Tower of Babylon

by Ted Chiang

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Tower of Babylon Characters

The main characters in Tower of Babylon include Hillalum, Nanni, and Lugatum.

  • Hillalum is the novelette’s protagonist. An Elamite miner hired to tunnel through the vault of heaven from the top of the Babylonians' tower, he comes to understand both the true shape of the world and that humanity will never gain the divine knowledge they seek.
  • Nanni is a friend of Hillalum’s who forms part of the Elamite crew hired to tunnel through the vault.
  • Lugatum is a Babylonian wagon-puller who has spent his life carrying bricks to the tower’s upper reaches and welcomes the Elamites to Babylon.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789


Hillalum is the protagonist of the novelette and the character through which the reader experiences the events of the narrative. He is a miner from Elam who had never visited Babylon prior to being selected to work on the tower. Unlike most fictional protagonists, Hillalum does not have distinctive physical or personality traits that set him aside from the other characters. Functionally, he is the point-of-view character for the reader, since the story is told using third-person limited narration, but there is little time devoted to developing his particular dreams or aspirations. This is not unusual given the allegorical overtones of Tower of Babylon; Hillalum is intended to be a representative of humankind rather than his own divergent individual.

Thus, it is interesting to examine the etymology of Hillalum’s unique name. A possible inspiration for Hillalum could have been the Ancient Greek noun ὁ ἥλιος (helios, from which we derive words like “helium” and “heliocentric”). This would be in line with the galactic scope of Tower of Babylon. The sun also holds connotations of mortal hubris in Greek mythology through myths such as those of Phaethon, Bellerophon, and Icarus. Also in keeping with Greek mythology, “Hillalum” could be interpreted as incorporating the English word “hill,” perhaps in reference to Sisyphus, a mortal who was punished for his hubris in the afterlife by being tasked with rolling a boulder up an endless hill for all eternity. While the sun is a common element in myths about hubris due to the symbolism of humanity literally reaching too high (interestingly, in Tower of Babylon, the eponymous tower soars past even the sun itself), the imagery of Sisyphus could represent humankind’s unending quest for knowledge that will always remain slightly out of their grasp.

Nevertheless, Hillalum is an effective synecdoche for humankind within the world of the novelette. His journey up the tower can be viewed as a symbolic one, as Hillalum is slowly corrupted by the hubristic nature of the enterprise. When he first arrives in Babylon and stands at the base of the tower, his “senses rebelled, insisting that nothing should stand so high,” indicating a proper response to the Babylonians’ inhuman endeavour. However, by the time Hillalum reaches the top of the tower and has spent years mining through the vault of heaven, he succumbs to hubris in his final desire to “die closer to heaven than any man ever had before.” In becoming corrupted by the tower, Hillalum is forced to confront the powerlessness of mortals in the face of the divine and recognize the futility of any human effort toward progress. He manages to survive through his trip into the vault of heaven, but the text implies that this survival is in and of itself a kind of divine punishment, for Hillalum will now have to live burdened with this new knowledge.


Nanni is a fellow miner from Elam and is insinuated to be a close personal friend of Hillalum’s. Etymologically, the name is derived from Hebrew and can be roughly translated as “favored by God,” which further emphasizes the religious undertones of the story. Within the novelette, he is portrayed as inquisitive, if slightly daft at times, and his role within the narrative is often to draw exposition out of other characters. His role is perhaps too small to consider him as a proper character foil for Hillalum, and he disappears from the story entirely once the Elamites reach the top of the tower.


Lugatum is a Babylonian wagon-puller who has been working on the tower for his entire life,...

(This entire section contains 789 words.)

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transporting clay bricks to the higher platforms to be used in construction. He is a jovial and lighthearted character who introduces Hillalum and the other Elamites to Babylonian culture. Notably, Lugatum expresses his envy for Hillalum and the other Elamites, since they are destined to journey to the very top of the tower, while he is obliged to remain on the ground.


Kudda is another Babylonian wagon-puller who has a similar narrative function to Lugatum. However, while Lugatum introduces Hillalum to Babylonian culture, Kudda introduces Hillalum to life on the tower above ground. This is best shown through Kudda’s insistence that Hillalum and Nanni see a sunset from their new vantagepoint in order to observe how night does not fall all at once but gradually as the sun descends beyond the horizon.


Yahweh, or God, is a notable character in Tower of Babylon not for his presence but rather for his absence. Although the novelette deals with heavy religious themes—and the original, biblical parable narrates God’s direct involvement in punishing those who sought to build the tower—there is no tangible trace of Yahweh within the greater narrative.