River Symbolism In Storytelling

RIVER SYMBOLISM

Where there is a river there is symbolism. At least, in stories. The nature of rivers also differs between cultures.

A stop motion animation of Keith Water (in Scotland)

A good example of that is between the ‘masculinist engineering world view’ and the Native Himalayan world view. The difference has very real consequences:

In the masculinist engineering world view, rivers are lifeless entities, composed only of water. They can be plumbed, split, or made to walk in a straight line. Rivers are valued for their water, but not for the vibrant matter and life that they also carry. Himalayan rivers used to bring fine silt to north Bihar from Nepal which would be deposited across the plains, making it one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the subcontinent. Embankments cut off this efficient transport of nutrients, making the land poorer and agribusiness corporations richer. It has been calculated that each year the Kosi carries 19 cubic metres of sediment per hectare, five times higher than any other river in Bihar. Unable to deposit this sediment, the Kosi is forced to retain it. This raises its bed, making floods an inevitability, not an accident.

Amitangshu Acharya

In Greek mythology you often find nymphs near rivers. Nymphs love sitting by water (especially the river Ilissos). They also love shade, and trees grow tall and healthy when they have a good source of water; hence riverbanks are beautifully shady places.

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 As Liminal Space

Rivers mark boundaries and are in between spaces, symbolically similar to crossroads, train stations, wall cavities and so on. It follows that riversides are spiritually rich spaces as well, a good place to grieve, to commune with your god, or to meet fairies and goddesses.

River As 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. When I researched my own family tree, I discovered a great, great uncle had died young while trying to cross a river with horses. Perhaps you’d find similar. Sure as eggs, at least someone adjacent to your ancestry line has come to grief in a river.

Like the opponents of cosmic horror, the river is ancient and when something predates humanity, this confers inherent horror for us. We know it was here before we were, and can deduce it’ll still be here long after we’re gone.

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins
My soul has grown deep like the rivers

Langston Hughes, poet

Roald Dahl created Wonka’s factory as a symbolic forest. Sitting mysteriously just outside Charlie’s town, nobody is able to enter 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. Note the juxtaposition: Something so sweet but so dangerous.

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

charlie-chocolate-factory-river
Scene from the 1970s film adaptation of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka’s river reminds me of the famous river of flowers in the Netherlands.

River of Flowers, Keukenhof, Netherlands
River of Flowers, Keukenhof, Netherlands

More happily, perhaps, an opponent can be defeated by throwing him/her into the river.

wolf-falls-into-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. In this case, the loveable main characters are saved by the river.

the-big-honey-hunt-river-as-refuge_1000x719

River As Symbol Of Fertility

The riverside is often depicted as a feminine space.

the Yangtze, like most rivers, is associated with the feminine. To my mind, this is not only mythopoetic; it is also logical. After all, rivers help us grow the food we need to nourish ourselves. All over the world, women too have primary responsibility for feeding. […] Both women and rivers enable life but have little influence at decision-making level. The silencing of women and rivers in institutions of power bridges a connection between reality and myth; it is no wonder river goddesses are vengeful. 

Minna Salami

In ‘hygge‘ picture books 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

Sometimes the river is so… nearby… it passes through the dwelling.

In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun
In cosy stories, even winter rivers are for having fun
barber-fishing-hole_1000x1288
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.

river_600x366

The river is an essential element in what humans consider beautiful. As art philosopher Denis Dutton wrote, ‘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. (It’s nothing like a train, either.) No one fully understands how time works, but astrophysicists tell us it is nothing like a ladder, road, tide or thread. All of these things and more have been used in stories as a metaphor for time, because that is how we perceive it. We humble, Earth-bound humans can manage a few different but related metaphors: 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.

Back to the example above. 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 another scene from The Big Honey Hunt by Stanley and Janice Berenstain in which father and son have embarked on their fruitless honey-collecting mission. The river symbolises time, as reinforced by the text.

the-big-honey-hunt-river-symbolism_1000x724

Italian picture book Fiume lento (Slow River) by Alessandro Sanna marries the symbolism of the river with the symbolism of seasons in a fascinating multivalent metaphor:

A wordless picture book that crosses over the age range, the story is told through the pictures. Life along the Italian river Po is described in four episodes, one for each season of the year: the tragedy of the flood during autumn; in winter time the night birth of a calf in a warm stable; in springtime the village celebration for the
rebirth of nature, and the magic beginning of a love story; and finally, in summer, the escape of a tiger from a circus and its unbelievable meeting with a painter, in a sort of magic moment out of time. Through the use of pictures the book allows everyone to discover their own words and emotions, celebrating with poetry the flowing of the Po river and recalling the cycle of nature and rural life, in its alternating of night and day, of death and life.

