Themes and Meanings
Originally titled “The Place of the Gods,” this Stephen Vincent Benét story initially seems to be set in an unspecified, early period of American Indian history. It is, however, actually a prophetic warning of dread future possibilities. Although modern people’s almost magical powers have allowed them to harness electricity and nuclear power, build subways and elevators, drive cars, fly planes, and create washers and driers, electric stoves, and refrigerators, Benét warns that people must still learn to control the savages in themselves that lead to war and annihilation.
The forbidden river of the story, with its “bitter waters,” is the Hudson River (“Oudis-sun”); the “god-roads” are complex highway systems; the door with no handles is an elevator entrance; “ubtreas” is the “Subtreasury”; the statue of “ashing” is of George Washington, and the other great men are Abraham Lincoln, Moses, and, ironically, Biltmore (reflecting the grandeur of the Biltmore Hotel); the “chariots” of the vision are cars and trucks; the magic torches are electric lights; the falling fire that causes the “Great Burning” and the poisonous mist is from a super bomb, and the resultant fallout causes radiation poisoning. This past civilization is thus present-day civilization; present-day people are the dead whose secrets the Hill People seek.
Writing two years before World War II began, with a sure sense of the destructiveness of World War I and a fear of the new technological might that would be unleashed in a second world war, Benét envisions the possibility of people bombing themselves back to the Stone Age. Before the fire-bombing of Dresden or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Benét looked into the human heart and read there the strange mixture of positive and negative that could compel human destruction: a thirst for knowledge, experimentation, advancement, and control of natural forces coupled by ignorance, internecine conflict, and a willingness to use power before its disastrous potential is fully understood. His young narrator is proud of his own tribe’s superiority to the Forest People; he enjoys outwitting them and makes fun of their food (“grubs”) and their inability to detect his stealthy movements; he is a capable hunter with an instinct for the kill. In other words, the seeds of competition and of conflict, of racism and of blood sports are present, ready to grow alongside the narrator’s growing technical knowledge.
The title heightens the poignant ironies: “By the Waters of Babylon” takes the reader back to the origins of Western civilization, to the Tigris and Euphrates and a magnificent ancient culture savagely destroyed, then later rebuilt. The title suggests that this pattern of two steps forward, three steps back, is an ancient one, endlessly repeated. The narrator’s references to “chariots” reinforces that connection with Babylon. The title also recalls the haranguing warnings of Old Testament prophets. The human race, as personified in the enthusiastic neophyte priest, is forever a sorcerer’s apprentice—who knows just enough for self-injury, while failing to learn from history. History is cyclical. Great nations rise and fall. Just as mighty Babylon fell, forever losing its secrets and greatness, so, too, might New York fall. In each beginning are the seeds that will produce an ending. This story is prophetic about nuclear and human destructiveness, and seems more possible today than it did when first published, eight years before the first nuclear bomb was exploded.