Notes on Riddley Walker

by Michael Sullivan

Riddley Walker narrates the book that carries his name. He begins his tale recounting events from his twelfth birthday, and the pace is brisk. The opening sentence records a death, and by the fourth paragraph we are into the first myth, called "The Hart of the Wood." At first the word "Hart" appears to simultaneously refer to the center of the wood, to a stag found in the legend of St. Eustace, and to the heart of a mythical child. The child's parents, facing certain death, cut out the child's "hart" and exchange it for fire. Late in the book, however, Riddley recalls the "hart of the wud.," changing "wood" to "wud," meaning "would." The question then becomes, what is the heart of the would? Russell Hoban, the author of Riddley Walker, loads his words with so much meaning that a walk through this book sometimes feels more like a steep climb in thin mountain air.

Riddley's narrative provides a frame for a series of myths about life, death, sex, and technology. Several myths in Riddley Walker's world link advancing technology with destruction. More than two millennia have passed since a great apocalypse, and people living around Cambry (formerly Canterbury) appear incapable of developing new technology. Riddley's people are foragers, and their myths warn them that settling on the land is a step down a dangerous path. Even people's speech discourages the precise kind of thinking needed for technology. Language appears to serve the heart more than the mind. Sentences lack commas and periods; they no longer partition ideas into neat compartments. Riddley truncates words, spells them phonetically, and generally shapes them in ways that loosen familiar associations. Words no longer serve as simple labels, rather they create networks of meaning. Homonyms merge into one spelling, acquiring a rich ambiguity. Hoban transforms English, the precise language of science, into a more poetic form.

The Eusa Story is the central myth in Riddley Walker. Its 33 numbered paragraphs tell a cautionary tale of technology. Many of the book's characters are official interpreters of the Eusa Story. The two top government leaders are puppeteers who dramatize the Eusa story in road shows. Riddley, like his father before him, is a "connexion man," interpreting the Eusa shows for his tribe. Riddley's friend, Lorna Elswint, is a "tel woman" whose role is to explain signs and portents, often referring to the numbered sections of the Eusa story.

Hoban creates the Eusa myth by weaving together threads from the legend of Saint Eustace, from computer technology, and from the splitting of the atom. Taking full advantage of Riddley's special language, Hoban never rests while playing with words and their meanings. The last sentence of Eusa 5 is a marvel of word play, each word loaded with multiple meanings: "Sum tyms bytin sum tyms bit."

In Chapter 3 Lorna Elswint tells us the story "Why the Dog Wont Show Its Eyes," another technodrama. Man got 1st knowing (consciousness?) by looking into the dog's eyes. Then he got 2nd knowing (cleverness) by looking in the goat's eyes. Which led to fences, landholding, property rights, and eventually to lots of counting. The story builds to a technological climax:

...Cudnt stop ther counting which wer clevverness and making mor the same. They said, "Them as counts counts moren them as dont count."
Counting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up....
They had the Nos. of the sun and moon all fractiont out and fed to the machines. They said, "Wewl put all the Nos. in to 1 Big 1 and that wil be the No. of the Master Chaynjis." They bilt the Power Ring thats where you see the Ring Ditch now. They put in the 1 Big 1 and woosht it roun there come a flash of lite then bigger nor the woal worl and it ternt the nite to day. Then every thing gone black. Nothing only nite for years on end. Playgs kilt peopl off...."

It is a fact of life that sex and death are intimately related. Joseph Campbell notes that in many cultures the god of death is the lord of sex. In Haitian Voodoo tradition the death god, Ghede, is also the sex god. The Egyptian god Osiris plays similar dual roles. Russell Hoban adds technology to this potent combination. Here is the first paragraph from the story, "The Bloak as Got on Top of Aunty" (included in Chapter 12 of Riddley Walker). If you care to meet Aunty's sister, Arga Warga, you will need to read the book and finish this story.

Every body knows Aunty. Stoan boans and iron tits and teef be twean her legs plus she has a iron willy for the ladys it gets red hot. When your time comes you have to do the juicy with her like it or not. She rides a girt big rat with red eyes it can see in the dark and it can smel whos ready for Aunty. Even if they dont know it ther selfs the rat can smel if theyre ready.