The World Through Picture Books

River As Symbol Of 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. A few years ago my hometown of Christchurch suffered a series of hugely damaging earthquakes. Two houses, side-by-side: One totally ruined, the other with barely any damage at all. My cousin used that phrase to describe the phenomenon, and how her neighbour’s house was ruined while she only lost her hot water cylinder to damage: ‘It picks its path’. Earthquakes, like rivers, lend themselves to personification.

River as Lullaby

Sometimes the process of falling asleep is conceptualised as a river.

Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) River of Sleep, 1938
Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) River of Sleep, 1938

River As 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)
the-hobbit-river
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.

the-story-about-ping

River As Unstoppable Force

This metaphor can symbolise something untamed, beastlike and scary, or it can be reframed as cooperation, and banding together for the greater good.

All rivers start as tiny streams at mountaintops. As the streams trickle down, they are met by other small streams and tributaries, together growing larger and larger until their mutual flow becomes a river. The more the river widens, the more power it has to circumvent the barriers in its way. When a river meets an obstruction, it moves under, above, around, or through whatever prevents it from flowing. When blocked, a river revolts with all its weight, including that of the streams and tributaries that pour into it, until it flows smoothly again. Rivers flow down mountains, valleys, and plateaus. They flow into lakes, ponds, and seas. At times the process is barely visible, like the gentle, lapping flow of a river surface while deep at the river’s bottom mighty streams surge. At other times a river’s explosive movement is visible, for instance, when a dam can no longer withstand the force of water dashing against it and blazes open to a furious whorl of water. With the help of gravity, rivers swirl, surge, and push toward their final destination, the ocean. 

Minna Salami

River As Boundary

The river is a sign of boundaries.

the-river-between-us
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.

My analysis of The River Between Us by Richard Peck

(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.

i-had-trouble-in-getting-to-solla-sollew-river

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

River as Death

Death is another kind of boundary — that between life and death. According to Greek mythology, The River Styx is a principal river in the Greek underworld (also called Hades). The river forms a border between the underworld and the world of the living.

Robert Gibb - Elaine
Robert Gibb – Elaine (of Arthurian legend). Elaine is a lady from the castle of Astolat who dies of her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot.

Is there a real River Styx? In Italy there’s a river which runs partly underground, (the Alpheus River). This is viewed as a portal to the underworld where mortals can enter.

The Styx isn’t the only river to function in this way. Japanese culture as The Sanzu, Norse cultures have The Gjöll and so on.

River As Fractal Plot Shape

In her book Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison writes about plot shapes in narrative. (I’ve written a lot about that here.)

As an example of a Fractal Plot, Alison offers Crossing The River by Caryl Phillips (1993). Significantly, the shape of the plot itself is like a river with many tributaries. The story is ‘four discrete narratives, but with no one narrator binding them. Instead, the book is polyphonic, taking the points of view of four characters and delivering them in different styles: letters, diary entries, mixtures of third person and first. Yet the stories all grow from a single seed: an original form of “intercourse” between white and black.’ The story begins with an original sin (the “shameful exchange” between white and black). Each part of the book juxtapose against each other, ‘in concept rather than causality’. This is all spurred by what happens in the prologue (so don’t anyone be making any blanket rules about how prologues are useless).

This story is framed at the other end by an epilogue. The father speaks to his lost children in the language of fractals’ by talking about how they’re broken off limbs of a tree. Then he continues the fractal theme by talking about selling his children “where the tributary stumbles and swims out in all its directions to meet the sea”.

Main point being, in a fractal story (also known as branching, among other names), you may well find the river used symbolically, to underpin the narrative structure as well as the themes.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain Donald McKay
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain Donald McKay

LAYERING THE SYMBOLISM

And I’ll dance with you in Vienna,
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise.
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder
my mouth on the dew of your thighs.
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
with the photographs there and the moss.
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty,
my cheap violin and my cross.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen knew how to layer symbols, which is why his lyrics are considered poetry set to music.

Hygge is the word English needs to describe children’s literature

Illustration by John Clymer, 1958

Danes are scratching their heads about why an everyday word they’ve been using privately for generations is suddenly taking the English-speaking world by storm. See for example articles such as 11 Ways To Make Your Life More Hygge.

The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is 'Hygge'.
The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is ‘Hygge’.

Hygge is pronounced more like hoo-ga. 

‘Hygge’ is not just a word — it is part of Scandinavian culture. From Wikipedia:

Hygge, meaning ‘snug’; is a concept that evokes “coziness”, particularly when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food. Christmas time, when loved ones sit close together on a cold rainy night, is a true moment of hygge, as is grilling a pølse (Danish sausage) and drinking a beer on a long summer evening.[4][dubious – discuss] It is suspected the concept of Hygge is part of the reason Danes and other Scandinavians score high on happiness.

