(My own copy)
"People ask me how I got from St. Eustace to Riddley Walker and all I can say is that it's a matter of being friends with your head. Things come into the mind and wait to hook up with other things; there are places that can heighten your responses, and if you let your head go its own way it might, with luck, make interesting connections."
in "Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
The first major influence for our 12-year old hero is tel-woman Lorna. Her teaching is the 1st Knowing, the pure awareness at the background of all sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions. Riddley becomes in tune with this force of nature, that is generally obsured in humans by the over-busy mynding, programing, trying to outmanoeuvre the others, eg Goodparley for the Big Power. Riddley is able to tune out, of the human mind, to listen for directions from the 1st Knowing. He can be dog friendly, and later, is chosen by the dog leader, his nexters and the pack who eventually follow him and become his hevvys, while Ardship of Cambry is dropped. This is the great indicator that the Force is with Riddley.
But he is also almost lost to the resistible pull of the dark force when he senses the past Big Power at the now ruined Power Ring. There is a most powerful scene summarized like this: 'Not jus my coc* but all of me it wer like all of me wer coc* and all the worl a cun* and open to me.' That's the Power all the players succumb to: look at Abel, after losing everything and his eyes, once he knows Granser can make 1 Littl 1 happen, he forgets all and wants a piece of that Power again. But not Riddley, it is meant to be he cudnt hol it at the Power Ring, and he discovers the True meaning of the hart of the wud in the hart of the stoan: 'Onlyes Power if No Power'. Later he realises more: 'Its the not struggling for Power that’s where the Power is.' He stays away from Granser's experiment when they gone bang.
But the most important spiritual teaching is here when Riddley contemplates his one connexion experience: 'I begun with trying to pul it to gether poal by poal only my reveal dint come that way it snuck me woaly...Ready to cry ready to dy ready for any thing is how I come to it now. In fear and tremmering only not running a way. In emtyness and ready to be fult. Not to lern no body nothing I cant even lern my oan self all I can do is try not to get in front of whats coming. Jus trying to keep out of the way of it.'
And the final realization that: ' Or may be there aint no such thing as a 1 Big 1 or a Littl 1 its jus only all 1 and what diffrent things you see in the chayjing lites of the diffrent times of the girt dants of the every thing. Sum tyms bytin sum tyms bit.' In this light, what does it matter if Walker & Orfing are roading the New Show - the awful Punch show, them dogs are following, and new followers are attracted like Rightway and his brother, 'They boath of them have wives and childer the woal lot roadit out with us they jus slung ther bundels and a way.' I know I will if I wer there.
I think RW is like concentrated juice. You have to gradually dilute it to see all the intertwined themes and images it contains. Hoban has boiled down his original five hundred pages without losing any of the vitamins.
In Riddley's culture he is a young adult: we learn on page 1 that "my naming day when I come 12" is "the day I come a man". More importantly, Riddley's language is not badly-written modern English. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage are completely consistent, except when Riddley is accurately reproducing what (to him) are ancient texts. You might ask whether it's realistic that a twelve-year old in any society could pull this off, but it's a literary convention that young protagonists tell their story without committing childish errors of language. Besides, Riddley is unusually smart. As Fister Crunchman tells him: "I aint no where near as qwick as you. Your myndy dont you see." The rest of this conversation shows us that despite his own protests Fister himself is pretty sharp.
The language is what makes this book, working at multiple levels. For a start, it gives the reader an instant sense of estrangement, telling us from the first line, at a gut level, that we are in a world very different from ours. Then, as Hoban has said, the difficulty of reading it slows the reader down to Riddley's own speed, and it makes you read unusually carefully. Like many science fiction novels, Riddley Walker has to tell many stories at once: as well as the surface plot, it has to describe Riddley's world and how it came to be. While some of this is done by the traditional stories Riddley tells us, a lot is told by the language itself. We don't need Lorna to tell us that "bint no writing for 100s and 100s of years" because it's obvious that spelling has been lost and re-invented. The fact that the language is full of computing metaphors tells us that the 1 Big 1 happened quite a long time in the future of the mid-'70s when it was written. Words like "crowd" for tribe and "hevvy" for warrior clue us in to how this society emerged from ours in the Bad Time.
The language of Riddley Walker is often described as broken or degenerate, but I think it has just evolved. Words have shifted and changed their meaning due to creative misunderstanding, but that's what drives language change all the time. Of course, with the loss of written literature, a lot of vocabulary have been lost ("I dont even know 1/2 these words" says Riddley, and neither does Goodparley, despite having access to all the Mincery's records). In modern English we usually have several words for a concept, each with its own overtones. For Riddley, it's the other way round: each word is overloaded with different meanings. No doubt this encourages his mystical bent. It also makes the text deeply poetic (along with Riddley's (or Hoban's) natural bent) which is why for many readers it lingers long in the mind.
NB: Review written a la Hoban.
NB: Review written a la Hoban.