Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 4, 2010

Post-apocalyptic quest

Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban (1980), Summit Books, 220 pp.

Remember the Doomsday Clock, showing how close the world is to total annihilation from nuclear war (aka midnight)? We got as near as 2 minutes in 1953, and as far as 17 minutes in 1991. (In January 2010, it was set to 6 minutes to midnight.) It would be interesting to see if the number of end-of-the world novels rose during those years when we were closer to midnight. When Hoban was composing Riddley Walker in the late 1970s, we were just 9 minutes away from the end.

The challenges in this intense book start with language. It takes a while for your eye to adjust to his distorted spelling conventions and odd vocabulary, aimed at mirroring the distorted world in which the adolescent Riddley, his hero, lives, a world very much in the future (try 4000 C.E.). From the first sentence, you know you’ll have to work:

On my naming day when I come 12  I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

Riddley’s world is almost pre-historic, where people have only the most basic technological knowledge (levers, wheels, and such), but also a heavy dose of superstition and reliance on augury. The cult-religious figure, Eusa (St. Eustace, but perhaps also the USA) may be the inspiration for efforts of the “government” to regain lost knowledge.

After a series of omens, Riddley finds himself on a quest to discover the connections between Eusa and the “Littl Shining Man,” between the cause of the apocalypse that destroyed civilization so long ago, and the efforts to rebuild the world.

If you need help reading Riddley Walker, there are annotations on line. The second edition has been expanded, with comments and glossary provided by Hoban, although the glossary may remove part of the pleasure of reading this: the pleasure of figuring out the riddle of the language, so that you can understand the riddle of the hero.


  1. Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


  2. Thanks, Christian. Glad to know that readers are out there.

  3. Wow am I literally the only reply to this awesome read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: