Skellig | Study Guide

David Almond

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Skellig | Context

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Magical Realism

Skellig fits into the genre called magical realism, a unique literary style incorporating aspects of realism and fantasy, often including elements of mythology. Magical realism is best known as a style developed and refined during the 1960s by major Latin American authors such as Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014), Isabel Allende (b. 1942), Laura Esquivel (b. 1950), and Juan Rulfo (1917–86).

In magical realism, the setting and situations are typically very realistic and meticulously described. Skellig is set in a real, earthbound location, a dilapidated house with a collapsing garage in a small city in England. Much of the plot itself is realistic too: a young boy copes with the changes and anxiety inherent in a move across town while struggling emotionally with the near-death of his baby sister.

Magical realism adds impossible, fantastical elements to the realistic, creating a sense of wonder and, in many cases, giving a spiritual quality to the work. Skellig, the title character, is a magical being whose powers, source, and destination are all mysterious, perhaps even to him. Is Skellig an angel or an evolved human being? Is he part divine, part bird, or wholly human? Can he die? These questions are intentionally left unanswered for readers, who often write to the author inquiring about Skellig. The author, David Almond, states: "I don't have the ... answers. But isn't that the way with many things in this mysterious world of ours?"

In addition to the mythology centering on angels, Skellig also builds on mythology connected with Celtic and ancient Irish legend. The name Skellig derives from rocky islands off the coast of Ireland called the Skelligs. The largest such island is called Skellig Michael, and in Skellig, the protagonist, who is also the narrator, is named Michael. Named after the archangel Michael, the island is home to the ruins of an ancient Christian monastery founded between the 6th and 8th centuries CE whose stone crosses are marked with biblical scenes and symbols whose meanings have been obscured by the passage of time. The Skellig Islands are also famously home to two large groups of migratory birds; birds and wings are major motifs in the novel.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection

The theory known as evolution, which is that life develops from other life, can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander (610–546 BCE). Theories of how animal forms and plant life have emerged went through many variations—including the idea that all life shares one common ancestor—through the centuries until they reached a turning point when Charles Darwin (1809–82) published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin was revolutionary in science because he used natural selection to explain the process of how evolution happens. Darwin described natural selection as a slow-moving, imperceptible adaptation that happens when the "accumulated advantages" that help organisms thrive become more common in populations while organisms with less advantageous traits die out. Over the next century, Darwin's theory was adopted and built upon by other branches of science. The study of fossils, earth science, and genetics, as well as technological advances, all confirmed that life began on earth from the gradual adaptation of single-cell organisms—through natural selection over billions of years—into complex life forms, with human beings evolving from monkeys and apes to become the most complex life form.

The topic of evolution is woven throughout Skellig through interactions with Michael's teachers and with Mina, Michael's homeschooled friend. Michael and Mina discuss the possibility that Skellig may be a new step forward in evolution. He has qualities that seem to make him a man, a bird, and, perhaps, something other than an ordinary mortal. Skellig describes himself as "something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel."

Some of the clues Michael and Mina discover include:

  • Skellig weighs so little that two children can carry him. This implies that his bones are hollow like those of a bird.
  • The two children discover what look like owl pellets. It seems that Skellig eats small insects and mammals and then regurgitates the bony remains.
  • Skellig is in great pain at the start of the story from something he believes is arthritis. This is never confirmed, and the pain seems to disappear as he develops his angelic or bird-like qualities.

Mina, who is studying birds, tells Michael about the Archaeopteryx, a real-life ancient animal that was supposed by scientists to be a "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds. Archaeopteryx, while it had feathers and could fly, was hampered by the solidity and heaviness of its bones. The reader is encouraged to wonder whether Skellig is like the Archaeopteryx, and thus a creature going through the process of evolution.

Conflicts between Evolution and Religion

Religious arguments rejecting the science of Darwinian theories of evolution as an explanation for the beginning of life on earth began as early as 1880, possibly even earlier. Many scientists in Darwin's lifetime were religious and did not at first see natural selection as conflicting with belief in God since it was thought to explain natural processes set in motion by a divine Creator.

From 3rd-century theologian St. Augustine's time onward, the idea that the magnificence and complexity of nature implied a Creator, which is called a teleological argument, was common. In fact, Darwin was greatly influenced by a well-known "argument from design," a book on the Cambridge University curriculum written by philosopher and Anglican priest William Paley (1743–1805). In Natural Theology (1802), Paley uses the analogy of a watch, saying if a person were to come upon a watch in a desert, the watch would imply someone made it, and it is the same with nature and God. The religious arguments against evolution are innumerable. However, the teleological argument, which is at the core of the majority of the religious arguments, has persisted among the religious as much as science has advanced. By the 1990s, the decade Skellig was written and is set, Paley's ideas were reborn as the intelligent design movement. Skellig only hints at the conflict between religion and evolution and not in any traditional religious sense whatsoever.

Skellig is not an argument against evolution as scientific fact since both Michael, the narrator and protagonist, and Mina, who is homeschooled, are studying it without ostensible controversy. However, the author does try to integrate spiritual ideas and show how they do not conflict with the science. Michael, who goes to public school, is uncertain whether evolution is true, but Mina, who is more knowledgeable, teaches him about it, explaining it in enthusiastic detail. However, when Michael asks Mina what shoulder blades are for, Mina is equally convinced "it is a proven fact ... they're where your wings were, and where they'll grow again." Mum and Mina's mom say the exact same sentence when Michael asks them what shoulder blades are for. Also, when Michael asks his science teacher, nicknamed Rasputin, the same question, the teacher says he does not know. He only remembers what his mom told him they were for. Notably, the teacher is nicknamed after Grigori Rasputin, a real Russian mystic who lived from 1869 to 1916. Skellig ultimately integrates the physical and the spiritual and seems to urge readers to leave room for mystery and imagination. Skellig as a character exemplifies that "[s]ometimes we just have to accept there are things we can't know."

