A few thoughts on Russell Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ (study notes)


Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is wrought with struggles and conflicts. These present themselves in a multitude of ways. The first of these, and the most obvious, is the readers’ (and characters’) battle to decipher the text’s unique dialect/lexis. Plurality and ambiguity of meanings are deliberately created by Hoban in his chosen language, dubbed ‘Riddleyspeak’ by Will Self in the introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of the novel.

The only familiar aspects retained in Hoban’s post-apocalyptic setting are those which reinforce and compliment the sense of primal dereliction and regression. A good example is the presence of hash, not only as a recreational drug, but as a form of payment for the travelling show men within the primitive society. Hash, in fact, plays a vital role in Riddley’s world. It reinforces the hierarchy within their community that places the ‘Eusa show’ men firmly at the top.

This makes sense, as they are in the business of ‘promoting a government through collective access to narratives of dreams and dreams of narratives’, and hash is a ‘reverie-producing substance’ which encourages lateral thought and skewed interpretations. Self describes hash-ingesting as an ‘Iron Age sort of thing to do’ due to hash’s elemental feel, ‘as if it were the earth itself’.

Use of the word ‘rizla’ firmly anchors Hoban’s link between Kent in our time (‘rizla’ being the leading cigarette paper brand in 1974 (and still in 2010)) and the post-nuclear holocaust Kent Riddley’s community inhabits. Hoban achieves this by keeping the original names. Present-day readers would also recognise references within the formula for the ‘1 Littl 1’ to sulphur and charcoal, and to the desolate, damaged ‘Punch’ puppet that Riddley finds at Widders Dump. However, all the other references made in the text must be deciphered by the reader, mirroring the characters’ relationship with their disjointed world.

Experimental language of this kind has been created in literature before. For his novel A Clockwork Orange, Burgess devised a language known as ‘Nadsat’. Another example, ‘Newspeak’, was created by Orwell for 1984 as a form of commentary on mass-societal control. These linguistic concoctions provide an interesting contrast with one another, because in all three texts language is used to limit, bias and complicate the collective consciousness of both the readers and the subjects themselves (the characters).

‘Newspeak’ shares some of the peculiarities of ‘Riddleyspeak’: their words are interchangeable as verbs, adverbs, adjectives and nouns. So, ‘think’ suffices as both noun and verb, rendering the word ‘thought’ redundant. Similarly, ‘knife’ also acts as verb and noun, so that ‘cut’ is no longer required.

‘Newspeak’ has the same tendency to disregard unnecessary variation words. So, just as ‘Riddleyspeak’ dismisses the entire lexical range (e.g. ‘small’, ‘petite’, ‘miniscule’, etc.) and simply retains one word (e.g. ‘littl’), or scraps all but the simplest term (‘farness’ instead of ‘distance’), ‘Newspeak’ does the same, using prefixes and suffixes to determine the scale of variation (e.g. ‘ungood’ instead of ‘bad’; ‘uncold’ instead of ‘warm’, ‘pluscold’ or ‘doublepluscold’ instead of ‘very cold’; ‘goodest’ instead of ‘best’).

In 1984, Big Brother’s governmental ‘Ministry of Peace’ is abbreviated in ‘Newspeak’ to ‘Minipax’; Hoban’s ‘Riddleyspeak’ similarly abbreviates the phrase ‘true facts from the Ministry’ to ‘trufax from the Mincery’. Of course, in 1984, the title ‘Ministry of Peace’ is an ironic euphemism, seen as the ‘Minipax’ controls Oceania’s military power, and is really the ‘Ministry of War’. This creates a coincidental but intriguing echo alongside another phrase used in Riddley Walker containing the word ‘pax’. ‘Sharna pax’, which literally means ‘sharpen the axe’, reinforces the aggressive connotations of the governmental body literally being ‘the Mincery’ – as far as the Eusa folk are concerned, they represent the slaughterhouse and the executioner, who would like nothing more than to stick their ‘heds on poal[s]’.

In both texts, language is used by those in authority to control its users. In 1984 Big Brother effectively re-writes Oceania’s history again and again in order to fabricate an eternal war. When going into war with Eurasia, history is re-written to declare that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Riddley Walker demonstrates a similar tendency to attempt the alteration of history. Just like in 1984, written records cannot be relied upon to provide the absolute truth. A ‘Eusa show’ man attempts to rid Eusa of the blame of creating the ‘1 Big 1’ and using it as a weapon of war, despite the teachings of ‘Eusa 18’ which specifically name Eusa and Mr Clevver as the bringers of the ‘Bad Time’, guilty of friendly fire and war crimes beyond description.

