By the Waters of Babylon

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By the Waters of Babylon Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the story’s opening paragraph, the protagonist and first-person narrator, John, recounts the laws of his tribe. It has been forbidden since the beginning of time, he says, to travel east, to cross the great river, or to visit or look at the Place of the Gods, which was destroyed in the Great Burning and is now populated by spirits and demons. Only priests and the sons of priests are allowed to visit the Dead Places, and even then, they only go to collect metal. After the metal is removed from the dead places, the priests and the metal must be ritually purified.
John lists tribal taboos but he does not explain why it is forbidden to visit certain places, why only the priests can collect metal, or what the Dead Places, the Great Burning, or the Place of the Gods are. As a result, readers are immediately intended to see these laws as superstitious, and are likely to view John and his society as culturally “primitive” and perhaps pre-modern. 
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John tells us about the first time his father, a priest (and also named John), took him to collect metal from the Dead Places. John tells us that they went into an abandoned house where there were bones in a corner, and that though he felt afraid, John tried to hide his fear and act the way the son of a priest is supposed to act. John discovered that he could handle the metal without being harmed, and his father took this as a sign that John would become a priest one day.
Though the tribe’s beliefs about metal are superstitious, collecting the metal represents John’s first steps towards adulthood and priesthood. Whether or not the metal poses a real danger to most people, John’s choice to face his fear foreshadows his future choices to do things that frighten him in order to gain practical and spiritual knowledge.
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John continued to visit the Dead Places and learned more about them, and eventually, he was no longer afraid of them.
John discovers that knowledge of a once-frightening thing can diminish his fear of that thing.
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The priests teach John chants, spells, and other secrets. He learns how to read and write in the “old way,” and how to heal wounds. 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 is fascinated by all his new knowledge, and he is hungry to learn more about the gods and their past civilization.
John learns that people sometimes superstitiously mistake technology for magic, but he still believes in and is fascinated by magic. The priests’ lessons only increase John’s powerful desire for new knowledge, and his ambition drives the story forward.
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John is proud of his tribe, The Hill People, and he mocks their rival tribe, The Forest People, for their ignorance. He laughs at how the Forest People eat grubs, and boasts that the Hill People spin wool into yarn and preserve old writings, and that their priests dress in white robes (all these qualities differentiating them from the Forest people). Yet he expresses a desire to learn even more than the priests of his tribe can teach him.
John’s comments remind readers that while religion and technology are markers of human culture, religious and technological differences are frequently a source of conflict between societies. John’s hunger for knowledge continues to grow and will soon lead him on his journey to the Place of the Gods.
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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 initiation as a man and a priest within the tribe. John first undergoes a purification ritual. As part of the ritual, his father asks him about his dreams, and John describes a vision of the Place of the Gods. John tells the reader that he has always seen this vision.
The purification ritual symbolically transforms John from unclean to clean; the quest will transform John from boy to man and from layman to priest. The quest is ritual but also personal, guided by John’s “dreams”—both his visions and his ambition for knowledge.
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John’s father warns John that this is a “strong” and dangerous dream, and reminds him that it is forbidden to travel east, cross the river, or go to the Place of the Gods. John affirms that he understands the laws, but adds to the reader, “it was my voice that spoke and not my spirit.” John’s father tells John that he will always be his son, even if he does not become a priest, and he sends John on his journey.
John’s father’s warning is ambiguous. John’s father warns him that it is forbidden to go to the Place of the Gods, but he does not tell him not to go there. He also tells John to make his journey, which implies that John should follow his vision and go to the Place of the Gods, even if doing so is dangerous or forbidden.
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John leaves the village and waits for a sign. Just after dawn, he sees an eagle flying east. John knows that signs can be sent by bad spirits, so he decides to wait for another sign. Just before sunset, he sees three deer and a white fawn going east—this is a strong sign, so he follows them, even though traveling east is forbidden. When a panther attacks the fawn, John kills the panther with a single arrow. He takes this as a sign that he is meant to travel east on his journey.
John does not explain to the reader what the signs he sees mean, or why they are trustworthy or untrustworthy. It seems John may be interpreting the signs without any particular method and is instead following his instincts or looking for “signs” to justify his own desires and ambitions.
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John travels east for eight days, first along the god-roads and then through the forest, avoiding hunting parties of the Forest People. One night, when he camps near a Dead Place, he finds a knife in a dead house. Eventually, he reaches the sacred Ou-dis-san river, which no one in his tribe has ever seen before.
The peripheral presence of the Forest People is a reminder that that John is not entirely safe. The “god-roads” John walks along appear to be abandoned highways, and the Ou-dis-san river may be the Hudson River in New York.
