Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A major part of what makes Benét’s story compelling, its language captures the dignity, simplicity, and repetition of oral tradition. For the Hill People, the ancient writings are sacred, and religion is bound up with translation and interpretation. The narrator, a “Noble Savage,” speaks in simple sentences. His repetition echoes oral chants or storytelling: “It is forbidden to go east. It is forbidden. . . . It is forbidden. . . . this is most strictly forbidden.” His simple imagery derives from nature: “like the buzzing of bees,” “cold as a frog,” “knees like water,” knowledge that is “a squirrel’s heap of winter nuts.” “Fire” and “burning” images equate the narrator’s desire for knowledge with both the Promethean gift of fire and knowledge and the destroyed city. At the beginning of his journey the narrator feels as “naked as a new-hatched bird” and his father warns him that “Truth is a hard deer to hunt.” By its end he looks forward to when he will become chief priest and vows that then “we shall go beyond the great river” for “we must build again.” That final phrase contains the ultimate irony: the human race’s eternal desire to progress contains within it the arrogance, pride, and ambition that guarantee future disaster.