Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is the example without peer of a highly acclaimed novel that grew from a novella. So successful, in fact, has the novel been that few readers even know of or remember the shorter form from which it came.
Childhood's End

Immortal Man and Mortal Overlord: The Case for Intertextuality

by Stephen H. Goldman

Science fiction is filled with works that start out in one literary form and are then converted to another. Most often these conversions take the route of expansion. A successful short story or novella creates such excitement upon its publication that the author is induced to rework his or her piece into a novel. Since the shorter work has created an enthusiastic audience for the potential novel, few publishers or authors can resist the temptation of trading upon its success. One could, however, wish for greater thresholds of resistance on the part of both publishers and authors, because it is the rare work, indeed, that can be translated from a short story to a novel and still retain the qualities that first evoked reader interest. And, more important, even when such a work is identified, the cost to the original story is so enormous that one must wonder if the expansion were really worth the trouble.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is the example without peer of a highly acclaimed novel that grew from a novella. So successful, in fact, has the novel been that few readers even know of or remember the shorter form from which it came. Yet Childhood’s End did come from the novella “Guardian Angel,’’ and that novella forms the entire first part of the novel, “Earth and the Over­lords,’’ and the first few pages of the second part, “The Golden Age,” as well. In other words, it would appear that Childhood’s End was written to continue the story of Earth’s first encounter with aliens and its impact upon humanity.

If such were the case, however, the result is a far different one. Instead of continuing the story, Childhood’s End transforms it. Given the disclaimer by Clarke which is printed on the copyright page of most editions of the novel, it does not appear that Clarke was entirely happy with this transformation. What other author has ever included the statement: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author”? Why did the need for such a statement arise? And whose opinions are they if they are not Clarke’s?

David N. Samuelson suggests that Clarke’s disclaimer may have arisen from his unease concerning what Samuelson sees as the choice between two extremes that are offered the reader.1 On the one hand there are the “Overlords, individualistic, isolated, able to understand things only by approximations from the outside; this is the way of ‘the devil’s party.’ ” On the other hand there is man, who is “offered the possibility of giving up the responsibilities of maturity, giving himself over to imagination and the irrational and submerging his individuality in a oneness with God.’’2 Samuelson suggests that “Clarke’s awareness that this choice might be untenable for a work of SF ostensibly for a more enlightened audience,’’ might very well have led to his disavowal of the “opinions” expressed in Childhood’s End.2 But such an explanation is based on the assumption that Clarke did, indeed, want the reader to interpret the Overlords to be devils and the Overmind to be God. Surely each has an affinity to the role Samuelson suggests, but it is perhaps a disservice to both Clarke and his novel to turn affinity into identity.

It is likely in fact that the possibility of readers making the same assumption as Samuelson’s led Clarke to write the disclaimer in the first place. In other words, Samuelson’s explanation turns out to be an example of what Clarke had hoped to avoid. In a letter to Thomas D. Clareson, Clarke explained his statement as an attempt to indicate to his readers that he was still true to the vision of humanity he had expressed in Exploration of Space and other, earlier works.4 One passage, in particular, from Exploration of Space is singled out by Clareson for special comparison with Childhood’s End:

It was, without question, the most momentous hundred years in the history of Mankind. . . .To us a thousand years later, the whole story of Mankind before the twentieth century seems like a prelude to some great drama, played on the narrow strip of stage before the curtain has risen and revealed the scenery.. . . Man realised at last that the Earth was only one of many worlds; the Sun only one among many stars. The coming of the rocket brought to an end a million years of isolation. With the landing of the first spaceship in Mars and Venus, the childhood of our race was over and history as we know it began. . . .5

Clareson points to “the childhood of our race was over,” and properly suggests that “there is a delightful irony in that line because of the widespread popularity of Childhood’s End, Clarke’s only work—fiction or nonfiction—in which ‘The stars are not for Man.’ ”6 And it is this unique characteristic of Childhood’s End that seems to have worried Clarke so much. He feared that this one work would appear to repudiate all his other works. The number of academics who interpret the novel as a book with “a Stapledonian finale in which all mankind unifies into a single intelligence and ascends the next step in the ladder of evolution—which is to be sent to a spatial heaven in mystical parallel to religion” are legion.7 For these people Childhood’s End is a touchstone of science fiction and their praise for its author is frequently extravagant:

Clarke, who happens to be the scientist who first proposed the use of communications satellites, has used science fiction to go beyond our worship of science; he has exploited modem utopianism to revive our ancient hopes; he has, in one novel, traveled the whole utopian range of science fiction, and at its center left an unscientific monument to man’s continual spiritual yearning.8

All of these responses, however, concern a work of Clarke’s which Clareson judiciously points out in “its final sequence contradicts all else that he has said about the future of humanity.”9 Is it any wonder then that Clarke wrote the disclaimer?

