The Plot

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

A plague of stoats convinces Greybeard and his wife, Martha, to leave the isolated English village of Sparcot. They take to the river Thames with their friend Charley Samuels and two other villagers, Becky and Towin Thomas. The group takes refuge downstream. Jeff Pitt, a poacher, finds them sheltering in the house of a man who committed suicide after the death of his wife.

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In his late forties, Greybeard—born Algernon Timberlane—is one of the last people born before the nuclear experiments euphemistically called the Accident disrupted the Van Allen belts and made humanity sterile. Humans and domestic animals are becoming scarce as a childless, demoralized population allows civilization to collapse. Rumors abound concerning the long-term effects of the Accident, and there are reports that elves, gnomes, and little people with the faces of badgers lurk in the expanding English woodlands.

The first of three flashbacks shows a middle-aged Timberlane’s near-fatal encounter with a local dictator. Even though both husband and wife were willing to cooperate, the strongman sent soldiers to kill them and confiscate Timberlanes recording equipment. Timberlane persuaded Captain Jeff Pitt, who was under orders to kill Timberlane, to join the couple. By forcing their van through a perimeter barricade, the three managed to escape.

Continuing down the Thames, the people from Sparcot come to bustling Swifford Fair, where charlatan Bunny Jingadangelow claims to have the secrets of youth and immortality. While Greybeard is bedazzled by the first interesting conversation he has had in years, the group is robbed. Becky and Thomas decide to remain at the fair, but Greybeard, Martha, Jeff, and Charley travel on toward the river’s mouth.

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The second flashback describes how Timberlane and Charley failed to save one of humanity’s last children. Disheartened, Timberlane joined the Documentation of Universal Contemporary History project headquartered in Washington, D.C. After training, the young man married Martha and went home to England to record the end of the world.

Still further down the river, the party from Sparcot enters Oxford. Greybeard, who had sold his documentary van to a passing peddler for food, finds it garaged there. The would-be historian spends nearly two years trying to repurchase his equipment before he decides to renounce his mission. Greybeard and Martha resume their journey. Charley joins the couple at the last moment, but Pitt, off hunting, is left behind.

The third flashback describes the events that led to a compassionate doctor arranging that Algernon and Martha become companions as children. The boys father, Arthur Timberlane, was unable to cope with the changes in his world, resulting indirectly from the Accident, including bankruptcy of his toy company and the restlessness of his wife, and killed himself in a single-car crash.

Jeff finds the three people from Sparcot lost on a newly formed freshwater sea in the Thames valley. They see a small excursion boat that has become a shrine to a religious figure, Jingadangelow under another name. Their old acquaintance Becky is among the charlatans attendants. She tells them that Towin has died. Despite the success of his pitch and the carnal company of a healthy fifteen-year-old girl, a bored Jingadangelow wants to abandon everything to travel with the four friends.

After Greybeard refuses, the captive girls beast-faced companions appear and attack the charlatan. One of them is wounded and is discovered to be a normal boy camouflaged with animal masks and skins. So precious that their lives are in danger, humanitys feral children have hidden and cared for one another. Greybeard, his wife, and the boy, named Arthur, continue down the river, along with Jeff and Charley. Although her husband is eager to begin civilization again, wise Martha has her doubts.

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