Friday, November 5, 2010

Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, 30th Anniversary

Russell Hoban is one of my favorite authors, and Riddley Walker, his post holocaust novel, is one of my favorite works. I've read it several times and will read it again. This is the 30th anniversary of its creation.

Part of its attraction is the story and part comes from his language. It's based on the idea that after the catastrophe, no one is quite sure now what happened, England would revert to being, once again, an oral culture. Only a few would be able to read and write. During the following five hundred years, the language, without the benefit of English teachers, would change. The novel is Hoban's guess as to what English might look like five centuries after the catastrophe.

This is not a book for readers who like transparency in their reading material; one must work a bit to figure out what is written. Reading it aloud helps.

Opening lines for Chapter One. It's a first person narrative and Riddley is speaking:

"On my naming 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 looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he weren't all that big plus he lookit poorily. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and make his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later. . ."

Opening lines for Chapter Two: Riddley introduces himself:

"Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same."


Walker is my name
and I am the same.
Riddley Walker.
Walking my riddels
where ever theyve took me
and walking them now
on this paper the same.

Since England is now an oral society, poetry has become extremely important for rhyme and meter aid the memory. Here's a working song, one used to coordinate the efforts of a work crew:

Gone ter morrer here to day
Pick it up and walk a way
Dont you know greaf and woe
Pick it up its time to go
Greaf and woe dont you know
Pick it up its time to go

London Town is drownt this day
Hear me say walk a way
Sling your bundel tern and go
Parments in the mud you know
Greaf and woe dont you know
Pick it up its time to go

Traveling shows provide entertainment, and they also convey what might be the history of these people. One of these entertainments is called "The Eusa Story." It's long, so I'll only give the first two paragraphs. In the book, they are in given in paragraph form, but I find them easier to read if I see them in a rough verse form:

"1. When Mr Clevver wuz Big Man uv Inland
they had evere thing clevver.
Thay had boats in the ayr &
picters on the win &
evere thing lyk that.
Eusa wuz a noing man vere qwik
he cud tern his han to enne thing.
He wuz werkin for Mr Clevver
wen thayr cum enemes aul roun
& maykin Warr. Eusa sed to Mr Clevver,
Now wewl nead masheans uv Warr.
Wewl nead boats that go on the water &
boats that go in the ayr &
wewl nead Berstin Fyr.

2. Mr Clevver sed tu Eusa,
Thayr ar tu menne agenst us this tym
we mus du betteren that.
We keap fytin aul thees Warrs
wy doan we jus du 1 Big 1.
Eusa sed, Wayr du I fyn that No.?
Wayr du I fyn that 1 Big 1? Mr Clevver sed,
Yu mus fyn the Littl Shynin Man
the Addom he runs in the wud."

As you may guessed, the quotations are giving my spell checker fits.

There is now an expanded edition, published by Indiana University Press, that includes an Afterword, Notes, and Glossary.


  1. Wonderful quotations and blog, Fred. Brilliant to break the Eusa story into rough poetry. I blogged about Riddley today, too.


  2. Ah, yes, a wonderful book. I'll have to find the new edition.

  3. writersrest,

    Thanks for the kind words. And I agree, the language plays a significant role in making it the great novel that it is.

  4. Amateur Reader,

    The expanded edition has very helpful and interesting notes--as well as the glossary.