Skellig | Study Guide

David Almond

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Skellig | Themes


Love and Transformation

Loving relationships within the story convey one of David Almond's central messages: Love has healing and transformative powers.

Michael's love helps to heal the baby. His anxiety for her resonates throughout the story as he feels her heart beating next to his. He even senses when her heart stops during surgery, although he lacks the clairvoyance to know that she then makes a dramatic recovery. Later he asks the arthritis doctor, Dr. MacNabola, if love can help a person get better, clearly believing the answer to be yes.

Similarly, the loving care of Mina and Michael, manifested in Chinese food, ale, and cod-liver oil, brings Skellig from near-death back to life. They restore his healing powers, allowing him in turn to help to heal the baby. Not coincidentally, Skellig disappears for the last time just before the baby comes home, ready to "dance or fly."

Skellig's love for Mina and Michael transforms them as well. When he dances with them, they feel as if they have sprouted their own wings. Through Skellig's presence, Mina—an odd, mature child who cannot relate to Michael's school friends—makes a friend in Michael. Michael changes from a child deserted by his mom because of the baby's illness to a solid, much-loved family member. The author's use of we in the last sentence is significant: "We thought a little longer, and in the end we simply called her Joy." Through the power of love, the family is again a whole unit.

Environment and Spirit

It has been common knowledge for over a century that the environment influences organisms on a genetic level. What has not been entirely clear, and was even less clear in the 1990s of Skellig's time, is how much behavior influences DNA. For instance, if a tree bends toward the sunshine, the tree will be essentially altered, down to its DNA, and appear different from other trees of its kind. Along the same line, nature versus nurture—which had the greater influence on humankind—was also a common topic of discussion from the 1970s to 1990s. Almond explores and extrapolates the science of his time to suggest that environment and nurture also affect the spiritual aspects of human life.

It is no coincidence that the story begins the very next day after Michael's family has moved into a new environment. This brings a new friend, and one very different from Michael's friends Leakey and Coot, into Michael's life. And most of all, it brings Skellig, a new spiritual experience represented at first by scraping sounds Michael can barely hear. He will need to go deeper—into the garage—and shine a light—a flashlight; inner light—on his fears—darkness, spiders, and crumbling walls—his psyche shaking even as it is shifting.

When Mum must take the baby back to the hospital, she pointedly cries out, "How can she thrive when it's all so dirty and all in such a mess?" Moments later she says they should never have left Random Road. The new road they've moved to is Falconer Road, which, unbeknownst to the characters, foreshadows that they will rise above and have new wings, so to speak, by the end—and the change in their environment will be crucial to their development. Leaving Random Road implies a shift away from the physical and into the spiritual. This is evident in that events are aligning so that Michael and Mina will gain new insights. There is a sense of orchestration and supernatural connectedness flowing through the novel. Michael and Mina often look into each other's eyes and communicate without needing to speak, and they share dreams that converge with reality. Michael's relationship with Mina is significantly different from his friendships with Leakey and Coot, who, when they show up, misunderstand Mina, and by calling her "monkey girl" are shown to be less evolved. In fact, they are often portrayed to be monkey-like while playing soccer or teasing Lucy, one of their classmates. Michael's new environment causes him to outgrow his friends rapidly and evolve spiritually beyond them. They represent the Michael that the character was when he lived on Random Road. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Michael will in turn affect them by being a changed person in their environment.

Death Is Nothing to Fear

Skellig perhaps lends itself to the obvious interpretation that death is a part of life, a natural, physical reality that must be faced, but Almond goes much further and shows also that death must not be feared. The novel seems to suggest that in the presence of angels and reality of spirit there is no need to fear. Michael dislikes Dr. Death but does not fear him. Michael does have fear at times such as when his baby sister is undergoing surgery, but his fear is reasonable, never hysterical or dramatic. He doesn't act out angrily or withdraw. His fears are not pronounced, and he is consistently more brave than fearful. Though Mina tells him the owls would defend their young "to the death," and they fly within inches of his face in the dark, with sharp claws, he remains calm. He's more curious about the garage than afraid of it, drawn to the mystery but never afraid of the strange man in the corner with a ghostly pale face, eating dead bugs. Michael is more nervous he's the only one who can see him, and it is clear Michael senses Skellig's angelic qualities right away. Though death be all around him—the baby, Dr. Death, Ernie Myers—so also are there wonders.

There are quite a few occasions in which the reader is presented with nature's cruelties but is instructed by the children's reactions to not be squeamish or worried. For instance, when Whisper the cat has already eaten one of the baby birds and is still on the hunt, Mina easily accepts Whisper's nature and does not mourn the bird's death. Another prominent instance is when Mina calls the owls "wild," "killers," "savages," and "wonderful" all in the same breath.

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