Skellig | Study Guide

David Almond

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Skellig | Plot Summary & Analysis

See Plot Diagram


Meet Skellig

Michael, the adolescent narrator, opens by saying he "found him in the garage" on a Sunday afternoon the day after his family had moved to a new house on Falconer Street at the end of winter. "I thought he was dead," Michael tells the reader, "but I couldn't have been more wrong." Then Michael adds, "there'd never been another creature like him in the world." The new house is in terrible condition. The yard is a mess, there is a toilet in the dining room, and the previous owner, Ernie Myers, who died in the house, had been dead for almost a week before he was discovered. Michael's parents are worried about their new, premature baby, who is being examined by the family doctor. Michael refers to him by a made-up nickname, Dr. Death.

The rickety garage in the backyard is likely beyond repair, and Michael's parents have forbidden him from going inside. Earlier that morning, shining a flashlight in the garage, Michael had heard scraping sounds, but his mom had called him away before he could go inside. Drawn to the mystery, Michael sneaks in while his parents are occupied with Dr. Death. The garage is crawling with bugs and spiders and filled with the previous owner's old junk. He heads again for the scratching sounds coming from the corner. Leaning over a pile of old tea chests, Michael flashes his light and sees a man in a black suit, bugs crawling over him, sitting on the floor. "What do you want?" the man asks, but before Michael can answer, he hears his dad yelling for him.

That night, Michael can barely sleep as images of the man occupy his mind. He tiptoes into his parents' room and looks at his baby sister sleeping in her crib. She is tiny and her bones are soft. He remembers seeing her in the hospital with tubes and wires in her body. He tiptoes back to his room, looks out of his bedroom window, and wonders about the man in the garage.

The next morning, Michael takes the bus to school for the first time. He had decided not to transfer to a new school when his family moved so he could stay near his best friends, Leakey and Coot. The bus ride isn't bad, but Michael feels disconnected from his friends and doesn't want to play football with them as he usually does.

Michael's father clears out the dining room, and Ernie Myers's old toilet is in the garden now. Dad shows him four dead birds he found in the chimney. One bird has "been there so long it's nearly a fossil," Dad says. Michael sneaks back to the garage while his father is taking a bath. The strange man is still sitting in the corner. Michael asks him if he can help him. The man, who pops a spider and a fly into his mouth, says he doesn't want anything but aspirin and "27 and 53." When Michael doesn't understand, the man tells him to go away.

On his way back to the house, a girl is peering at him over the backyard wall. She introduces herself as Mina, his neighbor, and asks his name. "Nice to meet you, Michael," she says and runs away. Inside, Dad wants to order Chinese takeout for dinner. Michael blurts out that he'll have "27 and 53" as it occurs to him what the numbers mean. After dinner, Michael carefully places his leftovers in the trash bin.

He sees Mina again outside but this time she is sitting in a tree, drawing a blackbird that Michael scares away as he approaches her. She drops into the garden and tells Michael there's a nest with three baby birds inside. When Mina asks Michael to tell his baby sister's name, Michael replies that they have not yet decided on one. Mina rolls her eyes and shows Michael her notebook full of drawings of birds. "Drawing makes you look ... more closely," she says, "helps you to see what you're looking at more clearly."

That night, Michael sneaks out and brings Chinese food and aspirin to the garage. The man gobbles up the food, calling it "food of the gods." Next to the man, Michael notices a little heap of balls made of tiny bones, fur, and skin. He tries to help the man to sit up, and he notices something under his shoulders "like thin arms, folded up." The man complains of arthritis as Michael returns to the house. He touches his baby sister's bones as he had touched the man's.

The next day Michael has a lesson about evolution in science class. The students look at a poster of "the endless shape-changing" from monkeys and apes that led to human beings. Coot whispers to Michael that it is "all a load of rubbish." Michael asks his teacher, whom he refers to as Rasputin, whether human beings will continue to change shape, and his teacher responds, "Maybe we'll go on changing forever." When Michael raises his hand and asks what shoulder blades are for, Rasputin can't answer.

