Book Review: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

This is originally from my Goodreads post (2010).


I read this for my current MFA work, so my review is more from a writer’s craft perspective. Below is a cut and past from a response paper. The Japanese Kanji that I put in to illustrate some things will be (is) lost.

Despite the author’s protestations to the contrary, this is classic—nearly archetypical—quality science fiction. I have been reading science fiction and fantasy for approximately 42 years, at one time probably consuming thirty to forty books per year (albeit not all were quality!). The plot, the technique of revealing slowly rather than giving background, the devolution of man, are all subjects that have been treated—at a surface level—in similar manners. The idea of speaking only in metaphors as a language has been explored in science fiction as has the rediscovery of gunpowder post apocalypse. What makes Riddley Walker unique and worthwhile is the language. More precisely, the depth of the language as a part of the story itself.
Even here I must resist the temptation to dive into the analysis as to whether the language creation approaches believability or not. I had discussions with a close friend whose PhD is in linguistics on this. The short answer is “who really knows and to keep it readable one has to go in some directions.” Reading Beowulf in its original form—or attempting to— shows how much language can change in hundreds of years—let alone the over two thousand that is mentioned in Riddley Walker (125). Regardless as to whether it is accurate or not, it can be accepted and is largely believable.
To what purpose is the massive effort by Hoban directed? He states that Riddleyspeak is crafted partially because it “slows the reader down to Riddley’s rate of comprehension.” Yes, there is no doubt that by creating Riddleyspeak—Hoban’s term—we are forced to slow down. I would argue that Riddley’s rate of comprehension for many things is extremely fast for a twelve year old, but that is a side comment. When two out of three words are Riddelyspeak we are forced to slow down. When we slow down, we start to ponder a number of things: what are the new meanings of the words—in particular the double meanings, why has the language evolved this way, and most intriguingly what subplot and subtext is implied by the language itself.
The latter is what truly distinguishes Riddley Walker from most other writing I have encountered. The evolution of the language is its own story and subtext. The language itself is a metaphor for the change that the society has gone through. The reader knows that he is missing something and it is left to the reader to decide how much to puzzle. The danger is that one can read too much into the words and meaning. For example this sentence that Goodparley utters, “This here yellerboy stoan the Salt 4 it want to be whats in it to be. (143)”
The paragraph and page preceding it is discussing how boys want to become men and Goodparley killed his own mentor, because his mentor was making him boy for him. It is clear that this has a double meaning of being raped, or at least having sex—a bit the way Greeks and Romans did in ancient times—but Hoban gives multiple meanings to the word “man” and “boy.” “Goodparley said, ‘Everything wants to man dont it. Wants to go from littl to big. Wants to be what in it to be.’(142-3)” So when we read “yellerboy” we ponder the meaning of “boy” here. We are told by the language and Goodparely’s description that the “yellerboy stoan” has some hidden power within it that wants to come out. Then we ponder why the word “Salt” is capitalized. Given what we have read earlier this could be simply because it is important-“Plomercy” is capitalized (meaning diplomacy). Or it could have historic meaning from an old name, such as “Parments” meaning Parliament. So then the reader, knowing already that this is post apocalyptic, might be tempted to think, hmm, Salt 4 might be a double meaning, referencing a SALT 4 treaty, because Goodparley thinks it is key to a big bang. But as we start to figure out this is sulfur and then saltpeter (sodium nitrate) is added to it to make gunpowder…and sodium nitrate is a salt. Then one can start to think well the 4 might be simply the way all other numbers are written, or it might be, right next to Salt, if it is saltpeter, the ratio of saltpeter to sulfur. Very roughly, black powder is 4 to 5 parts saltpeter to 1 part charcoal and 1 part sulfer. Or, in the end we simply decide that Salt 4 is indeed the word Sulfur and yellow stoan is a bit redundant. This very simple sentence thus has multiple meanings and layers and there are dozens of these per page. So, the reader has to read slow to say the words out loud and to ponder their meanings and the meanings apply directly to the plot itself.
Although it is never stated, we quickly come to the conclusion that the language evolved due to a lack of writing—we understand that there was a new dark age and this is the age after that dark age. The language we are reading only makes sense if we read it aloud—at least read it aloud in our heads—almost syllable by syllable. This is different than normal reading where you see the entire word at once and absorb the word without reading it letter by letter, syllable by syllable. Additionally, one has to intentionally slur the words and often string them together to get the meaning. We assume this is because of hundreds of years of listening only. The easy examples of the language evolution:
Killed becomes “kilt” (the “t” becomes the new “ed” … which is what you hear when you say many words ending in “ed” quickly.)

