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Childhood's End

Arthur C. Clarke

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Discuss irony in Childhood's End.

Childhood's End is possibly one of the most blatantly ironic novels of science fiction. The story began with an ironic conceit. The original short story, which was later expanded into Childhood's End, was called "Guardian Angel." The plot of "Guardian Angel" concludes when Karellen reveals himself to the world—and turns out to look exactly like the Devil. The title of the story makes the joke obvious: Clarke thought it would be neat to write a story in which an alien race comes down and helps humans achieve new levels of prosperity and happiness, but it turns out to look exactly like the Devil. In the original short story, that's the end of the joke, except for a small hint that the Overlords fear something "thousands of years in the future"—which may be reference to Armageddon. It seems quite possible that Clarke wrote "Guardian Angel" with nothing more in his mind than to create an amusing, ironic parable based on Christian apocalyptic prophecies and devil- related folklore.

However, when Clarke decided to expand the story into Childhood's End, he chose to extend the Christian metaphor by introducing new allegorical elements such as the Overmind—a kind of "God"—as well as the idea that the Overlords can never achieve the Overmind conversion. This is the second great irony of the book: for all their vast intellectual and technological superiority to humans, the Overlords ultimately envy them, for humans can make an important evolutionary step that is forever closed off to the Overlords.

Identify the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) of Childhood's End, if any. Explain your answer.

While Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most important science fiction authors of the twentieth century, his skill at writing—particularly in his early novels—is often rather flawed. The flaws are quite common with much science fiction, since science fiction is primarily concerned with ideas, not with stories (though, again, this was more true in the 1950s, when Childhood's End was written, than it is today).

As a result, the characters and plot of Childhood's End are not perfect. The narration jumps wildly from a very broad perspective to a very narrow one, focusing on events that are often completely inconsequential in the broader scheme of the novel. For instance, once Jan Rodricks finds out which star is the Overlords' homeworld, he does nothing with the information, despite his assurance that "knowledge is power."

Protagonists are usually defined as characters that are "dynamic"--that is, they change, or grow, through the course of the novel. While a few of the human characters in Childhood's End can be said to grow somewhat (in particular, Stormgren and Rodricks), neither of them are found throughout the novel, and they don't really "grow" too much. George Greggson and his wife are little more than passive observers, witnesses to the end of mankind. The closest thing to a constant protagonist is Karellen, but as the reader discovers, no one is more static than Karellen. He is defined by the fact that he is undynamic. Childhood's End does not have any true protagonists, with one possible exception: humanity as a whole. The main premise of the book is the idea that humanity, the collection of separate physical individuals, becomes the Overmind, the collective consciousness of pure energy and thought. Humanity itself, considered as a character, undergoes the most dynamic changes of all.

No matter who the protagonist is, there does not seem to be an antagonist, although an argument could be made that the Overlords, by exacting a totalitarian hold on Earth and refusing to allow humans to explore space or paranormal phenomena, serve as antagonists to the human race. But for this to work, one must subscribe to the idea that humanity's assimilation into the Overmind is a bad thing.

Identify the Christian allegorical elements within Childhood's End.

Childhood's End started out as "Guardian Angel," a story that hinged on the ironic idea that aliens in the shape of the Devil would lead mankind to a utopia. In the novel, Clarke broadens this allegorical tale by adding two major features of Christian theology: that of Satan and the rebel's angels being cast out of heaven and the idea of Armageddon. Karellen is Satan, leader of the Overlords, who can never make the great leap and join the Overmind. This is similar to Satan and his rebel angels, who can never again enjoy the Divine Presence of their Creator. Similarly, the end of mankind and the assimilation of the children of mankind into the Overmind, is reminiscent of descriptions of the Rapture and Armageddon. The strong similarities between these ideas may account for the uniqueness of Childhood's End within Clarke's novels: it is the one novel where he sacrificed his scientific ideas in favor of using a more mythologically-based framework.

Suggested Essay Topics

Analyze the character of Karellen. How does he behave toward mankind? Is he sympathetic, or patronizing?

In Childhood's End, Clarke uses two perspectives. One is very wide, where the narrator describes broad events and trends throughout the world. The other is very close, where he describes the behavior of certain characters. Find an example of a broad trend in one of these wide-perspective chapters, and then find a character to does something that represents that trend. (Example: in one chapter, the narrator discusses how the artistic achievements of mankind begin to falter in utopian society. George's joining the New Athens community is an attempt to fight this decline).

Explain, as much as possible, the nature of the Overmind. What is it? What are its motives? How has it behaved in the past? What are its powers, and its limitations?

Karellen tells Stormgren, "All political problems can be solved with the correct use of force." Stormgren counters by pointing out that this sounds like "Might makes right." Is this a reasonable objection? How does Karellen put his theory into practice, and are there any evident flaws when he does so? Give examples.

Childhood's End seems to claim that any given race has one of two choices: evolutionary stagnation, like the Overlords, or joining the Overmind. Does the novel suggest there are any other alternatives?

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