By the Waters of Babylon

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Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in By the Waters of Babylon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Theme Icon

The rivalry depicted in the story between the Hill People and the Forest People is based on differences that may, at first glance, strike readers as insignificant. Early in the essay, John says, “our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the tree, we have not forgotten the old writings.” The apparent triviality of these differences has two important, and related, impacts. First, it emphasizes how “tribes”—different groups of people—will always find differences on which to build rivalries, regardless of the trivialities of those differences. Secondly, it becomes clear that the tribes’ reasons for rivalry are not very different from reasons – technological differences, religious differences, cultural differences, and educational differences – used to fuel rivalry among different groups today. The rivalry between the Hill People and the Forest People in the post-technological world of the story, then, can be seen as both a criticism of the essentially silly and superficial reasons for rivalry between groups of people and, at the same time, a recognition that rivalry between different groups are fundamental and inescapable aspects of human society.

Benét further raises the stakes around rivalry by making it clear that rivalries lead to deadly conflict and war. Throughout the story, John expects that if the Forest People stumble across him during his quest, they will try to kill him. John sees such conflict as natural, matter-of-factly stating that he has seen men die in the skirmishes between the Forest People and the Hill People.

Furthermore, as John continues his quest to the Place of the Gods, he discovers that the “gods” were in fact humans who destroyed themselves through war. As John says: “When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned.” The “fire falling out of the sky” seems to describe aerial bombings of civilians, and poisoned mist is likely a reference to mustard gas, a deadly chemical weapon first developed during World War I (1914-1918): the war that erupted in part as nationalist feelings overwhelmed the larger international empires that had held sway in Europe for centuries before. World War I ended just twenty years before “By the Waters of Babylon” was written, and the war itself might be described as an explosion of tribal rivalries. It is worth noting, too, that the story was written just a few years before the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945), which was driven in part by the Nazis’ belief in their own racial/tribal superiority. Benét had joined the US military as a civil servant during World War I, and in the 1930s he was deeply worried by rise of fascist political parties in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Benét feared the impact of the increasingly deadly weapons that had been developed during WWI, and “By the Waters of Babylon” was published a few months after Spain’s fascist National faction targeted civilians in the 1939 Bombing of Guernica, sparking international outrage and humanitarian concern. The knowledge that John brings home from his quest carries hope for the future – hope of recapturing a lost technological civilization – but the story is clear that such technology won’t necessarily cure people of their tendencies toward rivalry and war, and will only make the impact of any future wars all the more terrible.

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Rivalry, War, and Destruction ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Rivalry, War, and Destruction appears in each chapter of By the Waters of Babylon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Rivalry, War, and Destruction Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

Below you will find the important quotes in By the Waters of Babylon related to the theme of Rivalry, War, and Destruction.
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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We are not ignorant like the Forest People—our women spin wool on the wheel, our priests wear a white robe. We do not eat grubs from the tree, we have not forgotten the old writings, though they are hard to understand. Nevertheless, my knowledge and my lack of knowledge burned in me—I wished to know more.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

As he learns the secrets of the priests and studies the “old writings,” John begins to differentiate his own tribe (the Hill People) from the rival Forest People in terms of cultural, religious, and technological differences. Just as the reader likely sees John and his tribe as superstitious and backwards, John sees the Forest People as “ignorant” and therefore inferior to the Hill People. John’s measures of ignorance—eating habits and religious garments—seem arbitrary, however, and the lack of logic behind John’s judgements emphasizes that the value of any practice is culturally relative. What’s more, we can see from our own world that cultural, religious, and technological differences are often sources of conflict between groups of people. By placing such a familiar conflict in an unfamiliar world, Benét suggests that this kind of conflict—like religion and technology themselves—is an intrinsic part of human society.

“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.

If I went to the Place of the Gods, I would surely die, but, if I did not go, I could never be at peace with my spirit again. It is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit, if one is a priest and the son of a priest.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

After traveling east for eight days, John reaches the bank of the Ou-dis-san river. He believes that if he crosses it and enters the Place of the Gods, he will die, and he considers turning around. Yet in spite of his overwhelming sense of fear and the prospect of certain death, John decides that he will continue on his quest. John believes that the spirit and body can be separated from one another, and he makes a distinction between spiritual life and the life of the body. Ultimately, he believes, one’s spirit is more important that one’s physical body, and John is willing to sacrifice his life in order to pursue spiritual knowledge and remain true to himself. Furthermore, John says, it is a priest’s duty to do so. Throughout the story, John describes fearlessness as one of the qualities of a true priest, and here he attempts to face death without fear. Though John has not yet discovered the Dead God, he later applies similar language to describe the Dead God, saying he has lost his life but not his spirit.

When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction. […] Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell it. But, even after the city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground. […] It was darkness over the city and I wept.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Related Symbols: Towers
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

John spends the night in the apartment. He then wakes in the night to find his spirit floating out of his body, and has a vision of the city in the Time of the Gods. This soon becomes a vision of the Great Burning, a terrible war between the gods. “By the Waters of Babylon” was written shortly after WWI, a war which saw the first use of aerial bombings and poison “mustard” gas, and during the Spanish Civil War, which saw strategic aerial bombings of civilians. Benét’s first readers would have easily recognized the weapons John describes as the dangerous new military technology that that resulted in enormous casualties during WWI. Though the story was written before the invention of nuclear weapons, John’s description of poison that remains in the ground for many years and renders the city a Dead Place seems to prophesize the long-lasting consequences of nuclear radiation. Benét warns the reader that the advanced scientific knowledge and technology of modern society may ultimately destroy it. John’s vision shows readers that knowledge may be power, but power is dangerous.

After witnessing the city’s destruction, John says, “I wept,” an allusion to the first line of the Biblical Psalm 137, which reads, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” The psalm recounts the grief of the ancient Hebrews after they were taken prisoner by the king of Babylon and forced out of the holy city of Jerusalem. Like the Hebrews, the “gods” were forced from their city by a terrible war.

He had sat at his window, watching his city die—then he himself had died. But it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit—and you could see from the face that his spirit had not been lost. I knew that, if I touched him, he would fall into dust—and yet, there was something unconquered in the face.
That is all of my story, for then I knew he was a man—I knew then that they had been men, neither gods nor demons.

Related Characters: John (speaker), The Dead God
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

The morning after his vision, John searches the apartment for clues that might further explain the Great Burning, and he enters a room he did not explore the night before. There, he finds the body of the Dead God seated in a chair by the window. John describes the Dead God’s face using language that he previously used while recounting his own decision to cross the Ou-dis-san river and enter the Place of the Gods. John continued his journey based on the rationale that “it is better to lose one’s life than one’s spirit,” and he repeats that phrase here. Throughout the story, John has attempted to become truly fearless, but never quite succeeded; always the fear returns, and his fearlessness becomes an act of bravado. Yet the Dead God appears to have faced death and the destruction of his city without fear; his peaceful face is the embodiment of John’s notion of fitting “priestly” behavior. In finding the Dead God, then John makes the greatest and final discovery of his quest: the “gods” were humans. Within the archetype of the hero’s quest, this knowledge can be described as John’s “reward,” with which he will return home. Like any “hero,” John’s quest and the knowledge he acquires during the quest transforms him; on the journey home, he is amazed to find that he fears nothing.

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.