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John prays before the river, then looks south and sees the Place of the Gods, an island filled with “mighty and ruined” towers “too big to be houses.” Afraid that the gods will see him, he returns to the edge of the forest and spends the night there.
Coupled with John’s description of the Ou-dis-san (Hudson) river, this view of the island is the reader’s first clue that the Place of the Gods may be a ruined, post-apocalyptic New York City.
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John knows that he will die if he enters the Place of the Gods, but he also knows that if he turns back without fully satisfying his desire for new knowledge about the gods, he will never be content or at peace with himself. Though he is afraid to cross the river, he decides that he will do it anyway.
The Ou-dis-san recalls the River Styx, which separates the worlds of the living and dead in Greek mythology. John continues to pursue knowledge in spite of his fear and the laws of the tribe, showing he values knowledge over life or society.
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John weeps as he builds the raft he will use to cross the river to the Place of the Gods, paints his body for death, and says funerary prayers. He feels cold and clammy, but his ambition and desire for knowledge burns like a fire within him.
The death rituals reveal to us the depth of John’s fears, but also emphasize the duality between body and spirit. John is prepared to face bodily death in order to satisfy his spirit’s desire for knowledge.
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As he crosses the river, John sings his death song, in which he proclaims his courage and enumerates the challenges he has overcome during his journey. Yet, at this moment, John does not feel brave. For the first time on his journey he feels truly alone, and he realizes that the knowledge that he so prides himself on is not enough to prepare him for whatever lies ahead.
The contrast between the boastful tone of John’s song and the fear that he feels shows the limited power of John’s present knowledge. Here, John is stripped of the fearlessness he sees as central to his identity as a future priest. Crossing the river marks the quest’s point of no return.
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John has trouble steering the raft across the river. Just before he reaches the shores of the Place of the Gods, the raft overturns, but John manages to save his weapons, including the knife he found in the dead house, and his bow and arrows.
John’s near death is a reminder that the forces of the natural world (and perhaps the spirit world) are stronger than John’s technical knowledge; alone, he is at their mercy.
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As he enters the Place of the Gods, John is amazed to discover that many of the things he had been told about it are false: the ground does not burn anyone who steps on it, and while it is true that the Place of the Gods is an island, it is not inhabited by evil spirits, and the air is not filled with enchanted fog. Instead, John sees ruined towers and “god-roads.” What is more, there do not seem to be any gods on the island.
Both John and the reader begin to gather new knowledge. John confirms that the priests’ myths are not entirely accurate. John’s descriptions also confirm to the reader that the island is an abandoned New York City, locating John’s story in the reader’s future.
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Exploring the island further, John finds broken stone pillars and a ruined edifice carved with the letters UBTREAS. Nearby, he sees a ruined marble statue of a man or a god who as long hair pulled back into a ponytail. A cracked plinth says that the figure’s name is ASHING. Though John is not sure who ASHING is, he decides, out of caution and respect, to pray to the figure.
We can conjecture that the marble ruins were once neo-classical government buildings; UBTREAS once read “Subtreasury,” while ASHING is likely a statue of George Washington. Benét implies that Washington and wealth were the “gods” of American society.
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The Place of the Gods has very few trees: its landscape is almost entirely made from metal and stone towers, and John describes how many buildings are carved with words and numbers that he believes have magical properties. However, John sees many animals: a fish-hawk, butterflies, pigeons, wild cats, and eventually, wild dogs.
Repeatedly John associates “magic” with forms of human technology. The city’s landscape is entirely man-made and unnatural, but the animals (many of them once-domesticated species) show that the city is being gradually overtaken by nature.
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John explains that the gods did not hunt; instead, they ate food from magical jars. As a child, John once found some of this food in one of the Dead Places and tried it, but his father punished him, warning that the gods’ food can be poisonous to humans. Now, John decides that he will look for this kind of food rather than hunt since he has already done many things that were forbidden and come to no harm. Eventually, he finds fruits and an alcoholic drink that have been preserved glass jars, and after eating, he falls asleep.
Readers may begin to suspect that the gods were in fact humans; the “magic” food is likely canned or otherwise preserved and pre-prepared, and is another example of John’s conflation of “magic” and technology. We can also see the logic of the tribe’s ban on consuming such food: even preserved food does eventually go bad, so eating it likely poses a health risk (echoing many ancient religions’ bans on certain foods).
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When John wakes up, a large, wolf-like dog is watching him. He throws a stone in an attempt to frighten the dog away, but it does not seem to fear him. The dog follows John as he walks further along the god-roads, and John soon realizes not only that he is being followed by a whole pack of wild dogs, but that they are hunting him.
The greatest and most unexpected threat to John’s safety during his “hero’s journey” comes from wild dogs—creatures without “magic,” language, or weapons. In the face of animal hunger and brute power, John’s knowledge is nearly useless.
