Future Medieval Space: Performing "Punch" in Riddley Walker

K. A. Laity

All quotations come from Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker: Expanded Edition, Indiana University Press, 1998

Although he sets his novel Riddley Walker (published in 1980) in a post-apocalyptic future, Russell Hoban makes use of the medieval world to mark this future as a site of the "primitive." For this stunted society, the most apparent aspect of the Middle Ages is the explicitly medieval legend and wall painting of St. Eustace, which still exists faintly on the wall of Canterbury Cathedral. Perhaps more important is his appropriation of the medieval mystery plays, which illuminate bibilical narratives and are traditionally performed on mobile wagons.  As performed in Riddley Walker, the "Eusa Show" (a garbled version of the St. Eustace story) takes on many of the mystery plays' aspects, transmitting the truths of the culture and entertaining people with education. This modified Punch and Judy show conveys the only narrative that remains after the apocalyptic devastation of English society. The ritual of the puppet show picks up the religious meaning of the mystery plays, but it also takes on a social and governmental function that medieval dramas typically lacked. Just as various dissenters from Lollards to Pelagians threatened the orthodoxy of Christianity in the middle ages, the young protagonist's discovery of a real Punch puppet sets off a chain of events that destroys the carefully scripted Eusa show. Hoban's use of Punch history gives this superb novel its authority, while the familiar art of puppetry provides a vivid connection to this bizarre future world for the modern reader.

The novel begins with the naming day of twelve-year-old Riddley, his right of passage into manhood. If he seems advanced for a twelve year old, his surprisingly acute mind may in part be tied to his job as "connexion man." Half shaman and half bureaucrat, the job of connexion man centers on explaining and interpreting the Eusa puppet show to his small community each time the government men bring the show to their settlement. The much repeated ritual commences when the Mincery (Ministry) men arrive with their puppets and fit up (mobile stage), set up the stage, interact with the people via their connexion man, then offer the traditional lessons via the puppets like Eusa. The day after their departure, the connexion man must interpret for the people the subtle meanings encoded in the puppet show. Perhaps it is his job as connexion man that helps Riddley understand he has found something significant when he comes across a buried Punch figure while working at a dump. Although he does not recognize the crooked figure, he is quite familiar with puppets from the government-sanctioned Eusa show. We're more than half-way through the book before he learns the identity of the enigmatic figure. As puppeteer and "Pry Mincer" (a devolution of Prime Minister) Goodparley explains in the patois of their post-nuclear England, "This here figger his name is Punch which hes the oldes figger there is. He wer old time back way way back long befor Eusa ever ben thot of. Hes so old he cant dy…" (131). At this point in the novel, Riddley is unaware of the puppet's history; nonetheless he recognizes intuitively the power of the figure who cannot die.

He risks everything he has—position, power, safety—for the puppet he finds in the muck of the dump (disturbingly, with the severed hand of his last puppeteer still in place). Knowing that all items found must be turned over to the Mincery's control (because, unbeknownst to the general populace, they are searching for the keys to nuclear power), Riddley nonetheless finds himself unable to give up the figure. "It wer a show figger like the 1s in the Eusa show," he says, but "this here figger tho it wernt like no other figger I ever seen…the head wernt like no other head I ever seen in a show nyther. The face had a big nose what hookit down and a big chin what hookit up and a smyling mouf" (72-73). Without understanding why, Riddley immediately pockets the figure, tosses the nearby Mincery man head first into the mud and hightails it over the fence into the forbidding wild lands outside. This defiant act moves him from the center of his social group—and pivotal role as connexion man—into outlawry and danger, most immediately from the wild dogs that encircle the human settlements. In the medieval world, the safety of society was fringed by the horrors of dangerous wastelands; yet only those hardy souls who braved the wilderness could receive the blessings of insight. It is only fitting then (if we agree that this society mirrors medieval society) that once Riddley decides to chance the dangerous space outside his settlement, the wild dogs unexpectedly befriend the boy and as he begins a journey that uncovers the deepest secrets of his society and the fractured history the Mincery has sought both to deny and to recover: the secret of nuclear power.

