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

In the Iron Age of Riddley Walker, the characters know about the advanced civilization that preceded them and half remember that civilization’s idea of history as a sequence of discrete events, the etiology of the present. At the same time, however, they embrace a mythic model of history, one more appropriate to their unsophisticated culture. This second mode of historical consciousness, which Eliade calls “archaic” or “primitive,” involves the periodic repudiation or transcendence of what civilized humanity construes as historical time, achieved by frequent reenactments of the “archetypal” gestures of gods or heroes in a golden, nontemporal age. These reenactments, which commonly take place in ritual, restore the human community to a cultural dawn, obliterating the intervening time and canceling any spiritual debts. Human experience, then, has temporal substance only to the extent that it partakes of a time swallowing mythic paradigm. Eliade refers to this idea of periodic reversion to a timeless beginning as the myth of the eternal return. 

The idea that “history,” with its inevitable human lapses, can be canceled out or redeemed might seem the exclusive province of primitive societies. Eliade notes, however, that the myth of eternal return also finds expression in advanced societies—in ideas like Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence or in cyclical models of history like Vico’s corsi or the theories of the “Great Year” found in Plato and in Eastern philosophy. The myth of eternal return has even become congenial to science, as one sees in the theory of a great cosmic cycle from “big bang” to “big crunch.”

In advanced societies the myth of return sometimes coexists with the nominally more modern conception of history as a linear sequence of events, the kind of one way street in time posited in the Marxist vision of ahistorical progression from feudalism to the rise of the bourgeosie to the disintegration of capitalism and the triumph of the proletariat. A similar insistence on the linear model characterizes Christianity, with its doctrine of a beginning (the creation), a middle (the incarnation), and an end (the apocalypse). But the promise of a clean slate, the squaring of Adam’s accounts by Christ the heavenly accountant, reveals the presence of a myth of return at the heart of Christianity. Divine sacrifice cancels original sin and returns the Christian to a condition of primal innocence.

One seldom, at any rate, sees the linear conception of history in any kind of pure form in Riddley Walker. It tends to be qualified by some more archaic idea of historical time, as will be seen presently in an examination of the novel’s language, its Iron Age setting, and its most prominent plot feature (the quest to reinvent gunpowder). These features discover a congruity with the past, a historical circularity, that inevitably calls the linear idea of history into question. The idea is present, however, as a vestigial awareness on the part of a society whose ancestors embraced it, and it is present in the mind of the readers who are, after all, precisely those ancestors. But the distinction between circular and linear historical models matters less than the distinction between perceptions of history as the expression of some transcendent or divine will or as something essentially meaningless, however self perpetuating. Unfortunately, says Hoban, echoing Eliade, humanity in its sophistication proves less and less able to interpret history—whether linear or cyclical—as the reflection of any vast but coherent purpose. As one contemplates the bloody ebb and flow of human events, the appalling historical record of mass killing and meaningless bloodshed, one may begin to recognize intimations of a blind, oppressive, random yet deterministic mechanism. One experiences the terror of history. This perception, wide spread in the age for which Hoban writes, complements the metaphysical Angst first described by Heidegger and central to modern existentialist philosophy. In terms of modern historicism, humanity attempts to define itself and thereby creates history but history always, in the end, betrays those who make it.

Such is the gist of what the much less intellectually privileged Riddley Walker comes to recognize in the fifth millennium, for he can think in both the mythic terms of his primitive world and in the historically linear terms of an advanced civilization. He even glimpses the tragic significance of his age’s spiritual impoverishment, living as he does in a time when such religion as exists is largely inchoate. Beyond those “spirits of the corn and wild” that Frazer identifies as common among primitive societies, Riddley’s people have only a vague perception of “Aunty,” a kind of degenerate triple goddess of night, birth, and especially death. Riddley, however, makes up for the flea bitten spirituality of his world by his intelligence; he achieves a series of brilliant insights into the human condition in his age and in the reader’s.

Riddley lives in a backward age indeed, an age in which human life exemplifies the Hobbesian formula: nasty, poor, brutish, and short. He lives, in two senses, in an Age of Iron. It is an Iron Age in comparison with the golden age of high technology and it is an iron age in the archeological sense. This imagined Iron Age of the future, of course, mirrors the actual Iron Age of the past—the Iron Age in England, that is, which began about 500 B.C., much later than in the Near East. Hoban dates Riddley’s era in such a way as to make its distance from the present—apparently a little less than twenty five hundred years —approximately equal to the distance from the present of the original Iron Age. Thus Hoban implies a great cycle Iron Age to Iron Age of five thousand years. It is, however, a cycle unredeemed by a larger cosmic significance.