Michael and Mina Move Skellig

When Michael arrives home from school that afternoon, Dr. Death is in the kitchen. Michael's baby sister must go back to the hospital. When Mum blames the baby's weak state on the household move, Michael's father promises to have it fixed up for when the baby comes back from the hospital. As Mum packs for the baby, Michael asks her what shoulder blades are for. His mom tells him they "are where your wings were, when you were an angel." Michael asks if she thinks the baby had wings, and she responds yes and adds, "Sometimes I think she's never quite left Heaven." Michael and Dad drop the baby and Mum off at the hospital. Home again, Michael draws a skeleton with wings sprouting from its shoulder blades.

Later that day Michael confesses to Mina his fear that the baby will die. She takes Michael to a secret place, an abandoned house on Crow Road. She leads him up to the attic and shows where tawny owls come to roost. She tells Michael to stay away from their babies in the nearby nests because the owls will "defend them to the death."

Michael stays home from school the next day to help his father work on the house and garden. They visit the hospital; the baby is stronger. When they get back, Dad tells him to take a break and visit Mina. At Mina's house, Michael mentions that she didn't go to school today either, and she says her mom teaches her at home. Mina tells Michael that her family believes schools "inhibit the natural curiosity, creativity, and intelligence of children." Then Mina quotes the poet William Blake: "How can a bird that is born for joy / Sit in a cage and sing?" She also tells Michael that her father died before she was born. "We often think of him," she says, "watching us from Heaven." Michael asks Mina if she believes humans came from apes. "It's a proven fact," she says. Then they talk about how truth and dreams "are always getting muddled," and Michael teaches Mina how to use her hands to make a sound like an owl's hoot. Michael tells Mina he will have something special to show her soon, then asks if she knows what shoulder blades are for. Mina says it is "a proven fact ... they're where your wings were, and where they'll grow again."

Just before sunrise the next morning, Michael brings the man in the garage Chinese food, more "27 and 53." Michael tells him the garage is falling down and he will have to move. The strange man says he is in too much pain and complains again of his "Arthur," or arthritis. Michael learns the man used to watch Ernie Myers, the former owner, from outside the window. Michael also presses the man to let him bring his friend Mina to help him. "Someone to tell you I'm really here?" the man suggests. They argue but the man finally agrees. As Michael is leaving, he is moved to ask the man, "Will you think about the baby ... in the hospital? Will you think about her getting better?" The man says he will.

Later that day Michael visits Mina again. She again quotes Blake, saying he "saw angels in his garden," and tells Michael about how birds' bones have adapted and why they are so light. She promises to tell him one day about a creature called an Archaeopteryx. They listen together to blackbird chicks in their nest as Mina tells Michael she sometimes confuses dreaming and waking. However, she says, she knows that the previous night she dreamed he had "cobwebs and flies all over him" and that he was "hooting, just like an owl."

Back at the hospital, Michael asks a nurse where to find the patients with arthritis and heads up to the top floor. He learns from an old lady and Dr. MacNabola that cod liver oil and exercise can help people with arthritis. The old lady also mentions "prayers to Our Lady" and "a positive mind." A doctor seconds the advice about cod liver oil.

After returning from the hospital, Michael goes to Mina's house. She's busy modeling birds from clay when he arrives. Michael joins in, trying to sculpt his baby sister, but the clay dries up in his hands. The children tell Mina's mom they'd like to go for a walk, but instead they head to Michael's garage. Michael worries Mina won't be able to see the man, that "dreams and truth [are] just a useless muddle in [his] mind." But Mina can see the man too. They feed him cod liver oil and give him brown ale to wash it down. Mina inspects the man, touching his wrists and hands. "Are you dead?" she asks. The man says children always ask the same questions. Mina tells Michael that the man's bones are becoming calcified, turning to stone. She explains that this is "linked to another process ... by which the mind too, becomes inflexible," or ossified. Mina and Michael spend some time convincing the man to let them help him until finally he says "Do what you want." The children plan to move him that night from the garage to the abandoned house where the owls live.

