The Sundering Flood

Supplementary Material: Criticism

Anderson, Karl. "Scandinavian Elements in The Sundering Flood," in "Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris." Diss. Harvard University, 1940, 376-82.
In Morris’s last prose romance, The Sundering Flood, which was printed at the Kelmscott Press after his death and was not issued until November, 1897,8 the situation in regard to the Norse influence is entirely different, for in this work he introduced far more Scandinavian features than in any of the other romances written after The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. The style which he adopted for this tale is again that of the romance, but the tone and spirit of this work is somewhat different from that of The Story of the Glittering Plain, The Wood Beyond the World, The Well at the World’s End, and The Water of the Wondrous Isles, for in this tale we find a less unrestrained reveling in gorgeous descriptions
  1. See Collected Works, XX, 69, 11.2. 3, 16, 23, and 31; 70, 11.2 and 36; and 246, 1.13. See also above, page 321.
  2. See Collected Works, XX, 69, 1.3 and above, pages 308 and 322-325.
  3. See Collected Works, XX, 164, 1.21; 173, 1.29; and 190, 1.23. See also above, page 307.
  4. See Collected Works, XX, 76, 11.25-26 and above, page 308.
  5. See Collected Works, XX, 150, 1.24 and 162, 1.23. See also above, page 339.
  6. See Collected Works, XX, 7, 1.11; 8, 11.7-11; 19, 11.20-23; 9, 1.35-30, 1.23; 32, 11.6-28; 33, 11.30-31; 35, 1.5; 38, 1.33-39, 1.3; 40, 11.31-33; 44, 1.20; 68, 11.4-5; 270, 11.31-32; 339, 11.15-20 and 29-30; 341, 1.1-5; 350, 11.8-10; 354, 11.9-12; and 357, 11.3-6. See also above, pages 314-315.
  7. See Collected Works, XX, 158, 11.14-24 and 169, 1.31-
[The remainder of note 7 and note 8 are cut off from the bottom of the page.]
full of sensuous details, a far closer adherence to reality, and a much greater interest in plot, the result of these differences being a more direct and a more rapid style of narration.
In her Preface to Volume XXI of the Collected Works, Miss May Morris states that the “idea of the Sundering Flood – two lovers divided by a great river – was taken from a modern Icelandic novel”; 1 she does not mention the name of this novel, but it must have bene Jón Dórðarson Thóroddsen’s Piltur og Stúlka. 2 It is not known whether Morris read this tale in the original, as he undoubtedly could have done, or in the English translation by Arthur M. Reeves, which had appeared in 1890.3 A comparison of this story with Morris’s romance shows that apart from the “idea of the Sundering Flood” Morris borrowed nothing from the Icelandic tale; the two treatments of this simple theme are entirely different. In Thoroddsen’s story, the hero and heroine first became acquainted with each other one summer when,
  1. Page xi.
  2. (Copenhagen, 1850).
  3. Lad and Lass (London, 1890).
as mere children, they are tending sheep on opposite sides of a deep and swift river, which is not passable at this point; about a year later they meet each other at a sheep-gathering which is held farther north where the river can be crossed, and during the following winter the boy walks over the river on the ice and visits the girl. From that time until they grow up they meet frequently, and only the opposition of the girl’s mother prevents the young couple from marrying. After the girl has refused to wed the man her mother prefers, she goes to Reykjavík to seek work; the young man follows her, and after various adventures they are reunited and marry. In Morris’s romance the hero and heroine likewise first see each other and become friends when they are separated by a turbulent stream, the Sundering Flood, but this river is absolutely uncrossable, either in summer or winter, for several hundred miles. The two children grow up, and although they are passionately in love with each other, they can never meet to kiss and embrace. One day the girl is carried off by a merchant who has been attracted by her beauty; the young man, in despair, leaves his home and wanders to the south, hoping to find his beloved or at least to discover her fate. After five years have elapsed, during which the man has become a warrior of renown and the girl has been carried several hundred miles to the south and has been taken across the river, the two lovers are united, and return north to the young man’s home to be married.
