By the Waters of Babylon


Stephen Vincent Benét

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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

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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:

“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:

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:

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:

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: