CHILDREN are usually unfazed by the idea of the end of the world, placing it, as they do, in the unimaginable future. A recent discussion on the subject among the kids I know had the five-year-olds putting it at a safe ten years away, a time-scale that the older ones — after some swift mental arithmetic — adjusted to 100. Putting things back in their box, the angels rolling up the sky (which they do so satisfyingly in Giotto’s fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel), seems like part of the normal business of things coming to an end — like growing out of your clothes, or finding you’ve just broken your last Christmas toy.
The actual breaking-up of your own world is another matter, and one that is naturally soft-pedalled in children’s literature. Even so, the desolation of the Bastable children when their mother dies is powerful, and, not surprisingly, their minds turn to treasure-seeking. This is ostensibly to help out their father, whose business is going bust, but is surely also to find the pearl of great price, which they have unaccountably lost?
End-of-the-world scenarios normally follow the Bastable pattern (really a version of the expulsion from Paradise), and young heroes usually recover from it. Apocalyptic endings are very rare. C. S. Lewis provides one at the end of the Narnia series, and describes a range of end-of-the-world emotions: dismay, destruction, judgement, and, suddenly, heart’s-ease, joy, and new creation.
Outside an overtly Christian programme, however, this is difficult to manage. Even Tolkien — who placed his hobbits and orcs in a deliberately non-Christian environment — could describe desolation at the end of The Lord of the Rings only adequately, and the restoration is only half achieved.
If a child is suddenly afflicted with apocalyptic dread, perhaps the easiest thing would be to refer him or her to that great fund of common sense, the Peanuts strip, particularly the sequence in which Lucy worries that the Flood is going to happen again. Linus reassures her by quoting God’s promise in Genesis 9.
Sarah Lenton writes, broadcasts, and lectures on lyric theatre for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and BBC Radio 3 and 4. She is studying for ordination at St Mellitus College.