River Symbolism In Storytelling

Where there is a river there is symbolism. At least, in stories.

Water is central to children’s and young adult literature as motif and metaphor: In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, two characters are in a relationship described as being separated by a wide, difficult-to-cross river; in The Lorax Dr. Seuss warns us to protect our environment by planting a truffula tree seed and enjoins us to “Give it clean water. And feed it clean air”; and the poetry of Langston Hughes uses water in its various forms to compare the complexities of race to a deep river, to characterize a lost dream as a “barren field frozen with snow,” and to call on us all to re-imagine and reclaim the American dream, saying that “We, the people, must redeem/ The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.”

SDSU Children’s Literature

River = The Power Of Nature

The flow of a river is a force outside human control (at least, before the days of civil engineering). Crossing a river is unexpectedly treacherous. It’s a common way for trampers (hikers) to die in my home country of New Zealand. Rivers rise suddenly and without warning. In early modern England, it was more common than you might imagine to die while collecting water. After childbirth, alongside burning to death in a fire, falling into a body of water (including wells) was a peril for women in particular.

Roald Dahl created Wonka’s factory as a symbolic forest. Sitting mysteriously just outside Charlie’s town, nobody is able to penetrate this forest and get past the mighty beast. This metaphorical forest, we discover, is full of all the perils of a fairytale forest — poisonous berries, tests to see if you’re good or bad, dangerous creatures and a treacherous (chocolate) river.

Augustus is at the mercy of his own natural greed and is killed by the river.

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Scene from the 1970s film adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

An opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.

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Detail from Garth Pig and the Ice cream Lady

 

In a comedic journey the danger of a river can be inverted. In The Big Honey Hunt a father and son hide in safety from a swarm of angry bees whose honey they are trying to plunder.

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Symbol Of Fertility

In ‘hygge‘ picturebooks there will probably be a gentle river nearby.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
Note the grassy roof and the background river. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun
In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun
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Iced-over rivers still provide sustenance.

Below we have an Australian picnic scene. Even in the dry landscape of Australia, a river is necessary for a truly cosy outdoors experience.

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The river is an essential element in what humans consider beautiful. As art philosopher Denis Dutton said, ‘beauty is in the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder’. Beauty comes in many forms, depending on your cultural conditioning. But there is another, deeper, widely shared part of humanity in which we widely agree — at a very deep level — on what makes a beautiful environment. No surprise: it includes a body of water. Water is so important to life that the nearby presence of water is soothing and reassuring — and indeed necessary — to us. You’ll find discussion of this at the 7:10 mark in the TED talk below.

(If you were wondering what else makes for a beautiful landscape: a tree on a savannah that forks near the ground — so that we can easily scramble up it — and a path that meanders into the distance towards some kind of shoreline.)

River As Metaphor For Time

Time is nothing like a river. No one fully understands how time works, but astrophysicists tell us time is nothing like a ladder, road, tide or thread, yet all of these things plus more have been used in stories as a metaphor for time, because that is how we perceive it. Are we bystanders on the edge of the river, watching time go past, or are we bobbing in the water? That’s another question, dealt with differently by different authors.
There comes a moment in every comedic adventure when the picture book writer must indicate that a whole heap of other things happened/a whole heap of time passed and EVENTUALLY… Here we have a scene from The Big Honey Hunt by Stanley and Janice Berenstain in which father and son go on a fruitless honey-collecting mission. The river symbolises time, as reinforced by the text.
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Inevitability

Related to the concept of time is ‘inevitability’. Annie Proulx opens her short story “On The Antler” by describing an old man nearing the end of his life. As a young man he never liked to read,

But in the insomnia of old age he read half the night, the patinated words gliding under his eyes like a river coursing over polished stones: books on wild geese…

— “On The Antler” by Annie Proulx

A river picks its path and there’s nothing individuals can do to stop it from running its course. This theme is expanded upon over the rest of the story.

Life Itself

In literature as in life, cities and towns often spring up on riverbanks, seemingly brought to life by the river’s movement. The source of the river, typically small mountain streams, depicts the beginnings of life and its meeting with the ocean symbolises the end of life.

The river is one of my favourite metaphors, the symbol of the great flow of Life itself. The river begins at Source, and returns to Source, unerringly. This happens every single time, without exception. We are no different.
– Jeffrey R. Anderson, from The Nature of Things: Navigating Everyday Life with Grace (Balboa Press, 2012)
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River as ‘journey of life/character arc’ in The Hobbit

In The Story About Ping the river has various meanings but most of all this is the story of one duck’s mythic journey towards death and back again. The river as character arc.

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River As Boundary

The river is a sign of boundaries and of roadways.

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During the early days of the Civil War, the Pruitt family takes in two mysterious young ladies who have fled New Orleans to come north to Illinois.

(Roads snaking through a landscape work in the same way.)

Path as river in I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew
Path as river in I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew

As a boundary, the river is sometimes used to show the difference between civilisation and those outside it. In fairy tales, the forest is used in a similar way. In medieval Europe, outlaws really were banished to the parts where ‘civil’ people did not venture. There needed to be some sort of geographical marker to delineate law from outlaw — rivers and edges of forests were good for that.

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The river  has also been used as a symbolic passageway into the heart of the jungle and as a descent into the primitive nature of humanity. (Especially The Amazon and The Congo.)

Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited.
Sent in 1910 to live with distant relatives who own a rubber plantation along the Amazon River, English orphan Maia is excited.
Tintin In The Congo
Tintin In The Congo