Accepting, then, Clareson’s explanation for the need for the disclaimer, the larger question still remains: Whose opinions are they? In order to answer this question, it will be necessary to first address and define two further points: the concept of intertextuality and significance of the fact that “Guardian Angel” was first written and published without any consideration for its turning into a novel. Both of these points, as will soon be seen, are closely related.

The concept of intertextuality has recently become popular in text linguistics. There are a number of definitions for this term, but the best of them is the one produced by Robert de Beaugrande and Wolfgang Dressier. Both their definition and illustration of it are worth presenting at length:

INTERTEXTUALITY… concerns the factors which make the utilization of one text dependent upon the knowledge of one or more previously encountered texts. A driver who has seen [a] road sign


is likely to see another sign further down the road, such as:


One cannot “resume” something unless one was doing it at an earlier time and then stopped it for some reason. The “speed” at stake here can only be the one maintained until [the first sign] was encountered and a reduction was made. Clearly, the sense and relevance of [the second sign] depend upon knowing about [the first] and applying the content to the evolving situation.10

The key here is the understanding of the relationship two texts may have to one another. A proper reading of the first text will form the basis for the reading of the second text. But if that first text is not kept in mind, the second text may very well lose its meaning. What possible meaning could RESUME SPEED have for a driver who has not seen the first sign and acted upon it?

What possible connection can intertextuality have with Childhoods End? It has tremendous value if the reader remembers that the novel is actually two texts: “Guardian Angel” and its sequel. With such a view it becomes necessary to deal with the novella first, on its own merits, before one can deal with the entire novel, because within “Guardian Angel” lie Clarke’s “opinions.” It is when the novella is made into a novel that these opinions become submerged. First published in New Worlds, Winter 1950, “Guardian Angel” was only slightly revised for its appearance in Childhood’s End.11 Thus it begins with the appearance of the Overlords and ends with the Overlord Karellen revealing himself to the human race.

The story contains two major themes, but the second does not appear until the last scene. The first, of course, is involved with the issue of whether or not humanity should accept the utopia imposed upon Earth by the Overlords. Reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s “The Evitable Conflict,” the debate centers on hu­mankind’s right to choose its own destiny. The entire theme can be summed up by one conversation between Secretary-General Stormgren, the human representative of the Overlords on Earth, and Wainwright, the leader of an anti-Overlord faction. The two are arguing over Karellen’s plan for the creation of a single world government:

“To the Overlords,’’ replied Stormgren sarcastically, “the Earth probably is a great deal smaller than Europe seemed to our fathers—and their outlook, I submit, is more mature than ours.”

“I do not necessarily quarrel with Federation as an ultimate objective—though many of my supporters might not agree. But it must come from within—not be superimposed from without. We must work out our own destiny. There must be no interference in human affairs!”

Stormgren sighed. All this he had heard a hundred times before, and he knew that he could only give the old answer that the Freedom League had refused to accept. He had faith in Karellen, and they had not. That was the fundamental difference, and there was nothing he could do about it.12

Thus, “Guardian Angel,” and, hence, Earth and the Overlords of Childhood’s End, utilize a common science fiction theme, first contact, grafted onto an equally common plot. Stormgren’s words and thoughts are not significantly different from Asimov’s. Susan Calvin and the Freedom League as represented by Wain­wright evoke for the reader of science fiction echoes of the Society for Humanity of “The Evitable Conflict.”

In other words the reader of Clarke’s novella will recognize the rather standard theme being presented and will, therefore, be able to predict the action of the story based upon an established pattern. And for most of “Guardian Angel” Clarke follows that pattern. The plot is tailored to an exploration of what the Overlords have done for and to humanity, to a presentation of the arguments of both sides of the debate, and to an ultimately sympathetic characterization of Karellen. Stormgren, like Susan Calvin, has faith in the new masters of Earth, and, like her, this faith is the result of viewing their accomplishments. Clarke periodically includes incidents that have as their sole purpose persuading the reader that Karellen is, in fact, to be trusted. Frequently, these incidents are presented to the reader by Stormgren, a human character who appears to represent the best of human minds and hearts. And Stormgren gives the reader many concrete reasons to believe in Karellen: his hatred of cruelty and passion for justice and order.13

In fact, Clarke attempts to present Karellen as the exemplary human being. While he may not be programmed with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the reader is led to believe that Karellen lives up to the high moral and exacting ethical standards they imply.