Send becomes “sen,” under becomes “unner,” west becomes “wes,” and so on.

I hardly need reference individual words that are used throughout the book. These ring true, or possible, as they are already the way words are slurred orally by (all too) many. With literacy disappearing this seems reasonable as a way for language to degenerate, or evolve. That this then becomes the way it is written by some demonstrates that it has become fully incorporated into the language and that society is only partially literate. This also rings true when comparing to the writings of many in England and the U.S. from even the 1800s. Standard, “correct,” spellings of words is a relatively recent phenomena. Riddlespeak is an oral language that is only weakly reinforced by writing. It hints at all sorts of things that makes us want to explore the language as much as the main story.
Why, for instance, the breaking up of words. Simple compounds are broken into separate words and even what we don’t consider a compound now is broken into two words:
“Littl Shyning Man wer a nother thing and tirely.(149)” and + tirely = entirely is just one of countless per chapter. I recalled the little Japanese and Chinese characters I know and it struck me that in some ways this is similar to the composition of words from sub characters to form a new word. This made it ring true to my mind. Words, or sub words might be used in combination to mean different things similar to the kanji of Japanese. For example in Japanese “hi” (pronounced he) is the symbol it means sun, or day, or fire, depending on the context. The word book is moto . The word for fireplace is hinomoto and in kanji is . Hoban is using a bit of a similar technique. “And” has nothing to do with entirely, but because of the sound is used in a split compound word. I found this interesting and knowing that Japanese and Chinese does something sort of similar made this more believable. I have no idea of Hoban was thinking of this when doing this, but he had a firm enough understanding of language and going back and forth with phonetics to written that he may have come up with it independently.
The beauty of all good fiction is that, like all art, each reader will interpret the work in their own way. Some will see metaphors where the author never consciously intended. The genius of Hoban’s invention of Riddleyspeak is that not only does it slow down the reader as he overtly states as his intention, but it almost forces the reader into thinking about double, triple, or more meanings of the words. Then, by layering on an obvious oral tradition in the culture, where the main character’s role—and his father’s before him—is to interpret a traveling “show” for the listeners makes us as readers consider the entire book as a show, with shows within it, and those shows reference past oral histories. Thus, some metaphors become metaphors within the language that has been invented, which are in turn metaphors for the story itself.
Staying with the same page as before (149) we can see this layered metaphor. Riddley is thinking of a stanza—for want of a better word—from Eusa:

“7. Thay dogs stud up on thear hyn legs & taukin lyk men. Folleree sed, Lukin for the 1 you wil aul ways fyn thay 2. Folleroo sed, They 2 is twice as bad as the 1.”