Like the Christian mythic pattern of paradise, banishment and redemption, the approved Eusa puppet show retells the nuclear annihilation of much of the world. It is a story of lost comforts and horrible apocalypse, which have scarred both the language and the people. The medieval legend of St. Eustace, as found in a description of the fifteenth-century wall painting of Canterbury Cathedral, supplies the narrative context for the Eusa puppet show. The legend of Eustace follows the normal pattern of medieval hagiography: revelation, suffering, death and miracles. But reconstituted as the story of "Eusa," it is a show both fractured and misunderstood—rather than the tale of a saint, it becomes the tale of the country's destruction by nuclear holocaust. As connexion man, Riddley must memorize the story—which exists only in oral form, as far as he knows (unaware of the original medieval painting)—but even he is unsure of its true meaning. While he can quote from this "scripture," he cannot provide exegesis. In part this is due to the intermingling of narratives and the breakdown of many years of oral transmission. Two narrative strands have been joined together, each confusing the other. To the story of St. Eustace, who first recognized divinity when he sees a vision of Christ between the antlers of a stag, technical information on nuclear fission has been added, represented by the figure of the "Littl Shyning Man." A further layer is added because both Eusa (Eustace) and the Littl Shyning Man have taken center stage in the puppet show that once was Punch's domain, pushing the anarchic anti-hero aside in favor of the government's mouthpiece. We can see a transmission much like medieval narratives that developed in oral form, transferred from one region to another and one teller to another, only to be written down, then translated from one language to another. The authority of the church provided one constant. But frequent calls for reform over the centuries betray that the movement toward chaos and splintering was ever imminent. Similarly, the Eusa story has taken on the weight of the authority, yet even the Mincery feels the desire to adapt, change and revise the story according to their own aims.

The performance Riddley grows up with takes on a codified form, but it also contains many elements of uncertainty. The ritual of the Eusa show begins with the connexion man leading the audience through the rote opening of call and response, reminding them that they are all going together "down that road with Eusa" and "wher them Chaynjis [changes] take us" (44). Just as in the medieval mystery plays, the audience knows the familiar format as well as the gist of the stories. But the power of the stories comes alive with each performance, and the meaning changes as the audiences do, too. Riddley comments upon this phenomenon when he sees Eusa at the first show for which he must perform the connection, following the death of his father, the previous connexion man. His job requires close observation, to prepare him to explain the nuances to his people:

Eusa come up then slow and scanful like all ways terning his woodin head this way and that and his paintit eyes taking us all in. Many and manys the time Id lookit back at them staring blue eyes. Since back befor I cud member it even. Only this time it seamt like it wer the 1st time I wer seeing him and I wer afeart of him. (46)

Riddley's fear in this scene could be written off as nervousness about his new responsibilities, but it seems to signal a subconscious discomfort not just within his own mind, but that of the Mincery staff as well. His unease proves prescient: that night the Eusa men change the familiar script. Eusa, whose well-known story has been told times innumerable, has always borne the blame for the "1 Big 1," as they term the nuclear war. But that night, the puppeteers offer another opinion—that the blame instead belongs to Mr Clevver (whose red color and horns make him recognizable to readers as the devil puppet from the original Punch show). The puppeteers anticipate the audience's alarm and discomfort (imagine a medieval Christian audience reacting to Judas suddenly being absolved of blame for leading to the crucifixion) and explicitly address it with argument and reinterpretation of "scripture." Orfing, the narrator of the show, quotes Eusa Chapter 18 from memory then asks the puppet, "What in the worl makes you think weare going to beleave a new story now?" But Eusa responds "This aint nothing new dint I tel you this is trufax and wrote down the same at the Mincery." These are true facts, he claims, and more than that they are based on written records—available, of course, only to those in authority. Writing carries a powerful impact in this oral culture, just as books were themselves talismanic objects in the Middle Ages. Orfing predicts the resulting confusion of the people gathered there and presses the puppet further, asking "whyd you pick now to change your story?" (51). Eusa's answer, as spokesperson for the Mincery, is that the question of blame isn't really a change to the story, countering "what the diffrents any how?" because in the end, "If I hadnt some 1 else wudve done" (52-53). There is change, but the the Mincery men attempt to comfort them with the thought that it is not significant change.

The puppeteers use their established authority, both through the ritual of the show itself and through the audience's trust in and ignorance of the written records of the Mincery, to prepare people for new goals—finding the previously forbidden secrets of nuclear power. The audience have no way to question the "trufax" because their local culture is only oral and entirely dependent upon the Eusa men and the Mincery, and to a lesser extent, their connexion man, Riddley. But the deviation from the script seems to have disturbed Riddley, although he lacks the sophistication to articulate his discomfort. Sitting alone in the rain after the Eusa show, he muses, "You know some times you get a fealing you dont want to put no words to" (54). The sense of trouble continues the next night as he prepares his first connexion. Riddley has had a chance to ruminate upon the changed show, but so too have his people, and there seems to be an additional sense of urgency as they await Riddley's elucidation. Again, the ceremony begins with ritual, another call and response as the crowd awaits his words about the altered Eusa show. Yet Riddley is unable to heal the rupture. In fact, his first connexion only puts him into a kind of trance. He believes he conveyed all its strange images (of Eusas head growing to gigantic proportions and a blackness beyond darkness) to the eager audience; however, they hear none of his thoughts and his revelation that "Eusas head is dreaming us" remains obscure both to Riddley and to his audience: "so every 1 wer lef hanging. Me and all" (62).

