by Ingrid Hanson
In his 1884 lecture, ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, William Morris argued that ‘to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies […] but a man at work, making something that he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body’. He goes on to suggest that this work forms part of the story of humanity: ‘memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and as a part of the human race, he creates.’ The Sundering Flood (1897), Morris’s last work, finished in draft but not edited or corrected at his death in October 1896, reflects something of this idea of work in both form and content: it explores, imagines and represents the desire for wholeness, pattern, transhistorical community and beauty that run through Morris’s works. Morris goes on in his lecture to say that ‘if we work thus, we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful’. Eventfulness brings with it the possibilities of rivenness, longing, failure and deferral, an acknowledgement of which underlies so much of his political and literary writing, and the struggle against which forms the centre of this romance and of Morris’s thinking. It is in this struggle, productive of what Morris elsewhere describes as the ‘happy energy’ produced by hope, that the wholeness of mind and soul suggested by the phrase ‘we shall be men’ – clearly contrasted in Morris’s lecture to the purely physical pleasures and energies of ‘beasts’ – is engendered.
The Sundering Flood makes use of this equation of happiness with eventfulness, and of both with manliness in its romance of quest, adventure and coming of age. The events that this tale tells both arise from and are shaped by the landscape and topography in which it is set. They reflect Morris’s commitment to an idea of affective geography as well as living history, combining something of the mild landscape and ‘fertile pastures’ (p. 2) of Oxfordshire, where he lived and where his fictional narrator lives in an Abingdon monastery, with the grandeur of Iceland that he had found so inspiring and therapeutic in earlier years. Beyond the fertile plains the river – the Sundering Flood (which is at various points compared to the Thames) –runs through bleak mountains and comes out in a ‘great waste of rocks and sand’; where it ‘welled forth from the great mountains’ a traveller might see ‘nought before him but a wall of sheer rock, and above that rent and tumbled crags’ (p. 3). The topography of the tale is more than mere setting: rather, in the manner of medieval romances it is a key feature of the tale itself, and it reflects the characters and relationships of the lovers whose story forms ‘the heart of our tale’ (p. 3). This romance is one of separation and reunion, of desires deferred and finally fulfilled, but also one in which identity is associated with place and affirmed through quest, journey and battle. It is significant that Osberne sees Elfhild’s home, Hartshaw Knolls, over the water, before ever he sees the girl herself, and it ‘seemeth friendly’ to him. The relationship between them arises from their own relationships with the land in which they live.
May Morris notes that the work was based on an Icelandic novel, which Helen Timo has identified as Jon Thoroddson’s Piltur og Stúlka, first published in Copenhagen in 1850, translated by Arthur M. Reeves and published in London in 1890 as Lad and Lass: A Story of Life in Iceland. Morris borrows the tale of thwarted love and divided families from the novel, but introduces his own magical and romance elements. He also dramatizes the scenery far more extensively than the brief descriptions in Thoroddson’s novel allow, but retains the sense of connection to the landscape that runs through that novel, set around the inhabitants of two farmsteads that ‘are situated almost opposite each other on different sides of the river’, a river that can hardly be forded except at a very few places. It seems appropriate that Morris’s final tale should make use of an Icelandic source. From the beginning of the 1870s, he had been deeply interested in the life and stories of ancient Icelandic people, translating the Völsunga Saga as The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs with the Icelandic scholar Eiríkr Magnússon in 1870, Three Northern Love Stories in 1875 and producing his own poetic version of the Icelandic tale, Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs in 1876. At the same time, Iceland itself offered to Morris in 1871 and 1873 an escape from the unhappiness of his marriage while his wife Jane was involved in an affair with Rossetti. In 1872, after confessing to ‘ups and downs’ in his mental health, he wrote to his friend Aglaia Coronio that he planned to pay a second visit to Iceland: ‘I know there will be a kind of rest in it, let alone the help it will bring me from physical reasons’. The interaction of the land and its stories in Morris’s view is evident in the letter he wrote on his return, recounting how ‘the glorious simplicity of the terrible and tragic, but beautiful land, with its well remembered stories of brave men, killed all querulous feeling in me.’ The land in The Sundering Flood is also ‘terrible and tragic, but beautiful’, with its divisive river that generates the lovers’ separation and their separate journeys (p. 3). At the same time, in giving rise to Osberne’s adventures, it generates stories of ‘brave men’, bearers of what Morris again and again describes as ‘manliness’, which he equates variously to will, energy, wholeness, endurance and courage – ‘the great virtue of the human race’ – both moral and physical.
