Riddley Walker

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Riddley Walker
Riddley Walker cover.jpg
First edition
Author Russell Hoban
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Science fiction, dystopian novel
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 220
ISBN 0-224-01851-5
OCLC 7313161

Riddley Walker is a science fiction novel by Russell Hoban, first published in 1980. It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel in 1982, as well as an Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award in 1983. It was additionally nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1981.

Hoban began writing the novel in 1974, inspired by the medieval wall painting of the legend of Saint Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral. It is Hoban's best-known adult novel and a drastic departure from his other work, although he continued to explore some of the same themes in other settings.


Riddley Walker is set about two thousand years after a nuclear war has devastated world civilizations. The main action of the story begins when the young narrator, Riddley, stumbles upon efforts to recreate a weapon of the ancient world.

The novel's characters live a harsh life in a small area which is presently the English county of Kent, and know nothing of the world outside of "Inland" (England). Their level of civilization is similar to England's prehistoric Iron Age, although they do not produce their own iron but salvage it from ancient machinery. Church and state have combined into one secretive institution, whose mythology, based on misinterpreted stories of the war and an old Catholic saint (Eustace), is enacted in puppet shows.

Narrative style and themes[edit]

The novel is in the post-apocalyptic genre and features a first person narrator, Riddley, and is written in an imagined English dialect with phonetic transliteration of a Kentish accent.[1] Many modern words (especially technological and religious terms) have changed in meaning; many of the place names are folk etymologies, such as "Dog Et" for Dargate, and "Do It Over" for Dover. While the unfamiliar language is a projection of how historical linguistics might apply in the future, it also provides clues to the nature of life in Riddley's world (e.g., being "et" by wild dogs is a common fate), and creates suspense as the reader gradually becomes accustomed to the idiosyncratic narration, and comes to understand some of the references of which Riddley is unaware. Religious philosophy and the supernatural are also central to the novel, elements which Hoban treats in an allusive, mystical way, drawing on elements of many religious traditions. Hoban also draws on the history of his adopted country, including Celtic mythology and Punch and Judy.

Critical reception[edit]

Peter Ruppert noted that Hoban's novel draws on "such well-known dystopias as A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, and A Canticle for Leibowitz", and "what is unique in Hoban's haunting vision of the future is his language" which is described as being similar to the Nadsat slang spoken in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.[2] The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stated that, "The force and beauty and awfulness of Hoban's creation is shattering," and praised the author's use of a crude "Chaucerian English".[3] John Mullan of The Guardian also praised Hoban's decision to narrate the novel in a devolved form of English: "The struggle with Riddley's language is what makes reading the book so absorbing, so completely possessing."[4]

Library Journal wrote that the book holds "a unique and beloved place among the few after-Armageddon classics".[5] It was included in David Pringle's book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. In 1994, American literary critic Harold Bloom included Riddley Walker in his list of works comprising the Western Canon. [6]

References and entities from the novel[edit]

Riddley Walker is set in the English region of Kent in the distant aftermath of a devastating nuclear war. The novel's characters live in a harsh, pre-industrial society and repeatedly refer to cultural and political figures and concepts from history which they themselves only dimly understand. Below are a few of the recurring cultural figures.

  • Punch - While the authorized narrative of society, The Eusa Show, appropriates many of the familiar puppets from the Punch and Judy show, Punch himself is suppressed until Riddley happens to find an ancient Punch puppet buried in the ground, a discovery which sets him on his eventual journey.
  • Eusa - The protagonist in several folk tales and ballads depicting the nuclear conflict. Eusa mythology conflates the legend of Saint Eustace, who is depicted in a painting in Canterbury Cathedral,[7] and the historical United States of America (USA), the first user of atomic weapons.[8]
  • Puter Leat - Riddley Walker-speak for the "Computer Elite", referring to those who existed before the "Bad Time" and their seemingly endless abilities; "What Goodparley calls Eusas head which it ben a girt box of knowing and you hook up peopl to it thats what a puter ben. We ben the Puter Leat we had the woal worl in our mynd and we had worls beyont this in our mynd we programmit pas the sarvering gallack seas."

Theatrical versions[edit]

  • Robert C. Cumbow, writing for Slant Magazine, stated that the post-apocalyptic film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome borrows "whole ideas, themes and characterizations" from the novel.[9]
  • A theatrical adaptation (by Hoban himself) premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February–March 1986. It was directed by Braham Murray and starred David Threlfall. Its U.S. premiere was at the Chocolate Bayou Theatre, in April 1987, directed by Greg Roach.[10]
  • In 1998, Russell Hoban gave permission for Film and Theatre students at Sir Percival Whitley/Calderdale College, Halifax, West Yorkshire, to transcribe the book into a theatrical script, which was then staged in a new production at Piece Hall. In November 2007, the play was produced by Red Kettle[11] in Waterford, Ireland, to positive reviews.[12]
  • In 2011, the play was also adapted for Trouble Puppet Theater Co. by artistic director Connor Hopkins at Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, Texas. This production employed tabletop puppetry inspired by the Bunraku tradition and was supported by an original score by Justin Sherburn.[13] In March 2015, a group of Aberystwyth drama students performed the play in Theatre y Castell over the course of two days. The production was directed by David Ian Rabey.

Use in popular music[edit]

  • "The Rapture of Riddley Walker" is the eighth song on the Clutch album From Beale Street to Oblivion (2007).[14]
  • "Widder's Dump", named after a location in the book and notes on the credits as being inspired by the novel, is the fifth song on the 1989 King Swamp album.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mullen, John (13 November 2010). "Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban: Week One, Reconstructed Language". Guardian Book Club. Guardian News and Media Ltd. Retrieved 2012-01-16. 
  2. ^ Ruppert, Peter. "Riddley Walker". Utopian Studies. 10 (2): 254–255. ISSN 1045-991X. 
  3. ^ Messic, Penelope (June 1982). "Riddley Walker". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 38: 49. ISSN 0096-3402. 
  4. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/nov/13/riddley-walker-russell-hoban-bookclub
  5. ^ Clark, Jeff. "Riddley Walker". Library Journal. 106 (13): 1443. ISSN 0363-0277. 
  6. ^ http://sonic.net/~rteeter/grtbloom.html
  7. ^ Beckett, Chris (January 15, 2007). "The legend of St Eustace, wall painting (c. 1480), Canterbury Cathedral". Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  8. ^ The Terror of History: Riddley Walker by David Cowart, ocelotfactory.com.
  9. ^ "Summer of '85: We Don't Need Another Hero: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome". Slant Magazine. 19 June 2010. Retrieved 3 May 2015. 
  10. ^ "Russell Hoban's RIDDLEY WALKER". THE HEAD OF ORPHEUS - A Russell Hoban Reference Page. Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  11. ^ "Red Kettle Theatre Company". Archived from the original on June 18, 2009. Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  12. ^ "Irish Times Archive". Archived from the original on October 11, 2012. Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  13. ^ "Trouble Puppet Theater Co. Archives". troublepuppet.com. Retrieved 14 April 2013. 
  14. ^ Prato, Greg. "From Beale Street to Oblivion - Clutch". allmusic. rovi. Retrieved 2012-07-19. 
  15. ^ Allan, Mark. "King Swamp (1989) - King Swamp". 

External links[edit]