However, the elimination of words from the ‘Newspeak’ language that are considered undesirable is a more malicious act than any utterance in ‘Riddleyspeak’ could describe, despite the savagery of the primitive clan when compared to the clean and clinical Orwellian Ministries. For example, the word ‘free’ is stripped of its political connotations in a bid to eliminate freedom itself. So, in ‘Newspeak’ the speaker is unable to express the concept of freedom of speech; political freedom; the freedom to disagree. It merely serves to describe the absence of something (as in ‘the garden is free of weeds’), which is ironic when you consider the absence of the freedom of the speakers of ‘Newspeak’.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity and determinism explores the concept that human thought can be limited – and even determined – by the language of the thinker. Sapir, the promoter of linguistic relativity, believed that the worlds in which different societies live are distinctly different, ‘not merely the same world with different labels attached’. Because languages represent reality differently, speakers of different languages perceive reality differently. Riddley Walker is full of examples of this philosophy. The most intriguing of these (in my opinion) is the word ‘foller’, as it has no direct translation. ‘Follerme’ has similar connotations to ‘influence’ and ‘power’, but its other main usage indicates the act of following, which is essentially a submissive act. Sapir would argue that this demonstrates a fundamental difference in the way each society collectively perceives reality.

Whorf went further. Instead of merely assuming that language influences the thought and behaviour of its speakers, he attempted to account for the ways in which differences in grammatical systems and language use determined the way their speakers perceive the world. He believed that ‘the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions, which has to be organised by… the linguistic systems of our minds’. His understanding of how we do this suits the structuralist approach well. Whorf wrote that we ‘cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances [to it]’. However, when we do this, we enter into an agreement to organise it in a way that ‘holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language’. This is known as ‘linguistic determinism’.

The idea that the use of certain words may actually manipulate and influence the reality of the speaker is directly addressed in Riddley Walker. Goodparley advises Ridley that words have a power all of their own – ‘theywl move things… theywl do things… put a name to something and youre beckoning’. The power that the individual word has within any society is certain. Words are allocated this power when we give them significance by using them to link ideas and concepts together.

Many structuralists support this view of language: as a complex system constructed from signs which can be broken down and examined. An orthodox approach to structuralist theory requires belief that the individual units of any system have meaning ‘only by virtue of their relations to one another’. This is to say that signs do not have their own intrinsic, ‘substantial’ meaning, merely a ‘relational’ one.

The plot of Riddley Walker as a whole, as well as some of the intrinsic legends/folklore of the society portrayed, revolves around the concept of deciphering lost secrets and extracting hidden information by forming links between concepts and ideas. This can often go wrong due to obvious problems with interpreting signs from the distant past, using an incompatible linguistic system to do so. Riddley Walker is riddled with plurality, ambiguity and confusion, and is thus difficult to interpret and examine.

Often in Riddley Walker, characters use incorrect terms or are without an appropriate word (signifier) to describe the concept (signified). A poignant example of this is given by Riddley, upon examination of the lump of iron which crushed his father, saying: ‘my dad ben kilt by some thing I dont even know the name of’.

However, the arbitrary nature of language ensures that the signifier of the sign is not fixed. In fact, if new signifiers are agreed by the community using them, the old ones that they replace become redundant, as they are no longer required to represent the signs.

So, the misinterpretation of historical names in Riddley Walker (whether these are place names or other nouns in everyday use) may be an irrelevant fact, as the authenticity of the newly selected words is confirmed by their agreed use within the community. The old names become redundant when the signifier (word) is no longer associated to the signified (concept). For example, if the words ‘knowledgeable’, intelligent’ and ‘intellectual’ are no longer in use, and those particular combinations of letters and sounds become alien, then they are no longer signifiers representing the ‘clevverness’ apparent in Riddley’s society. The same goes for place names, such as ‘Fork Stoan’. There is nothing intrinsic to that area of land that dictates that it is undoubtedly ‘Folkestone’, and their society’s use of the former name is as equally valid as our use of the latter. Then again, Riddley reverts to the old name for ‘Canterbury’ because ‘the new name wernt no good it wer a stanning in the mud name it dint have no zanting to it’. The new word (‘Cambry’) does not seem to hold the same beauty and meaning for Riddley as the old one does (‘Canterbury’).