The rupture caused by the incomplete ritual and the changed narrative disturbs everyone. Just as the medieval mystery plays offered narratives that became part of daily life, like Noah the hen-pecked husband or Herod the bombastic blowhard, the Eusa show has provided stability to the people of Riddley's settlement. The failure of the ritual rends fissures through the fabric of their society. These fissures show up first in the children's taunting rhyme "Riddley Walker wernt no talker" (63), but shortly thereafter result in his hasty exodus from society at the dump with the Punch figure in his pocket. When he finds Punch, Riddley sets off on a journey of discovery that eventually finds him in the ruins of Canterbury cathedral and, inadvertently, at the center of the Mincery's attempts to reconstruct the power of the "1 Big 1."

The gruesome discovery of the muck-blackened Punch with the severed hand of his last puppeteer still in place fuels Riddley's search for knowledge, but it also offers him another voice with which to investigate and eventually narrate his discoveries. The unaccounted figure of Punch opens his mind to the possibilities of a world beyond the Mincery's teachings; if there are other puppets than the Eusa show troupe, what other surprises might be out there? Riddley sees familiar places with new eyes, and seeks out the secrets of the past in the rubble of Canterbury. He sees in the ruins of the cathedral the shape of a woman and understands the devastation of the earth that she represents with her blasted shell of a body. Lifting a stone, he finds in the wreckage a Greenman figure—its face of leaves and vines undoubtedly once part of the Cathedral's masonry—which he had seen first in a vision, imagining "it wer the onlyes face there wer. It wer every face" (166). The face is "rapt up in a bit of red and black stripet hard clof it wer the same and very clof the Eusa show men use for ther fit ups" (167). Always the Eusa show has been there before him, but for Riddley, the Eusa show men are not always to be trusted. The puppeteers prove a malleable authority, just as the Eusa men Orfing and Goodparley form and break alliances several times in their pursuit of the 1 Big 1, just as if they were puppets on a stage. As Orfing comments later, "You know as wel as I do if you put 1 figger on your right han and a nother on your lef the 1 wil go agenst the other some how some time" (198). Riddley comes to see himself initially as the puppet of these men, asking himself "If I wer a figger in a show what hand wer moving me then?" but avoids seeking an answer to the seemingly unknowable question, brushing it off with "Theres all ways some thingwl be moving you if it aint 1 thing its another you cant help that" (173). Riddley cannot escape being someone's puppet, but conscious of that inevitability, he can choose which thing will be moving him.

In the end, it is only through the puppets that Riddley can begin the process of healing the rupture of the changed Eusa story and the revelation of the 1 Littl 1 (gunpowder) after which the 1 Big 1 (nuclear power) can't be far behind. But by then the Mincery is in ruins too, just like Canterbury Cathedral, its members either dead (like Goodparley) or disgraced (like Orfing).  Riddley signals the change in authority by the creation of his own original story about stones in which he intuits the weight of history that they contain, and by his recognition that the only power is no power. Those who thirst for power, like the Mincery men, inevitably seem to be destroyed by it. The new story is not so much a throwing off of history as providing an alternative track, a kind of post-nuclear Reformation movement. Suddenly the world is a larger place than just the Eusa show, and Riddley begins to adapt to being "programmit diffrent" after his visions of the woman, the Greenman and the stones in Canterbury (166). He begins to adjust to the changes with a dialogue between the Greenman figure and the blackened Punch, who asks "Whats it all about then?" (172). Riddley is unable to reconcile the new knowledge gained with the world he has known through the Eusa show, although he intuitively makes the connection part of the show now rather than its epilogue. However, he still needs a revelation to show the new way. His savior has already been prophesized, but Riddley has not yet recognized him.

The shift in his cosmology begins in earnest when Riddley discovers the existence of a second bag of figures in the late Goodparley's puppet show fit up. Riddley recognizes Punch of course (even in his less dilapidated state), but not all the other Punch and Judy figures familiar to a modern audience like Judy herself, the baby and the Judge. He realizes that now he has all the figures needed to bring the new narrative to the community. Riddley has learned much more about the world and about the kind of stories we tell ourselves about our own cultures. He articulates that understanding, too, saying "It aint in the natur of a show to be the same every time it aint like a story what you pas down trying not to change nothing which even then the changes wil creap in" (205). Even though he doesn't understand the nature of all the creatures he finds in the second bag (the crocodile, for one, is a complete mystery) he intuitively grasps their purpose in the storytelling. The other figures provide resonances, often unconnected with the official Eusa story, but to familiar parts of life such as family life and sexual coupling.

