Finding your way around Riddley Walker’s world
In this novel’s post-literate realm, it is harder to work out what is happening than in most fiction. But we can’t mistake its intensely human story.
We’ve had a go at understanding the language in Riddley Walker, but there are plenty more intriguing questions to answer. Such as: who is Riddley Walker? What is going on? When is it happening? And where?
The “where” is easy. It becomes apparent early on that Riddley is roaming around Kent. “Cambry” is Canterbury, a place where huge organ pipes were found and where someone called “the Ardship Of Cambry” lives. Russell Hoban explains in his afterword: “Horny Boy is Herne Bay; Widders bel is Whistable; Father’s Ham is Faversham; Bernt Arse is Ashford; Fork Stoan is Folkestone; Do It Over is Dover.” These approximations are amusing, but I can see their logic in a society that has largely lost the ability to read.
Riddley lives in a primitive tribal society reliant on iron-age technology – he uses a spear to kill a boar at the start of the book. On farms, “plows” are pulled by “oxin”. Most people shelter behind fences, beyond which is danger, primarily in the form of packs of ferocious dogs. Some characters have psychic powers. Riddley is a “connexion man” able to see omens that guide future decisions. Other information and instruction is passed on via puppet shows and there is a religion based around a legendary figure called Eusa.
It also rains, a lot. When not raining, the sky is grey and the sun struggles to break through thick clouds. This world is darker than ours and environmental disaster might have shaped it.
I haven’t found anything to indicate exactly when the narrative is set, but there are hints at nuclear catastrophe: the Eusa mythology contains stories of “the 1 big 1”, which might be a bomb, and sections of this story contain references to splitting “the Addom”.
Riddley tells us the Eusa story has been passed down by “Mincery” officials and was written in the “old spel”. It appears to be one of the most stable pieces of knowledge, but it’s easy to question where it has come from and how much it has changed in transmission. Otherwise, truth and fact are even more slippery concepts than they are in our world. The men tour the Eusa show change their performances and interpretations all the time, giving them much power.
Goodparley, one of the Eusa men (not to mention the prime minister) also possesses a rare bit of writing: a description of the painting of the Legend of St Eustace in Canterbury. Written in 20th-century English, it must have remained stable over the centuries. But even then, Goodparley’s interpretation is wild. When he reads “St Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry”, he creates a story about digging in quarries. The result is that history feels more subjective than ever. And everything these people believe seems open to question.
A few commenters here have complained that Riddley hardly ever talks about women. Some see that as a fault in the book, and it’s true that Riddley’s society feels uncomfortably lopsided. But he is a 12-year-old boy. His inability to meaningfully interact with people of the opposite sex isn’t that different to my own at that age. And there are ugly hints about the power relations in his world. Goodparley tells a disturbing story about how “7 bloaks” raped him when he was young because they couldn’t find any women. “Wives”, meanwhile, seem to be kept at home. It makes sense that Riddley isn’t able to tell us much about their world.
The one thing that we do see clearly is the inside of Riddley’s head. There’s no getting around our shared humanity when he says that horror is “like say you myt get cut bad and all on a suddn there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it”. His world isn’t like ours, but his flesh and mind is. And one of the great tricks of this novel is that by the end, the things we share in common with Riddley seem as fascinating as those that make him strange. Above all, it becomes a book about humanity.