Just before dawn, Michael and Mina meet at the garage and help the man move from the garage to the abandoned house. He is strangely lightweight, and they realize he is actually quite a young person. They leave him to rest in a room on the first floor. Again they notice the strange bulges on his shoulder blades, and he tells them, finally, that his name is Skellig.

Skellig Works His Magic

Believing Michael to be ill, the lunch aid, Mrs. Dando, pays a call and brings him homework to do. Mina scorns the worksheets and a book for advanced readers, asking, "And where would William Blake fit in?" Then she quotes lines of Blake's "The Tyger." Together Michael and Mina plan to go back to Skellig that night.

On their way to the empty house, Mina explains that it was her grandfather's and has been left to her. Builders will be coming soon to repair it. Inside the building, they find that Skellig has attempted to climb to a higher floor but has collapsed from pain and hunger. The children give him food and medicine and carry him to an upstairs bedroom. Mina helps him remove his shirt, and they discover that Skellig really does have wings, though they are twisted and the feathers are broken.

At the hospital the baby is once again covered in wires and tubes. Michael listens intensely until he believes he can hear her heartbeat. When Michael visits Mina, she shows him a picture of the Archaeopteryx, the "dinosaur that flew" from which birds have evolved. Michael's school friends, Leakey and Coot, pass by and laugh at him for spending time with the girl who sits in a tree like a monkey or a crow. Distracted, Michael has a hard time playing soccer with the boys. Leakey understands his friend is upset about the baby, but Coot kicks the ball so hard against the garage that it begins to collapse. Dad boards it up. The boys kick around the soccer ball again, and Michael finds himself telling them about Mina and how the world is "full of amazing things." But when they spot Mina in her tree, he angrily defends his friends to her. Mina tells him to leave her alone.

That night, Michael dreams Skellig flies to the hospital and picks up his sister, and both become strong again. When he wakes up, he goes to see Skellig in Mina's abandoned house and finds Mina waiting outside by the door marked DANGER. She apologizes for their argument, and they agree to be friends. They find Skellig in the top room of the house at an open window where owls are bringing him gifts of dead mice and other rodents to eat. It seems this food is making Skellig stronger. He takes the children's hands and spins them around in a magical dance in the air.

As they dance, Michael sees and feels phantom wings on his back and sees that Mina has wings as well. As the dance ends, Michael asks, "How are you like this now?" Skellig replies, "The owls and the angels," and tells Michael, "Remember this night." Outdoors, the two children agree that they really did feel wings on their shoulders. When Dad comes looking for Michael, he and Mina explain that they were both sleepwalking.

Dr. Death comes to the house and orders Michael back to school, where the students are now studying their "insides." His teacher tells the class that they are all the same under the skin and encourages them to feel their hearts beating. Michael feels both his own heart and the baby's. Now Michael is back to his best at soccer, but just as his friends praise his athletic skills, he is called to the office. His dad has called the school to speak with Michael and let him know his baby sister has to have a medical procedure the next day.

The Operation

While his father goes to the hospital, Michael stays at Mina's house, drawing and talking about Blake's poetry. Mina has seen Skellig and has a message for Michael: "He says you must keep coming to see him ... He says he's going away soon."

Mina shows Michael an owl pellet, dissolving it in water to show it is made up of fur, skin, and bones. Michael asks what it means that Skellig makes pellets like owls. Mina can only say, "Extraordinary!" Dad calls at last and says the baby will have heart surgery the next day. Mina's response is to tell Michael that "sometimes we just have to accept there are things we can't know." But, she says, people can imagine.

On the day of the baby's operation, Michael insists on staying home and has a fight with his father, who finally gives in. Mina shows him that the baby blackbirds are now fledglings; they are leaving their nests and experiencing danger for the first time. Despite their parents' protection, they could be eaten by cats or foxes. On the way to the hospital, Dad tells Michael to "keep believing ... and everything will be fine."

The children talk about the coming of spring, and Mina's mom tells them the myth of Persephone, doomed to spend half of each year in the underworld. They think about the baby and her struggles to stay alive.

The friends go to the abandoned house to find Skellig, but he's not there. Michael feels that his heart is stopping, and, at the same time, he feels that the baby's heart has stopped. He faints.

