How do we get from Riddley Walker to children rescuing Mel Gibson in the outback, or a reincarnation castle on a future doomed Earth, or even an outraged London cabbie who becomes an accidental prophet? By language, or rather, by the particular creative distortions thereof which Russell Hoban innovated in his novel.
Before continuing, readers may be interested in we should mention a Riddley Walker event tomorrow – Tiny manyings for Riddley presented as part of the Kent Open Thinking Programme and is supported by Canterbury Festival and The Gulbenkian.
Invented languages often have cultural hinterlands and legacies. This is especially seen in fandoms, where fans seek the highest form of emulation – to add to the cultural production of that which they admire. Tolkien’s linguistic inventions have led to significant fan-generated poetry and even scholarship in Elvish, while the expansion of art-languages like Klingon and Dothraki into fully functioning languages has largely been achieved with the assistance of armies of fans.
When we come to less fully developed art-languages, i.e. ones which do not possess their own formal grammar, the cultural hinterlands are somewhat different. This is the category in which we find both Burgess’s Nadsat and Hoban’s Riddleyspeak. Both are functionally invented lexicons rather than full languages, grafted onto a superstructure of (admittedly unorthodox) English grammar. When we quantify this, we find that only a small proportion of A Clockwork Orange is actually Nadsat (around 6% of the words), but a small amount is sufficient to colour and dominate the reading experience of the novel.
Likewise with Riddley Walker. Hoban’s text makes demands upon readers who are forced to ponder its unusual orthography and puzzle out its sly puns and phonetic spellings. These demands dominate the reading experience of the novel, and, as previously discussed, emulate not only Riddley’s own juvenile, poorly educated but cunning mind, but also the circumstances of Riddley’s world, in which a post-apocalyptic culture is slowly grasping its way towards rearmament, haunted by half-remembered ghosts and fragments of the distant past.
Nadsat’s linguistic legacy has been largely restricted to Burgess’s own revisiting of Alex’s story – in theatre, musical and even journalistic modes. Its influence can also be detected elsewhere in his expansive oeuvre – in the distortions of literature presented in his other dystopian novel The Wanting Seed, where paper shortage requires the bard to be truncated as Dh Wks v Wlm Shkspr, for example. Or in 1985, his flawed sequel of sorts to Orwell’s classic, in which Kumina gangs (kumina meaning teen in Swahili, just as Nadsat does in Russian) speak a strange macaronic slang which seems to derive some of its power from Yiddish, as Nadsat does from Russian. Elsewhere, Nadsat’s cultural influence tends to be found in cultural outputs seeking to reference either Burgess’s novel or Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation. There are, for example, a large number of rock and pop bands which take their name from Nadsat and the novel.
Riddley Walker, despite being a much less well-known text than A Clockwork Orange, has had significantly more success in replicating its invented language in other cultural outputs, however. We can speculate about why this is, but largely it again appears to be a form of tribute, in which narratives which draw upon a similar mise-en-scène to Hoban’s novel emulate his linguistic creativity. We could perhaps go further and suggest that Hoban’s evocation of a post-apocalyptic degraded form of English was so successful that it proved impossible for others, writing in the same genre, to evade it, but that might be overstating the case. After all, as we’ve previously discussed, Riddleyspeak is a singularly implausible form of future English.
So, let us examine some of Riddley’s legacy. Possibly the first, and certainly the most prominent, work to pay overt tribute to Hoban’s novel is the third instalment of George Miller’s Australian post-apocalyptic Mad Max cycle, Beyond Thunderdome – the one with the big Hollywood budget and Tina Turner in a blonde wig. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Functioning as the culmination of the original trilogy (it was rebooted in 2015 with Tom Hardy taking the titular role of Max Rockatansky), Mel Gibson’s drifter is banished to die in the Outback in Beyond Thunderdome by the leader of Bartertown, Auntie Entity, played by rock icon Tina Turner. Max is somehow saved from almost certain death by a tribe of semi-feral children, characterised as a cargo cult by some critics due to their fragmented understanding of the apocalyptic history that has preceded them. With the kids, Max then wreaks revenge upon Bartertown and Auntie Entity, but fails to join the children as they fly off in a surviving plane to survey the ruins of Sydney, which they know as ‘Tomorrow-morrow-land’. From the first moment one tribe member, Savannah Nix, encounters Max, it becomes clear that they see him as a kind of Messiah figure. He is, they believe, the legendary “Captain Walker”, the promised airline pilot who will fly them back to civilisation. But this nomenclature is not the only nod in the direction of Hoban’s novel. The tribal children’s language bears a distinct resemblance to Riddleyspeak, and if we recall RD Mullan’s schema, or indeed that of David Dowling, we can see the similarities at the level of categorisation.
