995.