Desire, Disjunction and the Gothic in The Sundering Flood
Morris’s own understanding of Iceland linked its people with the Gothic; in his lecture ‘The Early Literature of the North: Iceland’, he noted that ‘they are the representatives, a little mingled with Irish blood, of the Gothic family of the great Germanic race’. While The Sundering Flood draws on this Northern heritage, it also partakes of some of the characteristics of late nineteenth-century Gothic, both in Ruskinian terms and in the sense that came to be familiar in fin-de-siècle literature. In his 1853 ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Ruskin suggests that the essence of the Gothic, which he sees manifested in literature and art, includes not only ‘independence of character’ and ‘strength of will’ but also ‘that general tendency to set the individual reason against authority, and the individual deed against destiny.’ While Ruskin’s depiction of the Gothic character here, so close to Morris’s depiction of the ‘strong and bold, tall, bright and beauteous’ (p. 6) Osberne, rich in deeds from the earliest age, in The Sundering Flood, bears little apparent resemblance to the conflicted, riven and often urban men who people the Gothic fiction of the Victorian fin de siècle, it nonetheless evokes a vision of ‘normative masculinity’, as Patrick O’Malley characterizes it, with which the Gothic is often deeply concerned. It frames a vision of masculinity straining towards communal wholeness through the Ruskinian ‘individual deed against destiny’ but always hampered by the uncertainties and instabilities of individual desire, greed, power and violence, expressed through traces of the monstrous, the distorted and the riven in people and landscape.
Contradiction and tension, separation and loss are central to the tale in ways that draw particularly on Gothic conventions of self, space and surroundings. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that in Gothic convention, ‘the self and whatever it is that is outside have a proper, natural, necessary connection to each other, but one that the self is suddenly incapable of making.’ The Sundering Flood is emblematic of that severed connection among people and between people, land and values. Kosofsky Sedgwick goes on to argue that ‘the barrier between self and what should belong to it can be caused by anything and nothing; but only violence or magic, and both of a singularly threatening kind, can ever succeed in joining them again.’ While both violence and magic are central to the achievement of this re-joining of what is sundered in Morris’s romances, they are not threatening but educative; the enactment of violence or the overcoming of magic relies on a physical education of the body into desiring what is properly beautiful and whole.
Early on in the tale, the magical father-figure Steelhead urges Osberne that the only way to stay in contentment among his people and to be ‘healed of this trouble’, which is his love and longing, is to forget Elfhild and think of other things. Osberne rejects this option, even though, as he says, ‘my mind it is to live and die here, and do all that is due to the folk of my fathers’ (133). He tells Steelhead that ‘I will not be healed in this way’, because Elfhild too may be torn with desire, and while the possibility exists of being united with her and so healing them both, he will not abandon her ‘as a dastard leaves a wounded friend’. Osberne must go out from his people, therefore, and he resolves to set off and find Sir Medard, who will ‘put me in the way of deeds’ (135). Morris returns to his medievalist roots in this emphasis on the necessity of ‘deeds’ as a way of both confirming identity and shaping destiny. At the same time, he draws on the conventions and language of his own Icelandic material in his emphasis on ‘Weird’ or fate: Osberne says that he will be ‘in the hands of Weird, to wend as she will have me’ (142). The combination of action and destiny is reflected in the structure of the tale itself, which in turn reflects the landscape in which is set; it is both a coherent whole and a story of two halves, Osberne’s and Elfhild’s, told by Osberne and by the carline who travels with Elfhild, all brought together by the central narrator, who in turn suggests he has heard the tale from elsewhere. The telling of tales gives meaning and coherence to the apparent randomness of ‘deeds’ that rely on ‘chancehap’ and contingency.
