Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: A Literary Take of the Legend and Language of the Apocalypse

In 1980, Pennsylvania-born writer Russell Hoban was living in London when he wrote his fourth novel, Riddley Walker. The book is a piece of science fiction which takes place in the south-east of England, several millennia after a mysterious apocalyptic event. As the news of today paints a picture that looks increasingly like something out of one of these pieces of pessimistic fiction, reading books like Hoban’s can be oddly relaxing, as we find delight in beautiful passages of a bleak world, one rich with legend and language.

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The first page of Riddley Walker confronts the reader with the fact that the book isn’t written in English, or at least, not an English that we today recognize. The narrative is told from the first-person perspective of the titular character, Riddley. Hobban wrote the book as if a man living millennia after the end of the world was speaking to the reader in his native dialect. To accomplish this, Hobban created a changed and degraded version of English. We experience firsthand how Riddley and his people have reinterpreted lost signs and signifiers. The end of the world legend is called “the Eusa story,” referring to the EU and USA. The light of what is presumably a nuclear blast has been personified in stories as “the Littl Shyning Man.” Canterbury has become Cambry, and the once-popular Punch and Judy puppet show is now a form of public announcement, which tells the story of the world to its people and warns about the dangers of technology.

Books like Riddley Walker remind us of the creative powers of literature to imagine a more colorful vision of a dark future. The concept of apocalypse in Riddley Walker is not just dangerous and strange in a Hobbesian sense, but also wonderfully literary. For us as readers experiencing the growing nihilism as a result of climate change and the invisible dangers of the Coronavirus, consider reading this forgotten classic of British-American literature. According to Hoban, the apocalypse is, after all, literary. 

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