Jakobson would argue that when experimenting with language of this type, the usual relation between sign and referent is disturbed, which allows the sign a certain independence as an object of value in itself’. He believed that the poetic functioning of language ‘promotes the palpability of signs’ when their poetic function is ‘foregrounded’ in our attention. Jakobson believes that words are more than ‘counters in communication’ – the words themselves have material qualities which should be appreciated.

Mukařovský reiterated his view, stating that the work of art is only perceived as such when it becomes a ‘systematic deviation from a linguistic norm’.

Saussure, however, taught that there were only two main ways, or patterns, in which units form relationships within one another within a system. The first of these is known as a ‘syntagmatic relationship’, and it refers to the linear relations between words and how their meanings are dictated by their position within a sentence. It is crucial to examine their relationships within discourse, advises Klages, because here ‘ideas of time, linearity and syntactical meaning are intertwined’.

Saussure noted that signs can also be stored in the human memory in ‘associative relationships’, or groupings. Examples of these are apparent in literature primarily in the form of metaphors. ‘Associative relations’ are important because they break patterns established in strictly grammatical, syntagmatic relations and allow for the creation of new ways of linking units.

These links between concepts and ideas do not have to be linear and obvious. A good example is a word existing in both our vocabulary and Riddley’s: ‘cunt’. Its use is illogical in many ways, as the female genitalia is an organ which provides pleasure and brings new life (‘funny what peopl will use for a hard word… the name of a pleasur thing and a place where new life comes out of’).

Structuralist critics would approach the analysis of this text as a whole by striving to ‘schematise the story in diagrammatic form’, analysing the relationship between units. To achieve this, they must fence off the text’s content in order to concentrate on its form. The focus here is placed on the relationships between various items of the story, analysing examples of ‘parallelism, opposition, inversion [or] equivalence’.

So, for example, Riddley and his father create an inversion as he is killed (a fall from high to low) and Riddley rises from low to high (by coming of age and replacing his father). When Riddley kills the ‘woar out leader’, the ‘far come close’ is taken by ‘the littl come big’. Later, as Riddley and Lissener are hunted by the ‘Mincery’, the ‘littl come big’ will be taken by the ‘far come close’.

There are examples of parallel links too, for example, between their society’s understanding of nuclear physics, their mismatched, misunderstood religion and their initiation rituals during puberty.

Another way of interpreting these links is in terms of psychoanalytical criticism. Psychoanalytic criticism is a form of literary criticism which uses some of the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature.

The two approaches of analysis – structuralism and psychoanalysis – are complimentary to one another. According to Eagleton, structuralism is the ‘modern inheritor of [the] belief that reality, and our experience of it, are discontinuous with each other’, because, ‘like Freud, it exposes the shocking truth that even our most intimate experience is the effect of a structure’.

Freud is the figurehead of modern psychoanalysis. His work depends on the notion of the ‘unconscious’, which is the part of the mind beyond consciousness which has a strong influence upon our actions. However, the unconscious is only one part of the three-part model of the psyche that Freud proposed.

Freud identified three levels of the personality – the ‘id’, which corresponds to the unconscious (the child); the ‘ego’, which relates to the consciousness (the adult); and the ‘super-ego’, which acts as the conscience (the parent).

The ‘id’ is impulsive and childlike, unafraid to express its desires. However, these desires may be opposed by another part of the self, on either moral or logical grounds (the super-ego and ego, respectively), and as such, they are repressed.

However, Freud believed that these ‘repressed desires, fears or memories seek an outlet into the conscious mind’ through dreams. He identified two processes by which real events or desires are transformed into dream images: ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’. These correspond to Saussure’s ‘syntagmatic’ and ‘associative’ groupings, although Freud’s ‘displacement’ and ‘condensation’ techniques originate from a different field of literary criticism.

Lacan, another psychoanalyst who regarded the unconscious as ‘the nucleus of our being’, drew important links which provided evidence that the unconscious is essentially linguistic in structure. Lacan provides a happy medium between the two perspectives by reinterpreting Freud in light of structuralist and poststructuralist theories, turning psychoanalysis from an essentially humanist theory into a poststructuralist one.

He stated that Freud’s ‘dream work’ mechanisms, ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’, also correspond to the two basic poles of language identified by Jakobson: ‘metaphor’ and ‘metonymy’.

‘Condensation’ corresponds to metaphor in language, where one thing is condensed into another or a complex meaning is condensed into a simpler one. ‘Condensation’ and ‘metaphor’ correspond to Saussure’s ‘syntagmatic relations’, which happen in a chain.