Riddley understands the power of the puppets themselves, how they have some existence and meaning beyond what he or the Eusa men give to them. While his understanding cannot express the ontological weight of the puppets as the vehicle for their cultural memory and mythology, Riddley can recognize that ability in the figures themselves. As he puts it, crudely but insightfully,

You take a figger out of the bag nor it aint nothing only some colourt clof with a paintit wood head and hans. Then you put it on. You put your head finger in the head you put your arm fingers in the arms then that figger looks roun and takes noatis it has things to say [emphasis added]. Which they wont all ways be things youwd think of saying o no them wood heads the hart of the woos is in them and the hard of the wud and all. They have ther knowing and they have ther saying which you bes lissen for it you bes let it happen. (204)

Riddley recognizes the interplay between puppet and performer, the frisson between performance, performer and audience. He is done with scripted stories and returns to the shaman half of his role, both in healing the community and in accessing the mythic level to find the stories they all need to hear. As he puts it, "In emtyness and ready to be fult. Not to lern no body nothing I cant even lern my oan self all I can do is try not to get in front of whats coming" (204). No more scripts (or scripture); no more Mincery, no more central authority—there's only the puppeteer and the puppets, the performer's intuition and audience. He puts his trust in the figures, especially Punch himself, and they reward him with access to new knowledge and a re-entry into society. When Riddley and Orfing approach the first settlement they come across after the disastrous deaths of Goodparley and the Mincery, the initially tense encounter between Ridley the outlaw, Orfing the ex-Mincery man and the nervous community erupts into laughter when Punch emerges with his stick in hand to beat Riddley about the head.

Once in the camp, the two puppet men have to negotiate the changes the new show brings. They are regarded with suspicion, naturally enough, because the Eusa show is the only story people have known and the destruction of that central authority is painfully fresh. Imagine a medieval crowd gathered for the Corpus Christi festival and met with pageant wagons and using costumes traditionally associated with Abraham and Noah portraying the mysteries of Buddhism: Riddley and Orfing are presenting a radical change in mythos in a disconcertingly familiar form. While Punch replaces Eusa on stage, other figures—including the indomitable devil, Mr Clevver—are exactly the same. The ritual opening immediately causes problems for they must leave Eusa out of the ritual greeting because "it aint no Eusa show its some kynd of a new show" (213). The ritual call and response cannot begin for the old script no longer suits the new circumstances. Yet the new show includes audience participation, not simply in the ritual opening and closing but in the narrative itself. For example, in keeping with the traditional form of the Punch show, the audience must promise to help watch the baby because, of course, Punch cannot be trusted to keep the child safe. The new narrative Riddley provides offers a greater role for the member of the community, but it also gives them more attendant responsibility. They cannot simply watch but must take part in the show. It is a significant step in social development—no longer can they remain passive consumers of culture, they must contribute, too. This requirement carries risks. If the audience has to watch the baby, are they complicit in its inevitable demise? Or is it simply a reminder of the need for constant vigilance against the danger posed by those like the Mincery, who endanger the individual members with their own struggles for power? Riddley's Punch show does not give easy answers. The risk is manifest almost at once when one viewer takes the responsibility too literally, yelling at the Punch puppet, "You littl crookit barset I tol you not to try nothing here!" then grabs Punch off the surprised hand of the puppeteer (219). The fit up goes over, and Riddley with it, as everyone struggles to control the discourse and Punch.

While initially it seems that their first show may be their last, the apparent disaster proves ultimately rewarding. The performance collapses in shambles, but as Riddley and Orfing set out from the settlement later, others follow. Perhaps none of them may understand the journey they are undertaking any more than Riddley, but they all are taking up a new quest for understanding. No longer willing to accept the Mincery's version of the world, they ask questions as Riddley does, like "Why is Punch crookit? Why wil he all ways kil the babby if he can? Parbly I wont ever know its jus on me to think on it" (220). But like Riddley too, they have chosen this path, which leads them away from the blind faith of the past into a new world of possibilities. There is no way to undo the sins of the past and its many devastations, but through the re-imagined ritual of the Punch show, they can all begin to explore new mysteries. The magic of the puppet show in the end is its ability to transform the inanimate into animation, to turn movement into story, and to bring to life all manner of dreams and stories.

K. A. Laity 2012
This essay's first publication was as "Mr. Punch in Literary Space: Post-Apocalyptic Performance Ritual in Riddley Walker", Puppetry International Magazine 19 (Spring and Summer 2006): 26-30. It has now been reprinted under its original title, "Future Medieval Space: Post-Apocalyptic Performance Ritual in Riddley Walker" in K.A. Laity's collection ROOK CHANT.

K.A. Laity describes herself as an "all-purpose writer, Fulbrighter, uberskiver, medievalist, flâneuse, techno-shamanka, Broad Universe social media maven, History Witch, Pirate Pub Captain ☠ currently anchored in Dundee, Scotland."

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