Hoban would probably know about the existence (in Hampshire, one county over from Riddley Walker’s Kent) of the Butser Ancient Farm Research Project, where archeologists have re-created an Iron Age farm as it might have looked in 300 B.C. According to Peter J. Reynolds, the experiment’s director, “Celtic society was initially one of farmers, with a warrior elite and a small class of priests and artisans.”2 Hoban seems to have imagined a moment corresponding to a slightly earlier period, when a few last settlements of hunter gatherers (the “fentses” and “moving crowds” of the novel) held out against absorption by the agricultural settlements (the “forms”) and their warrior elite (the “hevvies” and the Ram). The iron of this Iron Age seems largely to consist of found iron, the remnants of the more advanced civilization now vanished, rather than iron mined and smelted. Thus the people of Riddley’s day, though backward, have probably managed to avoid the more radical regression to a Stone or Bronze age. They have, at any rate, the essential Iron Age technology: they produce the charcoal necessary to fuel fires hot enough to melt iron.

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 and even heralds the accelerating displacement of animistic religion (the Big Boar and the Moon Sow) by more sophisticated cults like that of Eusa. 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. The reader knows, with Riddley and certain of the other characters, that in time the 1 Littl 1 will lead to the 1 Big 1, as humanity plays its own version of “Fools Circel Ninewise,” the children’s game based on a benighted ritual. An image of the foolish aspirations of Goodparley and his lieutenants, the game comes at last to represent history itself.

Like its setting, the novel’s language manages at once to reflect primitive or mythic paradigms and to demonstrate a linear idea of history. Hoban surely knows that a language would change more radically in twenty five hundred years than what he shows the reader. Riddley’s idiom, then, must be understood as a brilliantly stylized version of the English language as it would exist in the fifth millennium. The condition of language in Riddley’s milieu, in other words, should not be taken as a realistic depiction of linguistic principles, but rather as a metaphor for the scale of human disaster. A cataclysm that halts all other forms of social vitality —so Hoban asks his reader to imagine —would arrest or at least severely retard the evolution of language itself.

Yet however apparently “degenerate” in its spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary (all seem to have suffered a kind of radiation sickness),3 the language here reflects, with great expressiveness and subtlety, the world in which it exists. One thinks, reading it, of a Cockney Huck Finn whose supposedly debased dialect proves surprisingly suitable for profound observation of the social scene and the human heart. In fact, the reader encounters a genuinely poetic idiom, an illustration of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s famous contention that the language of primitive humanity is naturally and essentially poetic, that human beings must become civilized to speak prose (linguists have come to similar conclusions in studying street language and the language of the oppressed generally). The paronomasic possibilities of language seldom harnessed in writing make for apt linguistic evolutions—as teachers of Freshman Composition realize when they read in student papers that “we live in a doggy dog world.” In Riddley Walker this principle yields some equally suggestive mutations—for example, the idea that the “soar vivers”4 of nuclear holocaust find themselves “living on burrow time” (p. 203).

In addition to being intrinsically poetic, the language of this novel is a satiric index to the jargon of the twentieth century—especially that of technology, fossilized in the droll locutions and vocabulary of Riddley and his mates. Some of these survive in formulaic or ritualistic phrases, often largely divorced from any real meaning (“spare the mending” for “experimenting,” “tryl narrer” for “trial and error,” “many cools” or “party cools” for “molecules” and “particles”). Others continue to signify something, though speakers remain largely ignorant of original referents. One says “I program” to mean “I figure” or “I think”; the preterite, “programmit,” can also mean “fated.” “Pirntout” (i.e., “printout”) means “conclude,” and “glitch my cool” means “bother or trouble me.” “Input” now has a largely sexual meaning. After “doing the juicy” repeatedly, the “Bloak as Got on Top of Aunty” does not have much “input” left.

Although Hoban makes the technology that eventually brought disaster the most important feature of this language, he achieves somes of his most telling satire and historical commentary with political terms from Old Time. Medicine men of this age go around “clinnicking and national healfing” (p. 141). The chief political figure of Inland (island, in land, England) is called the Pry Mincer, a title that hints marvelously at what the common folk always impute to politicians: invasions of privacy, sexual inversion, and habits of circumlocution. This archetypally unsavory person works out of the “Mincery,” where Iron Age bureaucrats no doubt slice things pretty fine. In transitional periods, a “care maker Mincery” (p. 202) probably does little to reassure a nervous populace.

