On March 14th, 1974 I visited Canterbury Cathedral for the first time and saw Dr E. W. Tristram’s reconstruction of the fifteenth-century wall painting, The Legend of Saint Eustace. This book was begun on May 14th, 1974 and completed on November 5th, 1979.
– Russell Hoban, foreword, Riddley Walker
A while back the Guardian had a feature on post-apocalyptic novels, and in the list was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. I have been meaning to read this book for a long time – now I finally got round to it. It was a rewarding experience.
Reviews of Riddley Walker tend to be divided: some are repulsed by having to struggle to decipher the language in which the book is written, a version of English that, like the cities, knowledge and technology of the 20th century, has been been blown apart by nuclear catastrophe. It’s a language which as Dave Awl writes on the Russell Hoban Reference site:
recalls the ‘smashed mess of mottage’ of Finnegan’s Wake…Guttural yet eloquent, we hear in it echoes of rudimentary English (and a tendency toward sagas) that evoke Beowulf, mixed with remnants of the technological catchphrases and political jargon of the 20th Century.
I found the process of translating the words, and Hoban’s numerous geographical and cultural references intriguing and stimulating – and the broken language contributes hugely to the atmosphere that Hoban creates. This is a book to which you could return again and again, discovering something new each time.
There are trails to pursue as soon as you open the book at Hoban’s acknowledgements, where he notes the encounter with the Legend of Saint Eustace mural in Canterbury Cathedral that inspired and runs like a thread through the novel. Eustace was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of Christ between the antlers of a stag. He was then tested by the loss of his family in a series of tragic misadventures (including losing his sons to a wolf and a lion while trying to cross a river), but they were restored to him, only for Eustace, his wife and his sons to be roasted to death at the behest of the emperor Hadrian when he refused to make a pagan sacrifice. Hoban uses this legend as the basis of the myth by which Riddley Walker’s people explain the catastrophe that has engulfed humankind.
Riddley Walker is set in a post-apocalyptic Kent several thousand years in the future where isolated communities of farmers and charcoal-burners live a fearful and primitive new iron age existence in fenced settlements. Virtually all industrial and technological knowledge has been lost; instead, there is a re-telling of myths that seek to explain and draw lessons about ‘Bad Time':
‘Every 1 knows about Bad Time and what come after. Bad Time 1st and bad times after. Not many come thru it a live.’
The central myth of these people tells of Eusa who tempts fate by splitting the Addom (atom, Adam) to obtain the secret of the 1 Big 1, leading to an apocalyptic war: a morality tale of forbidden knowledge and the fall of civilization.
Riddley Walker is twelve years old, one of only a very few with the ability to read and write .
I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stanning stoans and ther backs wil talk to you.
He also inherits from his father the ability to ‘tel’ – to draw out meanings from stories and events and make prophecies. At the start of the story that he sets down, three things happen to him that seem to him to be freighted with significance. First, on the day he turns twelve he kills a wild boar, and notices the leader of a wild dog pack watching him closely.
On my namin day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.
Three days later Riddley’s father is killed in a work accident. Later that day, Riddley again encounters the leader of the wild dog pack which throws itself on Riddley’s spear. He sees this as an omen of ‘the far come close took by the littl come big’.
There is an excellent essay by David Cowart in which he explores the major themes in the novel. In it, he discusses the significance of this opening event:
Humanity, moreover, is poised to advance. Already an agricultural order seems to absorb more and more of the human energies once expended on hunting and gathering. The death of the last wild pig, with which the story opens, represents the passing of wilderness … But civilization flourishes with knowledge that in the end proves destructive. Humanity in Riddley’s time ‘roadits’ toward the more civilized order that its own past record makes ambivalent. This point comes into focus in the particular advance whose pursuit structures most of the novel: the reinvention of gunpowder.
– from ‘The Terror of History: Riddley Walker’ by David Cowart
Hoban’s narrative is enriched with cultural references and allusions – from King Lear to Punch and Judy. One day, Riddley discovers a puppet while at work digging. He describes it in this way:
This here figger tho it wernt like no other figger I ever seen. It wer crookit. Had a hump on its back and parper sewt there in the clof… The face had a big nose what hookit down and a big chin what hookit up and a smyling mouf. Some kind of little poynty hat on the head it curvitover with a wagger on the end of it.
And so the cruelty and dysfunctionalism of Punch and Judy enter the narrative. Here is David Cowart again:
Riddley recognizes the one constant in human experience. In both the Eusa show and the Punch and Judy show he recognizes the same figure of evil, whether called Mr Clevver or Mr On The Levvil (rhyming slang for the devil). Riddley’s entire narrative concerns his gathering realization that humanity’s pursuit of knowledge tends to lead it only to Bad Time. By the end of the story, he has seen the future, and it frightens him. At the same time he achieves a two tiered recognition of the danger, the moral morass, of power. ‘The onlyes poweris no power‘, he decides. Later he amends this formulation: “I sust that wernt qwite it. It aint that its no power. Its the not sturgling for Power thats where the Power is. Its in jus letting your self be where it is. Its tuning in to the worl its leaving your self behynt”. In other words, the individual must abandon self to the great totality of the universe, to be at one with it. Riddley’s most profound insight, and the moral heart of the novel, expresses this perception in historical terms that remind the reader of the familiar problems of modern civilization. He stands in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral:
[I]t come to me what it wer wed los. It come to me what it wer as made them peopl time back way back bettern us. It wer knowing how to put their selfs with the Power of the wood be come stoan. The wood in the stoan and the stoan in the wood. The idear in the hart of every thing.
Riddley’s thoughts here focus the theme of the novel. Post-holocaust humanity will yearn for the wonders of the past, but only the wisest will see that the real loss—the loss that, as it were, contained the physical catastrophe—was the fall from oneness with that “girt dants.”
This is a novel that deals with big ideas; it is atmospheric and engrossing, if you are prepared to invest a little effort at the start to understand the broken language of Riddley Walker:
Lorna said to me, ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’
I said, ‘What thing is that?’
She said, ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’
I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’
Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’
I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’
She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part.’