Daily Archives: December 1, 2020

The Shape of History [2] (303/415)

The world of Riddley Walker is often described as being set in a post-apocalyptic Iron Age, a temporal paradox that automatically raises the issue of the relationship between Past and Future. The Iron Age is a fairly nebulous periodization that comes apart with any effort to accord it a global scope. As with so many efforts to elaborate a coherent World History, it depends on where you’re looking. Iron technologies began to proliferate in Anatolia more than a thousand years before they became widespread in the North. If Herodotus’s Histories mark the Iron Age’s end in the Near East, it doesn’t terminate in Western Europe until the Roman conquest. In Scandinavia this watershed moment arrives only with the Viking Age 800 years later.

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The Terror of History (303/415)

The Terror of History:
Riddley Walker

by David Cowart

Excerpt (pages 83-105, 220-21) from David Cowart, History and the Contemporary Novel (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989). Copyright 1989 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


Winston Churchill, commenting on the atomic bomb, remarked that “the stone age may return on the gleaming wings of science.” In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban imagines Churchill’s prophecy as fulfilled and looks to the moment in the postholocaust future when humanity, well into its second Iron Age, begins once again to pursue knowledge that will destroy it. Hoban conceives of history as something tragically lost in this blighted future, and in part his story concerns a culturewide yearning to know the more splendid past. He imagines a primitive society surrounded by evidence of its more civilized origins. Thus two antithetical conceptions of past time—primitive and civilized—coexist within the novel and constitute a dialectic in terms of which Hoban examines “the terror of history”—Mircea Eliade’s phrase for the suspicion or conviction that history answers to no transcendent rationale.1

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