I just finished Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke for the first time and am a little blown by what I just read, because . . .
. . . YOU GUYSSSS!!!!!!
I think Arthur C. Clarke might have been a legit occultist!!! In the least, he was at least well-versed in esoteric scholarship, with a hint of Gnostic flavor.
But, you know what? I cannot talk about this without spoiling the main content of the book, so if you don't want the ending spoiled then read no further. If you're good with spoilers, then continue below! You may also want to refer to my definition of occultism/esotericism before continuing, for context.
~ ~ ~ ~ SPOILERS BELOW ~ ~ ~ ~
The premise is pretty simple: extraterrestrials show up and begin guiding humanity away from self-annihilation and toward a better future. They are called the Overlords and over the period of 100 years they have directed a new global society on Earth where peace has prevailed and a foundation has been laid for human beings to take the next step on their evolutionary path.
Here's my breakdown of the esoteric qualities of Clarke's work:
The Overlords were the first key to my understanding of Childhood's End as an occult novel. Throughout the first part of the story the Overlords are not revealed to humanity at all, and the mystery of their physical appearance is a secret that ignites the curiosity of every human. Even to the point plotting against the Overlords themselves. But, when the Overlords finally unveil their appearance (after humanity has evolved to a certain point, that is) it is disclosed that they hold the same appearance as humankind's particular mythical-spiritual adversary: The Devil.
Now, the Devil in occultism is not what people think. Rather than being an evil force hell-bent on humanity's destruction, the Devil is actually best symbolized in The Devil Tarot card. In the traditional depiction of the card, the Devil is usually illustrated as a beastly fiend standing above a male and female, both oppressed into submission beneath him, in chains, slaves to his bidding. As all things occult, the Devil is merely a symbol. The goal of the Mysteries is to pierce the symbol and uncover its hidden truths.
In this case, the Devil is an illusion. At the same time, so are all of man's ideas of what "God" is: an illusion. Mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti has said: "'God'--or any other name you would like to use--is the cunning invention of man [...] Man, having invented it, is caught up in it." (On God, p.33) We get wrapped up, and become slave to, our own ideas and notions of what we think God and/or spirituality are to us, just like the two chained persons in the card. They are slave not to the literal creature of "The Devil"; they are slave to the established orthodoxy of their own ideas. The Devil is merely a scapegoat for their own shortcomings. This card is a symbol to us that we must evolve past our delusions. We must responsibility of our own evil acts, rather than pawning off our sins onto an imaginary adversary thwarting our intentions.
That Overlords are depicted as the traditional image of the Devil, yet are guides to the human race, is a perfect catapult to humanity rising above the banal aspects of their own cultures and casting away any notions or superstitions that are holding them back from progress. Their appearance may be shocking, but in truth they are benevolent caretakers, midwives of the evolution of homo sapiens.
In occult initiation, the Abyss is not Hell. It is a gulf which separates what humankind has known from what is unknown. It is a gap which separates the unattainable knowledge of the Supernal from the rest of manifestation. In Childhood's End, as humankind evolves to the point where the Overlords are ready to relinquish their responsibility of guidance and allow humanity to take its next evolutionary leap into a new type if super-species, the Overlord Karellen states: " . . . "the human races was drawing slowly nearer to the abyss--never even suspecting its existence. Across that abyss, there is only one bridge."
This is obviously a metaphor for the Overlord's direction in which they took to put humanity on a specific path for the 100 years of their reign. At the same time, this terminology and its usage cannot be ignored as an esoteric allusion to the Abyss of the Western Mystery Traditions which all initiates must cross in order to ascend the higher order of Sephiroth on the Tree of Life.
Although Arthur C. Clarke is obviously a futurist in many ways, he does have great respect for the wisdom of ancient civilizations (a prime virtue of an esoteric enthusiast). Again, in one of Karellen's final statements to the citizens of Earth, he relays, "To understand, you must go back into the past and recover much that your ancestors would have found familiar, but which you have forgotten . . ." This is a common idea within the Mystery Schools, that true knowledge comes through understanding, which is founded on the principle that the ancients had already carried this knowledge. It is understood that humanity at one point has lost this knowledge (most commonly agreed upon that this was due to the persecution of other belief systems from the Church) and that it is the job of the initiate to rediscover and reclaim this forgotten wisdom.
Overmind & Transcendence
Karellen reveals to humanity near the end that the Overlords themselves are subject to a higher power, called the Overmind. Indeed, it is from this Overmind where the Overlords receive their orders to guide other races throughout the universe into their next stage of evolution. The Overmind is a sort of hive-mind, disembodied consciousness in which space and time have no bearing. This can almost be likened to Timothy Leary or Robert Anton Wilson's 8th circuit of consciousness. Most likely it ascribes to the concept of the Oversoul, in Sanskrit called Paramatman (the Supreme Self), the primordial consciousness of soul from which all things manifest. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Jung were among the many mystic-minded adepts through the past couple centuries to have delved into the idea of this higher collective of consciousness, where ideas reside and come from. God, as it were, but a God accessible through dreams, meditation, and other shamanic techniques. We are all soul, being extensions of the one Oversoul.
In his revelation of the existence of this higher power, Karellen coveys that, "the Overmind is trying to grow, to extend its powers and its awareness of the universe. By now it must be the sum of many races, and long ago it left the tyranny of matter behind." This statement is the key to understanding Clarke's Gnostic leanings, as the theurgic goal of the Gnostic mystic is to transcend matter which is a prison for the soul itself.
This is the prime conclusion for Childhood's End: transcendence from personality (ego) and into homogeneity. As Karellen again explains: "Imagine that every man's mind is an island, surrounded by ocean. Each seems isolated, yet in reality all are linked by the bedrock from which they spring. If the ocean were to vanish, that would be the end of the islands. They would all be part of one continent, but their individuality would have gone."
There is so much more cover in this novel than can be discussed in one blog post. Maybe one day I will tackle it all in a larger thesis.
As much as I loved this book, my rating for this book would have been higher if Clarke's language and style of writing would have transcended the passage of time the way his ideas do. I don't remember encountering this obstacle when reading Rendezvous with Rama, but in this tome the dated nuances of 1950s style and dialect were all too felt. Nowadays, one will have to get past some of Clarke's references to race and gender. At the same time, the characters are mostly flat if not downright annoying, another fallback I don't recall reading in Rama. Regardless, Childhood's End was an excellent proposal on a First Contact scenario and possible pathway forward for humanity's climb upward to a better state of existence. My final rating for this book is: