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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.

Continued from page one.

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.

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