While the rugged, savage land of The Sundering Flood appears to be coterminous with the character of the hero, the tale establishes contingency and uncertainty through hearsay at the very beginning. The Sundering Flood is said by some who live on its shores to be ‘no sunderer but a uniter’, but the narrator notes that ‘as meseemeth that no name is given to any town or mountain or river causeless, but that men are moved to name all steads for a remembrance of deeds that have been done and tidings that have befallen, or some due cause, even so might it well be with the Sundering Flood’ (p. 2). And indeed, further down the river, the waters are black and fast and seem ‘to talk some dread and unknown tongue’; here ‘nought might cross its waters undrowned save the fowl flying’ (p. 5). Like the landscapes of Morris’s very earliest romances, the topography suggests the possibility that identity might not be what it seems, an idea embodied by the presence of the shape-shifting Dwarf who appears both to Osberne and Elfhild early on in the tale, by Osberne’s mentor Steelhead, and by the magical carline who is Elfhild’s companion.
At the same time the preoccupation with landscape, with water, its courses and its uncertainties draws attention to the imperative of establishing or ensuring wholeness against this tendency to fracture and shift in The Sundering Flood, as well as to its difficulty, through the questing and fighting in which Osberne has to engage in order to be reunited with Elfhild. He is enabled perform this conventional pursuit of sexual union, however, by an earlier and more equivocal act of physical intimacy that relies sight and touch, both senses concerned with what Kosofsky Segdwick describes as the ‘surface’ in her suggestion that ‘the strongest energies inhere in the surface’ in Gothic texts. An emphasis on surface has been noted in relation to The Sundering Flood, in readings that emphasise its wholeness and beauty rather than disruption or unease: John Plotz argues that in all the late romances Morris aimed ‘to move readers toward a kind of universal identification with beauty distributed consistently over a beautiful world’, thus erasing differences between them through an emphasis on surface and flatness rather than depth and the psychological realism of individualism. As Christine Bolus Reichert suggests, surfaces are suggestive of inward conditions here: the landscape mirrors the inner lives of the hero and heroine, in the tradition of old romances. The sundering flood is as arbitrary as the deeds that must overcome it Yet the emphasis on surfaces also gestures towards the more uneasy tradition of the Gothic, with its emphasis on the negative power of the past.
As Catherine Spooner notes, however, ‘Gothic texts do not necessarily privilege surface but rather consistently foreground it in order to interrogate the surface-depth relationship.’ This destabilizing of the surface-depth relationship is evident in the text’s presentation of magic as the familiar in the unfamiliar. In a moment that is both highly charged and uncanny, Osberne is blessed by his unchanging double, the magical Steelhead, who, after a semi-erotic bestowal of manhood through the surface-to-surface energy of touch, equips the boy with his magical sword, Boardcleaver. Steelhead tells Osberne that ‘I must needs see thee naked if I am to strengthen thee as I am minded to do’, and both men strip off in the hot afternoon and enter a nearby pool. The narrator goes on: ‘if Steelhead were a noble-looking man clad, far nobler was he to look on naked, for he was both big and well shapen, so that better might not be. As for Osberne, there looked but little of him when he was unclad, as is the fashion of lads to be lank, yet for his age he was full well shapen’ (p. 52). Osberne’s capacity for ‘manliness’, to use Morris’s preferred term for the achievement of wholeness and security of identity, is evident not only in the deeds he has already performed, but in the visibly evident strength of his body.
Steelhead gets out of the pool and calls the boy to him ‘all naked as he was’ and offers him a gift to go with the sword he has presented to him. ‘And the lad stood still before him, and Steelhead laid his hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there a while; then he passed his hands over the shoulders and arms of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body’ (p. 53). While this blessing is framed as the gift of a father to his son, there is an unmistakable erotic charge in the scene. The magic, it appears, lies in fact in the power of touch, the laying of one surface against another with reciprocal effect. It is this magical touch of Steelhead, as well as the sword he bequeaths Osberne, that empowers him; much later, after an attack by a reiver that could have killed him, he is found by Steelhead and carried to safety in his arms. It is only after this that Osberne is able to find, rescue and claim Elfhild. At the end of the tale, while Osberne marries and ages, Steelhead remains ‘ever the same as when Osberne first saw him’: unlike the antiheroes of Gothic tales of the fin-de-siecle, his appearance reflects a serenely unchanging inner life.
