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Natural human instinct motivates the mind to seek the unknown. This thirst for wisdom is fostered during one’s youth as they grow and develop. Curiosity is developed in the mind to gain a better understanding of the world around oneself. As one grows older, this longing for knowledge can be pushed to the side and forgotten as the need to submit to society becomes increasingly adamant. The fascination with creativity and personal passions are condemned by the public. The practicality of reality is that it is easier to conform to the societal system than to resist it. When one is surrounded by pressuring figures, one may find themselves starting to embrace the standards of society and put their full faith in it. Discipline and obedience become the sole traits of a character, until they are given the opportunity to explore their desires. Once the opportunity is given, the character may pursue their passions that have otherwise been ignored. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s, By The Waters of Babylon, the protagonist, John, lives in a society where conformity is necessary. Both him and his father are priests, who are high ruling figures within his tribe. He has grown up under the watchful eye of the public, and is obedient and disciplined. Developing under conformity, his personal desires and dreams from a child have subsided partially, only residing within his mind. The tribe’s past is shrouded in superstition and uncertainty, so new ideas are not accepted easily. He is proud of his tribe, the Hill people, and puts his full faith in it. He believes that his tribe is intellectually superior to surrounding tribes, and prides his village in its knowledge. As a priest, he must make a journey to discover himself and gain the wisdom that only the priests are allowed to acquire. This quest gives John the chance to seek out knowledge, at the expense of betraying his society’s ways. As his journey unfolds, the narrator makes decisions to rebel against his conformity to his tribe by traveling to the most forbidden place of all, The Place of the Gods. Pursuing his passion for wisdom may lead him to find out more about his world than he had initially intended to. As a result of the desire to learn, the protagonist’s discipline towards his society is compromised and he begins to questions what he has been taught.
During his youth and adolescence, John learns to resolve to the standards of his tribe and become the priest that his society has always wanted him to become. As a child, his father took him to one of the Dead Places to search for metal and allowed him to hold the object. The rules of society told the father that if his son held the metal and lived, he was his true son and would grow to also become a priest. The father’s trust in the rules were enforced upon John at every step of his childhood, and he was taught to believe in everything that he learned from his village. On a journey to one of the Dead Places, he opened up a jar of unknown food substance left from the Great Burning and tasted it. This action broke one of the laws, and he was punished strictly by his father, putting John in his place. His father held the protagonist to a high responsibility and he grew to take pride in it. John’s statement that the rules and laws are “well made,” present the idea that he had full faith in the system. His need to please his father and his village are at the forefront of his mind, signifying that his willingness to conform is strong. John matures to become a well-behaved and obedient young man, putting his duties before his own secret desires. He begins to make his own excursions to the Dead Places to find the metal pieces which are sacred and magical, whom only other priests may touch. His position as a priest makes John feel special and significant in his society. John’s acceptance of his role and conformity to society is because of the practicality and essentialness of his situation. It is easy for him to conform to his tribe’s laws because it is a sanctuary of comfort and certainty.
As the protagonist reaches manhood, he is sent on a quest to travel beyond the village to obtain the knowledge of the priests, but it is also an opportunity to exhibit his own desires. When he consults his father about his journey, he confirms to him that he still abides by the laws, stating that traveling to the East is “forbidden.” John still knows the boundaries of his role as a priest and he knows that punishment may be brought upon him if he does not abide, however, since he was young, he had always carried a hidden fire in his heart to seek more knowledge about his world. He takes pleasure in the fact that his tribe is a more knowledgeable and advanced society, compared to the Forest people, who are ignorant and oblivious. The narrator looks down upon the intellectually inferior tribe and knows that he does not want to be like them. He travels brave and passionate with his knowledge, but still carries his belief in the signs that the gods have sent him. His village has taught him that the gods will watch him along the way, and he takes note of every symbolic presence. The eagle, white fawn and panther are signs that have been sent to him to travel to the East. His head held high, John knows that the journey will be significant in him obtaining knowledge for his occupancy.
At the end of the mission, John’s dilemma to either make the journey back to his village, which represents a life of unfulfilled desire but ease and assurance, or to carry on and pursue his hopes of gaining knowledge, displays his internal conflict. He states that if he does not go, he will “never be at peace with [his] spirit again.” John’s conclusion that he cannot go unsatisfied any longer breaks the boundaries that have been set for him by society. John crossing the Ou-dis-on river, and stepping on to the land where the ‘gods’ lived is a significant point in this story, as his actions testify against everything that he had been taught in his tribe. His yearning for knowledge pushes him to disobey the laws and sacrifice his clarity for the unknown. When the narrator crosses the river, he sings the death song to himself. His resolve to his personal desires lead him to believe that his unruly behaviour will ultimately lead to his death, and he accepts the conditions that have been laid out for him by his society. The death song displays that he will not fully forget the ways of his origin. His longing to learn beyond what is speculated as correct, will mean that he will be punished by the gods. The narrator’s travels to the Place of the Gods tip the conflict in favour of John’s pursuit of his passions, even if it means sacrifice.
The protagonist becomes weary and prepared to be punished for his disobedience against society by the ‘gods’ as he journeys to the Place of the Gods. The land is obscure and mysterious, and he keeps in mind the stories that he has been told. These stories pressure him and torment him as makes his way across the river. Warnings that have been told, such as the island being covered in fog and enchantments, and that the ground would burn underneath, make John fearful. However, upon arrival, he notes that there is no fog, and the ground beneath his feet does not burn. His observations of the land lead John to conclude that these warnings had been merely tales, and he begins to question his society.
As the narrator roams the Place of the Gods, he discovers more about the ways in which the Gods lived, which are unlike how he had pictured them before. The magical items that he stumbles upon such as the ‘enchanted jars’ full of food, and the drinks that made him feel ‘warm and tired’ are discovered to be much more mundane than he thought. His belief in the magic and power of the gods fades gently over time as he traverses the new land. His independence grows and so does his belief in his perceived invincibility. He has defied his society and the gods, and has not been killed or punished. No harm has come his way to condemn him to doom. When he finds the skeleton of a ‘god’ in a chamber, he discovers that the being sitting before him was not a god, but a man like himself. John’s realization that the gods were humans strips his belief of the education he received in his village. He has come into awareness of the world around him as a result of him pursuing his quest for knowledge. When he returns to his tribe, he knows that he will not submit to conformity because his knowledge has been put into question. As a result of his resolve to his desires, his passions grow stronger and he will continue to explore them as he paves his path for the future.
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