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Just as the dogs begin to rush him, John finds a door into one of the towers (John also calls them “god-houses”) that opens. He slams the door behind him, shutting the dogs outside.
John’s human-ness (in the form of his ability to open doors) saves him from the dogs and leads him into the “god-houses.”
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The building itself is strange and fascinating. John describes a narrow room with bronze doors without handles and, apparently, no way of being opened. After climbing many flights of stairs, he finds a door that he can open (the lock has been broken). It leads into an apartment. Before he explores the rooms, John stands in the “anteroom” by the entrance and tells the spirits who he believes live in this place that he is not a robber.
Readers can recognize the “god-house” as an apartment building; the “narrow room” is a hallway or lobby, and the mysterious doors are elevator doors. The “anteroom” where John prays is the entryway of the apartment. All of these spaces, though recognizable to the contemporary reader, are completely unfamiliar to John.
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The rooms are dusty and stuffy, but appear untouched since the Time of the Gods. John describes the soft furniture and carpeting, and the paintings on the walls. He seems particularly struck by painting of flowers that appears blurry and abstract when viewed up close, but looks realistic when viewed from far away. The rooms are also full of books, and John takes this as a sign that the apartment was once inhabited by a wise god.
The paintings seem to be examples of Impressionism or Pointillism. John’s awe at seeing books highlights that signs of social prestige are relative to culture. For us, rare paintings are often a sign of wealth, but for John, the books indicate the homeowner’s knowledge (and, thereby, prestige).
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John also describes objects that he believes were once imbued with magic: a sink without water, and with things marked “hot” and “cold” that do not feel hot or cold to the touch; a stove without wood or a place to light a fire; another mysterious “machine” for cooking; and lamps without a wick or oil. John wishes he understood the magic that once made these things function.
John’s descriptions of electric appliances as “magic” cement the reader’s potential sense of superiority to John’s society. But then again, Benét seems to ask, how many of us know exactly how our oven works? It’s also possible that John simply uses “magic” to mean what we mean when we say “technology.”
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John soon realizes that he will have to spend the night in the apartment. He is afraid to sleep in a Dead Place, but if he sleeps outside, he risks being attacked by the dogs. It gets dark, and though John has not yet explored all of the rooms, he decides to make a fire in the fireplace of a large room with windows overlooking the city. Weary, he soon falls asleep.
John’s choice to spend the night in the apartment is motivated by fear as much as it is by his desire for knowledge. The fire he builds recalls the symbolic association between fire and knowledge, rooted in the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity.
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John wakes in the middle of the night. The fire has gone out and he thinks he hears voices and whispers. He tells us that though some may think that what happened next was a dream, he believes that the experience was the work of “strong magic.” John closes his eyes to try to go back to sleep, but soon he feels his spirit being drawn out of his body. John insists that he is not lying—as a priest and the son of a priest, he does not lie, and he believes that the spirits in the Dead Place wanted to speak to him. John tells us again that he felt his spirit being drawn out of his body, adding that he could look down and see his body lying in the room below.
John has distinguished spirit and body before, but now his spirit is physically separated from his body. Whether or not gods or spirits are communicating with John, Benét seems to differentiate between the “magic” metal, kitchen appliances, or preserved food, and this “strong magic,” which cannot be explained as a form of technology that John does not understand. Benét intends for us to believe that John’s out-of-body experience is truly a prophetic vision.
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Looking out through the windows, John is amazed to see that the City of the Gods is not dark, even though it is night. There are so many lights in the city—some of them blurred by motion—that John can barely see the stars. John is terrified and overwhelmed by the brightness of the lights, and by a strange roaring sound. Looking out on the city, John realizes that through some kind of powerful magic, he is seeing the city as it was in the Time of the Gods. John tells us that, if his spirit had been in his body when he had this vision, he believes that he would have died of shock. John watches as the gods and their chariots fill the streets, and he is amazed to see that they travel in every direction, even to the other side of the earth, building roads and tunnels—even flying!
Readers understand that John is witnessing New York city lit up at night by electric light—an astounding sight for a person from a society without electricity. The ocean-like “roar” is the sound of traffic; the “chariots” are cars, and the “gods,” we understand, must be humans, who fly around the world in planes and ride trains and subways that travel underground. Though John does not fully understand what he sees, readers understand that modern humans possess powers that once were only ascribed to gods.
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The gods, John tells us, were restless, powerful, marvelous, and terrible, and they possessed vast knowledge and wisdom. John describes himself as child in comparison to the gods and says that if they had possessed any more knowledge, they would have been able to pull the moon out of the sky. Yet John knows, too, that the gods did not always use their knowledge well.
John’s description of the “gods” leads us to reflect on how modern people choose to use technology. The gods’ near-ability to pull the moon out of the sky suggests that knowledge gives humans power that is god-like: both miraculous and the potential source of a cosmic disaster.
