philipp's blog

Michael Ende: When LLMs Love My Childhood Hero More Than I Do

philipp's blog

I grew up loving Michael Ende's books. The Neverending Story and Momo fueled my imagination like nothing else. The way he combined fantastical adventures with big questions about life and meaning always fascinated me. It felt like he was letting me in on some profound secret of the universe. However, in some aspects, his work didn’t quite age well, to put it mildly.

A Champion of Imagination

Ende had this incredible way of making complex ideas feel not only understandable but exciting – even to a kid like me. The Neverending Story was like my anthem for being a bookworm. It said that imagination wasn't just for escaping, it was a force for making things better. The Night of Wishes is a somewhat dark fantasy novel on the surface, and a pretty direct criticism of unfettered capitalism when read as an adult1.

Reading Through Time

But here's the thing: when I recently revisited Ende's work (by reading his books to my daughters), I realised that time changes things. Society has changed since he was writing, and certain parts of his books now feel...out of step. That doesn't erase all the wonderful elements, but it does make my view of those stories a lot more complicated. It's like seeing a favourite old painting and suddenly noticing the cracks in the canvas.

Take Jim Button, for instance. On the one hand, it’s a wonderful novel with a strong antifascist message: At one point, Jim and his friend Luke visit a city full of dragons, where only pure-breds are allowed in, and these pure-breds look all funny to weird to downright sick. Some of them don’t even have legs and need to roll around. On the other hand, it contains way too many racist stereotypes that Ende probably wasn’t even aware of2.

A Test for AI

With all this in mind, I decided to put some Large Language Models (LLMs) to the test. It occurred to me that Ende might just be the right candidate to test some AIs with. His work is generally progressive, but under the surface nuanced and sometimes contradicting. And his main work is in German, a language I am fluent in, whereas I assume LLMs have strong bias for English texts.

So I asked LLMs two questions:

  1. How are women depicted in Ende’s work?
  2. What about women in Jim Button?

The answer, of course, is that generally Ende dared to break gender archetypes of the time, think about the Childless Empress in Neverending Story, or Momo. The answer is also, though, that in some of his work, like Jim Button, Ende reduced the role of women to the barest minimum of clichés. Out of a total of 4 women in Jim Button, one is a child (the same age as Jim) who is always afraid and serves as a damsel in distress, one is a motherly figure who cooks all the time and one is a mean archetypical dragon who transforms into a wise, golden dragon (and is gendered as male after the transformation).

So in a nutshell: It’s complicated.

Here’s what the AIs were saying:

The obscure fact that the aforementioned dragon is not only gendered as male after the transformation, but even before (which is kind of justified, because the German word for Dragon “Der Drache”, is male) escaped all of them.

Where the AI and I disagree

Looks like LLMs have a bit of a better view on Ende than I do, which serves me as a lesson that especially for obscure or fringe topics, their results still need to be treated with caution, especially if they seem plausible.

  1. And a way to make fun of a renowned literary critic who disliked Ende’s work. He is part of this book as a tiny, ugly gnome who hates good books.

  2. Just look at the cover.

  3. Princess Li Si disrupts the main fight at the end at the worst possible time due to being afraid, tipping the odds in favour of the bad guys. At the end it all works out, but no thanks to her.

#AI #llm #personal