You will never read a book about perfect people in a perfect world. If you happen to stumble upon and launch into such a book, I predict you will put it down by chapter 2, if not before.
But why, exactly, is that? If we long for world peace, why don’t we enjoy reading about it?
A thorough investigation of that question could fill volumes and venture into the realms of psychology, philosophy, and myth, among others. But one accessible explanation is that we need characters we can relate to. And none of us is perfect.
Certain masterpieces shock us with unapologetic images of human nature at its worst. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor come to mind. The latter wrote that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Sometimes what we need is to recognize aspects of ourselves in protagonists who are so deeply flawed as to be repellant. But a steady diet of such works makes for grim reading. And such insights are only partial truths.
Perhaps what we most want are books that bridge the gap between what we experience and what we long for. C.S. Lewis wrote that stories (and music) have the power to awake in us a longing for the “far-off country” for which we were created. They reflect back our deepest longings—“the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (The Weight of Glory, MacMillan 1980, p. 7).
Once Upon a River, for me, is one of those books. The first line situates the action on the Thames. Subsequent details hint at a late nineteenth-century setting. But the book’s epigraph suggests Setterfield’s novel is more than straightforward historical fiction: “Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.” And the novel’s closing paragraph acknowledges that this river along which we have progressed “is and is not the Thames.”
These and other narrative hints of magic (principally Quietly the ferryman) permit us to dismiss the requirements of strict realism. The action takes place within the world of Story. As readers we experience something far more elusive than acquisition of historical information or a readily encapsulated concept.
Works of fantasy remind us of an existence beyond the visible, material world. The world of Once Upon a River is not Lewis’s far-off country. But the echo of that country resounds in Setterfield’s depiction of a place where justice prevails, longings are fulfilled, and neighbors can be relied on to care for one another.
The consistent victory of light over darkness in fantasy literature may be formulaic. But it is also a reminder that evil has already been defeated. The tragedy and seeming chaos that surround us are merely its death throes.
The pandemic is still on, daylight is dwindling in the Pacific Northwest. And I am more than ever convinced of my conclusion expressed in “Fairy Tales of George MacDonald” (click here for that post): Fairy tales and fantasy—or realistic fiction with a touch of either—make for ideal winter reading. It is, after all, the season of Advent, Epiphany, Candlemas, and the beginning of Lent. This season of darkness and mists is, in fact, the perfect time to catch a glimpse of that other country.