Most notable initially are the childish verb forms – “We’s found.”, “I touchded him.”, “This you knows, I be first tracker.” Additionally, we can note some similar verb-noun form confusions, most particularly the key term “tell” as noun, which plays a significant role in both narratives. In Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, for example. We hear the children say “Don’t he know his own tell?”
This is accompanied by a similar level of vulgarity not commonly found in children, but common to Riddley Walker and Beyond Thunderdome – “She ain’t pissing us.”, “Okay, schlock-cock.”, or “We got the wind up our ass, Captain.” Also idiosyncratic to both narratives is the repurposing of technolanguage, or jargon derived from the world of computing, to signify the loss of technology. The tribal kids tell each other to “Use your program.”, and respond to Max’s questioning with “Ain’t got that code, Walker.”
We can also identify the creative compounding of words, not merely things like “skyraft” for airplane, or “heartful” for concerned, but also “wordstuff” for speaking and “Pox-Eclipse” to describe the cataclysm they are too young to remember. Speaking of remembrance, the verb is truncated, a form mutation we can see in both Nadsat and Riddleyspeak.
There are also some components which, while not directly borrowed from Riddleyspeak, nevertheless evoke its literary tone: punning metaphors like “high scrapers”, and personification – “Some had been jumped by Mr Dead”.
While the naming of the tribal messiah as Captain Walker functions as the most obvious tribute to Hoban’s novel, the script of the movie indicates a subtler one – phonetic spelling. In the performed movie, it is impossible to know that the children say “lissen” rather than “listen” as the words are homophonic. The phonetic spelling in the script, however, signifies that the authors (Miller with scriptwriter Terry Hayes) intended specifically to evoke Hoban’s novel. A less obvious tribute to Riddley Walker may be found in a more proximate context – that of a British SF novel. The late Iain Banks was probably best known to the public as the author of his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, a grimly realistic shocker featuring a psychopathic adolescent protagonist, Frank Cauldhame. It might even be suggested that, with its youthful and idiosyncratic first person narrator, who engages in shamanistic rituals in a world far detached from civilisation, Cauldhame bears a distant resemblance to Riddley Walker, though there is little evidence that Banks knew of Hoban’s novel in 1980 when, temporarily abandoning his calling to write SF, Banks commenced work on what would become his first published book.
Following the success of The Wasp Factory, Banks was finally able to obtain publishing deals for the SF he had already completed and previously had rejected. He published this with the middle initial M. to give it a kind of distinct identity from his non-SF fiction career. Most of these novels were set in the same universe, where a utopian civilisation known as ‘the Culture’engaged with other galactic civilisations, who were often much less utopian in their outlook. These nine novels (and some associated shorter fiction) were published between 1987 and 2010.
However, Banks also wrote some standalone SF which was not set in the Culture universe. His 1994 novel Feersum Endjinn is one such novel. It is set in the far future of planet Earth, as the solar system is threatened with an extinction event due to an imminent collision with ‘the Encroachment’, an intergalactic dust cloud set to swallow everything it encounters. Featuring a neo-feudal remnant society who remained on the planet while the rest of humanity left for the stars, the action takes place over a few days, or a number of decades, given the relativistic handling of time in the fiction. In a digital environment, known as ‘the Crypt’, uploaded minds can experience existence at many times the ordinary human rate, a feature which becomes a plot point in the novel. One way that Banks attempts to convey this experience to the reader is via the same kind of immersive and emulatory method which Burgess and Hoban had used before him.
Just as the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange immerses the reader in Alex’s argot and mode of thinking, ultimately brainwashing them as Alex himself is brainwashed, so Hoban’s Riddleyspeak immerses the reader in Riddley Walker’s way of thinking and expressing himself, slowing the pace of the novel down to the cognitive level of a cunning but ill-educated child in a technologically retrograde civilisation. In Feersum Endjinn, Banks reflects the relativistic experience of time in the real world versus ‘Crypt time’ by emulating the technique used by Burgess and Hoban. The novel features four narratives, which eventually converge, one preceding the others while informing them. Of these four narratives, however, that of Bascule is told in his idiosyncratic argot, a semi-phonetic compressed form of English. In addition to providing Bascule with his own clearly identifiable voice, it also slows the reading experience down in emulation of the relativistic time which features in the novel. The reading experience then obviously speeds up again as the reader leaves Bascule’s narrative for one of the others. It’s a neat narratological trick, and works well in what otherwise is not one of Banks’s best SF novels, despite being an SF Masterwork.
