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.
Rivalry, War, and Destruction ThemeTracker
Rivalry, War, and Destruction Quotes in By the Waters of Babylon
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.