I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with Helena Sorensen ever since I had the pleasure of reading her last draft of The Door on Half-Bald Hill over the holidays. In this interview, we discuss the choice of partnering with life or with death, the apocalypse, thematic overlap between her story and the drama of Holy Week, the wonders of Celtic mythology, and much more. It was a long conversation, so I’ve broken it down into two parts. To take us into Maundy Thursday, here’s Part 2.
Drew: I’m hearing you lean into this theme of the small tasks and chores of life taking on an eternal significance. I love how you chose a few different village tasks to recur and ground the story.
Helena: The place where that began, having something each character was responsible for, began with what Idris would have to do at the end. The question was, “How can these characters go with Idris when he walks through the gate?” So these items became this crucial thing that the characters are always seen in light of.
Engl is taking care of the sick baby, and she’s up all night with him, so she has this little candle pot that you always see flickering in the window. Calder, the old man, has this little blossom of flowers he always brings to his wife.
What Idris gives at the end is simply his version of that one thing. He doesn’t necessarily see it as this huge, heroic sacrifice. He has the one thing he can give, and that’s what he gives. And I think that’s what all the other characters do as well: exactly what they’re uniquely qualified to do.
The fishermen go out and fish because that’s what they can do. Even the little children try to fill up these hollowed-out rocks with rain to bring water to everyone, because that’s what they can do. The only place where that falls apart and doesn’t happen is when the healer, the Ovate, doesn’t do the job that she’s there to do. When she refuses, she partners with death.
But all those small tasks are significant because they remind us of what is really true. I wash feet to remember that the body matters. Even when I see it decaying and growing old or getting sick, it matters. Institutions like to determine what the need is, then squeeze that out of people. But community sees the value of each person and asks how we can bring that value to light in a way that benefits all.
D: The first book I compared Half-Bald Hill to was Till We Have Faces, because both are marked by a loving engagement with mythology. What especially reminded me of Lewis was that you’re working within this vast, mythological world, but you’re doing so in a way that is both faithful to that world—born out of study and research—and also points ultimately beyond it. There are passages towards the end of your book where Idris bumps up against the light underneath all creation that he doesn’t have a name for.
By that point, the mythology has become more than just a narrative device. So what did you discover in bringing your own Christian paradigm to bear on this story?
H: Let me start by saying that in the same way that individuals have something to bring to a community that makes it a whole, I think all the various communities of the world, all the people of history, have some aspect of who God is that we can learn from. Even the dark ones. I don’t think the revelation of God is limited to one group of people.
Most of us have more knowledge and awareness of Greek mythology, where you have these stories of the gods fighting amongst themselves, acting violently and lustfully, and the humans are the real victims. There’s this huge metaphysical line between humanity and the gods, a real sense of helplessness in the presence of the divine.
What if the thing being revealed in apocalypse is good news? Might the full revelation of the goodness and presence of God continually surprise us with joy upon joy?Helena Sorensen
In Irish and Celtic mythology, it’s very different. One thing that was so fun about my research was that these people saw the gods as much more on their level. They felt like their gods needed to prosper in order for them to prosper. So that interconnectedness was not just on the human level, but between the human and divine. You even have this story of a king who lays his body down as a bridge for his people to cross over. That was their understanding of leadership. And the joy in their stories is amazing. There’s this overstatement to their stories, this merriment and exaggeration that is quite infectious.
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill talks about how the Latin Church fell into darkness during the collapse of the Roman Empire. During that period, there were these Irish monks who saved crucial manuscripts of scripture from the Roman Empire and then released them out into Europe as civilization rose back up to its knees. And one of the things the Irish did most was to infuse joy into Christianity. I don’t think you can encounter any version of their world, whether pagan or Christian, without finding this abiding joy. It’ll take your breath away.
D: Does God delight in precariousness? In history, things so often unfold in such a way that so many landmark events almost don’t happen. It was up to this handful of Irish scribes to make sure that the gospel made it into the rest of the world. How crazy is that?
H: The great joke.
D: Yes! It’s laughter.