Clarke, moreover, continues to “humanize” Karellen in his dealing with Stormgren. Thus, while the Overlords do not plan to reveal their physical forms to humanity for some fifty years, too late for Stormgren, he does allow the Secretary-General’s attempt to catch a glimpse to succeed. By so doing, Karellen shows himself to be sympathetic to human desires, even rather minor ones. Karellen is not simply rational. He can respond to feeling as well.

Finally, Karellen takes on completely human proportions, although heroic ones, when Clarke gives him failures as well, failures which seem to cast a slight touch of melancholy over his character. While these “failures” serve to whet the reader’s appetite for more information about the Overlords and their form, they also make these seemingly perfect beings more accessible to human sympathy. If humankind must place its future in the hands of nonhuman masters, at least the Overlords seem to be acceptable candidates. Their nonhuman nature is more a matter of shape than mind.

Just as Asimov seeks to justify Susan Calvin’s words, therefore, Clarke justifies Stormgren’s. Both Asimov’s Machines and Clarke’s Overlords have taken hu­manity’s future upon themselves, and this is for the good. A new and better future for the human race will emerge. Or, at least, this seems to be the direction that “Guardian Angel” is taking. But then, Clarke surprises the reader. In the final scene, a new theme arises, and this new theme totally submerges the first. The final revelation of Karellen’s appearance both stuns the reader and sets him off on an entirely new track: “There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail—all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past.”14 Here, indeed, is an ending worthy of the author who in 1953 would see published “The Nine Billion Names of God” (Star Science Fiction Stories) and in 1955 “The Star” (Infinity Science Fiction). And, equally important, it is an ending worthy of the shorter forms of fiction, of the short story and the novella.

Throughout the novella the issue of what the Overlords look like has formed a major subtheme. It appears as a device used by Clarke to maintain reader interest as he tackles the more philosophical issue of who should control hu­mankind’s destiny. But the answer to the question of physical appearance overpowers the philosophical question at the end. It demands that the reader now rethink the entire story and reexamine his assumptions concerning what it is that Clarke is saying.

An ending with such an impact is certainly not uncommon in short fiction. What Theodore Sturgeon has said about his fiction works equally well for “Guardian Angel”: “I have always been fascinated by the human mind’s ability to think itself to a truth, and then to take that one step more (truly the basic secret of all human progress) and the inability of so many people to learn the trick.”15 Indeed, it appears to be a defining characteristic of science fiction to examine all truths held dear by society, frequently in situations that stretch them to their extremes or break them or reshape them.

Just as in “The Star,” where Clarke takes on a central symbol of Christianity, the Star of Bethlehem, and demands that the reader consider this article of faith in a different context, so too in “Guardian Angel” does he take on the devil. In neither case does Clarke do the rethinking for the reader, for that is the reader’s task. The author is content with shaping the new conditions under which the reexamination will take place. And the shorter forms of fiction are ideal for such kinds of stories. Situation is central in such fiction, not characterization, and the result is that the writer can point his effort toward the moment of impact when a single, startling, new factor is revealed. If this impact is timed with the ending of the story, it should force the reader not only to review the entire story but also to apply that experience to his own “truths” and articles of faith.

The ending, therefore, of “Guardian Angel” is not simply “an amusing— startling?—twist on another story of the first contact between humanity and aliens.”16 Clarke has not sacrificed his story for a startling ending, but rather he has expanded the context of his story by its ending. He has introduced the ultimate Christian symbol of evil and insisted that the reader now ask himself a whole new series of questions. Can humankind truly be sure of what the nature of evil is? If the symbol for evil may turn out to be a force for good, does the nature of evil change as well? How does one come to know evil? Are the assumptions which underpin one age’s notions of good and evil valid for following ages? And finally, what do the concepts of good and evil have to do with the question of who or what controls the destiny of humanity? If humanity is mistaken about the nature of the devil, perhaps it is mistaken, as well, in its various attempts to define itself.