A care maker Mincery would do little to alleviate the terror of history, relief from which requires a belief that history answers to some divine purpose. In Riddley Walker humanity gropes—vainly, for the most part—for some such transcendent rationale to order its relationship to the past and to the future. Hoban re-creates the mythical value systems of primitive humanity for his vision of the future, but he ironically intimates that, given the circumstances, such value systems must lack an adequately developed spiritual or sacral dimension. The Eusa cult, more a piece of government propaganda than an authentic religion, exists as a convenient tool of the Ram, and one cannot help thinking of Orwell’s mendacious Ministry of Truth when Goodparley, that would be Big Brother, attempts to justify his new aspirations by reshaping the Eusa story. He seeks, thereby, to rewrite history.

Thus Riddley’s people lack a myth adequate to their spiritual needs. The Eusa story, a degenerate or factitious myth of the fall and of endless punishment, is unbuttressed by myths of creation or redemption; consequently it offers little to those who embrace it. In the Eusa show, as in any primitive ritual, participants unify themselves with a mythic original, for “the time of any ritual,” according to Eliade, “coincides with the mythical time of the ‘beginning'” (Myth, p. 20). Normally, says Eliade, the “annihilation” of the time intervening between the original and its ritual repetition is a desirable thing, because humanity will have lapsed or sinned or otherwise erred in the interim. Ritual squares the spiritual accounts of the people and returns them to a pristine condition, to the golden time of beginnings. But in observing a ritual that collapses the time between Eusa and themselves, Hoban’s characters return not to a golden age but rather to hell itself, that other locus classicus of timelessness. Thus the rituals associated with Eusa, the chief mythic figure of Riddley Walker’s age, merely revalidate an idea of infernal bondage. At the same time, the mythic perception of time and history functions imperfectly, so that these primitives remain acutely aware of their imprisonment in history. The Mincery, in fact, with its year counting, preserves an idea of history as a linear progression, an idea that is one of the badges of its ambiguous superiority to the primitives out in the countryside who themselves dream of recovering the greatness of their ancestors materially—not merely in hallowed gestures. Thus the two historical models, linear and cyclical, exist in a debased form, and one glimpses a tragic destiny in humanity’s inability to recapture either in its original vitality.

Part of Hoban’s genius is to have imagined the mythic life of Riddley Walker and his people with such thoroughness that the primal myth colors the interpretation of all experience. Here again one recognizes a pattern described by Eliade: “In the particulars of his conscious behavior, the ‘primitive,’ the archaic man, acknowledges no act which has not been previously posited and lived by someone else, some other being who was not a man” (p. 5). Moreover, “among primitives, not only do rituals have their mythical model but any human act whatever acquires effectiveness to the extent to which it exactly repeats an act performed at the beginning of time by a god, a hero, or an ancestor” (p. 22). In Riddley’s world, persons continually comment on themselves and on events as archetypal reflections of the Eusa Story or of the other, complementary fables whereby this race hands on its collective wisdom from generation to generation. 

The characters whose experiences reflect the Eusa Story most obviously include Goodparley, Lissener, Belnot Phist, and Riddley himself. Goodparley, for example, is, like Eusa, instrumental in inventing a terrible “new” technology of destruction; having been tortured like Eusa, he ends—again like the archetype—with his head on a pole. Riddley, on the other hand, reenacts the story most comprehensively and most redemptively. He, like Eusa, undertakes a quest with hunting dogs (dogs that actually hunt for themselves, in this instance), and he, too, finds his quarry —a terrible knowledge—in the heart of the wood that is in the heart of the stone (i.e., among the treelike stone pillars of the ruined Canterbury crypt). Here he even hallucinates the dogs walking on their hind legs, as in the Eusa story.

Riddley’s knowledge, and the quietist ethic he forges from it, makes the story something of a morality play. Riddley matures as a wise and admirable man in the course of his adventures, but only after dodging various temptations along the way. Hoban projects these temptations in the guise of Riddley’s “moon brothers,” the psychological doubles who include Abel Goodparley, Lissener, and possibly Belnot Phist. Riddley has both the “follerme” or charisma that would make him a success at politics, like Goodparley, and a measure of the psychic ability that would make him a magus, like Lissener. Like Lissener, too, he loses a father to the insane machinations of the Ram, but inasmuch as a momentary lapse on Riddley’s part may have cost the life of his father, he shares the Oedipal guilt of Goodparley, who attempted to murder his foster father Granser. Riddley becomes a fugitive, again like Goodparley, after a harrowing initiation at the time of his twelfth naming day. He threads his way between the positions represented by these two, swayed now this way, now that—until he repudiates both as dangerous alternatives.