Riddley tells us explicitly that he is using it as a metaphor for what is happening with him. But, the metaphor itself is a story we are not familiar with in detail, we haven’t lived it as he seems to have through his oral tradition (see my later comments on the Star Trek episode). At the same time this metaphor starts to become the common thread of “bringing things together can be bad” and we are reminded of the sulfur and saltpeter…and that is then applied to bringing the sulfur to Belnot Phist cause his demise.
This oral tradition that comes up over and over—the word “Lissener” (149) has multiple meanings too–is similar to Native American storytelling, or African storytelling is a layer of complexity and metaphor that is omnipresent in the book. It reminds me of a Star Trek Next Generation episode (number 102) where the race encountered speaks entirely in metaphor. The universal translator is rendered useless because the words meanings are only in the metaphor, not in the literal translation. “..the Tamarian language is entirely based on metaphors from Tamarian folklore. They learn that Darmok was a hunter and Tanagra is an island, but nothing else. Without knowing the stories behind the metaphors, the Tamarian language remains indecipherable. (Wikipedia)” One wonders if either of the authors were exposed to Hoban. One, Philip LaZebnik has a Classics degree from Harvard.
Regardless, the analogy is that until one starts to understand the stories behind the oral histories we read in Riddley—or rather “hear” from Riddley’s ears—we do not decipher the full richness of the book. This will be a book I need to return to in six months to see what I catch then.
My issue in citing particular passages is that I can flip open the book to any page and start to explore the metaphors and language. Thus, the ones I will explore will be simply ones that struck me while reading enough to slap a sticky note into the book—I hate writing directly in a book, it destroys the reread later on.
One thing that struck me were the—at first blush—apparent anachronisms. For example, “hes getting his serkits jus that little bit over loadit (51).” Circuit in this usage has only an electronics meaning. Yet we know that this civilization has no real concept of anything so sophisticated. Through this and other phrases, or words, such as “program,” or “gallack seas” (for galaxies) we understand how much the past glory of the human race means to these people. They have tried to preserve through words and oral histories old phrases and meanings, without understanding their full meanings. What is so interesting is that we figure this out, it is never told to us. The use of the language tells this story.
Indeed, Riddley spends a considerable amount of time thinking about metaphors himself. What do the oral histories mean, is fundamentally what he is constantly asking himself, or explicitly asking Goodparley. He (Riddley) gives us the entire Eusa Story (30-36). Each stanza is a metaphor used throughout the story. Stanza 7, which is partially repeated on 149, ends with “Eusa sed, I woan be tol by amminals.(31)” The dogs are telling him something. The dogs are then repeated in Riddley’s world and they are a metaphor for people not listening and having to learn from experience, versus being told, because they don’t trust the people who are below them.
The Eusa Story is a metaphor, or perhaps closer to an allegory to Riddley’s story, which in turn is an metaphor for human history, including the atomic bomb. Stanza 32 ends with “Yu let thay Chaynjis owt & now yuv go to go on thru them. (36)” We see the changes of Riddley himself and of course the change of gunpowder being re-introduced to the world. Stanza 37 has two interesting lines: “How mene Chaynjis are thayr?” and “As menne as reqwyrd. Eusa sed, Reqwyrd by wut? The littl Man sed, Reqwyrd by the idear uv yu. Eusa sed, Wut is the idear uv me? The Littl Man sed, That we doan no til yuv gon thru and yur Chaynjis. (36)” This stanza is itself a metaphor for Riddley’s story, of change and knowing yourself, and of history repeating itself with big changes and doomed to do so until it figures it out, which is the bigger plot of the story and finally note that the capitalization of Chaynjis gives it emphasis and different layers of meaning. The writing technique here that is so interesting in the language combined with the trick of using an explicit oral history that the characters know to represent the story they are living.
These analyses of the writing craft are supposed to be a few pages long. I see I have 25 more sticky notes I have not yet addressed.
I would like to try and address the voice that Riddley has. The first person gives the intimate innermost thoughts common in first person, but beyond that his voice is that of a story teller. An oral tradition voice embedded in the character that highlights an oral tradition society. As with the language itself, there are countless examples of this. The following I chose because it illustrates this more explicitly than some other places:

And stil I aint said all there is to say about that morning in the aulders. The bloody meat and boan of it. The worl is ful of things waiting to happen. That the meat and the boan of it right there. You myt think you can jus go her and there doing nothing. Happening nothing. You cant tho you bleeding cant. You put your self on any road and some thing wil show its self to you. Wanting to happen. Waiting to happen. (154)

This shows the story teller in Riddley and the self-awareness and searching. He sees meanings in everything. That is his job and gift. The voice is unique, something I strive for, but often fail.
In the interest of brevity, I will leave deeper analysis of the meanings behind “stoan” and “hart of the stoan” and “hart of the wud” and the way simple words like “tel” have layers of meaning for a PhD thesis. Suffice to say that in just over 200 pages Hoban weaves not just a tale, but a multilayered story of possible evolutions of language, societies, and cultures, where the reader can decide how deep to dig, but is never sure if the bottom has been reached.


  1. Henry Gasko April 29, 2017
    • Stanislav Fritz April 30, 2017

Leave a Reply