The Sundering Flood: An old-fashioned heroic tale from a godfather of fantasy

We welcome a new guest reviewer: Michaela Hausmann.

The Sundering Flood by William Morris science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Sundering Flood by William Morris science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Sundering Flood by William Morris

The Sundering Flood (1897) is the last fantasy romance by William Morris. Unfinished during his lifetime, the romance was published posthumously by his daughter May Morris. It relates the trials and tribulations of the young hero Osberne and his female friend and future lover Elfhild. Although both are separated from each other by an impassable river (the eponymous Sundering Flood), they can communicate with each other across the water and form a close bond. When fate strikes and Elfhild seems lost, Osberne embarks on a journey to find her and becomes involved in a greater struggle for freedom.

Osberne is in many ways a typical hero, who already demonstrates his martial prowess as a little boy, and receives supernatural aid in form of magical gifts that are given to him by the warrior spirit Steelhead. Just as Osberne is stronger and nobler than most of his peers, Elfhild is more beautiful and charming than any other woman. They are rather certainly not psychologically complex characters, but they are also surprisingly common for heroes. Neither of them is of noble lineage, they are tasked with everyday farm work such as herding, and they are dutiful members of their communities. Another interesting aspect is that both protagonists are also artists — Elfhild is a talented storyteller and Osberne a skilled scald. Hence, they are not reduced to male strength and female beauty. Osberne even refuses knighthood, and he supports the cause of the city guilds, which make him an example of Morris’s own ideals of social justice and an egalitarian society.

The setting of The Sundering Flood is an invented, medieval landscape with a strong Icelandic touch — there are medieval cities with guilds but also rural areas with scattered homesteads; there are fierce warriors with swords and spears, menacing wolves, and halls where the members of the communities gather and celebrate. There is also magic but it is rare, tied to a very small array of objects and creatures, and it is rooted in the mythical past. One example is Osberne’s magic sword:

For a man of might hath breathed on the edges amidst much craft of spells, so that nought may master that blade, save one of its brethren fashioned by the same hands, if such there be yet upon the earth, whereof I misdoubt me.

All these elements make it easy to see why William Morris had such a tremendous impact on later world-builders and writers of fantasy such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet the quote above also shows a possible problem for some readers — the language. While I personally enjoyed the archaic style of the prose, many readers might find it cumbersome — and with good reasons. It can be repetitive and stilted at times, and it often lacks emotions and tension. But it certainly contributes to the overall medievalised atmosphere of the entire romance and thus makes the world and its characters more believable.

All in all, The Sundering Flood may not be for those readers who look for straightforward prose and complex characters, but it has a satisfying plot, great atmosphere, and a fascinating fantasy world.

Published in The Sundering Flood is a fantasy novel by William Morris, perhaps the first modern fantasy writer to unite an imaginary world with the element of the supernatural, and thus the precursor of much of present-day fantasy literature. The Sundering Flood was Morris’ last work of fiction, completed only in rough draft, with the ending dictated from his deathbed. It was edited posthumously by his daughter May into finished form for publication and published in 1897.

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MICHAELA HAUSMANN, one of our guest reviewers, is a teacher and researcher in literary studies, who is currently completing her Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Vechta in Germany. She has a particular love for poetry, fantasy literature and many related genres, Victorian literature, and Romanticism (British and German). To her, the most important ingredients for a good fantasy book are: language (preferably poetic), setting (preferably a well-constructed otherworld or our world well altered) and atmosphere (enchanting or frightening). She likes suspenseful plots and complex characters (especially intelligent and strong female characters). Her favourite authors include (in no particular order) J. R. R. Tolkien, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Marion Zimmer Bradley, E.T.A. Hoffmann, John Keats, W. H. Auden, J.K. Rowling, Oscar Wilde, Terry Pratchett, Sarah Waters, Michael Ende, and many more.

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8 comments

  1. This sounds really interesting–though I’d have to be in the right mood for the language!

    • Thank you!
      You are right – tha language can be a struggle sometimes. But as my native tongue is German, it was fascinating for me to see many etymological parallels :)

      • Have you ever read Hild by Nicola Griffith? Apparently she tried on purpose to use words with Anglo-Saxon roots for pretty much everything, to kind of sync the book up with the place and time where it’s supposed to be set.

  2. Welcome, Michaela!

    I love the world you’ve described here. This sounds like a good book to sink into.

    • Thank you, Marion.

      The world is indeed fascinating – Morris was among the first to construct elaborate secondary worlds. I decided I need to explore of his creations ^^

  3. Welcome, Michaela! So glad to have you on board — thanks for the thoughtful review of this classic story!

  4. Such an interesting review! I always love to see how earlier works influence the greats

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