Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).
Back to The Russell Hoban Reading Room.

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.

Next Page

Back to The Russell Hoban Reading Room.

Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).