Childhood's End | Study Guide

Arthur C. Clarke

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Childhood's End | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Arrival

One day in the mid-20th century, a Russian astronaut and an American astronaut are preparing for missions to space. Their preparations are cut short by the arrival of spaceships in the air around the world, carrying a race called the Overlords, who quickly establish dominance over Earth without ever leaving their ships. To do so, they use intimidation, blocking out the sun for half an hour when South Africa tries to reject their authority. Having taken control of Earth, the Overlords do away with war, inequality, capitalism, and crime, creating a utopia in which all people can live in peace and harmony.

Not everyone is happy in the Overlords' new utopian world. The Freedom League, a resistance movement lead by Alexander Wainwright, petitions the United Nations Secretary-General Rikki Stormgren with their concerns regarding a proposed one-world government. However, Stormgren, who meets regularly with a representative of the Overlords called Karellen, sees the Overlords as a positive force and has more loyalty to them than to his fellow humans. Stormgren's loyalties begin to change, however, when he is kidnapped by members of a resistance movement. When the Overlords rescue him, they reveal that they knew where he was the entire time and chose to wait to save him until all the members of the resistance were present so that the resistance would be aware the Overlords were watching them.

The Overlords Reveal Themselves

Suddenly feeling like a pawn in a larger game, Stormgren decides to spy on the mysterious Overlords. He learns that a screen in the room where he speaks to Karellen is actually a one-way mirror. During a meeting, Karellen tells Stormgren that the Overlords will no longer be liaising with the humans, and in 50 years, he will reveal the Overlords' true form to humanity. Stormgren approaches the glass and is able to see Karellen as he leaves the room, but upon seeing what the Overlords look like, Stormgren decides not to tell anyone and let the Overlords reveal themselves as they see fit.

Fifty years later, Karellen announces to humanity that the time has come to show himself. He emerges from his ship, with two children he had called onboard in his arms, showing himself to look like a devil. But after 50 years of Overlord rule, religion has died out, and people do not fear Karellen. Instead, they accept this new piece of information and continue living under Overlord influence.

During a party, an Overlord named Rashaverak reveals to the partygoers that the Overlords are interested in learning more about the paranormal. Most at the party do not question this, but Jan Rodriks, who studied math and physics and harbors an interest in space travel, is skeptical. Along with a professor, he creates a plan to stow away on an Overlord ship so he can see their planet, a journey that will take 40 Earth years but only a few months of his life. The plan works, and Jan leaves Earth for at least the next 80 years.

New Athens

Life on Earth is peaceful and uneventful. Innovation and creative output are nonexistent but so are problems. An artists' colony called New Athens has been built on a dormant volcano, and George Greggson and his wife Jean Morrel decide to move there with their children. Not long after arriving, their son Jeffrey hears a voice during a tsunami and is guided to safety. Their daughter, Jennifer, also shows signs of psychic abilities. As their powers grow, the Overlords announce that their mission the entire time has been to make Earth safe so that humanity could evolve and merge with the Overmind, a nonphysical consciousness that guides them. All children on Earth begin evolving into psychic beings, and the Overlords take the children to safety on a continent of their own, where they can test their powers. Left with no future, the residents of New Athens destroy the island colony, and the rest of humanity soon dies by suicide or recklessness.

Jan Returns

After 80 years, Jan returns. He has spent time on the Overlords' planet and has come to accept that humankind is not ready to explore the cosmos. However, when he gets back to Earth, he finds that he is the last adult alive. Karellen explains what has happened and tells him that the Overlords will leave when the children have become too powerful to be safe. This happens within a few years, when they begin moving the moon with their minds. Karellen tells Jan that he can go with them or he can stay on Earth as the children are absorbed into the Overmind. Jan stays on Earth and relays what he sees to the Overlords via their own equipment, effectively narrating the destruction of Earth.

Childhood's End Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The Overlords arrive above Earth.

Rising Action

2 The Overlords control Earth and establish a one-world government.

3 Humanity lives through a period of peace and security.

4 Jan leaves on an Overlord ship.

5 Children begin showing signs of psychic ability.

6 The Overlords reveal their mission is to enable human evolution.


7 The Overlords take the children.

Falling Action

8 All of humanity dies.


9 Jan returns and watches Earth be destroyed.

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