Riddley Walker Unriddled

Darrell Emmel

According to reviewers of literature, Hoban’s masterpiece is Riddley Walker.  I agree, but for reasons not noted in any review.  In both conception and presentation, Riddley Walker is a novel unlike any other.  It is a wonder and should be recognized as one of the great works of twentieth century literature.  It invites a reconsideration of all of Hoban’s novels, from The Mouse and His Child to Soonchild. All graduate programs in literature should include a course on Hoban, his unique vision and inspired creativity.  Raising awareness should begin with a fuller appreciation of the marvelous depth and complexity of Riddley Walker and of the subtle genius of its creator.  Perhaps recognition of these qualities is slow in coming because they are not self-evident.

It seems to me that when readers get to the end of Riddley’s narrative, they should not only be puzzled by its precipitous conclusion but also be curious about its plot.  Why would exuberantly metaphysical Russell Hoban spend five years refining a story whose essential message seems to be a depressing “Look!  Suicidal humanity has reinvented gunpowder?”  Put in another way, why would he have Riddley declare that he’s a riddler walking his riddles on paper only to have his seemingly essential riddle be answered by the reinvention of gunpowder, which accomplishment will eventually lead to another murderous war of political and social dominance and the hunting and killing of Hoban’s canine secret service?  

As Lissener would say, “theres some thing else here les get to it” (103), “it” being, in this case, Riddley’s riddling.

What if Hoban’s gunpowder plot is an ingeniously riddled red herring designed to hide a deeper story line set forth only in “syns” and “nindicaters” and “tels?”  What if the ingredients of gunpowder are riddled signs?  What if charcoal, made from alder by burners who keep secrets, signifies “alder,” the special tree and “hart of the wood” in the forager tradition?  What if saltpeter, gathered from beneath pig manure, signifies “pig matters” that must remain secret in Riddley’s tradition?  What if the bag of “yellerboy” (119) sulphur brought to Inland by the “farring seakert” sailor signifies a secret light source in the forager tradition?  Riddley sees the bag as having “Power in it ...  liting up the dark like a torch.” (104)  How do sulphur stones alone light up the dark?  What if the riddled contents of gunpowder combine to signify a special event, the coming of a boy prophesied to “fynd the pig shit in the hart of the wood when the yeller boy comes hoam?” (150)  Hoban has Riddley and Granser simultaneously sing of the yeller boy’s coming. (150) Granser later declares that he will “never tell no seakerts.” (188)  Do the song and declaration combine to reveal the presence of a secret forager tradition replete with Boar, Sow, Piglet, and Alder rites, and its own prophecies?

Why does Hoban end his story so darkly, with his young hero seeming to bemoan his having to put on a puppet show that features a father who—so Riddley muses—always has to kill his own child; as if rebellious Riddley could not imagine or would not dare put on a puppet show of his own creation? He, after all, has just inherited a bag full of Punch show puppets about which he could imagine anything. Would a show featuring infanticide ever be welcomed by the “fentsers” and “formers” of Inland whose good graces Riddley and Orfing will have to depend upon if they are to survive?  What do Rightway and Deaper see in the chaotic conclusion of the Punch show that motivates them to abandon the security of a fents community and, with their families, to follow into the packs’ territory the young troublemaker implicated in the death of Inland’s Pry Mincer?  If, in the end, young Riddley “wunt have no other track,” then what track does he imagine that he and his new allies have begun to follow?  

The novel’s offputting, seemingly grim denouement does not make sense.  Does the Weaping show, stopped by Easyer with “piglet babby” seemingly about to be devoured by his own father, somehow tell a positive story that symbolically accords with the forager tradition’s Big Boar and Moon Sow rites and secrets?

In his foreword to The Moment under The Moment, Hoban argues for the existence of a “real reality” composed of “unseen actualities” that “can’t be put into words; the most that a writer can do--and this is only rarely achieved--is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page.”  What if the strange ending of Hoban’s tale—the bizarre-seeming Punch and piglet scene—presents a riddled off-page “real reality” made of “unseen actualities” for which Hoban, by way of his consistently meaningful “syns” and “tels” and  “nindicators,” carefully prepares readers from its beginning sentence onward?  What if Riddley Walker does not end the way that we assume that it ends?  What if “grabbing a piglet” perfectly complements “hunting a boar” in the tradition that Riddley must riddle because its secrets can’t be openly stated?