A sample from the opening paragraph of Bascule’s narrative ought to illuminate how it functions. This does not require glossing or translation. Reading it aloud should suffice to derive its meaning:
“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.”
This is effectively direct speech presented in a form of phonetic English, mildly augmented by some symbols which are similarly phonetically pronounced – ½ for ‘have’, and @ for ‘at’, for example. There is almost nothing of the creativity found in Nadsat or Riddleyspeak, none of the cunning puns. Bascule’s narrative is not intended to evoke a particular cultural milieu. It is rather a simple idiolect, intended to connote a limited intelligence.
Bascule, incidentally, performs the role of a ‘teller’, or middle-man who communicates with the Crypt and its inhabitants on behalf of those outside. As the Crypt’s inhabitants are dead (multiply so, as they have seven physical lives before being reborn digitally), Bascule’s role is akin to the divinatory one performed by the ‘tel woman’ Lorna in Riddley Walker.
A more extensive tribute to Riddley Walker may be found in Will Self’s 2006 novel, The Book of Dave, which like Hoban’s text features a future post-apocalyptic Britain setting. The premise for Self’s book differs from Riddley Walker, in that it presents both the events of the contemporary era as well as those of the far-flung future. Self’s novel functions as an ironic commentary on the nature of religious belief in particular, as a text written by a mentally unwell London cabbie, the eponymous Dave, becomes the basis for a faith-based society centuries hence, hence the novel’s subtitle: “A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future”.
The Book of Dave has a complex narratological structure, jumping about in time. It is also bifurcated into the two sections referred to in its subtitle. So there is one narrative which takes place in contemporary England, the England of Dave, which runs from approximately 1987 to 2003, albeit not in chronological order. There is additionally the future narrative, which takes place in Ing, a society heavily influenced by Dave’s writing. These events take place between 509 and 524 years AD (or After Dave) and again do not run chronologically.
In the post-apocalyptic future Ing, an archipelagic England following rising seas caused by climate change, the state religion is a fundamentalist creed known as Davinanity, a sly pun on Christianity and “Dave’s inanity”. Its belief system has been developed out of a text written by Dave, the eponymous cabbie, which is largely a rant about his failed marriage and the difficulties he faces in relation to child access, as well as references to the ‘knowledge’, the body of geospatial information required to pass the London taxicab exam.
Self’s novel, like Hoban’s before it, goes much further than the phonetically presented speech of Bascule in Banks’s fiction. Our previous post discussed the linguistic characteristics of Riddleyspeak. Many similar traits can be found in Mokni, the dialect of Inglish in which the future narrative is largely expressed. Dave’s various prejudices and perspectives are culturally codified in Mokni, often with great humour, and primarily relate to proper nouns and cultural practices.
Dave’s festering prejudices for example is expressed half a millennium on in a range of cultural beliefs, titles and practices. His misogyny emerges in how unwed women, for example are “opares”, and older women “boylas”, or boilers. “Garri” for anus and “kweah” for unwed man express his latent homophobia. Much of the terminology is drawn obliquely from his experience as a cabbie (the moon is a “edlyt” (headlight) and societal roles are performed by “hacks”, “PCOs”, “Inspektahs” and “Nolidj boys”. Other forms relate to his legal troubles relating to child access issues: “Loyah” (lawyer) for a rich man, or “chyldesuppawt” (child support) for a bride price. Dave’s fraught break-up is central to the text he leaves the post-apocalyptic world, and is critical to their misinterpretation of his views into a religion. Childcare is split between men and women, who live on opposite sides of a small island. Twice a week, the children migrate from the care of one gender to the other, in a grotesque codification of court-enforced child access practices known in the Ingish future as ‘chaynjovah’.
In fact, this term is a clear indication of the debt to Riddley Walker. The same phonetical spelling – “Chaynjis” can be found in Hoban’s novel. It’s not orthographically plausible that literary presentation would become more complex (if more obviously phonetic) over a series of centuries. In both novels, this kind of spelling distortion is used to represent difference in era, and perhaps the post-apocalyptic decline in civilisation.
