Coming up to the season 8 finale of one of my favourite TV shows, The Walking Dead, my mind has been lingering on something other than the fear of main character deaths and the elusive potential for the good guys to find peace with the current bad guys. The curse of being an epigraphist is that I’m always looking out for signs of writing and the contexts in which writing is used – which is, of course, exactly what I’m working on in my day job (albeit for the ancient world rather than a post-apocalyptic alternative reality).
So as I’ve been watching The Walking Dead, I’ve started asking myself: in a world where the dead are everywhere and society has changed radically, what might that mean for reading and writing?
For TWD fans, beware of a few (fairly mild) SPOILERS if you keep reading – including for season 8, but not the finale. All images in this post are copyright of AMC.
When The Walking Dead started out, it was the early days of the apocalypse and writing was still everywhere. One of the most iconic scenes of the first episode was Rick’s discovery of a chained door with the words ‘Don’t open, dead inside’ written in large letters. The choice to write the text in two columns is mildly interesting…
… but essentially this is a reflex of literacy as it was before the apocalypse started. It is the subsequent isolation of smaller groups of people and the new circumstances in which they are living that has the potential to change things.
A nice (but non-writing-related) example from The Walking Dead is the fact that different groups of people have completely different names for the new phenomenon in their lives, the walking dead (i.e. the zombies) themselves. They can be walkers, geeks, rollers, biters, dead ones, eaters, muertos, wasted, deadies – the list goes on. They have so many different names because people were encountering them as society fragmented, meaning that the names must have grown up predominantly after groups of people became isolated from each other, and after means of mass communication like television and internet had largely disappeared.
Writing is different from speech though. While speech is a human habit that is very unlikely to die out, writing is basically a technology or skill, something that requires specific training if an individual is going to become accomplished in doing it. We may not think about it that way, especially those of us lucky enough to live in a highly literate society where reading and writing pervades our lives right from the beginning and is honed and reinforced through schooling. But when modern society breaks down, at least some of the key contexts in which literacy exists may be lost.
In many ways, the characters of The Walking Dead seem to take literacy for granted. They put up signs and they write notes. They even send each other letters – the beginning of season 8 saw a lot of complex information being passed between the members of team Alexandria, team Kingdom and team Hilltop by written note. What Rick and co may have realised when launching this initiative, however, is that not only do such notes have to be hand-written, they also have to be copied by hand. No printers or photocopiers in the apocalypse! But the directors fortunately spared us a scene where Rick laboriously makes two or three further copies of his progress report, to send to different teams.
Sometimes writing is the only way of conveying information, because there are no opportunities for the sender and receiver of the message to speak to each other. Think of Dwight’s various attempts to pass information to the good guys, for instance, of which a particular favourite has been his arrowmail exchange with Daryl.
Conveying information to another person without the original speaker/author being present is at its heart what writing is for, and in fact this is enshrined in most definitions of ‘true writing’ – it has to reflect speech/language, but it also has to be an understandable and repeatable system. The reader understands that system as well as the author, and so is able to decode the message. But writing is not a straightforward single entity, and in reality there are many different types of literacy and different contexts of writing.
Most of the time in The Walking Dead, overt references to reading and writing tend to surface during more peaceful conditions. There was a book group at Alexandria before it started to open up to the outside world, for example, while at the Kingdom there are sayings from King Ezekiel written on the walls (and by someone who paid special attention to their calligraphy). Survivors are always trying to recreate what life was like before the apocalypse started, and one facet of that is to maintain what are essentially leisure activities – reading is just like playing games or singing in that respect.
There has also sometimes been an impetus to use writing to keep records of important information. This season saw one example in the book Georgie had written, ‘A Key To A Future’ – which, interestingly, looks like it has been typed on a typewriter (another return to more old fashioned writing technology) but with an added hand-written plate on the front for the title, again featuring nice calligraphy. There have been other attempts to archive important information too. Remember Woodbury’s resident scientist Milton in season 3, with his notebooks that he was keeping for posterity? Let’s just say that it looks like the information he recorded didn’t last in written form when Woodbury fell.
Although people might think directly about reading and writing more during the peaceful moments, writing is not completely redundant in the more dangerous situations of the apocalypse, as we have already seen from Rick’s despatches to comrades. But that does not necessarily mean that everyone requires well developed literacy to the same extent they used to before the apocalypse.
Marking systems are one interesting feature that has grown up in different contexts. Monograms and pictograms have become a favoured way of signalling group identity, from the Ws carved into people’s foreheads by the wolves in seasons 5-6 to Negan’s Lucille-based pictogram used by the Saviors. Of course, monograms and pictograms are quite different – the wolves’ W stands for a word and you need to know at least the rudiments of the alphabet to understand it, but a symbol that is purely pictographic and not tied to a word or its pronunciation only requires visual recognition of a concept.
