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Stephen Vincent Benét's By The Waters of Babylon: Summary and Analysis

Stephen Vincent Benét's By The Waters of Babylon: Summary and Analysis
Stephen Vincent Benét is one such writer who is still remembered for his exhaustive work on the effects of Civil War and the detriments it posed in the times to come. 'By The Waters of Babylon' narrates the story on similar lines which guides the reader to comprehend and be thoughtful of a time that is imminent owing to the mindless actions we indulge ourselves in. Penlighten gives you a summary of the same.
Samarpita Choudhury
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Benet was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize for his narrative poem, John Brown's Body which narrated the Civil War events.
By The Waters of Babylon is a work of fiction that narrates about the self expedition undertaken by John, the son of a priest. He goes on to explore for himself the forbidden land which perhaps was brought to dust by a catastrophic Apocalypse long before in history. The land is known to the tribe as the 'land of the Gods'. It was magical and mysterious.

The write-up is written as a short story, and is narrated in the first person. The narrator is John himself, who traversed on the forlorn path to acquire knowledge. The backdrop is set at a time which is after a destructive war.

He does things that are barred by his forefathers. The story narrates about his myriad experiences which he accumulated over time. His undying quest for knowledge and his inquisition to know the unknown, triggered him to follow a path of peril. But he didn't perish. He was there, very much alive to narrate all about his experience and newly acquired knowledge. He started his solitary journey as an amateur traveler, and ended as a knowledgeable guide who possessed wisdom that was unheard of by people of his time. He was therefore a learned priest. This article will summarize the many encounters John had during his voyage, the biggest encounter being his realization of truth, which was a total antithesis of the popular belief. Please read the following paragraphs given below to know about the message the writer leaves for us.
By The Waters of Babylon - Summary
Setting the story
The story begins by informing the reader about the list of things that are forbidden to be done by the commoners. The narrator of the story, John is the son of a priest and therefore is expected to become a priest. Through the story he says about the many things that he has done, and experienced. These were all labeled as the 'Don'ts' by the tribe he belonged to. It remained so, since time immemorial, until John broke the law and became an exception. It can be understood from the below given quote which comes in the opening paragraph of the story.
These things are forbidden-they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.
Revelation of Power
We also get to know that priesthood at that time was considered supreme. Therefore, they had the liberty and the rights to do things that were not to be done by the rest of the clan. They were held in high esteem and they also had the power to perform tasks that were deemed impossible by the common man. According to them the priest is knowledgeable and wise, and his knowledge is to be limited only to himself. Consider the following line.
It is forbidden to go to any of the Dead Places except to search for metal and then he who touches the metal must be a priest or the son of a priest.
I was taught the chants and the spells-l was taught how to stop the running of blood from a wound and many secrets. A priest must know many secrets-that was what my father said.
Seeking Knowledge
John belonged to a tribe that was not primitive or behind time. They were the people who were civilized and knew the importance of knowledge and did activities pertaining to the norms of civilization. They spun wool to make fabric, they hunted and they also read and write. But John was more inquisitive in nature. He always took efforts to know more about the unknown. He had a hungry spirit that yearned to gather knowledge irrespective of the source of knowledge. This is evident from the conversation given below that he had with his father.
I wished to know more. When I was a man at last, I came to my father and said, "It is time for me to go on my journey. Give me your leave."
Good to Go!
