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The Beginning of the End

From viking invaders to the advent of the coronavirus vaccine, Maebh Howell discusses our obsession with predicting endings.

Maebh Howell
Maebh Howell
Maebh Howell is a second year English Literature student from Christ Church. When she's not writing or editing, she loves listening to music, long dog walks, and anything medieval.

In the early 1000s, Archbishop Wulfstan of York wrote a sermon for his fellow Englishmen, hailing the imminent end of the world as punishment for their bad behaviour. The opening of the sermon is as follows:

Lēofan men, gecnāwað þæt sōð is: ðēos worold is on ofste, and hit nēalǣcð þām ende

(Beloved men, know that which is true: the world is in haste and it nears the end)

What I find so captivating about his opening line is not only the familiarity of some of the language (especially the word ‘ende’), but also the feeling which Wulfstan is trying to evoke here, that of living close to the end of the world. Evidently, the world didn’t end in the 1000s, we’re still here after all, but the threat of Viking invasion which caused Wulfstan to lament the coming of the end is a sentiment which I believe is common to all periods of humanity, including our own day.

Wulfstan’s focus on the end of the world has led me to question Matt Hancock’s phrasing in describing the vaccine as the “beginning of the end of the pandemic”. These words, repeated across myriad articles about the vaccine, push a sense of optimism, hailing an end to the pandemic which has so devastatingly characterised 2020. Yet, if we look at the definition of this phrase, ‘the beginning of the end’, we find that the usual meaning is far more pessimistic; the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ‘the point where something starts to get gradually worse, until it fails or ends completely.’ It seems that Hancock’s words have a rather more Doomsday feel about them, one which he might not have necessarily intended, but one which I cannot seem to elude whenever I think about this vaccine and what it means for us among our conceptions of beginnings and ends. The prediction made by Wulfstan obviously didn’t come true; what then, should we believe about the prediction made by Hancock, one thousand years later?

Strangely enough, it’s an episode of the TV show Glee, and its depiction of the hysteria which surrounded the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse that sticks out to me when considering our attitudes towards beginnings and ends. The episode, titled ‘Glee, Actually’, which aired on December 13 2012 (just a week before the apparent date of the end of the world – December 21), follows the notoriously ditzy cheerleader Brittany, who watches a documentary about the Mayan Apocalypse, and along with fellow Glee club member Sam, creates an Apocalypse club, trying to warn others about what is coming. Whilst Glee is famous for it’s over-dramatic plotlines and exaggerated characters, I think it deals with the 2012 end of the world well in two ways. Not only in the representation of hysteria caused by nutty conspiracy-theory documentaries (10% of Americans in 2012 genuinely did think the world would end that year), but also in the way that the characters react when the world doesn’t end. Brittany and Sam are a veritable trove of disappointment when they wake up on December 22 to a world which is still existing, saying that they were more energised and closer to their friends than ever when they thought that the end was coming.  It’s only when their teacher makes up a new date for the end of the world that the pair become content again.

Perhaps then, we enjoy living in end times? 15% of Americans believe that the world will end in their own lifetime, and taking the example of Wulfstan, as well as the 2012 “Apocalypse”, it seems that this is a trend which sweeps across the history of humanity. Like the ever-popular genre of dystopian fiction, maybe we like the idea of being the protagonist of a gritty Doomsday story?

But in my opinion, an end entails much more than just something ceasing to exist. I disagree with Hancock that the vaccine signals the ‘beginning of the end’; I much prefer the phrasing of the beginning that comes with the end. If you search for a picture of the Mayan calendar which sparked the 2012 Apocalypse theory, you’ll see that it’s a circular slab of stone, and I think this perfectly encapsulates how we should think about these ideas of beginnings and ends. After an end, inevitably comes something new; a beginning.  If we think about the Doomsday clock, a visible representation of how close the world is to destruction by means of  nuclear war, climate change, and other technological weapons, its circular clock-face perfectly represents this idea. The time on the Doomsday clock is currently 100 seconds to midnight. What will happen when the minute hand reaches the top? Will it, like a real clock, just carry on ticking, or will a human prediction about the end actually become reality?

For now, I think the predictions about COVID-19 being the end of the world (with some comparing it to the Biblical Book of Revelations) are an example of pessimism which may actually help us rationalise something new and scary. Our predictions about the vaccine cannot be so definite as the phrasing Hancock uses. Beginnings and ends never exist in the sort of binary suggested by ‘beginning’ being the exact antonym of ‘end’; it is always more complicated than we can ever successfully predict. 

Image source Pixabay.

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