What is external does not merely express the inner life, however, but forms it, just as reading this tale might form the reader and the reader’s imagination. Bolus Reichert suggests the late romances achieve this through their resistance to ‘easy consumption’ in every respect, from the ‘language that dispenses with most words of Latin origin and modern coinage’ to ‘the mood of the romance that depicts flat characters passing through repetitive tests of strength and will in a vividly colored landscape’. Osberne and Elfhild, although not physically unchanging like Steelhead, are nonetheless much the same by the end of the tale as they are at the beginning: Osberne’s courage, evident in the opening incidents of the tale, is tested but not found wanting over the course of his travels. Their fidelity to each other remains intact and their internal life as unexplored on their marriage as it is on their first meeting. Morris is, however, interested in the marking of character or meaning by the evidence of the body as well as the land: the surface does not stand in place of depth, but as sufficient evidence of the formation of individual as well as communal character. It is the communal that matters here. In Ruskin’s reading of Gothic architecture the buildings demonstrate the character of the builders, which in turn is both expressed and developed through their bodies; the corporeal and the emotional are evenly balanced in the reference to ‘the hard habits of the arm and heart’ that Gothic builders cultivated, in Ruskin’s argument. This emphasis on the formation of habit by action might be seen reflected in Morris’s tale, in which repeated actions of battle and travel form a habit of communal identification and shape the external world that is shared by Osberne and Elfhild.
The telling of tales in The Sundering Flood emphasizes this energy of the surface, with their focus on looking as a way of knowing, and their descriptions of bodily appearance that enable readers to participate in the same kind of intense, sexualized and often oppressive looking as the characters of the romance. Just as the tales’ form and style emphasizes surface, so the masculinity they construct and represent is concerned not with an essential inner being but with manly character formed through doing. There is an argument for contingency of identity rather than essential manliness here. This doing is expressed not only in relation to other men and women, but also in relation to the spaces of the world itself, in which the struggle of individual desire against communal harmony, or the ‘individual deed against destiny’ is worked out, not by repressing desire, but by accepting its presence and learning how to extend it from the individual to the general.
The body and the tale
Morris’s own identity and engagement with the world was to some extent defined by his physical health by the time he was writing this last romance in 1896. His business manager and executor Syndey Cockerell notes that he ‘dictated the final words [of The Sundering Flood] on Sept 8, 1896’, just weeks before his death in October. It is evident that he found in the romance a distraction from the discomforts of his poor health. On 5 January 1896 he writes in his diary, ‘Could not sleep at night: got up and worked from 1 to 4 at Sundering Flood’. His first biographer, J. W. Mackail, notes that in 1896, ‘with the turn of the year the weakness that had been gaining on him for some months became more pronounced. He now suffered from an exhausting cough; he was losing flesh noticeably, and sleeplessness became a regular feature of his nights’. His letters bear this out, with frequent references to his health. In February he notes, ‘I am decidedly unwell and must keep very quiet’, in a letter to fellow-socialist Tom Mann, and later, writing to his old friend Philip Webb, ‘I must say I am feeling precious weak today’. By March he is writing to Wilfred Scawen Blunt that ‘I seem to have broken down altogether’. He was suffering from gout, weakness and a variety of other non-specific complaints such as, in his own words of May 1896, ‘belly ache and pains in the limbs’.
Morris was always alert to the interaction of his own body with the process of writing, or making. Henry Halliday Sparling highlights this in his account of Morris’s explanation for his rejection of the typewriter:
Anything that gets between a man's hand and his work, you see, is more or less bad for him. There's a pleasant feel in the paper under one's hand and the pen between one's fingers that has its own part in the work done. [...] I always write with a quill because it's fuller in the hand for its weight, and carries ink better — good ink — than a steel pen.
