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Keeper of the Word: A Review of The Door on Half-Bald Hill

I make the sign for birch in the gray soil of thought. A tree springs up, its trunk white and straight, its leaves small and rounded. “The birch is the tree of beginnings, of purification, of fire. Let the birch stand in honor of the Bard, who summons the inner flame. The Bard will be poet, musician, and prophet. He will learn the history of our people, all our laws and our lore. The Bard will be Keeper of the Word.” —Helena Sorensen, The Door on Half-Bald Hill

If such language and imagery calls to something deep within you (as it does me), then you likewise will not want to place The Door on Half-Bald Hill on your bookshelf once you turn the final page. Rather, you will want to keep it nearby so that re-entry occurs soon. Your mind will keep wandering back, mulling, wondering, the same way that it does with parts of Lowry, MacDonald, Rothfuss, Le Guin. . . even of Tomm Moore as he invokes Yates. Not in the sense that you will be drawing direct correlations to these writers, but in that this is the sort of company that The Door on Half-Bald Hill will keep in the bookshelf of your mind.

Distinguishing further: once on that shelf, The Door on Half-Bald Hill will sit closer to Till We Have Faces than Narnia, awaiting readers equipped to participate in mythic telling. For like Till We Have Faces, this is a bardic tale for adults, not for children; a tale for the reader ready for more than entertainment. When I first stepped into this Celtic world summoned by Sorensen, wondering what magic would begin to weave around me, I had to learn to see through protagonist Idris’ eyes, and then to second-guess him and realize that I needed to also look through the eyes of the others. The text kept me wondering, questioning. Is the despair warranted, is it as bad as they think? Worse? Is there a solution? Are the pleasures deceptive, or true joys? Whose visions do I trust?

This is a tale of desolation and consolation; a tale that remembers there is a Deeper Magic. Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

And as the story pulled me back into the time of the Oldest Tales, it yet propelled me into the time of the Unfolding Now—not only in its telling of fears in a time of pestilence, of poignant struggles of love and endurance, fear and self-doubt, but also in its showing how perennially necessary is rooted particularity: in, say, the gorse, and sloes, and primroses, the birch, and oak, and yew, without which Britain would not be Britain. Indeed the flora and fauna are so integral to this tale that it becomes obvious that place is an inextricable aspect of community; as the named-&-known species disappear from the landscape, so too do means and ways of a community’s self-knowledge. Not just in jeopardizing occupations, incurring loss of sensory pleasures and of physical sustenance—but by becoming irretrievable images in the very stories of identity. Relationship is central to this tale—in how it develops and grows amongst the persons of course, but also in how it plays out between the dwellers and the land, the hearers and the tales, the traditions and the manner in which they are indwelt. This is a tale of desolation and consolation; a tale that remembers there is a Deeper Magic.

And thus Sorensen’s story is also prescient, for the world of her readers currently teeters on the edge of the same losses and needs (of story, identity, persons, place). What acts of courage, of wisdom, of holding the old with the new with the Deeper will pull us back into balance? What might it look like to defiantly choose Life More Abundant? To refuse to lose either memory or metaphor?

How do we ask the right questions?

This is the journey into which Sorensen invites the reader of The Door on Half-Bald Hill, and in so doing proves herself a sure seanchaí, a “Keeper of the Word.”


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