Most of the Scandinavian details introduced into this tale Morris had already used in the earlier romances. For example, we find such
terms and expressions as “Mote,”1 “Mote-stead,”2 “shut-bed,”3 “war-arrow,”4 “hazelled field,”5 “land-wights,”6 “skin-changers,”7 “a lucky man,”8 “hansel,”9 “peace-strings,”10 “runes,”11 and “changed his life.”12 We also meet with several new details borrowed from his Scandinavian studies. Thus, for the first time since The Roots of the Mountains we find Morris referring in this story to Old Norse deities; in a poem which Osberne Wulfgrimsson, the hero of the tale, composes for his little friend across the river, he alludes, in describing her, to “Sif’s hair of gold” and “Hild’s bright feet.”13
  1. See Collected Works, XXI, 7, 1.5; 20, 11.2, 16, 19, and 22; 21, 11.19 and 33; 2, 1.18; 23, 1.26; 30, 1.4; 58, 1.14; 69, 1.33; 70, 11.17, 24, and 32; 71, 1.4; 79, 11.18 and 22; 81, 1.32; 82, 11.6, 9, 17, and 29; 83, 1.24; 84, 1.3; 85, 1.22; 113, 1.36; 135, 1.29; 177, 1.32; and 182, 1.4. See also above, page 321.
  2. See Collected Works, XXI, 20, 1.26 and above, page 321.
  3. See Collected Works, Xxi, 16, 1.18; 116, 11.8 and 18; and 120, 1.28. See also above, page 328.
  4. See Collected Works, XXI, 79, 1.23 and above, page 309.
  5. See Collected Works, XXI, 61, 1.20; 62, 11.9, 22, and 35; 63, 11.1, 21, and 33; 64, 11.12-13; 65, 11.4, 10, and 12; 66, 1.17; and 67, 1.19. See also above, page 308.
  6. See Collected Works, XXI, 6, 1.19; 7, 1.29; 12, 1.20; 33, 11.5 and 13; and 78, 1.26. See also above, page 339.
  7. See Collected Works, XXI, 12, 1.19 and above, pages 314-315.
  8. See Collected Works, XXI, 16, 11.34-35; 28, 11.32-33; 42, 11.23-27; 51, 11.28-29; 83, 11.25-26; 123, 11.23-24; 215, 11.26-27; 216, 1.2; and 224, 11.2 and 11-12. See also above, pages 333-334.
  9. See Collected Works, XXI, 28, 1.24 and above, page 326.
  10.  See Collected Works, XXI, 51, 11.1, 6, and 7; 63, 1.12; 65, 1.17; 66, 11.14 and 28; and 157, 1.11. See also above, page 141.
  11.  See Collected Works, XXI, 11, 11.32-33 and above, page 316.
  12.  See Collected Works, Xxi, 113, 1.34 and 130, 11.12-13. See also above, pages 285-286.
  13.  Collected Works, XXI, 39.
With the Eddic story of Sif, the wife of Thor, and her golden hair, which the dwarfs made for Loki after he had cut off all her natural hair, Morris had long been familiar, for it is told in Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, which he had read as a student at Oxford.1 In the second expression he is evidently referring to Hildr, one of the Valkyries, who is also mentioned in Thorpe2 and whose name occurs very frequently in Old Norse kennings.3 Very interesting is Morris’s allusion to “Hamdir’s Sons”; in reply to the remark made by one character that “when times were bad and there was lack, then hand helped foot and foot hand,” another character retorts, “Well…that failed Hamdir’s Sons once, and may do others again.”4 Here Morris is making a slight mistake, for the story to which he is obviously referring concerns Hamdir and his brothers, not Hamdir’s sons. At the very end of the Vőlsunga saga, it will be remembered,– and also, but in less detail, in the “Hamðismál” in the Poetic Edda5 – we are told of the attempt made by two of Gudrun’s sons to slay King Jormunrek in atonement for his murder of their sister Swanhild. Just as Hamdir and his brother Sorli set out on this undertaking, they meet their brother Erp, and when they ask him in what way he will help them, he answers, “Even as hand helps hand, or foot helps foot.” Interpreting his reply as a refusal of aid, they slay him. A little later in their journey, however, Hamdir stumbles, but thrusts down his hand to keep from falling, and a short time thereafter Sorli trips,
  1. I, 22, 34, and 38.
  2. I, 14.
  3. See, for example, Egilsson, Lexicon Poeticum (Copenhagen, 1931), p. 250, col. 1, s. v. “1. hildr,” No. 2.
  4. Collected Works, XXI, 115.
  5. There are also brief allusions to the story in the
[Note 5 is cut off from the bottom of the page.]