Riddley has little difficulty resisting the appeal of the unscrupulous Goodparley, but the heteroclite spirituality of Lissener, the Ardship of Cambry, poses a more subtle temptation. Warped by his desire for revenge against those who put every succeeding Ardship to the torture, Lissener suffers disfigurement within as well as without—as Riddley eventually realizes when he discovers the Ardship’s connivance in the torture and mutilation of Goodparley. As for the effete Belnot Phist, “some kynd of brother may be even a moon brother like the other 2” (p. 146), Riddley learns from him that they perish first who play power games without sufficient ruthlessness and guile.

Riddley fends off these tempters like Thomas Beckett in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Indeed, his spiritual agon reaches its climax in the ruins of Beckett’s church. Riddley’s transcendence of the temptations around him, in other words, seems linked to his pilgrimage to what comparative religionists call the holy center, the omphalos or world navel that defines the world of primitive humanity, orienting it and making it real. “Being an axis mundi, the sacred city or temple is regarded as the meeting point of heaven, earth, and hell,” says Eliade (p. 12); “the center . . . is preeminently the zone of the sacred, the zone of absolute reality” (p. 17). Riddley’s “senter,” both city and temple, is Cambry, once known as Canterbury, and he undergoes a profoundly religious experience as he approaches it. But as noted previously, the traditional sacralization is, in this blasted future, imperfect and degenerate, and thus in the holy center he finds only evidence of human viciousness and a strange figure he calls Greanvine, emblem of an idea of human life as mere shabby mechanism, something scarcely removed from the vegetable world.

To gauge the significance of this failure of the numen will require consideration of several points, all relevant to the question of historical redemption and the prospects for escape from the terror of history. One must, for example, identify the historical Eusa. One must also probe with Riddley and his creator the role of the artist in a world potentially or actually destroyed by nuclear war. Lastly, one must consider the myth of the Waste Land in Riddley Walker, especially as it complements Hoban’s version of the fall. 

Hoban weaves into his narrative an elaborate and creative myth of original sin, for the inhabitants of Riddley’s world, “soar vivers” all, labor under a universal sense of guilt, the result of their collective emotional response to a condition of endless punishment and suffering. Based on a misreading of the legend of St. Eustace and imperfect memories of the nuclear age and its excesses, the Eusa Story is a Blakean myth of the primal error as a fall from unity into division, from a human unity with nature, that is, to the human exploitation of nature, the transgression focused in the splitting of the atom. This last detail reveals the historical component of the Eusa myth. Eusa’s identification with St. Eustace is essentially a red herring. The fortuitous preservation of the saint’s legend gave shape to a story that quickly modulated, in a process that Eliade (pp. 39 48) describes as common among unsophisticated peoples, from simple historical record to myth. The real antitype of Eusa is the country responsible for splitting the atom and thereby giving the division and alienation of modern society a basis in physics itself. Eusa, one realizes, is the eponymous projection of “USA,” the United States of America, the nation that, as the first nuclear power, gave a whole new meaning to the terror of history.

As history became myth, it blended with a much older idea of human transgression, one that Riddley intuits in a trancelike moment in the ruined crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. There he discovers a version of the Tree of Knowledge and the idea of its baleful fruit. In his story, as a consequence, he rigorously scrutinizes different kinds of knowledge, from the destructive science pursued by politicians like Abel Goodparley and Erny Orfing to the mythic and cultural lore transmitted in the tales and fables frequently transcribed for the reader. Hoban ultimately focuses on Riddley’s growing insight into the human condition—insight that enables him to distinguish various kinds of appetitive knowledge from real wisdom, scientia from sapientia. In a sense, then, Riddley produces a scriptural record, a kind of wisdom book or neo-Ecclesiastes freighted with a lesson about the vanity of human wishes. Riddley puns throughout on the phrase “hart of the wood,” but the most resonant of his punning variations are “heart of the wood” and “heart of the would.” At the heart of something one finds its most characteristic or essential part; at the heart of a wood or forest, that ancient symbol of error, one encounters moral night. Thus Riddley’s narrative, with its recurrent motif of heads on poles, ultimately concerns the human heart of darkness, construed as the heart of human volition, the human “would.” “You see what Im saying,” says Riddley, “its the hart of the wud its the hart of the wanting to be” (p. 165).