Certainly Morris’s practice bears out this view, and suggests a close connection between the work, the body, and the process of writing. For an artist so committed to embodied experience, to the feel of the pen in the hand or the paper beneath the hand, it seems impossible to imagine that there is no relationship, in form, in style, in content, between the condition of the body and the writing that arises from that condition. Michel Foucault, quoting Beckett, addresses the question, ‘What does it matter who is speaking’? To this we might add the ‘the last great problematic’ addressed by Edward Said in the collection of essays brought together in On Late Style, which could be paraphrased as ‘what does it matter when a work is written?’. If works of art might be seen to reflect, as Said suggests, something of the physical condition of their authors, so that in ‘in the last or late period of life’ the work of an artist can ‘acquire a new idiom’, The Sundering Flood bears marks both of the discomforts of Morris’s body and mind in his final months, and of the expansiveness and patience of mature years, without losing the experimental alterity that is so central a feature of his earlier romances. It explores loss, separation and struggle and recognizes the costs of wholeness even as it affirms its possibility; but its sources are more eclectic, its fantasy more dissonant than in his political romances of a few years earlier. It has more in common with the short, fragmented stories he first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine in 1856 than with the proto-socialist Germanic romances of 1888 and 1889, The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. Its world is more magically uncertain and disturbed, its people less unified than those in the Germanic romances; yet it goes beyond the brief glimpses of individual lives afforded by the very early romances and offers a picture of a complete society of disparate groups sustained by violent conflict, through which the individual must make his or her way. It is a world formed, it seems, by male desire, which may be beautiful and full of delight, as Osberne’s is, or destructive and oppressive, is the desire of the merchant who ‘cast his love on [Elfhild] unhonestly and lustfully’ and ‘would have lain by her against her will had it not been for the lore of the […] Carline’ (p. 199), and of his companions who later take Elfhild and the magical carline captive. Certainly it is a world in which the unsafe, the uncertain and the uncanny exist alongside the sweetness of romantic desire, and the price of satisfaction between people and within communities is battle with those outside. What is dangerous, however, is not sexual desire, or class differences, or indulgence in secret pleasures, but a refusal to allow to each individual his or her free place as an equal in the world.
The uneasiness of this last romance has not often been registered in this way. The Sundering Flood has been read, along with the other late romances, as a text largely evocative of harmony and wholeness, concerned with what Phillippa Bennett describes as the transformative experience of ‘wonder’ as a ‘dynamic and constructive force’. Yet although it is deeply suffused with delight in physical and geographical beauty and with appreciation of corporeal pleasures, it does not wholly bear out E. P. Thompson’s claim that the ‘prevailing mood’ of the late romances is one of ‘calm and fulfilment’, or that they are ‘tales, not so much of desire unsatisfied, but of desire fulfilled’. It dwells on desire and satisfaction, but alongside this is always an awareness of danger, death, instability and dissatisfaction, present even in what is whole and complete.
If Morris’s works are driven not only, as Miguel Abensour argues of News from Nowhere, by the utopian aim of ‘the education of desire’ but also by desire itself in many different forms – political, sexual, fraternal – The Sundering Flood is a fitting finale to his works in that it makes physical the separations and losses and failures of fulfilment that Morris recognized, even in its lushness and satisfaction. In the end it offers a world in which desire and need are reconciled, the landscape itself is made whole and Osberne and Elfhild are lovingly united – a rare occurrence in Morris’s work. ‘And he cried out: “O my sweet, where is now the Sundering Flood?” And there they were in each other’s arms, as though the long years had never been’ (p. 194). The discontinuities of desire with which the story deals are resolved here into unity. In contrast with Morris’s early, fractured romance of desire and separation, ‘The Dream’, in which the lovers crumble to ‘a heap of snow-white ashes’ on their final union after hundreds of years of repeated separation and reunion, this resolution occurs while the protagonists are still in their youth and able to enjoy it. The price of this wholeness and peace, however, is always battle, as the episode of the return of the Knight of Longshaw at the very end of the tale suggests: Osberne joins his friend in battle against those who are pursuing him, and together they defeat the enemy: ‘hard they worked at it, and so they wrought that they slew them every one’ (p. 249). Fighting, as throughout this tale and in Morris’s earlier Germanic romances, is wholehearted and complete. There is no realism here, but rather a utopian faith in the efficacy of absolute but fantastical warfare and annihilation - which mirrors the completeness of desire in this world - and a counter-utopian insistence on the power of disruption to bring about wholeness.
