John is the main character and narrator of ‘‘By the Waters of Babylon.’’ When the story begins, he is a boy from a tribe known as the Hill People. His father is a priest who performs purifying rituals and is also responsible for traveling into the regions known as Dead Places. These are the homes where an advanced civilization, considered by the Hill People to be gods, once lived. There, he collects metal for the tribe to use. John accompanies his father on these trips when he is young. Because he does not die from holding the metal, he is considered a candidate to become a priest once he reaches manhood. John is also very inquisitive and learns as much as he can about the old gods from the few surviving books the tribe has found. He is also shown to have a rebellious streak. For example, he once tastes some preserved food left behind by the gods, even though this is strictly forbidden by tribal law. As part of his rite of passage into manhood, John must embark on a journey. For this journey, John chooses to go east, which is forbidden by the laws of the tribe. This is where the Place of the Gods is found, and it is believed that entering the Place of the Gods will lead to certain death for a mere human. However, his thirst for knowledge drives him there. To reach the Place of the Gods, John journeys for eight days and has to cross a large river, which he does by building a raft. When he reaches the Place of the Gods, he realizes that everything he has been told is untrue: it is simply a very large Dead Place. The ground is not poisoned, since grass grows and animals are found throughout. While in the Place of the Gods, John has a vision of how it was destroyed—in what his tribe calls the Great Burning. John also finds the preserved body of a dead god and realizes that they were just people. This convinces John that he must lead his tribe to rebuild the Place of the Gods and strive to re-create the greatness and knowledge that people once possessed.
John’s father is a priest for the Hill People, a group somewhat more advanced than the other prominent tribe in the area, the Forest People. As a priest, he is tasked with traveling to the otherwise forbidden Dead Places to find metal, which the tribe uses. He also performs purification rituals for those who travel to the Dead Places. When John is a child, his father takes him to a Dead Place and gives him a piece of metal to hold. This is apparently a test, and the boy passes it by not showing fear or dying from holding the impure metal. From then on, he knows that John will one day become a priest, and he helps the boy learn how to read and write in the old language of the gods. When John prepares to embark on a journey to prove his manhood, he tells his father of his plan to go to the Place of the Gods. Although his father states that it is forbidden to go there, the priest gives his son a bow and three arrows to use on his journey. When John returns, he tells his father about his experiences in the Place of the Gods. His father refuses to punish him, even though he has broken the laws of the tribe. His father officially grants him the status of priest, but he warns that revealing to the tribe too much about his experiences all at once may cause problems.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Published by Gale Group, 2010