Riddley’s first interpolated story, “Hart of the Wood,” introduces this theme in terms of a primal loss of innocence. Mr Clevver, whom an earlier age called the devil, strikes a hideous bargain with an archetypal couple. He will help them cook and eat their child and thus survive—if they will give him the child’s heart. Thereafter, the heart of the child, commonly taken to represent a quintessential innocence, belongs to Mr Clevver and the powers of darkness. In other words, Mr Clevver gives knowledge—how to build a fire (these things begin simply)—for the human heart of innocence. But the fable also exists to transmit the secret of producing charcoal, a necessity for smelting iron or making gunpowder, and Mr Clevver intimates that the knowledge of fire making will later serve these very ends. Moreover, “when they bern the chard coal ther stack wil be the shape of the hart of the chyld” (p. 4). Charcoal is produced by burning wood without air; in primitive times a stack of wood would be fired after being partially covered with earth. What remained after the fire smoldered out would be charcoal. The people of Riddley’s time have come to think that the earthen and wooden lumps on the earth somehow resemble hearts—a perception the myth “explains.” “Seed of the berning,” then, “is Hart of the Chyld.” 

The sacrifice of the child figures also in Punch and Judy. Riddley wonders, even as he takes his leave of the reader, “Why is Punch crookit? Why wil he all ways kil the babby if he can? Parbly I wont never know its jus on me to think on it” (p. 220). The point, of course, is that Punch represents erring, concupiscent humanity. He is another version of the parents who barter their child to Mr Clevver, and indeed, the devil is a stock figure in the Punch and Judy show. Humanity, like Punch, “kills the babby” over and over again, without ever really meaning to give in to whatever terrible and nameless appetite prompts such cruelty.

Glumly, Riddley remarks: “Wel Im telling Truth here aint I. That’s the woal idear of this writing which I begun wylst thinking on what the idea of us myt be” (p. 117). He comes eventually, like Conrad’s Marlowe, to a recognition of the essential human reality: “Whats so terbel its jus that knowing of the horrer in every thing. The horrer waiting. I dont know how to say it. Like say you myt get cut bad and all on a sudden there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it. You all ways knowit what wer unner the skin only you dont want to see that bloody meat and boan. Never mynd” (p. 153). The dying Kurtz puts it more economically: “The horror! The horror!”

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 POWER IS NO POWER” (p. 167), 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” (p. 197). 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.

If you cud even jus only put your self right with 1 stoan. Thats what kep saying its self in my head. If you cud even jus only put your self right with 1 stoan youwd be moving with the girt dants of the every thing the Big 1 of the Master Chaynjis. Then you myt have the res of it or not. The boats in the air or whatever. What ever you done wud be right.

Them as made Canterbury musve put their selfs right. Only it dint stay right did it. Somers in be twean them stoan trees and the Power Ring they musve put their selfs wrong. Now we dint have the 1 nor the other. Them stoan trees wer stanning in the dead town only wed los the knowing of how to put our selves with the Power of the wood the Power in the stoan. Plus wed los the knowing whatd woosht the Power roun the Power Ring. (pp. 161 62)

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.”

The oneness became a manyness, and the central myth of Riddley’s people—that of Eusa and the Littl Shyning Man— reflects a radical deterioration at the heart of things. The fated protagonist of the Eusa Story pries into the secrets of nature, searching for and violating the 1 Big 1, the unity of creation. Stalking the atom, that little shining man, and splitting it apart, he discovers the great secret and the great catastrophe, the principle of nuclear fission. But in splitting the atom, presumptuous humanity made a disastrous bargain with the very principle of division, as one sees in the Littl Shyning Man’s lament under Eusa’s interrogation (which prefigures the brutal “qwiries” to which the Pry Mincer subjects the Ardship of Cambry): “The Littl Man the Addom he begun tu cum a part he cryd, I wan tu go I wan tu stay. Eusa sed, Tel mor. The Addom sed, I wan tu dark I want tu lyt I wan tu day I wan tu nyt. Eusa sed, Tel mor. The Addom sed, I wan tu woman I wan tu man. Eusa sed, Tel mor. The Addom sed, I want tu plus I want tu minus I wan tu big I wan tu littl I wan tu aul I wan tu nuthing” (p. 32).

Riddley’s story of a world lapsed from oneness into twoness contains numerous variations on dualities and sundered pairs: one encounters such cultural pairs as Goodparley and Orfing and Goodparley and Lissener, not to mention provisional pairings like Goodparley and Granser, Riddley and Lissener, Riddley and Goodparley, Riddley and Orfing. Other such features in the story include “form” and “fents,” Punch and Judy, the Punch and Judy show and the Eusa show, and the two halves of Riddley’s dog pack. The “Greanvine” figure that Riddley finds seems naturally to seek its partner, too—now Eusa, now Punch. All of these pairs hark back to the mythic idea of the sundered pair as expressed in Eusa and his wife, Eusa’s two sons, Eusa’s two dogs, and of course Eusa’s victim, the Littl Shyning Man, whose splitting in two created a catastrophic pattern. 