This debt hardly went unnoticed of course. For M. John Harrison, reviewing The Book of Dave for The Guardian, “It’s hard not to put Riddley Walker at the centre of The Book of Dave, if only because, like Self’s novel, it is written in a constructed post-disaster dialect, with its own glossary. But the difference between the two men is anger, and how anger manages the comic sensibility.”
Harrison adds, “despite his evident articulacy, Dave can’t say what’s happened to him – he can’t lay blame.” And in a sense the incomprehensibility (and satirical quality) of the far-flung future Dave has inspired is coloured by this aspect. Life has happened to Dave, cruelly. He has lost most of his sense of agency within it.
The Book of Dave, like Riddley Walker, but unlike Feersum Endjinn, possesses a glossary to assist readers in following the invented language narrative. There are several reasons for these differences. Firstly, Feersum Endjinn is almost entirely a phonetically presented standard English. When read aloud, its meaning becomes clear almost instantly. In short, it lacks slang components, any creative morphological elements which would require teasing out by the reader, and is presented in a standard English grammatical form, albeit presented as if in reported speech, with a limited amount of punctuation. This amounts to a simplification of formal English on Banks’s part, designed to express Bascule’s limitations and to comment upon the neo-feudal environment he finds himself in, despite the reliance on highly advanced technology. In any case, Bascule’s narrative is only one of four first person narratives which make up the storyline.
In The Book of Dave, only the future half of the text is delivered with a Mokni component, though we are also given some of its cultural roots in the half of the novel set in Dave’s time, the late 20th and early 21st centuries. However, as indicated above, while we may be able to recognise the phonetic rendering of items in Dave, their contemporary meanings are much changed in the future and Self doesn’t want us to miss out on his elaborate joke. When we come to Riddley Walker Riddleyspeak pervades the whole novel but for two short sections written in ‘old spel’ and in contemporary, ie late 1970s, formal English.
We can tentatively suggest a cline therefore in the forms of invented languages presented in these novels. One element of this cline is how totalising the invented language is within the text. Another relates to how transparent or opaque it is. Prior to A Clockwork Orange is of course Finnegans Wake. Joyce always skulks in the shadows behind Anthony Burgess’s work, especially linguistically and stylistically. In the Wake, Joyce paranomasically puns across dozens of languages, and despite the occasional presence, however buried, of a basic English language grammatical superstructure, the language of the Wake is all-pervading. Wakese is therefore sui generis, a complex melange of languages serving the purpose of elevating the meagre pun to a monstrous puzzling artform, the crossmess parzel mentioned in Book 4 section 1 of that text.
Burgess simplifies this to an extent by sticking mainly to a single additional lexicon – that of Russian – in A Clockwork Orange. Nadsat also pervades the entire novella, even if only a small amount of it is needed to colour the prose. Like Finnegans Wake, however, it draws on non-English lexis, even if it does not insist on the reader’s prior knowledge to puzzle out its meaning. This distinguishes it from Hoban’s innovations, which are more expansive, but nevertheless located within an English language framework.
In Hoban’s novel, as in Finnegans Wake, the invented language of Riddleyspeak expands to encompass the entirety of the text. As it features a wide range of linguistic deviation from standard English, despite relying upon an English grammatical superstructure (unlike much of Finnegans Wake), the reader is required to puzzle out the meaning of terms which are not immediately apparent via phonetics. This runs the risk of putting readers off, however, and hence Riddley Walker possesses a glossary to assist readers (though this is quite brief). As we know, many editions of A Clockwork Orange do likewise, though this was very much against the will of the author. Burgess wanted his readers to be ‘brainwashed’ into learning Nadsat to emulate how his protagonist Alex is brainwashed into being morally good.
The Book of Dave likewise features a glossary, as half the book is rendered in Mokni. Like Riddleyspeak, Mokni requires some work from the reader, as it extends far beyond phonetic renderings into complex puns and jokes at the expense of the future Ingish, and how they have managed to misunderstand and misinterpret the writings of Dave.
Feersum Endjinn does not require a glossary, not only because it only makes up a small proportion of the text – the narrative of Bascule – but also because it is almost entirely simply a phonetic rendering of English.
A glossary of the slang spoken by the cargo cult children in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome would not be possible, due to it being experienced as a movie rather than a book. The art form requires that their language be transparent rather than something opaque to be puzzled out (an idea we will return to in the future in relation to the translation of Nadsat to the silver screen). As it must be comprehended immediately, it is even more transparent than Banks’s variant, though of course aspects of their culture are also communicated visually and via other semiotic modes within the movie that are unavailable to literary authors.