What does Hoban imply when, in his 2002 interview with James Hopkin in the Guardian, he says that most of his novels celebrate “a willingness to admit the unseen,” that “the shaman is open to the unseen and makes himself a medium for it”?  Hoban claims that he is himself that “kind of writer.” He is evidently implying something significant about “the unseen” in this same interview when he says, “When I’m looking for an idea, if I suddenly have a hankering for a particular piece of music or if I go to a shelf and randomly pick a book, I think:  maybe something out there is trying to tell me something.  I feel as if I am offering myself and I’m hoping that something will come in.”  What sort of “something out there” might this be?  Might a writer serve as a “medium for it” without “it” either fully or clearly appearing in words?  Does Riddley Walker include an unworded “something out there” that’s left “off the page?”  An unseen “something out there?”  An unseen female power “out there,” for example?  What role does “her what has her woom in Cambry” play in Riddley’s narrative?  Riddley says that “Shes that same 1 every thing and all of us come out of” and that “Shes that same 1 shows her moon self or she jus shows her old old nite and no moon [self].” (18)  What light source other than the stars “shows” at night when there’s no moon?  If she “shows” as her starred self but Riddley can only riddle the presence of stars in his narrative, then stars must be critical to his people’s “seakert” ways.   

My Farring Seakert Sailor answers all of these questions and explores all of Hoban’s deliberate mystifications.  A re-reading of Riddley Walker will show that they need to be asked and explored.  The answers reveal an expansive, all-inclusive dimension of Riddley’s narrative, one featuring riddles with “off the page” answers the solutions to which Russell Hoban kept to himself.  I suggest going back and forth between Riddley’s chapters and my corresponding “read” of their signs, scenes, and riddles.  Reading chapter one of Riddley and the first sentence of chapter two will perfectly launch Farring Seakert Sailor; thereafter, a brisk tail wind will propel readers along an ancient track lined with sparkling shapes in the night sky.

All page references are from the 1998 Indiana University edition

Further reading: 
Darrell Emmel 2016

I am a mostly Norwegian but partly German and Danish American whose ancestors came to Dakota Territory in the 1870s. I was born in and raised around Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I received a B. A. degree from Augustana University in Sioux Falls, with a double major in English and History (1968). I received a Fulbright Scholarship to study World War I British history at King’s College, University of London (1968-9). I received my M.A. degree in English Literature in Canada, from the University of Toronto (1976). My Master’s thesis, The Cauldron of Rebirth, offered a Jungian interpretation of the major narratives of John Cowper Powys, a half-Welsh Englishman who lectured in the United States for three decades but chose to live and write his Welshness during his last four. I began to study dreams and dream imagery while living in Canada and learned sign reading as a result. In the 1970s I lived in Toronto for three years and in Wales twice for a total of four years. In the early 1980s, I lived for five years in my brother Gayle’s log cabin beside a small lake in northern Minnesota. No electricity or plumbing wonderfully sharpens life, the mind, and one’s appreciation for ancient life ways. I am a student of cultures, especially of Native American cultures and their belief systems. I lived for a year on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where I assisted a “Medicine Man” who used the log cabin where I stayed as the place where he held Inipi (spiritual healing) ceremonies. I also assisted my Lakota friends in their ongoing practices of the Sweat Lodge and Sun Dance ceremonies given to them by their White Buffalo Calf Woman, also called Shining Star and the Beautiful One. Having secrets of their own to protect, the Lakota who befriended me when I lived among them would have been perfectly comfortable with Hoban’s How Fents foragers. I have written many unpublished books on various matters that interest me greatly, such as various kinds of dreams, Celtic mythology, the runes and faith of ancient Europe, belief systems that include “the Unseen,” and books by authors who, in particular works, present a sign nexus profitably and expansively “readable.” Farring Seakert Sailor is the latest of many such books. Earlier ones, for examples, read the signs of The Mabinogion tale “Kilhwch and Olwen,” of Porius by John Cowper Powys, of Richard Cowper’s White Bird of Kinship trilogy, and of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I also wrote a book on Avatar, the screenplay and the movie. Like Russell Hoban, when “something out there” focuses my interest, I write. Publishing will come if it comes.



When I said that Hoban keeps the answers to Riddley's riddles to himself, I only meant that he signs the answers to the riddles in the "off the page" (under) story, not on the surface level of the story (the gunpowder plot). Every riddle in Riddley's narrative is answered in that under story. What Hoban "kept to himself" is the nature of Riddley's riddling, which can only be understood by readers of THE MABINOGION who are acquainted with Graves' THE WHITE GODDESS. There Hoban learned the necessity of riddling his fentsers' "1st knowing" tradition, with its Big Boar, Moon Sow, Piglet, and Aulder signs, all of which appear as signed lights in the under story's imagery. The under story requires that readers detect and interpret the signs that present the necessarily secret nexus of the forager faith, as Taliesin himself presented the bardic faith. Symbolic acts, such as both Punch and Easyer grabbing a piglet puppet, answer questions, too.
Thanks, and sorry for the confusion, Darrell

Gayle Emmel

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