Such are the issues raised by the revelation at the end of “Guardian Angel,” and these are issues common to many of Clarke’s works. In other words, there is nothing in the original novella that would have forced Clarke to disclaim the opinions expressed in the story. If Clarke had stopped with the novella, he would have produced another story which could be easily identified with all his other works, both fiction and nonfiction. And this is the importance of reading Earth and the Overlords and the first few pages of “The Golden Age” apart from the rest of Childhood’s End. This first part of the novel constitutes a text in itself which defines the context for what follows. It reaches its own climax and it asks its own, significant question of the reader. If the reader takes too lightly the climax or does not follow through in confronting the questions raised by it, a significant part of the link between the two texts will be lost, and a serious misreading of the second text could ensue.

The problem is, of course, that the ending of the novella is frequently taken too lightly by the critics that have sought to find meaning and structure in Childhood’s End. Such a treatment is not at all surprising, given the fact that it comes so early in the novel and, in fact, is presented as the opening scene of the second section of a work that contains three sections. And even when the ending is taken very seriously, it is done so in terms of part of a recurring pattern in the novel rather than as the initial text that defines what will follow. For critics who insist on reading Childhood’s End as a single, unified text, the appearance of Karellen in the form of Satan becomes “this little incident [which] is almost a paradigm of the entire book.”17

Certainly, Clarke and his publishers must carry a good part of the blame for such readings of Childhood’s End. They did, after all, package the work as a novel. If, therefore, critics insist it behave as a novel, that should not be too surprising. Yet it is unfortunate that academics, who should be among the most sensitive of readers, insist upon looking at a work of fiction within a limited, narrow set of patterns. If it looks like a novel, it must be read as one. Thus Samuelson insightfully points out what makes Childhood’s End a poorly structured novel:

Each succession of actions breaks down into almost random fragments of panoramic chronicle, desultory conversation, and tentative internal monologue. Part of the problem may be that the novel “just growed” from a novelette, but that is symptomatic of Clarke’s failure to bring his theme down to manageable human dimensions. The effect might be similar if he had written several stories of varying length and intensity, then tried to connect them up to an outline-summary of future history.18

But having touched on the idea that he may be dealing with multiple texts rather than a single one, Samuelson fails to examine where that possibility might lead.

What then might be accomplished if the claim that Childhood’s End is a novel is ignored and the concept of intertextuality is applied to its two parts? The first gain by such a method would be a refocusing on what the concerns of the work actually are. In expanding “Guardian Angel” into Childhood’s End, Clarke was faced with a serious dilemma: he had reached a highly dramatic climax with the presentation of Karellen in the form of Satan one hundred and fifty pages before the end of the “novel.” Given its impact, so appropriate for short fiction, how could he follow it up? He must make something of the connection between Karellen and Satan which will transcend the original, shock ending it was intended for. He must, in effect, justify such an early climax and the dramatic emphasis it gives to the revelation.

It may very well be that Clarke answered his dilemma by writing a sequel that explored the questions raised by “Guardian Angel”; that is, at the heart of Childhood’s End lies a comparison between the Overlords, doomed to serve in exile, and the human race, fated to merge with the Overmind. Such a comparison would allow him a framework for this exploration, because it would allow him to concentrate on the qualities each race represented rather than on the individual characters. His characters would become representatives of particular traits rather than discrete personalities. With such a view in mind, Samuelson’s objection that Clarke has failed “to bring his theme down to manageable human dimensions,” and Clareson’s criticism that “as so often occurs in science fiction, an idea rather than the quality of human experience, had fascinated the author” become ironically accurate.19 The central issue of Childhood’s End is the nature of good and evil and how human society perceives both. These abstractions, moreover, are explored by ruthlessly using the characters in the work. Such a method may make for a poor novel, at least in its classical form, but then why insist that the story be something it is not?

If then “Guardian Angel” created the context for understanding what follows it in Childhood’s End, if it supplies the questions that will be explored in the following one hundred and fifty pages, what does Clarke want to say in “The Golden Age” and in “The Last Generation,” the final, two sections of Child­hood’s End, and what upsets him so much that he finally disavows the opinions that are expressed? Intertextuality, again, may supply an approach in answering this question. This time, however, the concept needs to be applied not to the two texts included in Childhood’s End but to these two texts and a third one: John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The connection between Childhood’s End and Paradise Lost needs to be explored not because a claim will be made that Clarke had that epic poem in mind when he wrote his story but because Paradise Lost is the seminal work in English literature dealing with Satan and with humanity’s relationship to God. It cannot be ignored because it has shaped every literary work dealing with these themes that has followed it. Since Clarke must deal with why Karellen is in the form of Satan, he must deal with an image of Satan best known through Milton.