Owing to the quest for knowledge, John was granted the permission to go on his expedition. He was conferred priesthood, and thus began a maiden chapter in his eventful life. John set on this unusual journey after being blessed by his father in the following words.
"My son," he said. "Once I had young dreams. 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."
The Signs
John saw a number of signs when he began his journey to go towards the east, the land of the Gods, the forbidden path.
The Eagle
Three deer and the Fawn
The Panther
These signs were taken as confirmation by John. He was doubly sure that he was destined to go on the path that no one took. His resolve was now more intense.
The great Discovery - Ou-dis-sun
This was the mighty river that was not to be crossed. It was deep and big. On the southern side was the Place of the Gods, the reason behind this expedition of John.
John's Determination
Undaunted by the fears of attack by the forest people, or the fear of losing his life, John wanted to row across the river, and go to the Place of Gods. He knew that this was not a child's play to do what he had done, and to continue doing so. But he held knowledge above everything. He was brave and fearless as expressed in the quote below.
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.
The Great Discovery - continued...
John rowed across the river, swam across it, and was now right on the land of the Place of God. He now knew that contrary to the common belief that the land of the Place of God always kept burning, John was standing on a cold piece of land. It wasn't at all burning, though there was some mystic air around it. The place was also laden with the marks of the great destruction that had come over the place and reduced it to ashes. There were, for sure, the marks of the burnt, and the ashes of the same. There were also towers and buildings which stood in ruins, though all not broken. There were untrod roads that grew grass, there were also nests of birds, and there were also schools of butterflies that flew around. There were engraved letters on stones, one of which read, 'UBTREAS'. John also found for himself a statue of a man whom he considered God or demigod. It bore the name, 'ASHING'. The following lines from the story testify it.
I went there and looked about me-there was a carved stone with cut-letters, broken in half. I can read letters but I could not understand these. They said UBTREAS. There was also the shattered image of a man or a god. It had been made of white stone and he wore his hair tied back like a woman's. His name was ASHING, as I read on the cracked half of a stone.
John was now in the mansion that housed the Gods. He was standing in the stark darkness of the night and found himself looking for answers and the ample knowledge which has drawn him so close to death.
I found it at last in the ruins of a great temple in the mid-city.
Within the building he discovered many things that appeared strange to him. He saw there were lamps without oil and wick, he found there was some machine to cook food which had no firewood. He also discovered taps with no water. He found the elevator, and also an array of books that were not readable to him. There were also photographs that hung from the walls, and there were paintings too. He was overwhelmed and thought to himself that he was in a magical place. The following lines from the story describe his state aptly.
There was a washing-place but no water-perhaps the gods washed in air. 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. Let me tell one thing to show. In the washing-place, a thing said "Hot" but it was not hot to the touch-another thing said "Cold" but it was not cold. This must have been a strong magic but the magic was gone. I do not understand-they had ways-I wish that I knew.
The Great Revelation
John had a vision in the dead of the night. He could see for himself the city of the Gods which remained a matter of great anticipation to all in his small village, including himself, lest he wouldn't have been here amidst death. John could see strings of light illuminating the city of the Gods, their towers and buildings and their roads. It was fascinating for him to see the marvel with his own eye. John saw the lives of the Gods. Their equipment eased out their lifestyle and their work. They did things that no man in John's village could even deem possible. They had mighty ships to sail through the seas, they had the planes to fly across the sky. There wasn't anything that remained impossible for their talent and knowledge. They were successful, they were mighty, they were invincible, they were magical, they were the Gods!