H: I don’t know if it was MacDonald or Chesterton who said that the thing Jesus didn’t fully reveal to us was his mirth. He shows us his sorrow, his love, but his joy remains hidden. I want people to feel that at the end of Half-Bald Hill—it’s so precarious, there’s no way there can be a happy ending. But that laughter of God bubbles to the surface; he’s so not afraid and so joyful about the end of the story. Can we enter into that, just a little bit?
D: I think a good place to end this conversation is with the idea of apocalypse. We’ve touched on it a bit—coming up against the end of a story. That’s an apocalyptic idea. And apocalypse is at the heart of both your story and Holy Week, as we all bring this anticipation of death. There’s even something very rich in the word “apocalypse:” it doesn’t necessarily mean destruction. It just means a revealing of what was always true.
H: There you go! Preach it!
D: So there’s still something ending, there’s still death, we’re coming to the limits of our story, but it doesn’t have to mean despair. What sort of closing thoughts might you have for us in this apocalyptic season of our world’s history, when things are being revealed about what was always true?
H: The kids and I have been wallowing in Shakespeare passages for the first three months of this year, for homeschooling. And we’ve memorized and talked about that very, very famous passage of Hamlet, the “To Be or Not To Be” speech. He says, “To die would be to sleep. To sleep perchance to dream: there’s the rub. In that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause?”
This speech is one of the most heartbreaking I have ever seen in literature: the speaker is in so much anguish that he would love the release of death, but death holds so much terror that he can’t take the risk. Who is the author of that kind of fear? I promise you it’s not God. Sometimes, we can become so trapped in fear that we can’t receive love and can’t receive God. When that amygdala reaction happens, all the relational parts of the brain are shut off—
D: The things that make us human.
H: Absolutely! And it’s reasonable to run from a bear. We don’t see a bear and try to be sophisticated instead—
D: I will now resist acting upon my reptilian instincts! I will instead engage the bear—
H: In conversation! We shall be friends!
Right? But most of us are stuck in that. And again, to partner with death is to say there’s a bear around every corner, that the truest thing about reality is always some new horror. But what if the thing being revealed in apocalypse is good news? Might the full revelation of the goodness and presence of God continually surprise us with joy upon joy?
D: That sounds like eucatastrophe, which is a good word for right now, as we are surrounded by catastrophe. I will ask in response: there must be a continuity between the suffering we see as part of the revealing of what is true and that joy you speak of. That feels like the tallest order, the biggest task: to make sense out of that. How do you peel back the curtain and find a plague—find a consequence of partnering with death—but also see it leading beyond into good news? Do you have any advice on how we can take in so much bad news, so much catastrophe, and yet see hints of the eucatastrophe, the good apocalypse underneath?
H: I can tell you where I’ve been personally with that question lately.
As Christians, so often we’ve been taught that the best we can say is that God did not cause evil, but that he allowed it. But we say a lot of things about God that, if we were to say them about any other human being, we would call that person a monster. Oh, but “his ways are higher than our ways,” right? That’s what we say to convince ourselves that, since he doesn’t play by our rules, his version of love will be unrecognizable and maybe even disturbing to us.
If someone is beating or murdering or raping another person, and you stand by and watch it happen—that’s a crime. You can go to jail for that. So there are these places in my heart where I’ve felt towards God, “You’re good, but I also secretly believe you’re a monster,” or “I love you, but I’m also scared to death of you”—and those are all places of suffering. They’re places where God is not fully revealed.
I think what “allow” really means is that God says, “I love and value humans so much that I allow them total free will.” All human suffering is a result of human free will, whether individually or collectively. God doesn’t cause, but he does submit. If God stands by in a room and watches as I’m being abused, there’s nothing I can truly do but hate him. I can try to pretend I love him and follow all his rules out of fear, but I can’t love him.
However, if God has given us all total freedom, yet has submitted himself inside that total freedom to perpetually work within our nightmare choices to bring about beauty, then I can release God from the expectation that he be a controlling monster. And instead of a master plan, I can lean hard into the love that never gives up, into the redemptive genius of a God who will suffer anything at our hands just to be with us.