Learning to read Riddley

Anna Lawrence Pietroni

In Riddley Walker, thousands of years in our future, the people of Inland are trying to drag themselves out of the mud. Theirs is a post-nuclear society hungry for a story to make sense of what’s happened. They have no creation myth, only hellish narratives of destruction played out in the Eusa Story and an inherited, tentative dream-fragment of ‘boats in the air and picters on the wind’. English as we know it has been worn down and reconfigured, but while Riddley’s world may be stumbling through a new Dark Age, his language isn’t primitive. Riddleyspeak is direct, economical and energetic; we roadit, we meatit, we Norfed, we Eastit; a command is a ‘Do It’; leadership is ‘follerme’. The vocabulary of survival is snappy and efficient, fitting with the brutality of Inland life where you’ll get eviscerated by wild dogs if you stray from the crowd and ‘Sharna pax and get the poal’ is less of a nursery rhyme than a prediction.

Riddleyspeak is at once familiar and strange. We have to slow our reading right down if we are to give ourselves any chance of understanding it in full. Riddley is ‘walking his riddels’ on paper and we have to read at a similarly steady pace, stopping from time to time to pick up a stone on the road or taking a moment to catch our breath. At first we may need to read the words aloud to ourselves to get the sense of them. Hoban provides us with a glossary and explains, for example, that ‘pirntowt’ is ‘printout’. But much of the figurative language in Riddley Walker (blip, datter, programmit) refers to pre-conflagration technology of which Inlanders have no direct knowledge, so finding out that ‘pirntowt’ is ‘printout’ is of limited use: Hoban doesn’t spoon-feed us with a meaningful translation. For a start, ‘pirntowt’ is a verb rather than a noun. We have to work out for ourselves what ‘pirntowt’ means to Riddley and deduce that ‘I pirntowt’ might mean something like ‘I concluded’. If we simply ‘translate’ the word, we end up with only partial understanding.

We’re justified in beginning to read Riddley Walker this way, moving from word to word and trying to reconcile Riddley’s language with our own. We have to learn Riddley’s language one way or another, and starting with vocabulary, at the level of the word or phrase, is one way to ‘acquire’ the knowledge we need to find our way about. Hoban explains how some names came about: Belnot Phist is a twisted-up Nobel Physicist; Belnot’s father, 1stoan Phist is a worn-down reference to Einstein. We could work our whole way through the text like this, untwisting ‘Reckman Bessup’ (who gives Riddley ‘comping station’ after his father’s death) into ‘a man who reckons up numbers as best he can’. But this word-for-word method won’t serve us well. The just-enough-to-get-by, phrase-book approach would keep us moving through the text with a thumb in the glossary, reducing meaning to a series of transactions (swapping words in and out), as if communication were about words alone, each carrying a fixed, single value. If we continue to read this way, we’re in danger of treating Riddley’s text in the manner of Abel Goodparley, the smooth-talking Pry Mincer of Inland who moves from ‘form’ to ‘fents’ playing out ‘trufax from the Mincery’ in a puppet show. When he shares the Legend of St Eustace with Riddley, he says with unwarranted confidence, ‘I can as plain mos of it.’ As Goodparley’s way of reading shows, when you try to ‘as plain’ a text, you mainly get it wrong.

The Legend of St Eustace is startling and disorientating even before Goodparley starts his exposition. The Legend is written in standard English so, after full immersion in Riddleyspeak for over half of the book, we’re suddenly plucked out of one current and plunged into another. What’s clear and fluent to us as Riddley’s readers is at best opaque to Riddley and Goodparley, but Goodparley approaches the text as if it were encrypted and esoteric (‘seakert’). He decodes, breaking the text down into dislocated units and mistranslates at every opportunity. It’s a brittle, fragmented way of reading. He takes ‘hamlet’ and reads ‘little pigs’; he takes ‘St’ and reads ‘sent’. He interprets ‘the open sea’ as ‘an open see meaning a look see’: his own vision isn’t just blinkered, it’s utterly distorted and he’s reading to find evidence to confirm his way of seeing the world. He reads for allegory and for alchemy. He wants ‘teckernogical progers’ and he’s trawling the text for clues about how to make the 1 Big 1. (The two boys in the Legend, for example, become Goodparley’s ‘catwl twis’). He’s hunting for a list of ‘gready mints’ and his is a greedy, grasping way of (mis)reading: “What can I get from this text?” not “What might this text have to give?”

