Sunday, May 16, 2010

Riddley Walker

Last month, the AV Club's "Wrapped Up In Books" group read Riddley Walker, a marvelous post-apocalyptic novel written in an apparently devolved form or English.

Whenever I've spoken with social historians of pre-modern culture, especially medievalists, one of the things they always stress is that the normal state of mind for ancient or medieval was more non-linear, metaphorical, mystical, and unified. Unified in this case means that the mind is constantly in a state of drawing connections between stories, religion, music, and life. In the modern mind, we divide these things up, into different, atomic categories, like television, songs, church, and so on. We logically can draw connections between the different segments of our life, but we know that they are different and treat them as such. I can conceive of how this might affect life, but I really could make no serious claim to understanding it - until I read Riddley Walker.

Riddley Walker accomplishes this not through description or analysis, but through a brilliant use of language. As a post-apocalyptic, far-future novel, it uses a variation on English which initially appears as a devolved kind of dialect. However, the language of Riddley Walker is not a simple 1-to-1 substitution of one word for another, but instead allows the reader to understand the characters and their world in the same way that the characters understand the world themselves. Because the words used by the characters are often a puzzle for the reader, they take on expanded meaning instead of lessened meaning.

To take one word as an example, I was most confused initially by the term "oansome." It is used fairly regularly throughout the book. It means something like "being alone" on the most superficial level, but actually means much more than that. It could be derived from a variety of different terms. "Oan" is used by itself and can mean "own" (as in, "my own self") or "one." "Some" turns it into a descriptor, a state of one-ness or alone-ness. Its apparent rhyme with "lonesome" continues along that thought. However, the southeastern England dialect and tendency to swallow consonants or even entire syllables means that "oansome" could also be derived from "winsome" or "handsome," which imply sexual attractiveness. In the rapacious world of Riddley Walker, sexuality is a danger, and a winsome lass or handsome lad, traveling alone, is a target for rape and possible death.

This would be merely clever if it weren't for the stories within the story that almost overshadow the main narrative. The very first chapter has "Hart of the Wood," an immediately gripping story of cannibalism and Faustian bargains, which makes the statement, I think, that the stories-within-the-story is a necessary and important part of the work. But it's the two stories where the language is different, the "Eusa Story" of chapter six and "The Legend of St. Eustace" of chapter fourteen which make the cleverness of the book's language obvious.

Eusa is the focus of religion and society in Riddley Walker. He's a metaphorical figure whose story is used to illustrate whatever the storyteller wants from the story. He's based on a foundational text - the "Eusa Story."

I was waiting for the "Eusa Story" for the first several chapters. I wanted to know how it happened. I wanted to know who started dropping the bombs and how society was reconstituted. The "Eusa Story" wasn't that. It was better. It established, through the nebulous Eusa. Like "oansome" Eusa doesn't have a straight translation. He's everyman. He's society before the collapse. He's arrogance personified. He's humility personified. Unlike "oansome," Eusa is a religion. The entire "Eusa Story" is an elaborate set of metaphors for nothing and everything, or in the Riddley-world, the 1ce and the 2ce.

I went into the "Eusa Story" expecting to logically understand the world of Riddley Walker in a historical sense. Nothing like that happened. Instead, I came out of it understanding Riddley Walker in a metaphorical sense. Or rather, I understood that metaphor was the only way to understand Riddley Walker.

This is hammered home in the fourteenth chapter, in which Riddley confronts Goodparley, the political leader of Riddley's culture. Goodparley attempts, as his name might indicate, to convert Riddley to his point of view. Goodparley does this first with "The Legend of St. Eustace," the first modern-day text which appears in the story. After reading it, Goodparley and Riddley try to translate it. This is partially hilarious, like when Goodparley translates "hamlets" as small pigs. But as the translation continues, something fascinating and brilliant happens: they stop translating the text to make sense to them, and instead, use the text to make sense of their own world. Via this completely irrelevant little text, Goodparley and Riddley start to figure out scientific truths! The idea of using metaphor to discover scientific truths isn't all that far-fetched, actually. The structure of the chemical compound benzene was supposedly theorized by chemist Friedrich Kekulé after a dream of a worm eating its own tale - the Ouroboros myth (

A fact, the life of St. Eustace, became a myth and a metaphor. That metaphor lived on, becoming a fact again in the nature of the myth, written down. That factual metaphor was discovered by the Ram, who treated it as a simple fact. Their interpretation of it relied on the metaphors inherent to their religion and their language, but those metaphors led them to discover scientific fact.

Here's the thing that makes Riddley Walker so excellent, though. The same thing that makes the "hamlets" pun so entertaining also makes "oansome" meaningful and also "The Legend of St. Eustace" so illuminating to Riddley and Goodparley: the language. By narrowing the English language to fewer words, and blurring the meaning of those words, Riddley Walker encourages us as readers to project our guesses at meaning onto the words. Along with the characters, we puzzle through new ideas and new concepts to try to make sense of the world. The metaphors of the characters are our metaphors as well. In order to understand the book of Riddley Walker, we have to understand the world and mindset of the character of Riddley Walker. We have to enter a world where language, metaphor, religion and science are all intertwined - unified.

It's only in thinking like this that I figure out what Riddley's (and his father's) job is! As "connexion man," Riddley is supposed to make the world make sense to the people of his village. His job is working within these metaphors to bring in external aspects of life. He's part priest, part storyteller, part translator. It's an important role, too, as the chief representatives of the theocratic Ram are the ones who invest the power of the job in him, by scarring his belly.

I think that, while the genius of the book is that it forces the reader to get into its mindset to read it, it also, in the end, rejects that mindset. Riddley Walker, over the course of the story, seems to discover or at least begin to uncover the idea of a goddess religion of sex, birth, and life. He also discovers a Punch doll, then the Punch story from Goodparley, and ends the book in a traveling troupe of storytellers. The stories that he's trying to tell are, at least in name, specifically non-religious. He has to make that disclaimer in order to try to tell the story, and he still starts a fight with his heresy!

But Riddley doesn't understand it as heresy. Hell, he doesn't even seem to understand it as new. He believes that he's acting against power, and in a sense, is undermining the hierarchical theocrats in the Ram. However, he may be building a different kind of power, which could be even more important than the gunpowder which drives the main plot. Riddley is building literature, and with it, he may be beginning the process of atomizing the metaphors which are the foundations of his world.

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