Why is this Scripture so unclear? If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? – But who is to say that the Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential in this case to ‘tell a riddle’? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? – Ludwig Wittgenstein1

Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel Riddley Walker is written in riddles.2 Riddley, the protagonist, comes of age in what was once Kent after a now distantly remembered nuclear war. He narrates the book in, as Rowan Williams put it, “apocalyptically fractured English.”3 The usage of particular words has changed. The spellings baffle. Stories and names are barely recognizable as distortions of places and characters we know from our own time. These transformed words range from the ridiculous—“ingredients” has become “gready mints”; to the technological—“I decided” is now “pirntowt” (printout) and “meaningful” is “blipful” (blips on radar); to the grim and darkly humorous—“eaten by wild dogs” is “arga warga.” The old world has died and Riddley’s English has decomposed almost beyond recognition. (If nothing else, the novel is a supreme achievement in cultural immersion, something Russel Hoban also accomplishes for the world of the very young in his Frances children’s books.)

Fracture is at heart of the novel. This is nowhere clearer than in the legends of Eusa, Mr Clevver, and the Littl Shyning Man. These form the oral tradition in post-apocalyptic Kent. Over and over in these stories, Mr Clevver tempts Eusa to tear apart the Little Shyning Man in pursuit of the “No. uv the 1 Big 1.” The world is always coming apart for Eusa. He can never resist the will to dominate. He can never fail to kill the Littl Shyning Man. He can never avoid exile and friendless wandering. It is atomic destruction, the loss of Eden, the legend of St. Eustace, and the arrogance of the United States all mashed together in a new account of the Fall. But these stories function not simply to explain to Riddley and his friends why the land around them bears the marks of an apocalypse.

They also trap Riddley and his society within them. Riddley too, it seems, can never fail to yearn for power at the expense of life. At one point the book’s antagonist, Goodparley, tells Riddley “Coarse I have to be Eusa you do as wel and every 1 else weve all got to be Eusa” (144). In Riddley Walker, the world is always coming apart, always collapsing—indeed it has already ended once—but somehow it is never gone, never destroyed. Today is an endless repetition of yesterday, but worse.

So far, so familiar, whether for a post-apocalyptic novel or the news. What is so remarkable about Riddley Walker is the way the endless recursivity of language and story becomes not stagnation, but a path forward. It is hard to say exactly what this path is, so perhaps I had better start by saying what it is not. Goodparley, Riddley’s chief adversary and sometime companion, sees the fracturing of words and stories around him and responds with attempts to grasp and control. Just like the technology he seeks to manipulate, words, for Goodparley, are weapons. “Words!” he says, “theywl move things you know theywl do things. Theywl fetch. Put a name to some thing and youre beckoning” (122). Goodparley grasps at the broken, twisting language that flits by him, seeking the power that will in the end consume him. We see this in his ridiculous misinterpretations of the words on a scrap of paper bearing part of the legend of St. Eustace—“St.” must be “sent” and “hamlets,” he concludes, must mean “little pigs.” The text is useful for him only insofar as it can provide “gready mints” for his own program of domination.

Riddley finds a different way. Over and over again Riddley loops back on particular words and people and places and stories. What emerges from these visitations is a way of putting fractured fragments of life back together without violence because without finality. This is the realization that comes to him when he stands in the ruins of Cambridge cathedral, rejects the drive to master the new arms race, and shouts “The Onlyes Power is No Power.” The way forward for him is to make his “connexions” without force, but rather in Riddley’s own words, “in fear and tremmering. only not running a way. In emtyness and ready to be fult.” (204). For Riddley, words are not esoteric codes to crack, split, and use, but strangers to tarry with and perhaps befriend.

That is how we are meant to read the novel’s own grotesque and wonderful words. And the more I re-read Riddley Walker, the more I think its language is not so much broken, as illuminated. The twisted jokes, the horrific characters, the endless puns are all generative; they tell us not what English might become, but what it already is. After all, to take one passing example, what is it to be forgotten but “to lose out of memberment,” as Riddley puts it?

What emerges in the ending is a kind of repeated confession of brokenness which itself forms the possibility of being otherwise. For Riddley, the acknowledgement of his own entrapment within the drive for domination, the confession of what it means to be human, becomes a plea for discovering alternative ways to be human. At the novel’s end we are left neither with a vision of hopeless repetition nor with the seeds of a new society—two standard conclusions of the postapocalyptic genre. We have instead Riddley’s ceaseless confrontation with himself and the society he chooses not to abandon.

When Wittgenstein spoke of scripture’s opacity as necessary, part of what he meant, I think, was that the truths it told could only confront us through our grappling again and again with their strangeness. I know too well the alternative. I know too well the Goodparleys of our own world, for whom each new data point is a cudgel. Nothing is new; the only novelty is how to weaponize what comes before us. Or—as I often am—we are simply paralyzed by the realization that our own language is enmeshed in the systems of domination we seek to oppose.

Through a life of riddles, Riddley Walker tells us something different. Words and stories are not weapons on his lips; they are children, they are kin, they are friends who endlessly surprise and terrify and delight him. For him, as for Wittgenstein, each story is an occasion for wonder. Like us he is faced with the dread that his very words are poisoned with violence. But he cannot and does not seek escape. Instead, he dances with them.

  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 31e.
  2. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980).
  3. Williams calls the book “the most brilliantly sustained fiction to be written in an imagined dialect of apocalyptically fractured English.” The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 140.

Nathan Hershberger is a doctoral student in theology at Duke University. He writes on the relations between scripture, suffering, and moral formation.