Russell Hoban describes how he tries in Riddley Walker to cram as many meanings into one word as he can (so Riddley is the ‘loan of his name’ at the beginning of the book – he’s the only person bearing this name, but it’s not fully his yet. He’ll only come to own it as he starts to live out what it means). If we take our lead from Hoban, Riddley’s spelling should slow us down. For instance, when Riddley’s world begins to destabilise, ‘It seamt like the worl begun to roal.’ If we read the Goodparley way, pulling out a word and translating it, we replace ‘seamt’ with ‘seemed’. But in doing so we empty it out, replacing ‘seamt’ with a smooth but hollow shell of a word that we can slide comfortably over. Our ‘seem’ is not Riddley’s ‘seam’: he is not holding up an idea of the world with one hand and comparing it to a children’s toy in the other. If a ‘seam’ is the stitching together of two pieces of fabric to create something new, Riddley’s two thoughts are so closely stitched that they form a new single piece of thought and experience, with the join still there if you look closely enough. But that’s not all: a ‘seam’ is also a scar; it’s a wrinkle, or a vein of coal pressed between the folds of the land. It’s evidence of woundedness and it’s where we mine, where we find our fuel, our energy. It’s all of these things, a comment on the very nature of metaphor, packed up into ‘seam’.

Becoming fluent in Riddleyspeak means not smoothing out what might feel like bumps in the text. If we slip too quickly past the ‘yes’ in Riddley’s ‘onlyes’, we miss the endorsement folded into ‘the onlyes power is no power’ and the not-so-much coded as screaming ‘No’ at the core of the ‘clevver’ search for knowledge, for the ‘Nos of the rain bow’ that ultimately leads to the devastating 1 Big 1. If we get too accustomed to reading ‘No.’ as ‘number’ we may not be mistranslating, but we create a text that’s blunted and less nuanced.

Along with words folded into other words, there are little spaces in the text that speak, and it would be all too easy to miss them. It matters that Riddley writes ‘be come’ not ‘become’: he unhooks words from each other and gives them room to move about. We are used to bearing a word in a certain way because we know the shape of it and how the weight of it will settle, but when Riddley separates familiar words to make a new phrase, the weight shifts and we have to carry the phrase more consciously. The phrase means something different: the words within it have a different value and, together, a different resonance. When the central quest in RW is to ‘the hart of the wud its the hart of the wanting to be’, there is a hospitality, a homecoming, in this new phrase ‘be come’. The space matters and if we listen to it, we hear Riddley’s longing all the more clearly.

Sometimes the space operates in a subtly different way: it doesn’t so much transfigure meaning as show us how Riddley’s world shapes his thinking.Take ‘to gether’: it’s important that we ‘read’ and sustain the gap between the words. ‘To gether’ is related to our word, but it’s not just an uncoupled version of ‘together’. Riddley is a forager from How Fents so ‘gethering’ is a means of sustenance and of survival. In that ‘to gether’ there is a gathering of scattered parts, a harvesting. His ‘to gether’ is his way of life; it’s not the same as my ‘together.’ 

