After the initial identification with Atreyu, Bastian becomes deeply invested in his story, entering his mirror stage. Bastian’s actions through the middle part of the movie are mimetic: he cries when Atreyu mourns the loss of his horse in the Swamps of Sadness, he screams when Atreyu is frightened by the appearance of Morla the Ancient One, he eats at the same moment that Atreyu breaks his march for lunch, and he taps into his own confidence to urge Atreyu on through a magical test of will. Bastian, in a sense, becomes the champion of Fantasia. At one point, when Atreyu looks into a magical mirror, he sees Bastian’s face – a clever inversion of the process by which Bastian looks into the “mirror” of the book and sees Atreyu. Mirror stage indeed!
It also becomes clearer through the progression of the journey what Bastian is fighting. The Nothing could be taken as the persistence of Bastian’s emptiness, his failure to find substitutions for his relationship with his mother which would allow him to become a part of the Symbolic. Bastian has a choice between being and nothingness, even as Fantasia does – he must become a “desiring being” (Coats, 21). The alternative is made clear by the only visible monster of the movie, the G’Mork, who identifies desires with the imagination and with hope. He claims that he helps the “force behind the Nothing” out of admiration for its philosophy: “ … people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has the control has the power!” If Bastian doesn’t choose his own place in the Symbolic, larger forces (a society, perhaps) will do so for him, and, as we have already seen with his tormentors, they’ll consult their convenience and pleasure more than his well being when they do so.
The book, by contrast, becomes Bastian’s “phallic mother”, inundating him with empowering language that casts and reshapes him as a hero in Atreyu’s mold. Through reading, Bastian’s mother’s loss becomes repressed in his Real, not gone but no longer obsessing him. Bastian is enabled to look beyond grief for substitutes to cover his ‘lack’ with meaningful mentoring relationships: with Atreyu, with Falkor the Luck Dragon, with the scientist gnomes Engyhook and Urgl, with the Southern Oracle, and eventually with the Childlike Empress herself. These fantastical beings instruct Bastian through Atreyu in where to go on the stages of his quest, how to get there, and how to behave when he arrives.
Fragment from "The Neverending Story: an epic of the mirror stage and the advent of subjectivity," by Michael K. Johnson.
Illustration by Chuck Groenink.
Image from the movie The Neverending Story.