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.
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.
Scene from the 1970s film adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
An opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.
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.
Symbol Of Fertility
In ‘hygge‘ picturebooks there will probably be a gentle river nearby.
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
Iced-over rivers still provide sustenance.
Here we have an Australian picnic scene. Even in the dry landscape of Australia, a river is necessary for a truly cosy outdoors scene.
River As Metaphor For Time
Time is nothing like a river. 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 time 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.
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)
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.
River As Boundary
The river is a sign of boundaries and of roadways.
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
As a boundary, the river is sometimes used to show the difference between civilisation and those outside it.
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.
Tintin In The Congo