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In his vision, John sees the gods’ “fate come upon them” in the shape of a terrible war. John emphasizes that this war was not like the skirmishes between the Hill People and the Forest People; while men die in those fights, the gods’ war brought devastating destruction on a scale that John finds difficult to describe. Fire fell out of the sky onto the people in the streets and toppled the towers, he tells us. The island was covered in a poisoned mist, and the gods ran through the streets in terror. Only a few of the gods escaped, and city became a Dead Place. The poison from the gods’ weapons remained in the ground for years. As John watches the gods dying before him, he weeps, and the city grows dark.
John’s vision shows how increasingly advanced weapons results in increasingly destructive warfare. The “fire falling out of the sky” and “poison mist” likely reference civilian bombings and the use of poison gas—military technology first introduced during WWI, which took place just a few years before the story was written. Though nuclear weapons had not yet been invented, the poison in the ground seems to foresee the consequences of radiation poisoning.
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When John wakes the next morning, he attempts to make sense of his vision. He now understands that a war among the gods created the Dead Places, but he still does not understand what caused such terrible war and destruction. John looks through the apartment, hoping to find an answer, but the house itself puzzles him. John seems puzzled by his own puzzlement, too—even though he is a priest and the son of a priest, he finds he cannot completely understand his vision or the things in the apartment.
John’s vision has given him horrifying, but incredible, knowledge of the Great Burning, yet he finds once again that acquiring knew knowledge simply raises more questions and makes him hungry to learn more. Once again, the story is pushed forward by his pursuit of knowledge.
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As he explores the apartment, John finds the dead god sitting in a chair by the window, as if he is looking out over the city. At first John is afraid to draw close to the body, but when he does, he studies the god’s face closely. He can’t tell the god’s age, but he sees from his expression that he was wise, sad, and brave. John realizes that god chose to stay in the city, watching the city die with the knowledge that he himself would die, too. In doing so, John says, the god stayed true to himself: he lost his life, but did not lose his spirit. Though the body is surprisingly well-preserved, John believes that if he touches him, the body will crumble into dust. And, as John studies the body, he realizes the god is in fact a man—that the city was built and inhabited by humans, not by gods or demons.
John’s discovery of the dead god marks the end of the “ordeal” stage of his hero’s quest. Finding the body then leads him to his “reward”—the realization that the gods were truly humans. At the same time, this human is god-like in many ways—he seems ageless, and though he is dead, his mummified body remains miraculously life-like. His face shows no fear. John again distinguishes between body and soul, saying that this man did not lose his spirit. John believes that being fearless in the face of death is a holy quality and the mark of a true priest.
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After he learns that the gods were, in fact, human, John tells us that he lost all of his fear. He returns home unafraid, fighting 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 went to the Place of the Gods and learned that the gods were humans, then asks his father to kill him for breaking the laws of the tribe. John’s father tells him that the laws change from generation to generation. It seems that, in making his journey, John has re-written the laws of the tribe.
John’s new fearlessness shows that he believes he now possesses the ultimate knowledge. John fully comes of age, and his declaration to his father shows that he, like the dead god (presumably), no longer fears death. John’s father’s reply suggests the reader that the tribe’s laws are not as dogmatic as John earlier implied; in fact, the priests adjust the laws in response to new knowledge. Whether the people obeying the laws recognize this, however, is left more unclear.
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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 may die of the truth.” John’s father suggests that, perhaps, the “gods” learned too much too quickly, and by doing so, they brought about their own destruction. John tells us that his experience as a priest has since shown him that his father was right.
John’s father’s advice suggests that knowledge is neither inherently good nor bad, but it is powerful. When we learn too much too quickly or apply our knowledge too rashly, our power may have unintended consequences. John’s father also implies that knowledge should be protected by those who can use it wisely (in this case, the priests)—a controversial idea.
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Still, John tells us, he has ambitions to learn more about the “gods,” what they knew, and how they lived. Now, the priests go to the Dead Places to gather books as well as metal, and to study the “magic tools” in 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 Place of the Gods. Saying so, John calls the Place of the Gods by its name for the first and only time in the story—“newyork.” There, John says, his tribe will learn more about the gods ASHING, Licoln, Biltmore, and Moses, and they will rebuild the city.
John confirms what readers have now long suspected—that the Place of the Gods is New York City. Yet by saying so, John breaks the final taboo of the tribe (he has already traveled east, crossed the river, and visited the Place of the Gods), symbolically moving into a new era. John seems confident that he will replicate the technologically advanced society of the “gods,” but his confidence in his own knowledge feels like a repetition of history, suggesting that human society may rebuild itself only to face yet another disaster.
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