‘Displacement’ corresponds to the mechanism of metonymy in language, where one thing is replaced by something corresponding to it or associated with it, evoking an image of the whole thing by naming a part of it. This is similar to the ‘associative relations’ identified by Saussure.

The idea of the unconscious is actively explored, even pursued, in Riddley Walker, though the characters lack the appropriate definition for the concept. It is given many names and definitions (for example, ‘the hart of the chyld’, which is ‘that same and very thing what lives inside us and [is] afeart of being beartht’).

What they are trying to name is the origin of their shared dreams – the collective unconscious of the whole community. Self states that Hoban’s text is an examination of what consciousness is, and an analysis of ‘the confused collective dreams that humanity terms ‘history’’.

Frye goes further, seeing literature of this type as a displaced version of religion, leaning towards more psychoanalytical interpretation. He reached the conclusion that literature is ‘not a way of knowing reality, but a kind of collective utopian dreaming’, allowing the ‘collective subject of the human race’ to create archetypal figures of universal significance.

It is certainly true that religious ideals of sin and redemption are approached in Riddley Walker. There are obvious similarities between Addom’s hanging between the stag’s antlers and Jesus’ crucifixion. The ‘cross of radiant light’ depicted in the painting of St. Eustace is misinterpreted by Goodparley as a confirmation of the power they would have if the ‘clevverness’ that was once possessed by man could be reinstated, and its importance in progressing their current society beyond the crudeness of the Iron Age.  There are obvious similarities between names and ideas: between their Eusa and our Jesus, and between the Littl Shyning Man the Addom and the biblical Adam. It is ironic, though, that our Jesus and their Eusa are inverted in their roles. Modern Christianity teaches that Adam sinned by gaining knowledge from eating a stolen apple from the Tree of Knowledge, and Jesus was our saviour who died on the cross for humanity’s sins. The idea of the tree being ‘the root of all evil’ is duplicated in Riddley’s mind as he considers the possibility that ‘wrongness [could] hang therein the branches… the wrongness [could have] ben the 1st frute of the tree’.

According to the primitive religious folklore of Riddley’s community, the ‘Addom’ is hung between the antlers of ‘the Hart of the Wud’ and is torn in half by Eusa (written in ‘Eusa 13’). The ‘Addom’ becomes the ‘Littl Shyning Man’ because of Eusa’s attack. The ‘wite shadders’ that are created as he is torn apart are reminiscent of those created by the ‘1 Big 1’ – their creation and use is the cataclysmic event that brought about the ‘Bad Time’.

This act of violent separation is mirrored and echoed throughout the text. Just as ‘wite shadders’ are released when the ‘Addom’ is divided and (in the description of the painting of St. Eustace) the crucifix of Christ radiates light, the splitting of the atom releases large amounts of nuclear energy. It is implied that the knowledge of how to split the atom was the downfall of the now-archaic society, as the massive destruction caused by the ‘1 Big 1’ (the A-bomb) nearly wiped them out completely and stripped them of their modern technology and luxuries. Just like the atomic potential of all matter to unleash a powerful, violent energy, Granofsky noted that the source of all energy and power in Riddley Walker can be traced back to the dormant potentiality in everything.

This is not the only demonstration of conflict that psychoanalytical criticism would be interested in. Hoban’s text is ripe with examples of sexually violent, generational and Oedipal conflict.

The ‘12th naming day’ ritual is a good example, as it highlights the boy’s potential to mature into the man; the future father. Riddley’s entry into manhood is marked by an act of violence: the killing of a wild boar with a spear. Upon doing this, Riddley acknowledges that it is the boar’s turn to die now, but that his time to die would also come one day (‘your tern now, my tern later’).

Three days after his ‘12th naming day’, Riddley loses his father in a tragic accident. According to the logic of guilt, the father has died because his son has become a man ready to take his place. His entrance into social responsibility and sexual maturity coincides with the death, and exit, of his father.

His emerging identity as the community’s ‘connexions man’ seems to require the total extinction of his father’s identity, which actually occurs – after the accident, Riddley’s father is physically unidentifiable (the face of his corpse ‘mytve ben any body’).

The third event to dictate his pride of place within the community occurs as Riddley escorts his father’s body to the funeral pyre (the ‘bye bye bump’). The leader of the ‘Bernt Arse dog pack’ chooses to die on Riddley’s spear, thus reiterating the community’s expectation for Riddley to create a connection between these events. The resulting ‘tel’ (also known as a ‘reveal’ or a ‘connexion’), provided by Reckman Bessup, interprets the ‘old woar out leader [being] took out by a boy what aint a boy no moar’ as ‘the far come close’ (the running wolf) being taken out by ‘the littl come big’ (Riddley). Riddley is finally recognised as a man.