Invoking Paradise Lost in a discussion of Childhood’s End, of course, will have one very immediate effect upon how the work is viewed. A significant amount of the criticism that now exists focuses on the evolution of humankind and the various stages in that evolution. In other words, such discussions emphasize humanity’s mergence with the Overmind, usually in a positive light:

Here, in Childhood’s End, when the human race, guarded by limited angels who are shut out from union with the Overmind, passes through the dissolution of this earth to enter a transformed state, we can satisfy our feeling that we humans count, that we are distinctive creatures on the evolutionary chain, of greater importance than monkeys, fish, and the amoeba, a transitional link between a world of dust and a world of mind.20

But this is exactly the reaction that Clarke expresses fear for in his letter to Clareson. But by reading Childhood’s End with an eye to Milton, Karellen and the Overlords come to the foreground. This is not to argue that Clarke is not interested in humankind’s evolution, or that he does not expend a great deal of time and energy describing its stages. It is simply an attempt to restore balance to the discussion of Clarke’s work. The Overlords represent an alternate destiny. What that alternate is and why the Overlords have been allowed it are significant factors in an understanding of the work. There is no need to reject readings of Childhood’s End that deal with humankind’s progress to the Overmind; such readings are clearly in reaction to important elements in the story. What is necessary, however, is a view of the work that places these responses back into the context of Clarke’s story and Clarke’s intentions.

It is, therefore, important to look at the ways in which the Overlords, as represented by Karellen, and Satan of Paradise Lost are similar and, after that, are different.

Both the Overlords and Satan are, first of all, pawns of forces far greater than themselves. They are tools that are used for purposes other than their own. Each has a role to play in bringing humanity closer to a higher, more powerful being. Tanzy is wrong when he states that “we [humanity] are distinctive creatures on the evolutionary chain.’’21 While humanity in Childhood’s End may differ from “monkeys, fish, and amoeba’’ because it is “a transitional link between the world of dust and a world of mind,’’ its fate differs not one jot from that of millions of other races in the cosmos.22 The truly distinctive creatures of Child­hood’s End are the Overlords. They alone serve the Overmind but remain apart from it. They alone share with Satan eternal isolation from a “divine’’ being.

In Paradise Lost Milton makes clear the reason for Satan’s banishment. Through pride he sought to make himself the equal of God. Moreover, even in hell, that pride continues:

Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than thee
Whom Thunder hath made greater?
Here at least We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.23

Using such terms as “mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time,’’ “the mind is its own place,’’ and “we shall be free,’’ Satan tries to cast his original rebellion as a struggle for intellectual freedom. The mind must be free, according to Satan, and God sought to enslave his.

Satan’s supposed explanation of his actions is echoed by the implied reason for the Overlords exile from the Overmind. When Jan Rodricks contemplates the last children of the human race and compares the future of the Overlords to that of humanity, the parallel becomes clear:

At the end of one path were the Overlords. They had preserved their individuality, their independent egos: they possessed self-awareness and the pronoun “I” had a meaning in their language.24

Rodricks’s words ring true for the reader. The Overlords appear to be endowed with a clear sense of identity. Karellen and his colleagues are consistently occupied with finding answers to complex questions that can only be hinted at. Whatever they do is seen by them as either a furtherance of ongoing research or something to file for future research or a temporary interruption of research. This characteristic of the Overlords first arises in the text that was originally “Guardian Angel,” and it is carried over in what follows.

Jan Rodricks, moreover, supplies the occasion of an earlier incident that illustrates just how important the mind is to the Overlords. The single, most important function Rodricks is to perform in Childhood’s End is to be the human witness of the merging of humankind’s last children with the Overmind. In order to have him present long after the death of all other adults, Clarke sends him in a trip to the Overlord’s home planet. Since time is warped at the speeds that an interstellar ship travels, Rodricks will return just in time to see the transformation.

Since Rodricks must travel in space, Clarke makes use of the opportunity to give the reader insight into the Overlords. Through Rodricks’s eyes the reader discovers that the planet is given over entirely to an exploration of all phases of knowledge. In fact, the Overlords occasionally approach excessiveness in their quest, as when they fail to realize that their favorite subject, Jan, requires sleep at regular intervals.25

The Overlords are not mad scientists, but they are certainly most enthusiastic ones. While they may dwarf the human race in their ability to reason, their passion to use this ability is of like, immense proportion. They are not, in fact, opposed to making use of pawns when it is possible. Rodricks is not only Clarke’s tool but Karellen’s as well. When Rodricks returns to Karellen, he is asked by the Overlord to go down to Earth so that he might report firsthand the final transformation. It is no longer safe for Overlords to be near a race so close to the Overmind. Both Rodricks and the reader strongly suspect that it was for this specific purpose that he was allowed to stow away on the Overlords’ ship in the first place. His return to Earth would give them a valuable opportunity to add one further bit of information to their store of knowledge.