The story of the Littl Shyning Man resembles the myth that Socrates expounds in the Symposium: the original One whose division creates a whole world of desire, the very principle of male and female. Eusa pulls the Littl Man apart “lyk he wuz a chikken” (p. 32) and thereafter, in the Eusa show, the figure for the Littl Man is “qwite a piece of work . . . . The way hes made hes all wood hes got a woal varnisht wood body with parper arms and legs and riggit with wires so he comes in 2 or slyds back in to 1. Hes the only figger there is with a cock and balls. Like it says in the Eusa Story when he comes in 2 his cock and balls theyre on his lef side his head and neck theyre on his right” (p. 206). These halves, emblematic of the division between mind and body that perenially interferes with human wholeness, suggest the two separate parts of the traditional Taoist symbol of yin and yang.

The fall into disunity eventually brings with it a plague of destruction and ignorance that lasts for generations. Like Oedipus, Abel Goodparley seeks to account for and deal with the plague, little realizing that his researches will bring his own downfall or that they resemble the researches that brought humanity to Bad Time. Goodparley’s fate also resembles Gloucester’s, in King Lear, that archetypal study of the frangible civilizing institutions that protect humanity from hostile nature. Shakespeare, too, examines the consequences of a disastrous division, and Hoban seems aware of the parallels as he points up the Kentish setting, the journeys to Dover, the blinding of a major character, and, most suggestively, the blighted landscape.

Like Lear, Riddley Walker is a vision of the Waste Land, and thus it also echoes “Childe Roland,” Waiting for Godot, and Eliot’s famous poem. The world of Riddley Walker and his people, blasted and crippled, struggles grimly to reanimate some lost principle of fruition, to recapture some regenerative spark. Unfortunately, its political master, Abel Goodparley, seeks a too literal spark: “this here bag of yellerboy myt be the break and thru the barren year with a bang” (p. 129). Goodparley mistakenly thinks that he can redeem the Waste Land with a potent new weapon, gunpowder, or a political weapon like the state sanctioned centralization seen “when Littl Salting Fents got largent in by Dog Et Form” (p. 56).

This and other references to the aggression against Littl Salting, which bodes ill for the political future, obliquely develop the theme of the Waste Land. In his “connection” or sacerdotal gloss on the unscheduled and highly tendentious Eusa show whereby the Ram attempts to defend the recent aggression, Riddley’s father says no more than the Delphic “a littl salting and no saver.” Quietly subversive, the connection reflects the sadness of Littl Salting’s fate. For want of a “savior,” that defenseless community lost its independence, which gave “savor” to existence there. The pun points the reader toward the source of Hoban’s image in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:13) and elsewhere in the Gospels: “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned?” (Luke 14:34). In the Bible this figure defines an idea of grievous and often irreversible loss, as of the soul to sin; in Riddley Walker it serves to comment indirectly on human civilization as a salt that, after nuclear war, will have lost its savor.

The salt without savor, the world laid waste. As in the earliest versions of the myth of the Waste Land, everything is perceived as hinging on the questions that will miraculously restore the moribund land and the blighted human society that subsists on it. Hence the ritual questions that the Pry Mincer asks the Ardship of Cambry: “They jus keap hoaping some time some Goodparley wil ask the right asking and some Ardship wil say a anser whatwl break them thru the barren year” (p. 84). The old magic, however, has dissipated; the Pry Mincer always asks the wrong questions. Riddley, penetrating the Holy Center at Canterbury, arrives at the Chapel Perilous of the myth, but he fails to ask the questions that will restore the Waste Land. No such questions exist.

Like Eliot’s poem, the novel contains allusions to and echoes of other great visions of anomie, spiritual paralysis, and cultural blight. The rain that falls almost continually in this novel hints at some terrible meteorological calamity and recalls the ironic reversal of Eliot’s theme of aridity by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. One also encounters Orwell, Beckett, and Burgess here, but the most important allusions and echoes—from Anglo Saxon poetry at one end of the cultural spectrum, from James Joyce at the other—bracket the novel in such a way as to make it in effect a disquisition on the literary past as well as on other kinds of history.

