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In The Neverending Story, AURYN, the medallion of the Childlike Empress, bears the following inscription (at least while Bastian is carrying it - it's never 100% confirmed that it had the same writing in the first half of the book when Atreyu had it):

DO WHAT YOU WISH.

The obvious interpretation of this is that it means "do whatever you want, man". But it could also be interpreted along the lines of "wishes become actions/reality": what you wish, you then do, thanks to the Golden-Eyed Commander of Wishes. I think I've also read somewhere about a third interpretation, which now I can't remember.

Unfortunately, I've only read a translated version of the story. Double meanings and other such nuances of language can very easily differ between one language and another, and are almost impossible to grasp in a given language without a close familiarity with that language. So, without being able to speak German myself, I pose the question here:

How can the inscription on AURYN be interpreted, in the original story?

Are both of the above interpretations valid for the German version of the inscription? Are there other possible interpretations which look less valid in English?

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    I wonder if The Neverending Story has any connections to Thelema. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.". – Steven Gubkin Apr 15 '18 at 14:31
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The German version reads Do what you want (Tu Was Du Willst). The ambiguity could exist in German as well with Tu Was Du Wünscht, albeit that would be a less common phrase and kids probably had trouble understanding it.

The quote that follows the inscription (chapter M, p.199 in my edition):

[...] Wichtig war allein, dass die Worte die Erlaubnis, nein, geradezu die Aufforderung ausdrückten, alles zu tun, wozu er Lust hatte.

Important was only that these words allowed, no, almost demanded him to do anything he felt like doing.

Sadly, this takes away the ambiguity. However, as the translator has changed the translation (wish instead of want), he made the deliberate choice to include the second interpretation you are referring to, and I personally find that interpretation compelling storyline, it’s just a bummer that Ende didn’t include the ambiguity on a word level.

But as the focus of the second half of the Never-Ending Story lies on the issue of becoming a world dominator being able to do whatever one wishes, I wouldn’t say that Ende neglected or refuted the interpretation. He simply overlooked the possibility [citation needed]. That’s my interpretation, though.

  • 1
    "Sadly, this takes away the ambiguity." - well, Bastian's initial interpretation of the inscription isn't necessarily the only valid one. In fact, I'm sure there's a conversation between Bastian and Atreyu at some point where they discuss different possible meanings (including the 3rd interpretation which I couldn't remember but mentioned in the OP), but I can't find it now. – Rand al'Thor Apr 15 '18 at 12:30
  • But you're saying that the phrase Tu Was Du Willst couldn't be interpreted along the lines of "your wishes become reality"? Which German word is used to describe the "wishes" that Bastian makes throughout the second half of the story - is it Willst or Wunscht or something else? Agreed, it is a bummer if Ende missed this opportunity for ambiguity and wordplay fitting the themes of the story. – Rand al'Thor Apr 15 '18 at 12:30
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    wünschen means wish, and willst is only want and nothing more. The Wishes are Wünsche. – Narusan Apr 15 '18 at 13:10
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TL; DR: There is an ambiguity, intended by the author, between "do what you wish" and "find your true will" which is important for the development of the main character Bastian.

Long answer:

To answer the question we can look at what the author himself said or wrote about it. The following comment is from a typescript from his literary estate. I quote it according to the German Wikipedia (emphasis mine).

When The Neverending Story was to be filmed, Michael Ende disagreed with director Wolfgang Peterson who wanted to change the inscription in the film to "do what you dream".

"Do what you dream!" Diese Inschrift ist nun wirklich das Gegenteil dessen, was die Botschaft meines Buches meint. Petersen glaubt, dass mein Englisch vielleicht nicht ausreiche, um zu erkennen, dass es sich dabei um die richtige sinngemäße Übersetzung von "Tu, was du willst!" handele. Er vergisst dabei nur – obgleich ich es ihm gesagt habe –, dass der Satz ursprünglich aus dem Englischen stammt, und zwar von dem Schriftsteller Aleister Crowley (gestorben 1947), und dort heißt: "Do what thou wilt" (feierliches Kirchenenglisch). Das "Do what you dream!" ist Petersens Interpretation, und zwar die falsche. Es ist genau der Irrtum, dem auch Bastian unterliegt und um dessentwillen er aus Phantásien nicht mehr zurückfindet. Auch er meint zunächst, es ginge darum, zu tun, was man wünscht, ersehnt, gern möchte. [...] Seinen "Wahren Willen" finden, heißt ganz und gar nicht, zu tun, was man möchte. Diese Formel "Tu, was du willst!" geht über Rabelais bis zum Heiligen Augustin zurück. In Phantásien kann man seinen "Wahren Willen" auch nicht tun, man kann ihn dort nur finden. Eben deshalb führt er einen in die Menschenwelt zurück.

Translation (apologies for my English):

"Do what you dream!" This inscription is really the opposite of what the message of my book means. Petersen believes that my English may not be enough to realize that this is the appropriate translation of "Tu, was du willst!". He only forgets – although I told him – that the sentence originally comes from English, from the writer Aleister Crowley (died 1947), and there it says: "Do what thou wilt" (solemn church English). The "Do what you dream!" is Petersen's interpretation, and it’s the wrong one. It is precisely this error that Bastian also makes and that is why he cannot find his way back from Phantásia. He also thinks at first that it’s about doing what he wishes, longs for, wants to do. [...] Finding one's "True Will" does not at all mean doing what one wants. This formula "Do what you want" goes back via Rabelais to Saint Augustine. In Phantásia you can't do your True Will either, you can only find it there. That's why it leads you back to the human world.

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