Thus both the Overlords and Satan share a similar position in the cosmos, brought on, perhaps, by similar characteristics. For all their intellectual powers, tremendous egos, and vast abilities, they are overwhelmed by the immensity of the respective providences they serve.

There is, moreover, a second parallel to be drawn between Satan and the Overlords: both share a distinctly elegiac view of their destinies. From his first awakening in hell onward, Satan is aware of the depth of his loss: “for now the thought / Both of lost happiness and lasting pain / torments him.”26 Occasionally, when Milton allows the reader to see beneath Satan’s bravado, this sense of loss overshadows all of Satan’s thoughts. Thus, just as Satan first sees Eden, he is forced to stop and consider his fate. Free from the eyes and ears of his fallen angels, he is able to speak honestly:

O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Sphere;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’n’s matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deserv’d no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less than afford him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,
How due!27

For just that one moment Satan takes on an entirely new aspect. He is no longer the warrior who shook the roof of heaven, but a single individual overcome with regret and grief.

And grief seems to be ever near the Overlords as well. Stormgren perceives this quality in Karellen during their last conversation together: “and now his [Karellen’s] voice held a clear yet inexplicable note of sadness that left Stormgren strangely perturbed.’’28 Rodricks fully comprehends the Overlords’ sadness when he says in his last speech: “Good-by, Karellen, Rashaverak—I am sorry for you.’’29 And Karellen, using images of light much like Satan, voices it fully as he looks over the Earth, now a dead and empty world and thinks of his people as no better-off than a primitive tribe.30 Yes, like Satan, Karellen is aware of what he and all the other Overlords can never attain. And, like Satan, that knowledge fills him with a huge sadness.

These parallels between the Overlords and Satan would seem to justify the earlier claim that what Clarke set out to do when he expanded “Guardian Angel’’ into Childhood’s End was in part dictated by a need to make use of the dramatic ending of the novella. In effect, Clarke made use of Christian myths to further draw out his own characters. However, as was stated earlier, the function of the climax in “Guardian Angel’’ is to call these myths into question. Thus, while he may make use of the myths to further his portrait of the Overlords, Clarke must add his own modifications so that the questions he raised are not swept aside. Rodrick once again, directly states the need for such modifications in his final speech in which he concludes that the old religions had misinterpreted the importance of the human race.31

The difference between Satan and the Overlords will serve to explain what these modifications were and how Clarke made use of them. To begin with the most obvious, there is a significant difference in how Satan and Karellen go about bringing humankind to their respective masters. Satan is an unwitting instrument of God. While he believes he is warring upon Him, he is merely doing His will. Satan must tempt humanity so that it will fall. Humanity must fall because it must be capable of choosing to follow God of its own free will. After all, it must be remembered that Milton’s purpose in writing Paradise Lost was to “justify the ways of God to men.”32 Against his will Satan plays a role in those ways. While he seeks war and revenge, his actions will have an opposite effect. Satan’s whole intention is to destroy Adam and Eve and make them his own, but the result of his actions will ultimately be realized in the salvation of humankind.

The Overlords, on the other hand, are very much guardian angels. Although devils in form, their actions are anything but Satanic. They had been sent to Earth to guide humanity at a most crucial moment in its evolution. Evidently, as a race approaches its final stage, it develops powers that not only are a threat to itself but a threat to the cosmos as well. The evolving race becomes “a malignant mentality which in its inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds.”33 Thus, while Satan sought to destroy God’s creation, it is the task of the Overlords to preserve the universe. Where Satan brings humanity to God through acts geared toward sundering humanity from God, the Overlords act as protective midwives, shepherding the evolving race away from destruction and toward the Overmind.

