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Cornelia Funke: 'Inkheart'

Sabine Peschel ss
October 9, 2018

"Inkheart" propelled Cornelia Funke to global success, making her one of the best-selling German authors of all time. Her incredible world of imagination actually takes place in books.

"Tintenherz" - Dreharbeiten
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In 1979, the German children's book writer Michael Ende decided to take a journey into imagery realms in his writing: His epic book, The Neverending Story, takes place in a magical world full of adventure that appealed not only to children. Many adults also fell in love with the powerful story. And those who were fortunate enough to experience The Neverending Story during their childhood are still fans today.

But those children have long grown up and have children of their own now. And their generation has their own author who explores universes of the imagination: Cornelia Funke. There's hardly a child today who hasn't read Funke's work or has at least listened to audio books or watched film adaptations of her books.

Funke had already written a number of books in the 1990s, including the popular Wild Chicks series. But Inkheart changed everything and established her as one of the world's foremost authors of fantasy literature for young people.

'Inkheart' by Cornelia Funke

Breakthrough moment

Published in both German and English in 2003, Inkheart was immediately so successful that Funke decided to turn it into a trilogy. Two years later, she published Inkspell and another two years on, Inkdeath.

Much like many other fantasy novels, Cornelia Funke's books also highlight the stark contrasts between the real world in fiction and the world of the imagination. These two fictive realms, however, relate to each as if they were linked through a keyhole. That keyhole, it turns out, are books themselves.

"Perhaps there's another much larger story behind the printed one, a story that changes just as our own world does. And the letters on the page tell us only as much as we'd see peering through a keyhole. Perhaps the story in the book is just the lid on a pan: It always stays the same, but underneath there's a whole world that goes on — developing and changing like our own world."

Cornelia Funke
Cornelia Funke's books are celebrated around the worldImage: picture-alliance/Eventpress Hoensch

Funke proves herself to be a talented disciple of Michael Ende, who had also used the physical books as his connection between the imaginary and real worlds in his books.

If words could kill…

At the heart of Funke's story is Mortimer, known as Mo, a bookbinder with a rare gift: Mo is able to bring to life the characters he reads about in books. However, this gift turns out to be somewhat of a curse; Mo has unwittingly brought some sinister characters to life — such as the villain Capricorn.

Inkheart Cornelia Funke
Funke is a trained illustrator and provides drawings for her own booksImage: Dressler Verlag/Cornelia Funke

Inkheart is a book within a book — in this case, it's the novel from which Capricorn was liberated. Capricorn leads a gang of arsonists and blackmailers, whose main aim is to get a hold of every copy of Inkheart in the world —  at all cost — and destroy them. Mo and his 12-year-old daughter Meggie are on the run, trying to escape Capricorn's sphere of influence. They find refuge at the home of Meggie's aunt, a bookworm named Elinor.

One of Capricorn's associates, Dustfinger, lures Mo, Meggie and Elinor to come to a village in northern Italy, where Capricorn and his gang reside. Dustfinger has his own reasons: He wants Mo to help him find a way back into Inkheart; the real world is too painful for him to take.

Mo, Meggie and Elinor are incarcerated upon arrival — and an adventure story full of secrets and mysteries takes off. 

At this point, Meggie realizes she has inherited the same gift from her father and could literally kill someone with words, invocating monsters and demons as she pleases.

Meanwhile, Fenoglio, the author of the book from which Meggie is supposed to read aloud, has rewritten the story. Capricorn and his crew die; the other three are freed.

Diving in and out of books

Inkheart is a book whose essence is about the magic of reading. Books have the ability to create their own worlds — worlds which readers love to get lost in. This novel, however, turns that concept on its head; rather than readers diving into their favorite books, the characters in Inkheart jump out into the real world. It's a dream-come-true kind of scenario for many literature enthusiasts.

Film Tintenherz
Inkheart was adapted as movie in 2008Image: Imago/Zuma Press

But these imaginary worlds that books create in our minds often start off as necessary escapes in the first place; many authors who have felt "lost," particularly those living in exile, have turned to their writing to fashion realms of imagination in which they could find their place, their home, their redemption.

In Funke's novel, Dustfinger's journey mirrors some of these tragic aspects behind the origin of such fanciful dream worlds.

"Her home too had consisted of paper and printer's ink. She probably felt as lost as he did in the real world."

Inkheart and big heart

There's no shortage of imagination in Cornelia Funke and her work. However, her way of bringing that imagination to life is not only incredibly unique, but also resonates well with her young audience. They can easily relate to Meggie, who has to negotiate a path between reality and imagination — while also experiencing love for the first time. All this happens at the height of puberty. Meggie's journey explores the kinds of fears that many young people experience. No wonder Inkheart and its two sequels are such global bestsellers.

Kombobild Coverentwurf Tintenherz
Inkheart has been translated in 37 languagesImage: Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke has written almost 50 books, which have been translated into 37 languages, selling more than 26 million copies worldwide. In 2005, Time Magazine even included Funke in their annual list of the top 100 influential people in the world.

Funke has often been called Germany's J.K. Rowling — also due to their shared commitment to social issues, from animal rights to women's empowerment. But of course the commonality of their literature is evident: They are huge celebrations of the imagination and of magical worlds.


Cornelia Funke: Inkheart, Chicken House (German title: Tintenherz, 2003). English translation: Anthea Bell.

Cornelia Funke was born in Dorste, Germany in 1953. She studied education in Hamburg but later shifted her academic focus to mastering illustration and drawing. Funke provides her own drawings for her children's books, many of which were written in the 1990s. In 2003, Funke celebrated global success with the launch of the Inkheart trilogy. In 2005, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband and two children. Her husband died shortly thereafter. Outside her work, Cornelia Funke is actively involved in a series of social causes and is currently planning to write another book for the Inkheart series.