Back at Mina's house, Mina's mom cuts open a pomegranate. Again, they talk about the myth of Persephone and how eating just a few pomegranate seeds doomed her a yearly return to Hades. Mrs. Dando again comes by with homework for him and kind words from his friends.

Michael's father returns from the hospital, saying, "It's over, son."

Skellig's Flight

Then Michael learns that the baby is not dead, but instead is sleeping. Despite one moment when "they thought they'd lost her," the operation was successful. At the hospital, a nurse tells Michael, "Your sister's got a heart of fire ... She's a little fighter. She won't give in." Michael and his parents talk about a name for the baby; he suggests Persephone, but his mom says it must be a name that is "very little and very strong."

Mum describes a dream she had while she slept at the hospital. She has dreamed of a man who is undoubtedly Skellig standing over the baby, picking her up, and dancing with her. In the dream, the baby had wings. At the end of the dream, Mum says, "I knew it was going to be all right."

Michael runs into Dr. MacNabola, who treats arthritic patients. Michael asks him, "Can love help a person to get better?" In answer, the doctor says, "Love is the child that breathes our breath / Love is the child that scatters death." Michael correctly guesses that the doctor has quoted Blake.

That night, Michael and Mina return to the abandoned house with Chinese food and ale for Skellig. Michael says that once again he can feel his sister's heart beating next to his. Suddenly Skellig flies in and accepts the offerings, calling the children a "pair of angels." He tells the children he will be flying away, though he doesn't know where. Michael asks Skellig, "What are you?" Skellig replies, "Something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel." The children dance again with Skellig, and, again, their ghostly wings appear. This is the last they see of Skellig.

Back at school, Michael is brilliant at soccer, amazing his friends. At home, he helps his father repair and fix up the house in anticipation of the baby's return. Michael and Mina return to the abandoned house and see a note: "Thank you. S," with three white feathers—one for each child, including the baby. They watch the owlets gorge themselves on tiny mice, and Mina calls them "beautiful tender savages." The adult owls then bring the children each a gift: a dead mouse and a dead baby bird.

The builders come to knock down the ruined garage at Michael's house, and his father plans a lovely garden with grass and a pond. When Mum and the baby come home, Mina brings a gift: a drawing of Skellig. Mum recognizes him and gasps but says nothing, and they put the drawing in the baby's room. Michael and his parents choose a name for the baby: Joy.


A Story for All Ages

Beginning in the 17th century and lasting through the 18th century, a major shift away from religion toward rationality, science, and reason called the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, swept through Europe, permeating the Western world and eventually reaching the New World, America. Major philosophers, scientists, and intellectuals—through essays, politics, and scientific discoveries—influenced this movement. Philosophers René Descartes (1596–1650), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), along with scientists Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), were precursors. English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), writer of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), and French writer Voltaire (1694–1778) are among the most prominent figures of the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, most governments were monarchal and theocratic, meaning the governments' authority came through a link between religion and royal rule. The American (1775–83) and French Revolutions (1789–99), which were both fought to establish democracy and enhance individual liberties for the common man, are both considered to be a culmination of a "long century's" worth of change.

From the late 18th to early 19th century, a literary and artistic movement known as Romanticism rose up as a backlash against the rationality so revered within the Age of Reason. Leading figures of this movement were poets (and artist in Blake's case) William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Lord Byron (1788–1824), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), and John Keats (1795–1821). All of these poets, who were the heart of the movement, renounced rationalism, though not political liberty for the common man, and embraced self-expression, imagination, and communion with nature. Later, rebelliousness against tradition would also be associated with the movement. Other key ideas include the healing powers of the imagination and the need for humankind to regenerate spiritually. All of these artists intuited that they were "chosen" to guide others.

