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Half-Bald Hill & New Endings

As a child, I heard a lot about the end of the world—the mark of the Beast, the demise of America, the million-man army that would spread destruction over the face of the earth. Things were going badly wrong, they said, and soon the sun would be darkened. And being an earnest child, I went about gathering fears and confirmations of doom and storing them away like cankerous fruit.

I was thirty years old before I considered the possibility that the Apocalypse might not be imminent. I can tell you where I was when it happened. I was standing in a back room of our house, watching sunlight stream through the leaves of the poplar tree. I was talking on the phone with a friend, and he made a comment about the kingdom of God growing and spreading, bringing love and light to everything it touched. I knew that moment was significant, even as I stared out the window, trying to follow his train of thought.

Could it be? Was there an alternate ending to the story? What if, through struggle and hardship, we were pressing toward a fuller revelation of the love of God? What if the Spirit was moving and working in ways that brought hope and healing and joy? I could hardly take it in. My understanding of the future had been cemented in my thinking. It would take time to find a crack and grow through it.

Turns out, that’s what my writing career has been. I’ve spent the last decade trying to imagine a different ending for the story of humanity. I did it in the Shiloh Series. After ages of darkness, light breaks through the Shadow, and the people are dazzled by the revelation of all they did not see. I’m doing it again in The Door on Half-Bald Hill, journeying with suffering people toward an expected, and terrible, end.

And though it is strange to say, I love the people of Blackthorn. I love Idris and Corann and Deirdre and Muriel. I love Barra, the chief with the spear in his hand, and the rambunctious fosterlings and Calder and Shannan, the elderly couple who live by the ash tree. I love them because their imaginations have failed them as thoroughly as their leaders have failed them, as the old ways have failed them, as the world has failed them. They move me because I know just how that feels.

They move me, too, with their dogged determination to carry on. They cannot help themselves. It’s the way they see the world.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Celtic people was their concept of flow. As I built the world of Tír Ársa, I read several books of Celtic myths, Irish fairy tales and folklore, and ancient Irish history. In my reading, I came across a description of Celtic thought that stuck with me and ultimately served as the frame for the story. One writer described the Celts as a kind of foil to the Romans. The Romans, he said, insisted on “life marked out in squares.” They built straight roads and sent square units of soldiers, unfeeling phalanxes, to conquer the world, to claim yet more land and draw yet more squares. Their minds were full of lines and corners.

What if there is time for the wine to ferment, time to hold a feast in celebration? What if we are not abandoned, and the story arcs toward something wonderful? Helena Sorensen

The Celts rejected such thinking. For them, everything was woven together. Everything flowed. Time was fluid. Life was fluid. Feelings arced and curved like the landscape. And all things were bound together, bending over and back again, winding gracefully toward some unexpected destination. They lived with a joyful sense of impermanence. They had no written language, and their houses, stables, and meeting halls were constructed with wood, with no thought that they should stand the test of time. They built walls without mortar, stacking dry stones one upon another, knowing their sons and daughters could reclaim the stones and rebuild as they saw fit.

For them, life was rounded, each year a circle, a wheel that rolled on and on. They ran onto the battlefield pell-mell, naked and painted and screaming. The Romans looked down their noses and called them barbarians, but they were terrified by the intensity of their passion. In Roman thought, the Celts saw an ordered, bloodless stagnancy, and they would live to extremes to avoid it. By all accounts, they were glad to die on the battlefield, for the fighting made them feel alive, and death was merely a curve in the endless flow of existence.

Illustration by Stephen Crotts. Click to preorder The Door on Half-Bald Hill.

I wonder about our inclination to shape our lives as the Romans did. We build houses and cities on square plots of land. Our time is stacked like blocks—square days lining up to make square months that pile into years. We seek straight lines of ascendancy and conquest. But we’re always bumping into limits. We’re blocked by ceilings of rigid thought. Move outside the square and you’re in danger of being impaled on a sharp corner. But where is the turn? The flow? Our imaginations fall short.

There’s a scene in The Door on Half-Bald Hill when Idris, the bard, asks Llyr, the old fisherman, how long he’ll continue to sail the seas in his coracle. Llyr’s labor has been fruitless; his one small victory has proven empty. Yet Llyr responds with scorn, as though the question offends him deeply. “As long as the wind blows,” he says.

In another scene, Idris is far from the village. It’s time to harvest sloeberries and brambleberries and make hedgerow wine. But Idris realizes with horror that there may not be time for the fruit to ferment. Will they take the trouble to pick the berries, he wonders, when they’re likely to die before the wine is ready? It’s a moment of panic, when Idris bumps against an expected ending. But the people of Blackthorn, knowing what he knows and being no fools, still harvest the berries. They set them in buckets to ferment. They persist in the flow of life, trusting, beyond all reason, in the bends and turns that shape the world into unanticipated beauty. They move forward, afraid and yet determined, until the moment when the ending surprises them.

My longing for new endings has not diminished. Maybe I will always be writing my way toward them. How better to stretch my imagination beyond the ordered squares of doom that are every day presented to me?

What if there is time for the wine to ferment, time to hold a feast in celebration? What if we are not abandoned, and the story arcs toward something wonderful? What if there is room to imagine a million different endings?

Illustration by Stephen Crotts


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