Goodparley also witnesses the extinction of his father’s identity, and is twice prevented from becoming a man. On the first occasion, when Abel is ten years old (before he has entered puberty) a raiding party from Outland kill his father and carry off his mother with the intention of raping her. Although Abel survives, he is denied the chance to become a man. The Outland gang enacted the ‘primal Oedipal crime’ for him, denying him the opportunity to do so (symbolically or otherwise).

On another occasion – Abel’s 12th naming day – Granser attempts to prevent the boy he has adopted from becoming a man. He does this by subjecting Abel to a gang rape. After this ordeal, Abel is informed that ‘becaws [he] ben boyin on [his] 12th naming day… [he] wd have to wait a nother year befor [he] be come a man’. In response, Abel knifes his surrogate father and leaves him for dead, violently enacting their Oedipal conflict.

The power that all men within ’the Fools Circel’ desire is linked directly to father-son conflict by Riddley as he stands near the epicentre of an atomic blast – ‘I fealt like that Power wer a Big Old Father I wantit it to do me like Granser did Goodparley… let me be your boy, I thot’.

Granofsky noted that connections can also be made within the societal folklore to Oedipal or generational conflict. One example made by Riddley to demonstrate the seriousness of the ‘Bad Time’ (in the aftermath of atomic destruction) is a story detailing the cannibalisation of a child by its parents, and their ‘saving [of] the heart for the clevver lookin bloak’ who helped them cook and eat their baby.

Another example is given in the ‘Punch & Pooty’ puppet show. Punch carries a big stick, which is clearly a substitute phallus, and uses it to beat Pooty and their baby to death.

According to Frye, literature ‘springs from the collective subject of the human race itself’. Lévi-Strauss agreed with this idea to a degree. He believed that the relations of meanings between ‘mythemes’ (mythical ‘signs’) in myths was something inherent to the human mind. This led him to observe that is the ‘myths [that] think themselves, through people’. Therefore, when studying a body of myth, we are looking less at its narrative contents than at the universal mental operations which structure the myth itself. Lévi-Strauss believed that these mental operations, such as making binary oppositions, are what myths are about.

Structuralist critics such as Lévi-Strauss maintain that as long as the structure of relations between the units contained in the texts remains, it does not matter which items are selected. Specific details about characters do not necessarily change or manipulate the story’s meaning. It is the way in which the units are placed (their sequence) and their significance as individual ‘mythemes’ (individual units with symbolic meanings) that dictates the story’s underlying message. Examination of morals, beliefs and understanding can be explored a thousand different ways using the same basic group of symbolic units (the ‘mythemes’ Lévi-Strauss describes).

For example, compare Riddley Walker with Dr David Lurie, Coetzee’s protagonist in Disgrace. Riddley’s vehement protection of the white people (the ‘Eusa folk’); the fall from grace of the white people who were once powerful (as they possessed the ‘cleverness’, the ‘1st knowing’ and ‘the Nos. of the Master Chaynjis’); the treatment suffered by the now-powerless white people at the hands of those considered by them to be inferior (as they are bred and kept imprisoned like animals, treated without kindness or respect, tortured for information by the ‘Mincery’ men); his unexplainable longing to understand how it felt to be raped (he ponders how he wanted the ‘Big Old Father… to do [him] like Granser done Goodparley’); his unexplained affinity with other animals, particularly with granting them the gift of death (the ‘Bernt Arse’ dog pack; the ‘old leader’ that died on his spear) – these are some of the individual elements incorporated into the narrative structure of Riddley Walker. They influence the underlying symbolic meaning of the entire text, and this alters depending on the way the units are combined.

However, rearrange these individual units of meaning – alter the structure – and you can reconstruct an entirely different story. David Lurie also vehemently protects the white people (in this case, whites in post-apartheid South Africa); here, too, the white people are experiencing a loss of power (as reverse colonisation sees the white people stripped of their land and rights at the hands of the black South Africans); the white people, again, suffer at the hands of those they considered as inferior and conquerable (Lucy is raped, David is beaten and set on fire, the farm is no longer a safe place); a certain longing to understand how it feels to be in the position of a rape victim (as David tries to imagine being Lucy, as he already understands how it feels to be the rapist); a curious and unexplainable pull of sympathy towards the dogs (allowing them to be treated with respect and love – significantly so in death, where the ending of their lives is seen as an act of kindness), and yet, the two texts could not be more different.


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