Riddley Walker Summary

Russell Hoban

Riddley Walker

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Riddley Walker Summary

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Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, Riddley Walker (1980), set in England roughly two thousand years after a cataclysmic nuclear fallout, follows twelve-year-old narrator Riddley Walker on his adventurous travails through a ruinous wasteland. After the accidental death of his father, Riddley crosses the threshold of adulthood when he unearths an ancient artifact, triggering a series of events that threaten to end the world. Thematically, the book deals with nuclear war, civilization, linguistics, communication, mythology, folklore, and the power of knowledge. Inspired, in part, by the medieval wall painting of Saint Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral, Riddley Walker was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1981. The novel also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel in 1982, in addition to an Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award in 1983.

Narrated by Riddley Walker, the story picks up in Kent, England approximately two thousand years into the future. Following a catastrophic blast, later referred to as the “1 Big 1,” Earth has been ravaged by a harsh nuclear winter. Society has devolved into a devastated outpost of disorder, where knowledge is severely limited and iron-age technology still rules the day. We meet Riddley on his twelfth birthday, also known as his “naming day,” which officially marks the boy’s arrival into adulthood. Riddley kills a wild boar on this day and notes how the leader of a pack of dogs known as The Great Arse Pack makes direct eye contact with him. After the war, wild dogs have become humanity’s greatest enemy.

Riddley narrates in a dialect of his own creation known as Riddleyspeak. This is a form of broken phonetic English that either combines words to form new ones, or smashes big words into monosyllabic abbreviations. For example, the word “Dog et” or “Dargate” means to be “eaten by dogs.” Canterbury is known as “Cambry.” Prime Minister is recoded as “Pry Mincer.” Do It Over translates as “Dover,” etc. Riddleyspeak becomes a major part of the narrative, not just for readers, but for Riddley’s ability to navigate through unfamiliar terrain and communicate with surrounding illiterates. The fractious language mirrors the broken state of society.

Three days after “naming day,” Riddley’s father is accidentally killed in a jobsite tragedy. Riddley is then forced to succeed his father in the prominent role of “Connexion Man,” a mystic seer who serves as the chief communicator between the disheveled masses and Ram, the central government. Also on this day, Riddley is met by the leader of a wild dog pack, who ominously chooses to die by the boy’s spear. This reinforces Riddley’s mystical aura as an almighty leader.

The day after his father dies, Riddley is tasked with giving his first Connexion. Pry Mincer Abel Goodparley and Wesmincer Orfing arrive with the traveling “Eusa Show,” a puppet stage-production that becomes the key communication tool Riddley uses to inform, entertain, and religiously galvanize the masses of Inland. Church and state have conjoined to form a furtive institution whose mythology derives from old war-stories and an idolized figure known as Eusa, a quasi-hybrid of Jesus and Saint Eustace (whose likeness is depicted on a wall painting in the Canterbury Cathedral). The Eusa Show often echoes the famous puppet-show Punch and Judy to relay its core ideas.

The allegory tells of Eusa, who long ago become so greedy in his quest for “clevverness” that he destroyed the planet via technology (atomic bomb). These stories are meant to educate the masses in order to recapture past glories, but also to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. The presiding voice of these tales, Mr. Clevver, is an old survivor likened to the devil, a figure that used knowledge for catastrophic ill rather than good. Riddley becomes the primary conduit through which these allegorical cautionary tales are disseminated.

During his first Connexion, Riddley falls silent, not able to complete the task. After failing his duties, Riddley is cast away from his settlement in Kent to the wild outskirts of Inland (England)—a chaotically uncivilized world of primitive darkness, poverty, and ignorance. It becomes Riddley’s job to grasp these handed down lessons of the past, hit the road, and prophetically interpret them for the herds of Inland. While traveling through various ghost towns to recite the Eusa Shows, Riddley saves a boy ensnared in a dungeon named Lissener, aka the Ardship of Cambry (Archbishop of Canterbury), and makes his way to Cambry to continue his teachings.

On his quest, Riddley arrives at a key point that may decide the future of humanity. Uncovering a project that, ironically, seeks to reconstruct the same nuclear weapon that destroyed civilization, Riddley must decide if he should get involved or not. He comes to realize that the attempts to recapture old triumphs have gone too far for the greater good. Riddley ultimately chooses not to help recreate the nuclear weapon and, instead, takes measures to stop it from being built. As a result of his disobedience, Riddley finds himself on the run.

In the end, Riddley continues running through a barren wasteland of forbidden knowledge. Befriended and accompanied by packs of wild dogs, Riddley continues to deliver the Eusa Shows through the dark, dangerous, unknown roads ahead. He comes to understand that it is those who do not seek power in the first place that ascend to the greatest prominence in the end.

Hoban adapted Riddley Walker into a stage play at the Royal Exchange Theater – Manchester in 1986. The play was revived thrice under different iterations, once in 1998, again in 2007, and finally in 2011. The novel has also been cited as a major inspiration for George Miller’s 1985 film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. In addition, Riddley Walker has inspired songs from popular bands such as Clutch, King Swamp, and Current 93.