THE SUNDERING FLOOD was completed in 1896, just a few weeks before its author died. Of the four fantasy-novels, this still uses archaic diction, but Morris no longer seems to use forty words when four will do, as in the other novels. Perhaps the writer sensed that he no longer had time to waste, and chose to tell his last story more concisely.
FLOOD is also the only Morris fantasy that evokes the magical potential of what Lin Carter calls the “imaginary-world novel.” In the other three books, Morris avoids depicting acts of magic, or magical beings, save where they’re strictly necessary to the plot. Thus one character possesses a magical boat that gets her where she needs to go, and another character sees visions of people he has met or is fated to meet. But in contrast to most later fantasy-authors, Morris has no interest in the dynamics of the faerie world. It may be that he was just too strongly influenced by the historical fiction of his time, as produced by writers like Dumas and Scott.
FLOOD, though, evokes faerie very strongly in its early chapters, though again, it’s for the purpose of empowering the hero, whose central conflict is one of overcoming mundane opponents. As a child the parent-less Osberne encounters a capricious dwarf who demonstrates his ability to cut off his own head and survive. Osberne refuses to let the trick be played on him, and his physical resistance wins the dwarf’s respect—so much so that the dwarf gives him a special knife. A little later Osberne, while standing guard over a sheep-flock, uses the knife to kill a pack of wolves. This heroic deed apparently wins the approval of another denizen of faerie, for at the age of thirteen, long before Osberne is deemed a man, a strange knight named Steelhead visits Osberne’s village and gives him two gifts: arrows that never miss their target, and a huge sword named Broadcleaver.
The sword presents a problem: Osberne is not yet strong enough to wield it. What follows might be termed the medievalist’s version of endowing a hero with some special abilities. In modern times heroes are empowered by mutant genes or the bites of radioactive nightcrawlers, but Steelhead empowers Osberne by the venerable medieval method known as “the laying-on of hands.”
“And the lad stood still before [Steelhead], and Steelhead laid his hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there a while; then he passes his hands over the shoulders and arms of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body…”
In our current culture there’s no way that we can read this scene—which takes place when both thirteen-year-old Osberne and apparently adult Steelhead are standing naked in a pool—and not think “gayboys!” I can’t absolutely deny that Morris might have written the scene with some mild gay-curious sentiment. But it’s worth pointing out that in the same section, Steelhead states that he’s performing the laying-on of hands because it’s considered the duty of a father, and he says of his deed: “Thus then have I done to thee to take the place of a father to thee.” I think that while a gay sentiment is not impossible, it’s more likely that this ritual is a rite of passage, in which the adult only touches the different sections of the child’s whole body in order to bless them. And the result is indeed that thirteen-year-old Osberne gains the magical strength to wield the huge sword, and thus to become the village’s premiere warrior.
Osberne’s prowess also leads to a heterosexual conclusion. In place of the “older woman-younger woman” constellation seen in the other novels, here older women are no threat to Osberne’s relationship with his “Woman of Innocence.” The only opponent to his tryst with Elfhild, girl of a neighboring village, is “Mother Earth,” for the villages of Osberne and Elfhild are separated by a titanic river-torrent that goes on for miles. This “Sundering Flood” prevents them from doing anything more than talking to one another across opposing river-banks, and thus builds good narrative tension for the early section of the novel.
Evil deeds break the impasse, as raiders called “the Red Skinners” take Elfhild prisoner. Osberne gathers some companions and pursues the raiders until he finally reaches a point where the Sundering Flood ends—culminating in the defeat of the raiders and the final union of the romantic couple.
Of Morris’ four fantasy novels SUNDERING FLOOD is the easiest to read, in addition to having the most compelling storyline. It’s slightly disappointing that all trace of faerie drops out of the story once Osberne goes in quest of Elfhild, but it may be that on some level Morris simply wasn’t as “bullish” as Tolkien with regard to “dreaming of dragons” and all the other tropes of fantasy. Morris, it seems, made use of faerie “as needed.” For this reason none of his four “imaginary world” novels rate among the best of their subgenre. Still, William Morris continues to deserve the appropriate honors for forging a new pathway, along which others chose to build more impressive structures.