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By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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What does John reveal about the Forest People in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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In "By the Waters of Babylon," John, of the Hill People, notes that his community is slightly more advanced than the Forest People. The Forest People, unlike the Hill People, eat grubs, have lost their literacy skills, and don't spin wool. We also learn that the Hill People and Forest People are enemies who sometimes kill each other. Both groups are the remnants of our civilization, which destroyed itself in a nuclear war.

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John uses the Forest People as a standard by which to judge his own group, the Hill People. While humanity seems to have become more primal since the nuclear holocaust that wiped out civilization, there are differences between communities, of which John is well aware.

The Forest People eat grubs, which the Hill people do not. They do not spin wool on a wheel as his people do, and their priests do not wear special white robes. They also have lost the literacy skills that John's people, to some extent, retain. John also contrasts himself to the Forest People by saying they are afraid of the Dead Places, which he is not.

While John contrasts his people favorably to the Forest People, it is also clear that his own culture is not much more advanced. For example, John assumes it is "strong magic" that protects him from being seen by the Forest People, and it is possible he believe the magic also safeguards him from being killed by them, when, as he notes, they could have easily done so.

We learn, too, that the Hill People and the Forest People are enemies, as John mentions having killed them and also having been chased by them for two days once. However, it seems that the slightly more advanced Hill People are in a better position to take advantage of the knowledge John knows they can glean from the lost civilization.

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John says that his people, the Hill People, are "not ignorant like the Forest People . . . We do not eat grubs from the trees, we have not forgotten the old writings." From this we can infer that the Forest People, at least from John's perspective, are rather primitive and uncivilized. When John says that "we have not forgotten the old writings," this also implies that the Hill People and the Forest People have shared roots. They both, it seems, were faithful at one time to "the old writings."

On his journey, John passes many "Dead Places." He says that "The Forest People are afraid of them but I am not." Here then John implies that the Forest People are cowards, but, more interesting perhaps, is that John seems to continually use the Forest People as a reference point by which to define his own character. He defines himself in opposition to the Forest People.

On his journey, John also passes "hunting parties of the Forest People without their knowing." The intended implication here is that John, by virtue of his magic, has managed to fool the Forest People. However, this reference to the Forest People could once more tell us more about John than it does about them. It seems more likely that the Forest People do see him but are indifferent to his presence, rather than that they don't see him because he has magically made himself invisible.

A little later in the story John remarks, about a particularly vulnerable moment on his journey, that "The Forest People could have killed me without fight." This adds to John's impressions of the Forest People as brutish, violent and primitive.

Ironically, many of the failings which John accuses the Forest People of are arguably failings that he and the Hill People are guilty of too. The fact that he and his father read signs in sticks thrown to the ground, might, for example, be deemed a rather primitive form of divination. And, as we learn at the end of the story, John and the Hill People have also been guilty of the ignorance that John accuses the Forest People of. John and the Hill People have been ignorant as to the true nature of their gods.

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A careful reading of the text reveals tiny little clues about the Forest People, that John scatters throughout his narration.  The first mention of them come as he describes his own people.  He says that his people are "not ignorant like the Forest People" because they spin and sew their own clothes, and can read.  The Forest People have become illiterate and can't read "the old writings" like the priests in his tribe can.  He also mentions that the Forest People eat "grubs from the trees."

The next mention is that the Forest People are "afraid of the Dead Places," meaning, any place that has been nuked or destroyed by the "great burning" that was probably a nuclear holocaust of some sort.  The Forest People stay away from those areas, and from the city of the Gods.  He also mentions that the Forest People travel in hunting parties, and "could have killed" him if they came across him.  So, they are a people that kill and fight often, hunting their game and killing those that do not belong in their tribes.

The overal impression that is gathered from these descriptions is that John and the Forest People are a lot like the original Native American tribes--they both have different ways of living and gathering food, and different traditions and cultures.  It is that feel, in fact, that makes this story so intriguing, because at first glance, it is a story set in ancient tribes, but in reality it is in the future.  I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

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In "By the Waters of Babylon" who are the forest people that John is so afraid of? 

The world that John lives in is much different from our modern civilisation; in fact, it resembles ancient tribal communities much more, where people grouped together in families, and grew from there, forming tribes.  Maybe compare it to Native American tribes, like the Cherokee and Sioux.  And, many Native American tribes fought with each other; they were enemies fighting for resources, territory, and over cultural differences and blood feuds.

So, in John's society, the "Forest People" are just another tribe, who emphasize different things, who live in a different area, and who have different customs than John's people do.  He mentions that the Forest People are "ignorant," which, according to him, means that they do not know how to read the "ancient writings" and they don't spin wool like his people do.  Instead, they "eat grubs."  Later, on his journey, he mentions how he passes by an entire "hunting party" of Forest People, without them even seeing him, which means that he is blessed on his travels.  Later, he says that as he sleeps,

"The Forest People could have killed me without fight, if they had come upon me then, but they did not come."

So obviously the Forest People pose a dangerous threat--they would most likely kill John if they saw him.  This alludes to a feud between the tribes, and animosity and violence between them.  So, he is afraid of them at first because they probably hunt down and kill anyone belonging to his tribe.  But, he feels protected on his journey, and escapes any encounters with these dangerous people.  I hope that those thoughts help; good luck!

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