A second difference between Satan and the Overlords lies in their attitudes toward humankind. Just before the temptation Satan looks upon Adam and Eve and has some doubt as to what he is doing:

O Hell! what do mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them Divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that form’d them on their shape hath pour’d.34

But the doubt lingers only a short while, for Satan is interested only in obtaining revenge: “Hell shall unfold, / To entertain you two, her widest Gates.”35

Karellen, however, frequently shows that he is capable of feeling sympathy for his human charges. If Satan ultimately decides to tempt Adam and Eve because they might some day enjoy the place he will never hold again, Karellen is incapable of making any such decision, even when he is faced with a similar situation. Humanity will become that thing that the Overlords will never become. Karellen may tell humanity that he envies it, but his is not a pernicious envy; he will not take out his frustration upon the last remaining adults.36 In fact, his words to them are words which seek to give them comfort, even though he is in a worse position than they are. Karellen has not even the hope that some day the Overlords will end their isolation; yet he still attempts to ease the minds of his charges:

“And then—what am I to do with you, the survivors, when your purpose has been fulfilled? It would be simplest, and perhaps most merciful, to destroy you—as you yourself would destroy a mortally wounded pet you loved. But this I cannot do. Your future will be your own to choose in the years that are left to you. It is my hope that humanity will go to its rest in peace, knowing that it has not lived in vain.’’37

Here is a character who refuses to act out of bitterness. He understands what his charges are confronting, and he cares about them.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the difference in how each accepts his fate, how each reacts to the elegiac nature of his destiny. Satan, of course, reacts in a way that is consonant with the role he plays in God’s providence. In the speech in which he begins by honestly expressing his sense of grief at the loss of heaven, Satan ends in quite another fashion:38

So farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear,
Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least
Divided Empire with Heav’n’s King I hold
By thee, and more than half perhaps will reign;
As Man ere long, and this new World shall know.39

But then, what more can be expected from the Satan of Christian myth?

Much more can be expected of Karellen, and Karellen does, indeed, live up to the expectation. In the speech in which Karellen contemplates the unhappy future of his race, he also ends on a tone that differs from its elegiac beginning:40

Yet, Karellen knew, they would hold fast until the end: they would await without despair whatever destiny was theirs. They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service they would not lose their souls.41

The Overlords understand that they have a role to play, and that that role must be accepted. Perhaps, given a choice, they would prefer another destiny, but they will submit to what they must. One cannot help but admire such determination.

In fact, for many, many readers, given a choice between the fate of the Overlords and the fate of humankind, the Overlords and their future seem preferable. There is little to identify with in the creatures who are about to join the Overmind. Not only is the reader told that they have lost all traces of humanity, but their actions have become inhumane as well. They destroy all life on Earth other than their own because “the presence of other minds disturbed them— even the rudimentary minds of plants and animals.”42 Humanity might have merged itself with a higher being, but in doing so it has lost its essential human character. It has in a very real sense, become “soulless.” It has lost those quintessential elements that define a human being.

Thus, while the last children will merge with the Overmind and thereby gain immortality, the human race must die. It is as if Clarke were saying that death is a significant, defining feature of humanity. As mortal creatures, individual humans cling to self-identity. They are driven to achieve a kind of immortality through their achievements. Given a limited life span, the question of the purpose of one’s life becomes important. The children, however, have been given immortality and have no fear of death to drive them on. This behavior is as alien to the reader as it is to the Overlords.

But the mortal Overlords will not lose their “souls.” They will remain true to what they are. In all likelihood it is this steadfastness to self that made them candidates to serve the Overmind in the first place, and it is this same quality of mind that leads the reader to identify with them. It is Karellen’s nobleness in the face of mortality that brings to the reader’s mind the image of the ideal human hero.

Unlike Paradise Lost, where intellect, ego, and ability lead to the Christian Satan, in Childhood’s End these traits lead to an enlightened, kindly, but saddened race. The same qualities that inform the very being of Satan are also the essence of the Overlords. Could not Clarke be asking the reader to examine these qualities and the Christian assumptions that have judged them to be evil? Might this not have been the direction he wished to take after raising his questions at the end of “Guardian Angel”? Certainly the evolution of humankind plays an important role within the work. Certainly the apocalyptic vision that ends the story is a central element within it. But the questions raised by the presence of the Overlords cannot be ignored or played down. These questions form the context for that evolution and for that apocalyptic vision.

