By the Waters of Babylon

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Metal Symbol Analysis

Metal Symbol Icon

The metal that the priests of John’s tribe gather from the Dead Places symbolizes both the tribe’s developing understanding of technology and its reliance on superstitions. John never states outright why the tribe gathers metal, but we can assume that they use it to make weapons and tools. Even though the tribe has the skills and knowledge to use the metal that they gather, they also believe that the metal can only be collected by priests, and that touching the metal before it is ritually purified will kill anyone who is not a priest. The tribe’s superstition that metal is dangerous underlines Benét’s warning about the dangers of acquiring new knowledge; and by associating the metal with both knowledge and superstition, Benét indicates to readers that the boundary between knowledge and superstition may not be as distinct as we often believe.

Metal Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

The By the Waters of Babylon quotes below all refer to the symbol of Metal. 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

The north and the west and the south are good hunting ground, but it is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal […] These are the rules and the laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place that was the Place of the Gods—this is most strictly forbidden. We do not even say its name though we know its name.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Related Symbols: Metal
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage opens the story, situating the reader in the world of the Hill People, which is governed by strict social taboos, while also disorienting us with unfamiliar terms like Dead Places and the Place of the Gods. John does not explain the laws, leading readers to doubt the laws’ validity and to question whether John himself knows the reasoning behind the laws or the true name of The Place of the Gods. Both John’s willingness to accept these seemingly arbitrary laws and his insistence that they are “well made” make him appear superstitious. The Hill People’s laws seem inflexible, but John does mention one loophole to the ban on visiting Dead Places—it is acceptable to go to these places when searching for metal. The exception implies that metal is important to the tribe—presumably for weaponry and tools—and that metal is scarce, perhaps only found in the Dead Places. We soon learn that, as the son of a priest, John helps his tribe search for metal, and that he is curious about technology and technical knowledge. In this passage, John does not seem like a person interested in the pursuit of knowledge, much less someone who disobeys (or even questions) his society’s dogmatic rules—and yet, over the course of the story, he goes on to break every single one of the laws he so piously introduces in the opening paragraph.

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There was a cooking-place but no wood, and though there was a machine to cook food, there was no place to put fire in it. Nor were there candles or lamps—there were things that looked like lamps but they had neither oil nor wick. All these things were magic, but I touched them and lived—the magic had gone out of them.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Related Symbols: Metal
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Fleeing from the wild dogs who roam the Place of the Gods, John runs into one of the towers and bars the door. Exploring the building, he finds what readers easily recognize as one of many abandoned apartments, virtually untouched since the Time of the Gods. Here, John describes what we come to realize are kitchen appliances and electric lamps in a building where the gas and electricity have been disconnected. As John roams the apartment, we can guess what John will soon know—the Time of the Gods was in fact a past human society, one much like the society the reader lives in. John is living in a post-technological future where electric appliances are unheard of. John describes technology as “magic,” and this passage reveals that he sees magic (and perhaps technology, too) as potentially dangerous—something that might kill him.

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Metal Symbol Timeline in By the Waters of Babylon

The timeline below shows where the symbol Metal 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
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...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... (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 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... (full context)
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon
...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... (full context)