This faith in fighting as a means of resolution is evident in the episodes in which Osberne fights as one of Sir Godrick’s men. The world in which he and his fellow-knights wander bears some resemblance to the post-apocalyptic world of disparate, warring communities that Richard Jefferies creates in After London (1885), in which the hero, Felix, similarly sets out from his home on a quest and has to wander between groups of enemies defending their own small territory by fighting. The hero of Jefferies’ tale is far more isolated than Morris’s and the world through which he wanders, unassisted by magic of any kind, is far more hostile, but the fantasy of a world in which identity might be forged through battle runs through both. The skirmishes between the town of Eastcheaping and the Baron of Deepdale offer an example of the small-scale battles between separate communities that shape the lives of the communities through which Osberne travels. The ambush set for the Baron of Deepdale is thorough and well planned: the site of the ambush becomes a ‘place of […] slaughter.’ (89). Battle is a given: Osberne has to fight his way to Elfhild and to manhood, and it is not a kind of fighting that has anything delicate and distanced about it. This is not to say that battle is glorified: in the battle in the City of the Sundering Flood, alongside Sir Godrick, Osberne fights valiantly and ferociously but ‘he would the slaughter of the day were over’ (p. 175). There is an insistence here on the effort required by fighting – but at the same time there is no way forward for Osberne but to engage in this violence; ‘the slaughter of the day’ carries a sense of inevitability and even quotidian normality with it. At the same time, the battle is ‘mad-fierce’ (176) and ‘many a man there was mad and drunk with the slaying’ (175). If this kind of battle is brutal and undesirable, it is nonetheless unavoidable; in a world devoted to the exploration of desire and its fulfillment, war is the inevitable counterpart of peace.
The language of the imaginary past
The wholeness that is paradoxically gained through and maintained by battle and adventure, and represented in the uniting of Osberne and Elfhild, is also present in the language of this tale. Morris’s archaisms, so distasteful to contemporary and some later reviewers, are no mere pastiche of ancient forms of speech, but rather arise from a deliberate immersion in the rhythms and roots of language that Morris associated with authenticity and the best kind of holistic Englishness, continuous with a Northern past. This is not to say it recreates any language actually spoken at any time in England, but instead it makes up a new storytelling language that is associated with those past times; this, as C.S. Lewis points out in relation to Morris’s use of language in his earlier romances, is the case with most literary language, though not always so self-consciously. In order that the battles, loves and deaths of this mythic world be made present to the reader now, they must undergo a similar process to that which Clifford Geertz describes in writing about the translation or transformation of myths of the past. These must be, he argues, ‘transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness.’ As Geertz goes on to argue, this process takes place both within and across cultures:
When major cultural lines are traversed in the process of interpretive reworking, a different sense of discovery is produced: one more of having come across something than of having remembered it, of an acquisition than of an inheritance. […] Nor is the matter seriously otherwise when the originating scene is artefactual rather than, as we say, ‘real’. […] That but alters vocabulary. The passage is still from the immediacies of one form of life to the metaphors of another.
The language that Morris uses suggests direct links with the past, and a national heritage, through its connection not only with the contemporary, late-Victorian re-invention of romance, for which writers such as Rider Haggard used archaisms in telling tales of heroism, but also with the Northern, Germanic roots of the English, and its long, pre-industrial, pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon history. Morris makes this imaginary, semi-medievalised tale a ‘working force in our common consciousness’, a story that recalls his readers to other times and places and highlights the inadequacy of the present even as it evokes an imaginary other time that is both familiar and unfamiliar, the past re-imagined.
Morris’s commitment to the ancient Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Icelandic roots of language is evident in the text and as central to the tale as the events it recounts. His stylistic borrowings from what Andrew Wawn describes as the ‘old North’ are also highlighted by the rather surprising comparison made by one of the few contemporary reviewers of the book with Tennyson’s ‘Battle of Brunanburh’. The reviewer for Academy magazine unfavourably contrasts the short sections of verse in The Sundering Flood – which he terms ‘the effusions of this Anglo-Saxon scald’ – with a section from Tennyson’s poem, arguing that Morris’s verse is ‘pretty, but much too smooth and Morrisian’. Despite this rather tautological criticism, the review is important in that it gestures towards the ways in which Morris makes use of the language of the past to suggest an alternative life in which not only land and people, but language and people are wholly unified, so that even in the disjunctions of the story there is a continuity of surfaces. While the time of the romance is clearly not linked to a specific historical period, but is rather a fantastical amalgamation of periods, the language locates the story in a history of England and its alliances that distinctly conveys Morris’s commitment to an imaginative continuity with the medieval as a present, living idea.
Morris expounded the idea of the importance of lines of connection between people, values and language in his lecture on ‘The Early Literature of the North – Iceland’, in which he argues of the Icelandic people that they preserve in language ‘the traditions and religion of the Gothic tribes, and collaterally of the Teutonic also’. This is done through their use of the language of their fathers, which is still current among them almost intact. He goes on:
the shepherd boy on the hillside, the fisherman in the firth still chant the songs that preserve the religion of the German race, and the most illiterate are absolutely familiar with the whole of the rich literature of their country, and know more of the Haralds and Olafs of the tenth and eleventh centuries than most of our ‘cultivated’ persons know of Oliver Cromwell or William Pitt.