but steadies himself with his other foot; then they realize how valuable the assistance of Erp would have been. When they finally assail Jormunrek, Hamdir cuts off the King’s hands and Sorli his feet, but before they can put him to death, the King’s warriors fall upon them; then they lament the slaying of Erp, for if he had been there he would have cut off Jormunrek’s head, and they would have accomplished their mission.1 Moreover, in his account of the magic sword which Osberne, the hero of the tale, receives from a warrior from fairyland, Morris seems also to be drawing upon his Scandinavian studies, for he says that the sword is of such a nature that if it is once drawn from its sheath it must kill a man;2 in this respect it resembles the swords Tyrfind and Däinsloom. Morris’s acquaintance with the story of Tyrfind I have already discussed;3 the passage in the “Skáldskaparmál” in which Däinsloom is mentioned he had translated in the notes to “The Tale of Hogni and Hedinn” in his Three Northern Love Stories.4 So far as I have been able to ascertain, this particular quality is not ascribed to magic swords in the folklore of other nations. Furthermore, he introduces in the story two proverbial sayings which occur in the Grettis saga and which seem to be limited to Scandinavia: he represents Osberne as checking the boisterousness of a bullying, self-confident ruffian who demands lodging at his house one night with the ominous remark, “Things boded
  1. See Collected Works, VII, 394-396.
  2. See ibid., XXI, 51, 11.9-11 and 54, 11.17-20.
  3. See above, pages 137-140.
  4. See Collected Works, X, 159-160.
will happen, and also things unboded”;1 and he makes an old warrior, who is surprised at hearing that Osberne, although only a young man, has proved a hero in battle, point out that “many a man lies hid within himself.”2
Moreover, several of the personal names Morris uses in this tale – names such as Osberne Wulfgimsson, Elfhild, and Steelhead – are Scandinavian in nature, as Biber notes in his study of the prose romances.3 Finally, I should like to point out that many of the verses which Osberne, who is called a “scald”4 like the Icelandic poets, is represented as composing and reciting are distinctly Norse in tone;5 in these poems Morris uses the same metre which we have encountered in some of the earlier romances and which I have already shown to be a vague imitation of the most common of the early Germanic verse forms,6 but in the poetical selections in this story he introduces much more alliteration and many more kennings than he had done before, even in The House of the Wolfings, so that the resemblance to the early Icelandic verse is greater here than in any of the earlier cases. Note, as an example, the following stanza:
The War-god’s gale
Drave down the Dale
And thrust us out
To the battle-shout.
We wended far
To the wall of war,
  1. Collected Works, XXI, 57, 11.1-2. For its use in the Grettis saga, see Collected Works, VII, 27, 11.7-8.
  2. Ibid., XXI, 144, 11.2-3. See also ibid., VII, 170.
  3. Page 79.
  4. See Collected Works, XXI, 15, 1.9; 38, 1.5; and 93, 1.26. On p. 118, 1.33 the term “scaldship” occurs.
  5. For the poetical passages see ibid., XXI, 13, 11.6-31; 14, 11.1-4 and 10-13; 19, 11.3-14; 22, 11.21-33; 27, 11.8-15; 38, 1.13 – 39, 1.18; 66, 11.16-35; 109, 1.1 – 110, 1.16; 136, 1.11 – 138, 1.12; and 141, 11.1-30.
[Note 6 is cut off from the bottom of the page.]
And trod the way
Where the edges lay;
The rain of the string rattled rough on the field
Where haysel was hoarded with sword-edge & shield.1

  1. Collected Works, xxi, 109. Before closing my discussion of this romance, I should like to point out that in some “notes about the end of story” which Morris apparently wrote out when the tale was in its early stages, he calls the men who try to carry off Elfhild just after Osberne has found her in the woods “Vikings” (see ibid., XXI, xii, 11.15-16 and 18 and xiii, 1.3).