He saw them fight against each other with weapons he had never seen. There were explosions and noise. There was fire and smoke. He had never seen a fight such as this he was witnessing. There was devastation all around. This was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction he was told about in his village. He saw for himself the great fight that ruined the Gods' city, but he failed to understand why the Gods fought amongst themselves and destroyed themselves. There was this answer which he was looking for.

Realization now dawned over him. He found the answer to the question he was searching for so long. He knew that these Gods in the Gods' city were not Gods at all. They were not demons either. They were men just like him and his fellow villagers. He now conquered his fear, and received the great enlightenment.
John came back to his village, alive and wise. He met his father with great contentment. His father was proud of all his accomplishments. John said to him that he had done the forbidden. He went to the land of the Gods. He knows the truth. He knows that they were men and not Gods. He told every detail of his journey to his father who listened to him, awestruck. He wanted to tell his story to the entire village. But John's father thought otherwise, and thus stopped him. He asked him to keep the knowledge and share it over time, not at once, as too much of unexpected knowledge causes unrest in the minds. The following words testify the same.
He was right-it is better the truth should come little by little.
The New Mission
John was certain that there were people who preceded them. It was their signs of devastation that remained on the other side of the river. It was a city in itself, built by men of that bygone era. He said that they would all go as a team to find out more about this lost city, about the great men of that time, so that they build afresh. They must build a new city in place of the destructed one. This was a new beginning of a new journey. Consider the following line below.
They were men who were here before us. We must build again.
By The Waters of Babylon - Analysis
* John is a fictitious character who belongs to the fictitious era in the time-line. The river mentioned in the story is none other than the modern-day river, Hudson in the New York city of the US. It is now easier to comprehend that the city mentioned in the story, Babylon is the New York city of the present times.
* An interesting feature of the story is that it has been set in the future. By saying this it is meant that the writer has envisioned the scenario that would prevail after a destruction of immense magnitude struck a full-fledged city like New York. He guides the reader to foresee the outcome that would be no less than a mayhem, post destruction.
* In this light we must now know that, the writer has written the story bearing in mind the astounding effect wars can incur in the lives of the masses, not to forget their ability to bring the mighty cities down to mere ashes.
* The possibility of an ensuing post nuclear war can't be rejected outright. After all, the entire world is eager to amass the maximum armors and be a nuclear country in all sovereignty. How can then one forgo the imminent nuclear war in the future. This wouldn't be wise to ward off the possibility for long as the world is soon proceeding towards a dead end.
* The writer has wittily written about the possible circumstances that could be taking place after the war ends and civilization suffers a dead blow. The generation post the war would be automatically taken to a period which is several eras behind. This is not an impossibility.
* Let's imagine that the world comes to an end. There is a standstill in all fields ranging from science, technology, transportation, communication, literature and the like. What next? The obvious answer has to be a trailing world. In the absence of the above discoveries and innovations, the world would be carried over several centuries behind and thus have to start afresh from scratch. John belongs to such a time in future.
* For a person like John who is unaware of the technical excellence, would be startled at such equipment and machines which we use today as part and parcel of our daily lives. He saw all of it, analyzed it, and learned that there were no divine forces that reigned at that time. They were very much humans who were at the pinnacle of advancement. However, they were divided amongst themselves and ended each others lives on a bitter note.
* In the story there are occasions when John admits that he is unable to find the reasons for such wars. He was perplexed at not being able to find out the reasons to wage such self-destructive wars, which only caused disaster, and nothing more than that. He accepted that the 'Gods' in the story were powerful, but at the same time they were horrible. He saw that they all died except for a few who escaped. But that escape was momentary. They too died, eventually.
* John then resolves to head the goal of connecting the broken lines and build a new tomorrow, a better tomorrow in the same lines that it was before during the times of great men like Lincoln, Moses, and the like.
Theme and Setting
They were men who were here before us. We must build again.
* This quotation from one of the concluding paragraphs of the story help us to know about the theme of the story. It is commendable that the writer has transported us through his exquisite narrative skills to a time in future which is beyond many people's contemplation. His catalytic skills are supreme, and therefore, we can well understand the obscure after effect of something like a nuclear war. We are common, laymen, who eat, sleep, work and make merry, seldom bothered about things which don't affect us immediately directly. But this attitude towards everything that is unseen is just not right.

* The author emphasizes that we are amidst immense scientific exploration which grants us the ability to do many things to be on the top of the list of excellence. But do we sit back and analyze the effects of such experimental revelations. Do we ever question twice before adopting the new discoveries everyday? Do we realize that learning too much and practicing that knowledge too early without evaluating the cons can actually lead us astray, more towards the detrimental effects before allowing us to bask in the sun of success and fulfillment. Scientific expeditions are true, they are real, but exploring and applying them too early in massive amounts can lead to destruction.

* Man is competitive in nature. He urges to be on the top, he competes with the fellow humans around. So is true for countries. Therefore to achieve nuclear excellence is on the top of the agenda for many sovereign nations in the present times. Same was true centuries back during the World War I and II. Hence many places were almost effaced from the face of the earth. The writer wants us to realize this and get hold of the uncontrolled situation, else this would call for the end of another civilization, and the world would again be plunged into the darkness of ignorance and backwardness.
The climax of the story is when John finds himself right in the City of Gods, in the towers where they lived. He saw the various equipment and machines he never laid his eyes on. He saw all for himself, he saw the vision which explained to him that how the war had taken place, and how men died of the many weapons that were used freely. The effects of such weapons remained for years to come, even after the war ended.

He then realized that those 'God' like beings were not Gods at all. They too were humans just like him, having the advantage of technical excellence. That's when he was blessed with a new knowledge. That's when we as readers get to know about a new fact that didn't exist earlier, and our interest to know more escalates.

Though this story is unreal, yet it does provide us with a message that is real. It is a matter of fact that given the time we live in, and the rat race we tend to run, we are fast approaching a time of total destruction. This story stands true for all the years to come, until our ways are mended.