The archaisms and northernisms of The Sundering Flood seem, like those of his earlier romances, to draw on a similar commitment to the continuities of language and culture, which here link his fantasy world to a style not only of northern masculinity, culture and community, but also - and more importantly – of northern storytelling. He uses, for instance, the archaic Middle English word, ‘wanhope’ for hopelessness or despair; this word crops up also in The Earthly Paradise and The Wood between the Worlds as an antonym to the central Morrisian idea of hope as an active force without which ‘there is no happy energy’, a force personified in this work in the person of Osberne in particular. As in the 1876 Sigurd the Volsung and in his Germanic romances of the previous decade, The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, Morris uses frequent kennings, such as ‘pit-mirk’ to convey deep darkness, ‘speech-hoard’ for language or ‘battle-board’ for sword. In this way things become not only themselves but also repositories of metaphor, imagination and connection: the telling conjures solid objects, histories and interconnections.
These interconnections are with literature as well as with language. The Sundering Flood is richly intertextual, beyond its direct use of Thoroddson’s Lad and Lass and its evocations of landscape and society that echo those of After London, a book Morris read and re-read. It evokes Northern myths of separation, heroism and magic, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its magical older woman, to the stories of love, war and travel Morris had translated in Three Northern Love Stories (1875). (Morris was absorbed, for the first half of 1896, as he had been for several years by then, in getting right the illustrated version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and short poems to print on the Kelmscott Press; the effects of his intense absorption on this medieval text can be felt in The Sundering Flood.) It also makes use of the ancient stories of Anglo-Saxon heroism that had been of such importance to Morris’s earlier work, in style, in its attention to the physical details of clothing, housing and medieval weaponry and its emphasis on close, body-to-body fighting. On first meeting Osberne, in a discussion of the morals and mores of war, Sir Godrick cries that he would support the craft guilds against their tyrannical masters, battling alongside them ‘to live or die together’ (p. 147). He goes on to assert that ‘if any man be so bold as to tell me to my face that I will do less, I say that he lies in his throat; and that shall I prove on him, body to body.’ His words here echo the often-repeated refrain in Malory’s Morte Darthur, that his knights would prove on their bodies, or in battle ‘body for body’ their integrity and honour. This tale takes its place, then, as part of a tradition of storytelling, and it is the telling as much as the tale that matters.
It matters, too, that it is a tale of fighting and searching, of breaking apart bodies and ideas in order to form something new. The tale itself retains a continuity with the tales of the past through its emphasis on the contingent nature of battle and identity and on both quest and destruction as a means to wholeness and unity. Right at the beginning of the tale, Osberne, responding to Elfhild’s longing to be with him, despite the sundering river, says,
Must I not take chancehap and war by the hand and follow where they lead, that I may learn the wideness of the world and compass earth and sea till I have gone about the Sundering Flood and found thy little body somewhere in the said wide world? (p. 81)
The emphasis on ‘chancehap’ – Morris’s own coinage in Sigurd the Volgsung of 1876 – and on its relation to war set this tale in a tradition of storytelling that stretches back to middle English quest romances as well as to the Norse tales of adventure that Morris had earlier translated and adapted . War is not a strategic, planned event, an encounter between sworn enemies, but a result of chance encounters by which a man might prove his worth.
Yet chancehap and contingency run alongside the determinism of ‘weird’ or fate, rooted in place, which brings the hero and heroine together. Like battle, love and passion are open and physical in this text. Morris invests the language of Osberne and Elfhild on their first meeting with all the desire usually unspoken in first meetings: ‘I want to take thee by the hand and put my arms about thee and kiss thee. Dost thou not wish the like by me?’, Osberne calls to Elfhild across the river (p. 72). Some time later she cries, ‘O that thou mightest be here and thine arms about me!’ and Osberne replies with:
E’en now wert thou saying thy yearning that mine arms were round about thy body […] and I will tell thee that it is many a day since I have longed for this; and now I know that thou longest that our bodies might meet (p. 80).
