By the Waters of Babylon

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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.
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon

The story’s narrative centers on the journey that John takes to the Place of the Gods as part of his initiation into manhood and the tribe’s priesthood. John’s journey is a good example of the “hero’s quest,” an archetypal story arc that is common in both ancient myths and modern stories. The “coming-of-age” journey of the hero’s quest often contains certain archetypal elements, and John’s journey has many of these. These elements include time spent in the ordinary, pre-quest world, a call to adventure, a meeting with a mentor, crossing the threshold from ordinary life to the quest, a series of challenges leading to an ultimate ordeal, a reward, and the return home with that reward.

John introduces the readers to his ordinary world in the first paragraphs of the story, explaining his identity as the son of a priest and introducing us to the traditions and laws of his tribe. John’s call to adventure appears as a series of signs which he and the other priests interpret. In John’s quest, his father plays the role of “mentor,” guiding him through the ritual purification that priests undergo before their initiation. When John chooses to travel east, he breaks the laws of his tribe and crosses the threshold from ordinary life and truly begins his quest. During the quest he faces many trials – avoiding the Forest People, successfully hunting food alone, and crossing the river and entering the place of the gods, where he believes he will die. In crossing the river, John demonstrates that he is willing to risk his life in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the city he must escape from feral dogs, and is forced to spend the night in a Dead Place for the first time. There, he has a vision of “newyork” in the time of the “gods” and finds the body of the dead god, who he realizes is a human. By undergoing the ordeal, John gains his reward—knowledge that the Place of the Gods is, in fact, a ruined human civilization, and the understanding that humans are capable of acquiring vast knowledge and power. John’s journey has transformed him, made him a man, both in the sense that he has cast off his former innocence/ignorance and in the sense that when he returns to his tribe he is seen as ready to enter the priesthood, and is likely to ascend to head priest.

The concept of coming-of-age then extends beyond John to the way that Benét represents the development of human society as a whole. The story presents three societies and cultures at different stages of technological development: the Forest People, who John describes as “ignorant” and less-advanced than his own Hill People; John’s tribe, the Hill People, who keep written records of the past and seem to have some rudimentary technology; and the glorious past society of the “gods,” who John eventually learns were humans of a technologically-advanced society. Put another way, like John with his thirst for knowledge, the Hill People exist in a middle place; they are more aware of and interested in science and history and technology than the “innocent” Forest People, but the ancient “wise” humans were so advanced that to the Hill People they seem like gods. Yet also like John, the Hill People seem ready to leave behind their superstitions and to seek the sort of advanced civilization of “newyork.”

Upon his return to the village, John reveals his new knowledge to his father and his hope that this knowledge will allow his people to rebuild the civilization that was lost. Though his father warns him against telling the people of the tribe the whole truth too quickly, he does not disapprove of John’s choice to break the laws of the tribe, telling him that the laws change over time. In saying so, John’s father implies that John has ushered in a new era in which previously transgressive acts are acceptable and even necessary. John’s father’s reaction shows that John’s “hero’s journey” and the knowledge he acquires from it has already begun to fundamentally change the way the Hill People live. And yet, his father’s warning that sharing too much truth at once can be dangerous, along with the fact that the “advanced” civilization of the “gods” managed to destroy itself, also suggests that coming-of-age from innocence to knowledge, whether for an individual or a society, is not a simple good. Rather, it is an emergence from a primitive yet relatively safe existence into a world filled with new possibilities for both progress and terrible destruction.

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The Coming of Age Quest ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Coming of Age Quest 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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The Coming of Age Quest 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 The Coming of Age Quest.
By the Waters of Babylon Quotes

I was taught how to read in the old books and how to make the old writings—it was like a fire in my heart. Most of all, I liked to hear of the Old Days and the stories of the gods. I asked myself many questions that I could not answer, but it was good to ask them. At night, I would lie awake and listen to the wind—it seemed to me that it was the voice of the gods as they flew through the air.

Related Characters: John (speaker)
Page Number: 203-204
Explanation and Analysis:

After the priests discover that John (the son of a priest) can handle metal safely, they take this as a sign that he is meant to become a priest as well and begin to educate him. The priests teach John “magical” and medical skills, and he learns to read and write “the old way.” John’s fascination with the stories of the gods and his belief that the gods speak to him foreshadow his future journey to the Place of the Gods and his vision of the Great Burning. Furthermore, John is not just fascinated by the gods, but by learning itself. John’s desire for new knowledge propels him through the story, motivating him on each step of his coming-of-age quest—and even after its resolution. Throughout the story, John describes his desire for knowledge as a “fire,” and this description recalls the traditional association between fire and knowledge. According to Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus created humans, and then stole fire from the gods and gave the knowledge of how to make fire to humans. He was punished harshly by the gods—and like the myth of Prometheus, Benét’s story warns that human attainment of god-like knowledge usually results in disaster.

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“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.

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.