We must also resist the temptation to use synonyms as a short-cut to deeper understanding. ‘To lose out of memberment’, for example, is not ‘to forget’. My objection is more than resistance to recasting the rhythm of a sentence; it’s not about a nuanced difference of degree (say, between Hoban’s double-cream and my skimmed milk): just as ‘hamlet’ does not mean ‘little pig’, when Riddley writes about ‘losing out of memberment’, he doesn’t mean ‘forgetting’. In the destruction (rather than creation) myth, ‘Why the dog wont show its eyes’, the man and woman ‘los out of memberment the shapes of nite’. This isn’t absent-mindedness, it’s a profound alienation from something primal in their own nature, from ‘1st knowing’. Inland, the communities are either ‘form’ or ‘fents’ (only the dyers and charcoal berners live outside the bounds). They’re farmers or they’re foragers – either way they only travel armed and ‘crowdsafe’, then retreat into fortified compounds at night. To ‘keap in memberment’ is more than to remember; it’s to keep something within bounds and alive. To ‘lose out of memberment’ is to cast out into the wild night. If, like Goodparley, we look for equivalence, trading one word for another, (‘that for you and what for me?’), we risk reading narrow (as distinct from reading close).

Even when we become fluent in Riddleyspeak, his own ‘spel’ sounds out the roll-call of his themes. Meaning is sustained as echo through a sequence of separate, repeated words sounding out across the narrative: I notice ‘hoal’ and ‘poal’, for instance, because they don’t look like ‘hole’ or ‘pole’, and then because their rhyme calls out back and forth across the text. The hoal and the poal are never good places to be: Brooder Walker, Riddley’s dad, dies in a ‘hoal’ crushed by a ‘girt old black machine’ when the winch slips. The Ardship of Cambry is imprisoned in a hoal (‘Sharna pax and get the poal, when the Ardship of Cambry comes out of the hoal’). Hoals are where you wait before you die, and the poal (a tool of government) is waiting, ready for your head: ‘These heads ben telling’. The hoal and poal echo in Riddley’s craving to ‘jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it’ and there is an ultimately liberating acceptance in Riddley’s realisation that ‘you cant stay hoalt up’ as he steps out onto the road, ‘in fear and tremmering only not running a way.’ ‘Riddley Walker’ has become his ‘oan’ name’: he’s independent and he’s not the ‘loan’ of it any more.

I thought at first to compare Riddleyspeak with the sacred, abused Eusa Folk, the descendents of the ‘Puter Leat’, responsible for the 1 Big 1 and subsequent Bad Time. The Eusa Folk look like they’ve been ‘shapit qwick and rough out of clay’ with ‘faces like bad dreams’ and ‘every kynd of crookitness’. But this comparison would suggest that Riddleyspeak is somehow a mutant variant on a norm, a nightmarish ‘crookitness’ that needs to be put straight. Ultimately it’s not Riddleyspeak which resembles the misshapen Eusa Folk, but Goodparley’s own ‘terpitations’ which operate like genetic misreadings, like warped coding. Goodparley fears words. He acknowledges their power: “Words! Theywl move things you know theywl do things. Theywl fetch.” If we read fearfully like Goodparley - fixing meaning and trading words like cuts of hash, eliding differences and sliding over (rather than acknowledging) the parts we don’t understand, seeing the text as ‘crookit’ and trying to make it ‘strait’ - we’re left with bad translation. It’s a mannered reading that’s controlled and pragmatic, depleting both text and reader. Riddley himself offers a different way. A ‘Riddley’ reading doesn’t try to ‘as plain’. He comes ‘in emtyness and ready to be fult.’ I think Iwl yes with that.

Further reading: 
Anna Lawrence Pietroni 2011
First published in The Reader (journal of The Reader Organisation at the University of Liverpool), No. 44 Winter 2011

Anna Lawrence Pietroni is a novelist and creative writing tutor. Her first novel, RUBY'S SPOON, set in a fictional Black Country town in 1933, was published by Chatto & Windus in 2010 to critical acclaim in both the UK and the US. ('One of the best first novels I've ever read' - Susan Hill.) Anna read English at University College, Oxford and worked her way through a variety of jobs (including graphic designer and trainee prison governor) before committing to writing fiction. She is passionate about enabling others to write authentically, to increase confidence and develop craft by using playful and mindful techniques.


lindsay's picture

This essay is a splash of fresh water. It freshened my memories of Riddley and added insights I had never thought of. Thank you.


Share this page