The ‘universalizing’ of the ‘bonds of romantic love’ that John Plotz identifies in the late romances is nonetheless expressed in this text through the very specific and individual passion between Osberne and Elfhild, similar to but not quite continuous with the generalized sensual or sexual pleasure Osberne feels in the caresses of his partner at the folk-mote (p. 23). It partakes, nonetheless, of the atmosphere of eroticism that runs through Morris’s late romances in particular, where it is, as C. S. Lewis suggests, ‘not concealed’ but rather ‘patent, ubiquitous and unabashed.’ Although, as in the other late romances, the landscape and relationships between people are significant of this kind of fullness of desire, if not of satisfaction, there is also here a very direct and specific expression of physical attraction, followed in later meetings by declarations of physical desire devoid of any anxiety or subtlety. It is, as Lewis argues, ‘the sort of love that is a function of health’. It is the nature of this health – another name for both wholeness and, in Morris’s much used term ‘manliness’ – that The Sundering Flood very specifically explores. In this way it models what he described as the socialist ideal of a ‘free and unfettered animal life for man’, that is, freedom from constraint in individual sexual relationships, which mirrors individual and political freedom. ‘I demand the utter extinction of all asceticism,’ he argued in an 1888 lecture. ‘If we feel the least degradation in being amorous, or merry, or hungry or sleepy, we are so far bad animals, and therefore miserable men.’ This sexual freedom is not wholly egalitarian, however: although both men and women feel and freely express desire the power imbalance between men and women remains intact in the world of The Sundering Flood. While Osberne ventures into the world, Elfhild essentially, despite her travels, waits to be found.
George Bernard Shaw, commenting on Morris’s transition from his early poetry to Sigurd the Volsung and the works that came after it, noted that ‘Iceland and the Sagas helped by changing the facile troubadour of love and beauty into the minstrel of strife and guile, of battle, murder and death.’ Although he rather dismissively describes Morris’s turn to the romances again at the end of his life as representative of ‘all the troubadour romance of chivalry and love which Cervantes had condemned to the flames as pernicious trash’ in their ‘startling relapse into literary Pre-Raphaelitism’, this minstrelsy of battle is clearly present in the romances too, as well as the political undercurrents of longing for freedom and equality that run through all of Morris’s later work. Like sexual pleasure and political freedom, wholeness in this tale comes at a price; and repeatedly, even at this stage of life, in style as well as content, Morris chooses danger, freedom and individuality in community over safety, certainty and constraint.
William Morris, ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, in Signs of Change: Lectures on Socialism, Collected Works, 23, p. 100.
Helen A. Timo, “‘An Icelandic Tale Re-Told’: William Morris's Sundering Flood” , Journal of William Morris Studies 7.1 (1986), 12-16; Jon Thoroddson, Lad and Lass: A Story of Life in Iceland, trans. by Arthur M. Reeves (London: Sampson, Lowe, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1890).
Manliness is a communal, as well as individual quality, in Morris’s writing: see ‘a free and manly people’. ‘How We Live and How We Might Live’, in Collected Works, 23, p. 23; its opposite is equated with cowardice: ‘and indeed I am afraid it comes from some cowardice or unmanliness in me.’ Collected Letters, I: 172; Letter to Andreas Scheu, 1883. Collected Letters, II: 229.
See, for example, Phillippa Bennett, ‘A Legacy of “Great Wonders”: The Last Romances of William Morris and the Kelmscott Press’ AE: Canadian Aesthetics Journal, 15 (2008), Special Issue: ‘Reading Matters: William Morris’; Bennett, ‘Rejuvenating our Sense of Wonder: The Last Romances of William Morris’, in Phillippa Bennett and Rosie Miles, eds, William Morris in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2010, pp. 209-228.
For a rather fuller discussion of the relationship between Morris’s earliest and latest romances, see my article, ‘Morris’s Late Style and the Irreconcilabilities of Desire’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 19.4 (2012), 74-84; ‘A Dream’, in May Morris, ed. The Collected Works of William Morris. 24 vols (London: Longmans, Green, 1910-15), I, 159-175 (p. 174).
Malory, Morte Darthur, II, 10.29. I have discussed elsewhere Morris’s commitment to the Arthurian idea of proving truth on the body by fighting. See William Morris and Violence, 1856-1890. London: Anthem Press, 2013 (pp. 40-42).