So only a relatively limited degree of literacy is required in order to maintain systems of this type. In fact, this is often a problem I come across in my day job, because it is really very common for ancient inscriptions to be very short and to give little more information than a person’s name. We tend to assume that literacy may have been somewhat restricted in the ancient world, and that people making a short graffito may not have been sufficiently literate to write something longer. Also very common in the ancient world are single-sign inscriptions or ones with just two or three isolated signs (sometimes signs from a known writing system, sometimes mysterious symbols that cannot be identified). This jug, for example, originates from Bronze Age Cyprus, where marking the handles of pots with such signs was rather popular.
We might guess that abbreviations are being used in some of these cases (e.g. representing the first sound of a crucial word) but it is hard to understand what the author of the inscription meant to indicate by the mark. That is probably because the marks were intended for people who knew the system, perhaps only small groups of people involved in trade or administration. The apocalypse may be rather similar, as small groups develop common customs that would not be understandable to outsiders. Jadis’ crew at the junkyard in seasons 7-8 are an extreme example, with their own deliberate minimal language use and apparently some sort of marking system as well (is that an A with an extra stroke at the top that Jadis is drawing?).
Something else that have changed are writing materials. We still see plenty of uses of pen and paper, but there are also times when it is necessary to improvise with other media, like paint or the chalk Jadis is using above. It is no longer safe to assume you will have a pen to hand when you need it! When Maggie and Glenn were separated in season 4 after being run out of the prison, Maggie even had to resort to walker blood for her messages, because of the scarcity of other writing materials. Changes in writing materials can have some important effects on writing because they can affect not only how and when writing is possible, but also what letters look like (it makes more sense to paint large capital letters in walker blood, for example – if you tried to write in smaller or more cursive letters your message would become illegible).
So literacy seems to be alive and well in The Walking Dead‘s post-apocalyptic world in some form at least, but there are signs of things changing. That brings us to another important question, namely: can literacy be maintained long-term?
The future of literacy is going to depend on the practice of reading and writing being passed on to younger survivors. We have already seen some preoccupation with this when the subject of teaching children comes in. Back in season 4 we had a salutory lesson, however, when Carol was discovered secretly teaching the children at the prison how to use knives to defend themselves – rather than reading them stories like she was meant to do. It turned out to be a good idea when the prison was attacked and those children needed combat skills more than they needed to read or write.
Ultimately, literacy is not high going to be high on the list of skills necessary to survive a zombie apocalypse – but maintaining some form of it can be important not only culturally (literacy as a comforting social norm) but also strategically. Think of medicine, which is always top of the list for items to scavenge when the survivors go looking for supplies. You need to be able to read the bottles if you want to find the right thing, often requiring specialist knowledge (shown by characters like Hershel, Bob, Denise, Carson, Siddiq and others), which in turn means advanced literacy as well as medical training. As the apocalypse goes on, it gets harder and harder to find people with these skills, which is one reason why people with medical training are so highly valued. These points might seem obvious, but they also show that continuing literacy cannot be taken for granted when society changes.
In my research on the ancient world, I don’t have to deal with anything quite so radical as a zombie apocalypse… though the turn of events in Late Bronze Age Greece might provide an interesting comparison. Around the 15th-13th centuries BC, over 3,000 years ago, a number of administrative centres across Greece (we call them ‘palaces’) employed writing as a bureaucratic mechanism in controlling the movement of people and commodities. Their records were written in a syllabic script, Linear B (on which, see further this old post). This seems to have been a long-term stable system. Or at least, it was – until it completely disappeared very suddenly at the end of the 13th century BC. The administrative centres were lost to destructions that involved burning, some areas of Greece were heavily depopulated and Linear B writing vanished, never to be seen again. In fact it is because of the burnt destructions that some of the bureaucratic records survived as baked clay tablets (see the charred specimens below). Why did writing disappear at this time? Well, quite simply it had lost the context in which it was used – no administrative centres, nobody to train new scribes, nothing to write down.
Admittedly, this is a very quick overview of the fall of Mycenaean civilisation, and I’m not suggesting it was the victim of a zombie apocalypse. But there are some quite nice parallels with popular thinking about how a world apocalypse might develop. Think too of other stories, such as the crumbling books of the future in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and the complete lack of interest that the Eloi show in them. In its post-apocalyptic vision, The Walking Dead is showing us some very interesting ideas about how society can develop in completely new and challenging circumstances, with all sorts of little details thrown in – and what happens to writing and literacy is just one of them.
So next time you watch The Walking Dead (or indeed any other TV show or film), keep an eye out for signs of writing and see if you spot anything interesting going on! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into literacy in a post-apocalyptic alternative reality for now – more tales of writing from the ancient world next time.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)