By the Waters of Babylon

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John’s father Character Analysis

John’s father, also named John, is the head priest of the Hill People. Within the archetype of the “hero’s journey,” John’s father could be considered the guardian figure, offering John guidance at the beginning and end of his quest. John’s father encourages John to follow his visions and his instincts, but he is more cautious than his son, believing that certain kinds of knowledge can be dangerous.

John’s father Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

The By the Waters of Babylon quotes below are all either spoken by John’s father or refer to John’s father. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of By the Waters of Babylon published in 1999.
By the Waters of Babylon Quotes

“This is a very strong dream,” he said. “It may eat you up. […] It is forbidden to travel east. It is forbidden to cross the river. It is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods. [...] If your dreams do not eat you up, you may be a great priest. If they eat you, you are still my son. Now go on your journey.”

Related Characters: John’s father (speaker), John
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of John’s initiation as a priest and a man of his tribe, he goes through a ritual led by his father, the head priest. John’s father asks him to look into the smoke of a fire and describe what he sees. His vision, the story implies, will guide the journey he will make as an initiate. In the smoke, John sees the Place of the Gods. His father responds by warning that John’s dream is potentially dangerous and all-consuming, and he reminds John of the tribe’s three taboos banning him from traveling east towards the Place of the Gods; yet he also subtly advises John to go on his journey. Since initiates’ journeys are guided by their visions and their own interpretation of “signs,’ the directive “go on your journey” seems to mean “go to the Place of the Gods, even though it is forbidden to do so.” And this is how John interprets his vision and his father’s words. Within the archetypal hero’s quest, this ceremony can be seen as the threshold between ordinary life and the quest; in this context, John’s father plays the archetypal role of mentor.

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He said, “Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth. It was not idly that our father forbade the Dead Places.” He was right—it is better the truth should come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast.

Related Characters: John (speaker), John’s father (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Returning home, John tells his father that he has visited the Place of the Gods and discovered that the “gods” were humans. John wants to share this knowledge with rest of the tribe, but his father uses this argument to persuade him not to. John’s father uses the metaphor of a man chasing truth like a hunter chases deer to warn John against the dangers of gaining too much knowledge too quickly. “Eating” truth can nourish people, but consuming too much at once can poison them. John, narrating the story some time after this conversation with his father, theorizes that the “gods”—or rather, the humans who lived in the “old days”—consumed too much truth at once. This glut of knowledge, John implies, may have caused the terrible destruction of the Great Burning; the technological and scientific knowledge that allowed humans to build the towers, subways, airplanes, and kitchen appliances also led to the invention of devastating weapons. For the reader, who already lives in a world where kitchen appliances and weapons of mass destruction exist, Benét warns that we should use the knowledge we possess cautiously and pursue new knowledge with care.

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John’s father Character Timeline in By the Waters of Babylon

The timeline below shows where the character John’s father appears in By the Waters of Babylon. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
By the Waters of Babylon
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
John tells us about the first time his father, a priest (and also named John), took him to collect metal from the Dead Places.... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
...John explains that though much of what the priests do is not really magic, his father says it’s all right to let other people believe that their work is magic. John... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
When John is no longer a boy, he tells his father that he is ready to go on his journey, a quest that will mark his... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
John’s father warns John that this is a “strong” and dangerous dream, and reminds him that it... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...off the wild dogs and Forest People. After John is ritually purified once again, his father recognizes him as a man and a priest. John explains to his father that he... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
John wants to share the knowledge he has acquired with the whole tribe, but his father convinces him not to, explaining that “if you eat too much truth at once, you... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...the houses from the “Time of the Gods.” John vows that when he replaces his father as head priest (presumably, after his father’s death) he will lead his tribe to the... (full context)