A number of details in Riddley Walker recall Anglo Saxon poetry and the culture that produced it. As in “The Wanderer,” the special horror of exclusion from the community hearth is a given in this story. Eusa suffers this fate, and Riddley, Lissener, Goodparley, and Orfing all share it. The payment of wergild, the “man price” due in ancient times to the relatives of a person killed, figures here as “comping station.” As in Beowulf, the cosmic numbers three, nine, and twelve seem to receive special emphasis. Beowulf struggles against three infernal antagonists, he slays nine sea monsters, his men despair at the ninth hour, he ends twelve years of depredations by Grendel, he receives twelve gifts, twelve followers run the gamut from betrayal to heroic loyalty in the dragon fight, and so forth. The narrator of Riddley Walker embraces a similar numerology, as one sees in the three moon brothers, the three ingredients of gunpowder, the ninefold interrogation of the Ardship of Cambry, the children’s rhyme Fool’s Circel Ninewise, and Riddley’s twelve years. 

The novel’s dedication, “To Wieland,” also glances obliquely at the Anglo Saxon epic, for the Norse blacksmith god made Beowulf’s armor.5 A figure like Wieland is especially important in an Iron Age. More gifted and attractive than Vulcan, his classical counterpart, Wieland is closer, perhaps, to Dedalus, the type of the artist. Like Dedalus, in fact, Wieland created his own pinions and soared aloft. Riddley Walker, then, comes to his true calling, and to silence, exile, and cunning, under the aegis of a fabulous artificer; thus Hoban’s picture of the human condition in Inland, and his reflections on the artist’s obligation to respond to it, recalls the theme and hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Nominally a “connection man,” a kind of priest, Riddley flies clear of the nets of family, religion, and country, and moves in the course of his narrative toward being, like Stephen Dedalus, “a priest of the eternal imagination.” The ceaseless walking of Hoban’s protagonist also reminds one of Joyces’s peripatetic hero. Riddley’s formula for existential horror “bloody meat and boan” even echoes Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: “raw head and bloody bones.” Riddley, too, ends in a self-imposed exile, already engaged in forging the uncreated conscience of his race.

As Riddley executes his literary task, the writing of this narrative, and comes to recognize his literary and theatrical calling, his story modulates from Bildungsroman to Künstlerroman. Like every great artist, Riddley encounters and grapples with the eternal questions of human destiny, the “riddles” humanity has sought to answer since Oedipus confronted the sphinx. As a writer and puppeteer, he is an artist, and the novel concerns the role of art in humanity’s struggle to know itself in history and—in Hoban’s hypothetical future—to recover a lost human potential. That struggle and the artistic response to it recapitulate certain important moments in the evolution of literary art, especially vis-à-vis the authority of the state. The resurrection of Punch and Judy, for example, calls to mind the restoration of the theaters in seventeenth century England (when Punch and Judy first came to that country); the resurgence of an independent theater after a long period of authoritarian preemption, by the same token, recalls the gradual secularization of the stage after its early control by the medieval church. In the Eusa show, in fact, one glimpses a reflection of the origins of drama in the religious rituals of ancient Greece (for Eusa is this people’s scapegoat, its Dionysus or Orpheus, as well as its primal man).

But as the instrument of the Ram, the half-baked governmental authority to which all Inlanders must do at least lip service, the tragic Eusa show is compromised, and Hoban imagines comedy (Punch and Judy) as its subversive offshoot. At the end the reader sees the authority of the Ram in temporary disarray; though civil authority will reassert itself, one suspects that the subversive art of Riddley and his new “crowd” (they will become an itinerant theater troupe in short order) will continue to survive in the cracks, thereby providing the world with its honest reflection, an alternative to the deranged aspirations of political hacks and the lies or evasions of priests “pontsing for the Ram” (p. 65).

The reader also encounters Riddley as a graphic artist, for he improves and completes the picture of Abel Goodparley he discovers on a wall in Cambry. Someone has depicted the Pry Mincer as “Greanvine,” the mysterious figure that Riddley has discovered only moments previously. Riddley finds the Greanvine figure intriguing yet horrific, for it seems to represent the hegemony of mechanical nature over humanity. It depicts a man with his mouth forced open by emerging “vines and leaves” (p. 165), a “man dying back into the earf and the vines growing up thru his arse hole up thru his gullit and out of his mouf” (p. 168), a man being reclaimed by, lapsing back into, mere vegetation.

One can turn again to Mircea Eliade for clarification of the important epiphany that Riddley experiences before this figure. Greanvine represents a “return” that has nothing to do with transcendence; it can only bring terror to anyone who yearns, however inarticulately, for the numinous. Eliade takes pains to distinguish authentic myths of return from the perception or belief that history resembles or is a part of nature, whose cyclic renewal might suggest a paradigm: “The . . . ‘possibilities’ of nature each spring and archaic man’s possibilities on the threshold of each year are . . . not homologous. Nature recovers only itself, whereas archaic man recovers the possibility of definitively transcending time and living in eternity” (p. 158).