Conflicts with Teaching Evolution in Schools

After nearly a century of conflict between Christianity and evolutionary theory, in 1950 the Roman Catholic Church formally recognized evolution to be a "serious hypothesis" in a statement issued by Pope John Paul II. The church took the stance that God created the human spirit, and the theory that humans evolved from organic matter does not conflict. Lutherans followed suit in 1965 and Presbyterians in 1982. As recently as 2008, the Church of England issued a formal apology to Charles Darwin on what would have been Darwin's 200th birthday.

However, many fundamentalist Christians remain in opposition to teaching evolution in schools. Numerous court cases have been tried against it, particularly in the United States, beginning with the Scopes Trial in 1925 in which a teacher, John T. Scopes, was fined $1,000 for violating state law in Tennessee. According to the journal Science, which has records of these debates since 1880, the peak years for evolutionary controversies in schools have been "trials in California (1979–81), Arkansas (1981), and Louisiana (1982–87)." Some of these cases went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled it is unconstitutional to prohibit the teaching of evolution. Again, just a decade before Skellig was published, evolution had become a hot-button issue, and the author's choices take on the controversy of the time.

1990s Mind-Body-Spirit New Age Movement

Skellig is not definitively part of the New Age movement that developed between the 1970s and the 1980s, but some of the New Age philosophies that became widespread in popular culture by the 1990s can be seen in the novel. The New Age movement itself is difficult to pin down, and according to scholars, it should be defined more as a widespread cultural atmosphere than an actual cohesive movement. Though it is generally agreed that the most significant shift within this milieu in modern times occurred in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, today many academics trace the roots of it back to Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who claimed to speak to spirits of the dead, and British writer and artist William Blake (1757–1827), who proclaimed he had the ability to see angels and was a prophet. Another notable influence was Russian spiritualist Helena Blavatsky (1831–91), who cofounded the Theosophical Society, which is a religious society that incorporates Eastern mysticism drawn from Buddhist philosophy and Hinduism, a major religion in India. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1856–1939), colleague of the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), is also considered a major influence of the New Age movement. Jung wrote about collective archetypes and intuitive patterns, or broad universal images and experiences that all humans can relate to. And Jung coined the term "collective unconscious," a groundbreaking theory of an ancestral mind all human beings share and can access. Most importantly, Jung's theories integrated psychology with universal religious instincts.

By the 1990s New Age shops and bookstores were virtually ubiquitous in the United States and the United Kingdom. Some common topics of interest of the New Age milieu that "spiritual seekers," as they were called in this era, explored were:

  • channeling angels and masters, spiritual beings that guide humankind, to learn from them
  • healing the self, others, and the earth through love and positive energy and thinking
  • mind-body-spirit relationship; the belief that these are three distinct subtle bodies
  • divine spark within that humans can tap into; energies that connect all human beings; universal interrelatedness
  • uniting science and spirituality
  • holistic, alternative schooling for development of the whole child—or inner child
  • the physical world as a construct for learning and growth, for the evolution of the spirit
  • negative events as an opportunity for spiritual growth

Skellig was published in 1998, and there is strong evidence that this cultural zeitgeist influenced the novel:

  • Characters are interconnected through their dreams. Michael and Mina's dreams reveal secret information about each other. Mum has visions of Skellig that are accurate and true. However, Michael and Mina never tell Mum her visions are true, but the reader and the children know.
  • Mina is an example of a holistically educated child with an awareness of mind-body-spirit.
  • Through Dr. Death's and Dr. MacNabola's characters, Western medicine appears outdated, arrogant, and focused on the physical—"the needle" and "the saw"—whereas the old lady in the hospital's character understands that life is a dance. She prays to "Our Lady," who is the Virgin Mary's spirit, for healing, but she mentions how others believe good health is affected by a positive attitude. Dr. MacNabola mentions this also, but as secondary to the needle and saw. Near the end of the novel, MacNabola is revealed to be fond of William Blake's poetry, and he helps Michael believe that love has healing powers. Almond never portrays one aspect—physical, mental, spiritual—as being dominant over another. In accord with the spirit of his time, the author seeks to integrate them.

William Blake's Poetry

William Blake was born in 1757 and died in 1827. He was a British romantic poet and artist whose work, though highly acclaimed today, was once dismissed as that of a madman. Some of his most famous poems, including "The Tyger" from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789), are quoted in Skellig. From the time he was a small boy, Blake had "visions" of God, angels, and other heavenly beings. According to one of his letters to a friend, he believed himself to be "under the direction of Messengers from Heaven Daily & Nightly." Blake claimed to communicate with "rebel angels" on a regular basis and painted many angels as illustrations for 17th-century English poet John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667).

Blake's poetry and imagery are introduced in Chapter 15. Mina, who is studying Blake, describes her family's homeschooling philosophy in Blakean terms, saying, "We believe that schools inhibit the natural curiosity, creativity, and intelligence of children." This idea is echoed in Blake's poem "The School Boy," from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, whose first two lines appear in the novel: "How can the bird that is born for joy / Sit in a cage and sing? / How can a child, when fears annoy, / But droop his tender wing, / And forget his youthful spring!" Blake's poetry, which is quoted regularly by characters in Skellig, provides a backdrop to the idea that there are angels among people and ties the novel to the Romantic literature movement of the late-18th to mid-19th centuries. Artists and thinkers of the Romantic movement embraced individuality, imagination, and authenticity. Through Mina, quotes from Blake also suggest that ordinary schooling undermines the ability to learn while a natural environment is the best way to acquire wisdom.

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