In Skellig William Blake acts as a representative of the Romantic period, functioning as literary synecdoche, wherein a part stands in for the whole. Evolution stands in for rationalism in much the same way. Michael's evolution unit in science class moves on to study the insides of the body. In this sense Skellig's overall structure—through the appearance of angelic Skellig amidst the backdrop of the factuality of evolution—is demonstrating how the cycle of conflict between the mystical and the rational is repeating, and likely always will. A key moment for cluing the reader in is when Michael doodles wings on the back of a skeleton while he is worrying about his baby sister dying. David Almond takes the stance that both science and spirit are true and important. Both are said to be facts in the novel. Skellig's existence is corroborated by Mum's explicit vision of Skellig visiting the hospital and by Mina's presenting her with a picture of the creature. It is significant also that Mum keeps the strange coincidence to herself in that moment. The novel suggests that the human need for imagination, spirituality, and mystery will never die away, but will persist and evolve just as the physical world will continue to outwardly adapt.

Secrets and Angels

As writer Perri Klass points out in her New York Times review of Skellig, the book is about a child's ordinary life being "suddenly widened to include mystery and tragedy, although not everyone has eyes to see." Thus, both Michael and Mina keep secrets from their parents that they don't believe the adults will understand—the most important, of course, being the existence of Skellig himself.

Both Michael and Mina are secretive and private individuals; it is one of the ways in which they eventually bond. Early in their friendship, Mina makes a point of allowing Michael in on the secret of the blackbirds by saying, "Would you like me to take you somewhere? ... Somewhere secret?"

As the story progresses, the secrets become more significant. Mina allows Michael into her most secret place: the room in her inherited house where the tawny owls nest and raise their young. Michael allows Mina to see Skellig, and convinces Skellig that Mina will help him while keeping his existence a secret. "She's nice ... She'll tell nobody else," he says.

Skellig remains a secret from everyone except Michael and Mina. They move him in the middle of the night and see him only after everyone else is sleeping. They bring him food that they scrounge secretly, including his favorite Chinese dishes. Neither Michael nor Mina ever tells anyone of Skellig's strange physiology or his eating habits, and both keep the secret of his location and his magical dances.

In the hands of another writer, Skellig might seem to be a figment of the children's imaginations. Yet Almond gives hints throughout the book that Skellig is real. In particular, Mum clearly dreams of him and recognizes Mina's drawing of him. Readers are meant to believe in the possibility of magical beings, just as the poet William Blake—quoted throughout the story—did. The secretiveness of the young characters suggests that children are best suited to believe the impossible—or, to use one of Mina's favorite words, the extraordinary.

Angel or Bird?

From the start of the book, Skellig's existence, appearance, and behavior are a mystery. How did he arrive? Why is he here? What is he? Where is he going?

While these questions are asked, they are never answered. Almond never tells readers exactly what Skellig is. Winged and light-boned, he has characteristics of an owl, eating small animals and spitting out their indigestible parts in pellets. He has healing powers, as an angel would, but he is also messy, cranky, and arthritic, like a stereotypical old man. His exact nature is left to the imagination of readers.

Almond sustains the tension surrounding Skellig's nature by blending mystery and realism throughout the story. The mystery starts in the very first paragraph, with Michael's first words: "I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon." The garage itself is mysterious: filled with junk of unknown origin. Skellig himself adds to the mystery with his few, enigmatic words. He asks for "27 and 53," mysterious words, which Michael is able to interpret as relating to dishes on a Chinese menu. He tells Michael "I'm nearly nobody," and he answers no questions about his origins or destination.

Yet the author has said that the story is rooted in its realism, not its magic: "Skellig had to be in a real garage," he told an interviewer. The baby sister—chillingly unnamed until the last word of the book—is ill, possibly dying. Michael's soccer talent, realistically, reflects his moods. A teacher brings homework with fill-in-the-blank worksheets, familiar to every schoolchild. Almond works like a sculptor, letting such real-life details contain and anchor the novel's mystical elements to allow readers to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the story.

Skellig Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Michael discovers Skellig in the garage at his new home.

Rising Action

2 Michael meets Mina.

3 Michael and Mina move Skellig.

4 Michael's infant sister must undergo heart surgery.


5 Skellig, Michael, and Mina join in a magical dance.

Falling Action

6 Michael's sister survives an operation.


7 Skellig, Michael, and Mina dance again, and then Skellig leaves.

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