By the Waters of Babylon

John is the narrator, protagonist, and archetypal, “everyman” hero of the story. A young man about to come of age within his tribe (known as the Hill People), John is the son of a priest and is preparing to become a priest himself. John is fascinated by the myths of the Time of the Gods, and throughout the story, he is motivated by his desire to acquire knew knowledge about the gods and the history of human civilization. As an aspiring priest, John attempts to face the challenges he encounters without fear, and he often remarks on how his fears diminish as he acquires more and more knowledge.

John Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon

The By the Waters of Babylon quotes below are all either spoken by John or refer to John. 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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer 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:

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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:

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est labo

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:

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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:

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And, when I am chief priest we shall go beyond the great river. We shall go to the Place of the Gods—the place newyork—not one man but a company. We shall look for the images of the gods and find the god ASHING and the others—the gods Licoln and Biltmore and Moses. But they were men who built the city, not gods or demons. They were men. I remember the dead man’s face. They were men who were here before us. We must build again.

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

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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John Character Timeline in By the Waters of Babylon

The timeline below shows where the character John 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
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,... (full context)
The Pursuit of Knowledge Theme Icon
The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
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John tells us about the first time his father, a priest (and also named John), took... (full context)
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John continued to visit the Dead Places and learned more about them, and eventually, he was... (full context)
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The priests teach John chants, spells, and other secrets. He learns how to read and write in the “old... (full context)
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John is proud of his tribe, The Hill People, and he mocks their rival tribe, The... (full context)
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When John is no longer a boy, he tells his father that he is ready to go... (full context)
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John’s father warns John that this is a “strong” and dangerous dream, and reminds him that... (full context)
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John leaves the village and waits for a sign. Just after dawn, he sees an eagle... (full context)
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John travels east for eight days, first along the god-roads and then through the forest, avoiding... (full context)
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John prays before the river, then looks south and sees the Place of the Gods, an... (full context)
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John knows that he will die if he enters the Place of the Gods, but he... (full context)
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John weeps as he builds the raft he will use to cross the river to the... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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John has trouble steering the raft across the river. Just before he reaches the shores of... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Exploring the island further, John finds broken stone pillars and a ruined edifice carved with the letters UBTREAS. Nearby, he... (full context)
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Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
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John explains that the gods did not hunt; instead, they ate food from magical jars. As... (full context)
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When John wakes up, a large, wolf-like dog is watching him. He throws a stone in an... (full context)
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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.... (full context)
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The Coming of Age Quest Theme Icon
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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... (full context)
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Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
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... (full context)
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Superstition, Magic, and Technology Theme Icon
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John also describes objects that he believes were once imbued with magic: a sink without water,... (full context)
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John soon realizes that he will have to spend the night in the apartment. He is... (full context)
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John wakes in the middle of the night. The fire has gone out and he thinks... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The gods, John tells us, were restless, powerful, marvelous, and terrible, and they possessed vast knowledge and wisdom.... (full context)
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In his vision, John sees the gods’ “fate come upon them” in the shape of a terrible war. John... (full context)
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When John wakes the next morning, he attempts to make sense of his vision. He now understands... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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John wants to share the knowledge he has acquired with the whole tribe, but his father... (full context)
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Still, John tells us, he has ambitions to learn more about the “gods,” what they knew, and... (full context)