Greanvine’s, then, is the face of Adam, the universal face of mortality, and Riddley, despairing, calls it “the onlyes face there wer” (p. 166). It fits even Eusa’s head, thinks Riddley, who begins to see intelligence itself as mere mechanism (for Eusa’s head was a computer). Only Lissener seems exempt from the Greanvine face, and Riddley wonders, “What wer it made the Ardship odd 1 out then?” (p. 166). He does not answer, but the Ardship seems at once less and more than human. If his psychic faculties force consideration of the transcendental, his disfigurement and his cruelty make him seem inhuman. Either way, he gives the lie to Greanvine. 

When Riddley finds the graffito of Goodparley qua Greanvine, he understands that someone has made a statement at once political and metaphysical. In places like Canterbury, one once found paintings of the Dance of Death, the unvarying theme of which was that mortality claims princes and prelates no less than villeins. Whatever their power and whatever their airs, the mighty of this earth are still made in the image of Greanvine. Goodparley, no less than any other human being, is a fallen creature, doomed to existence in time and to kinship with the riotous vegetable world. Under the picture Riddley reads the words “HOAP OF A TREE” (p. 16). He expands the drawing, so that Goodparley is simultaneously the mortal Greanvine and a figure perched among the antlers of the great stag, the hart of the wood. Thus he also becomes the Littl Shyning Man the Addom and the “figure of the crucified savior” in the Legend of St. Eustace. As such, he represents both Adam and Christ, the antithetical figures perched in the heart of the human wood or in the heart of darkness in the “would” at humanity’s heart of stone. Riddley’s artistic gesture expresses a half conscious perception of the form divine in every human being—even in the benighted Goodparley. Or perhaps it expresses merely the wish that the human antitype be God rather than Greanvine. The hoped for tree, though Riddley cannot put all these ideas together, is at once the Tree of Life and the Cross, emblems of a hope still at least dimly familiar to Hoban’s twentieth century audience. But as Hoban sees its dilemma, humanity remains crucified between being cut off from revelation in the future and being obliged to admit its falseness in the present.

Only an idea of transcendence, says Eliade, only faith, can enable humanity to escape the terror of history. The novel contains several prospective but flawed messiahs, including Riddley, Abel Goodparley, Lissener, and perhaps Belnot Phist. All these characters, in the lunar calendar observed by their society (the custom resumes the practice of the ancient Druids), celebrate their naming days at “the second full.” If these Iron Age people of the future, like their Celtic ancestors, observe November 1, the day after Samhain, as the beginning of the new year, then the second full moon would occur some time in December, making these messianic candidates, like Christ, children of the winter solstice. All reenact the passion of Eusa, Adamic scapegoat and primal man.

A second Eusa ought to correspond to the New Adam, the savior who redeems the Old Adam and his progeny, but even in Old Time the myth had ceased to inspire faith. Now no one remembers it at all. Riddley Walker’s age lacks a myth of redemption for Riddley or some other messiah to fulfill; no one can put humanity back on the road to spiritual wholeness. Unsparingly honest, the author of Riddley Walker invokes Christian symbols but does so with a full recognition of their increasingly tenuous application to human history and the human reality. Admittedly inadequate to restoring the Waste Land, they come to represent what humanity has lost. In the last analysis, Riddley discovers no panacea for the human condition, only the “hope of a tree.” Hoban refuses to soften the terror of history.


1. Eliade introduces this idea at the end of The Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), pp. 139 162. The book will be cited parenthetically hereafter. As will be seen, I rely extensively on Eliade (in, for example, the three paragraphs following this note) in my reading of Riddley Walker. I should like to take this opportunity to say that my debt goes beyond my citations; in reading Eliade I have learned much about the way human beings conceptualize history across the cultural spectrum.

2. Quoted in Cullen Murphy, “The Butser Experiment,” Atlantic, July 1985, p. 23.

3. As Natalie Maynor and Richard F. Patteson note, “most linguists agree that there is no such thing as a ‘primitive’language or dialect . . . .” See “Language as Protagonist in Riddley Walker,” Critique 26, No. 1 (Fall 1984): 20.

4. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (New York: Summit Books, 1980), p. 121. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

5. For more on Riddley Walker’s echoes of Anglo Saxon literature, see Maynor and Patteson, p. 22.