WHEN: 11:15am EST, March 9th, 2013
WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just had a nice lunch. I can feel the sleepiness coming on and there’s no coffee in sight.
If you’ve never seen The NeverEnding Story, it is imperative that you at least watch the scene with Morla. Just fast forward to 38:16. If you have watched The NeverEnding Story, it is imperative that you watch the scene with Morla, located at 38:16 on your handy-dandy copy of the film, because you can’t have too much Morla in your life.
She’s a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day.
Morla, the Ancient One, is “the wisest being in Fantasia,” who may hold an essential piece of information for Atreyu. Atreyu braves the Swamps of Sadness and loses his horse Artax to its deadly waters in order to find Morla. Atreyu manages to find Shell Mountain, where it’s rumored Morla lives. To Atreyu’s surprise (and Bastian’s horror), Morla appears as a gigantic turtle. Which is perfect. In religious and mythic traditions, the turtle represents longevity, meditation, strength, and often plays a role in the primordial creation of the earth. There is the Chinese Ao who carries the world on its back, the Japanese believe a turtle supports the world mountain, and Kurma is a gigantic turtle incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
As a child, Morla was hilarious because she was slow and sneezed a lot. Now, Morla is hilarious because she’s varying levels existential nihilist, demented senior citizen, and ascetic hermit all rolled into one cantankerous turtle. Morla doesn’t care about anything, not even who she is. Atreyu asks the giant turtle if she’s Morla and the plodding response is, “Not that it matters, but yes.” Very little matters to Morla and she insists on repeating that fact over and over. The Childlike Empress doesn’t matter, the Nothing doesn’t matter, and death doesn’t matter. Morla’s attitude is epitomized when she tells Atreyu, “We don’t even care whether or not we care.” Atreyu is left very frustrated since he’s been tasked to save an entire world and a giant turtle won’t give him a little help. Atreyu resorts to trickery and turns Morla’s uncaring ways against her, telling her, “If it didn’t really matter, then you’d tell me.” Morla finds this hilarious and sends the consternated Atreyu to the Southern Oracle.
Morla is overcome with merriment.
Morla is also your great-aunt Gertrude left alone at the old folks home whose only friend is the plastic ficus in the lobby. It’s a sad predicament, but Gertrude never had any children of her own and any details of her life are stories nobody would tell you as a kid. When you finally visit out of a sense of guilt (and a secret hope that you might get her money in the will), the conversation always veers sharply into the bizarre world that only depression and senility can produce. And that’s Morla. Morla speaks in the third person plural the entire time Atreyu’s trying to get information out of her. Atreyu, rightfully confused, asks, “We? Is there someone else here, too?” Morla’s bland response is, “We haven’t spoken to anyone else for thousands of years, so, we started talking to ourselves.” Morla is surrounded by the Swamps of Sadness, so she doesn’t get many visitors, resulting in her deciding that the best conversationalist around was herself. Understandable. But instead of being excited that another being has come to talk to her, she maintains her senility and yells at Atreyu to go away.
Cinemanaut John and I can discuss if reptiles sneezing on children is an effective defense mechanism.
I like to think that Morla purposely chose to live in the Swamps of Sadness. She’s really an ascetic on the path to wisdom and enlightenment. In several religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, there are certain members or sects who forgo all human pleasures in the search for oneness with the world/god/nature. Even the Medicine Men of the American Indians or the Australian Aborigines removed themselves from society in order to better communicate with the spirit world. Morla lives in the one place that should kill her if she was truly depressed or didn’t care about anything. The Swamps of Sadness should have pulled her under it’s waters, but she has survived for a long time. Morla is actually content living alone and away from others. As the wisest being in Fantasia, she requires solitude and has sacrificed society to remain a beacon of wisdom. When Atreyu threatens that Morla will die too if she doesn’t help stop the Nothing, she retorts, “Die? That, at least, would be something.” Morla is seeking the next great adventure in death. She does not fear the inevitable and, like the Buddhists and Hindus, appears to be on her way to reaching the state of nirvana.
Morla appears for only a few minutes in The NeverEnding Story, but she serves the dual role of comic relief after Artax’s death and as a dispenser of wisdom to aid Atreyu on his quest. Children will find Morla enjoyable because of her slapstick sneezing fits and ponderous speaking style. Adults will find her jaded outlook refreshing. Usually, helpful characters in fantasies have a positive outlook on the future and the success of the quest, but not Morla. She has her own agenda and plans. She’s probably been accosted many times by heroes saving the day. Atreyu is just another hero saving Fantasia. Again. Morla helps keep The NeverEnding Story from straying too far from its darker atmosphere. Her attitude leaves Atreyu exasperated, but she serves her purpose in the grand scheme of the quest.
“Damned heroes. Get out of my swamp!”
While writing the above article, I consulted The Complete Encyclopedia of Signs & Symbols by Mark O’Connell and Raje Airey, Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder, and Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann. Biedermann actually takes time to mention the author of The Neverending Story: “The turtle plays such a role, for example, in the highly symbolic novel Momo by Michael Ende.” Those Germans, always sticking together.