What was the Great Burning in "By the Waters of Babylon?"

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At the beginning of “By the Waters of Babylon,” we do not really know what the Great Burning was in any precise way. However, near the end of the story, we find out that the Great Burning was some kind of war involving extremely destructive, high-tech weapons.

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At the beginning of “By the Waters of Babylon,” we do not really know what the Great Burning was in any precise way. However, near the end of the story, we find out that the Great Burning was some kind of war involving extremely destructive, high-tech weapons.

At the start of the story, we are told that there was something called the Great Burning.  But at that point, all we know is that it destroyed the Place of the Gods.  It is clear that the Great Burning was something terrible, but we do not know what it was.

Later in the story, John gets to the Place of the Gods and we find out a little more.  He says that he looked and saw things like buildings and roads that were “broken in the time of the Great Burning when the fire fell out of the sky.”  So now we know that fire came from the sky, but we do not know if it was an asteroid impact or some other sort of disaster.

Finally, towards the end of the story, we find out the true nature of the Great Burning.  We find out that it was not a natural disaster but a war between the beings that John thinks (at that point) were gods.  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. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction.

This shows us quite clearly that the Great Burning was a war fought with advanced, destructive weapons that John cannot comprehend. This story was written before the discovery of nuclear weapons, but Benet clearly anticipates the creation of some sort of superweapons that could destroy whole cities and kill large populations. The Great Burning was a war fought between modern people using such weapons.

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