A similar concept exists in German.

Gemütlichkeit describes a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.

These concepts don’t exactly match the closest English has, which is something like ‘cosy’:

“Hygge” as noun includes a feeling, a social atmosphere, and an action. The word is also used in compositions as “Julehygge” (Christmas-hygge). “Hygge” is also a verb eg. “Lets hygge” and as an adjective eg. “A small, hyggeligt house with grass on the roof”.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
"The fruits of the earth" 1910 ~ Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1957), illustrator of Victorian books may have influenced modern picture book illustrators such as Jill Barklem (Brambly Hedge)
“The fruits of the earth” 1910 ~ Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1957), illustrator of Victorian books may have influenced modern picture book illustrators such as Jill Barklem (Brambly Hedge)
from Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem
from Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem

The noun “Hygge” includes something nice, cozy, safe and known, but it should not be confused with the English, Dutch, German or Polish synonym. That word is more a physical state, instead the Danish and the Norwegian word focus on a psychological state.“Hygge” is a state where all psychological needs are in balance.

The antonym of hygge is uhyggelig, which translates as “scary”.

Winter Games (1950’s) Medici Society, Molly Brett, English Children’s Book Illustrator/Artist

Hygge Picturebooks

Various conventions contribute to the hygge of picturebooks and chapter books for young readers:

Jerry Griswold has his own word to describe this feeling: ‘snugness’:

I am engaged in a book-length study of pleasures particular to childhood. To explain what I mean, I often point to the joy children get from playing under tables or behind couches or in tents made of chairs and blankets. I know few adults who enjoy playing under tables.

That particular example has led me to explore, among others, the topic or poetics of snugness in Children’s Literature. I should also add that my studies began shortly after September 11 when I was haunted by stories my daughter, a schoolteacher, told about her first graders’ drawings after that event: What those pictures seem to indicate was a deep concern with vulnerability. So, in an essay (“Reading Differently After September 11”) for an Irish journal, I explored “vulnerability” as an opposite of snugness or coziness.

Jerry Griswold, Snugness in The Secret Garden

Hygge is more apparent in picture books aimed at girl readers. This is no doubt because hygge is associated with home, and certainly throughout the 20th century, girls in stories stayed home.

Illustrators can evoke hygge with:

  • Yellow, diffuse light coming from lamps and candles
  • Storybook farms
  • Cottages, log cabins, decor reminiscent of pioneer times
  • Well-stocked kitchens (which are metonyms for familial happiness)
  • Houses in rural/semi-rural areas near bodies of water and good trees for climbing (see the work of philosopher Denis Dutton for more on that)
  • Permanently sunny and temperate weather
  • Moons which light up the night as effectively as suns light up the day
  • Beds with lots of covers and plush pillows
  • Grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, standalone wardrobes, children’s art on the walls, loaves of unsliced bread, homemade jam in pottery jars, dining room furniture made out of roughhewn wood, fabrics of paisley and gingham, kitchen appliances at least 20 years behind the modern era, shag pile rugs, open fires with yellow flames, bedheads with metal bars on them
  • Aprons, reading glasses, slippers, suspenders on trousers
  • Parents with big bellies and stout constitutions
  • Hedgehogs (in English stories), owls (at night), cats, docile old dogs, robins, sparrows, ‘good insects’ like grasshoppers and ladybugs and ants (not Huntsman spiders)
  • An emphasis on storeys and attics, and away from basements.

Hygge Toys

sylvananian-families

Sylvanian Families are Japanese design (though made in China these days). They were created by a company called Epoch in 1985.

The Japanese are also very good at hygge. (And also very good at horror, a discussion for another day!)

居心地

Pronounced igokochi, the characters transliterate to ‘where the heart is’. (It translates into English as ‘cosiness’. In Japanese you can then say ‘the cosiness is good’ to get ‘cosy’.)

The Problematic Flipside of Hygge Children’s Literature

There is definitely a place/need for hygge in children’s books. Picturebooks are most likely to be read to children just as they fall asleep, and there is a strong preference among consumers — particularly American consumers — to buy hygge books rather than scary ones. (Interestingly, this isn’t a trend shared by the Scandinavians, who have a higher tolerance for scary stories — possibly because their children’s lives themselves are quite hygge.)

  1. In children’s books, a hygge home almost always glorifies the nuclear family in which the father goes out to work and the mother — probably wearing an apron — stays home and keeps house. We are now living in a world where we should be careful of glorifying such a household.
  2. Keepers of hygge are much more likely to be female characters, underscoring the notion that girls and mothers are the natural caretakers and boys don’t have a role there except to enjoy the spoils of a clean house and home cooking.

Header painting: Illustration by John Clymer, 1958