What, then, so upset Clarke that he ends up disclaiming the opinions expressed in the work? Whose opinions are they if they are not Clarke’s? Both of these questions might very well share the same answer. Clarke started to write Child­hood’s End as perhaps an expansion of the questions he raised in “Guardian Angel.” There is ample evidence of his interest in such a theme in his other works. Once started, however, he was forced, by the original ending, to do more with the figure of the devil, and, as a result, he needed to trade more heavily upon the literary and popular portrayals of Satan. Within this context Clarke either directly or through other sources came square against Paradise Lost. To the extent that he was able to make plain his reworking of Christian myth, to the extent that he was able to make the reader agree with Stormgren that humanity was mistaken about its notions of the devil, that the Overlords deserved the trust of humans, Clarke has succeeded with his plan. He has made his reader look once again at a central article of faith in a new light.

But Clarke’s success is a fragile one, for it is dependent on two very hard- to-accomplish events. First, Clarke must get the reader to avoid attributing to the Overlords any of the diabolical traits associated with Satan. This is difficult for a reader to do for the very reason Stormgren first states: “Even in fifty years, could you overcome the power of all the myths and legends of the world?”43 Second, Clarke is attempting to make use of a seminal literary work. Again, even if he did not directly and intentionally use Paradise Lost, it is Milton’s Satan whom Clarke must confront, and John Milton has tradition and the collective judgment of the literary world on his side. Therefore, if the reader refuses to see Clarke’s intentions within the work, the refusal is understandable. If the reader insists that Childhood’s End concerns simply the progress of the human race to salvation with a few swipes at technology along the way, there are ample passages in the work to encourage him or her. But those opinions are John Milton’s and the result of the “power of all the myths and legends of the world.” They are not Arthur C. Clarke’s, for he has disavowed them. The relationships of intertextuality that sections two and three of Childhood’s End bear to “Guardian Angel,” and that all of Childhood’s End bears to Paradise Lost, suggest where Clarke’s opinions may lie. But for a reader to follow that direction he must be willing to suspend his conventional notions of good and evil and, even, of how to read a work that is supposed to be a novel. Under the best of circumstances, such demands place a very heavy burden upon the reader. Perhaps, in terms of theme, Clarke would have been better off stopping with “Guardian Angel.”


  1. David N. Samuelson, “Childhood’s End: A Median Stage of Adolescence?” in Arthur C. Clarke, ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1977), p. 202.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Thomas D. Clareson, ‘‘The Cosmic Loneliness of Arthur C. Clarke,” in Arthur C. Clarke, ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1977), p. 57.

  5. Ibid., p. 55.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (Cleve­land: World Publishing Company, 1961), p. 388.

  8. Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction (London: University of Oxford Press, 1977), p. 220.

  9. Clareson, p. 57.

  10. Robert de Beaugrande and Wolfgang Dressier, Introduction to Text Linguistics (London: Longman Group, 1981), p. 10.

  11. In the same year a version of ‘‘Guardian Angel” was also published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries. However, that version was revised by James Blish who added several passages of his own.

  12. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (New York: Ballantine Books, 1953), pp. 15- lb.

  13. Ibid., p. 44.

  14. Ibid., p. 68.

  15. Theodore Sturgeon, Case and the Dreamer and Other Stories (New York: New American Library, 1974), p. 110.

  16. Clareson, p. 58.

  17. Alan B. Howes, “Expectation and Surprise in Childhood’s End,” in Arthur C. Clarke, ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1977), p. 170.

  18. Samuelson, p. 205.

  19. Clareson, p. 58.

  20. Eugene Tanzy, “Contrasting Views of Man and the Evolutionary Process,” in Arthur C. Clarke, ed. Joseph Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg (New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1977), p. 188.

  21. Ibid., p. 189.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Milton, Paradise Lost I. 250-63.

  24. Clarke, p. 205.

  25. Ibid., pp. 192-93.

  26. Milton, I. 54-56.

  27. Ibid., IV. 37-38.

  28. Clarke, p. 62.

  29. Ibid., p. 217.

  30. Ibid., p. 218.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Milton, I. 25.

  33. Clarke, p. 182.

  34. Milton, IV. 357-65.

  35. Ibid., IV. 378-79.

  36. Clarke, p. 185.

  37. Ibid., p. 185.

  38. Ibid., p. 18.

  39. Milton, IV. 108-13.

  40. Clarke, pp. 18-19.

  41. Ibid., p. 218.

  42. Ibid., p. 204.

  43. Ibid., p. 64.


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Preproduction drawing by Neal Adams. Adams was one of the first people contacted by Phil DeGuere when plans moved ahead on the Universal production of Childhood's End


Several attempts to adapt Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End into a film or miniseries have been made with varying levels of success. Philip DeGuere developed a script in the late 1970s for Universal and in this interview he gives some details regarding the pre-production of the project.

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