Last week I was lucky enough to teach a session on David Almond’s Skellig for the MA in Children’s Literature at the University of Bolton. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and Skellig stimulated lots of stimulating responses and insights. It is a magical book about the transformative power of the imagination for healing and for different forms of ‘resurrection’.
I briefly mentioned Almond’s half graphic novel The Savage too as another text where the magical seems to coexist very powerfully with the daily. The relationship between the magical and the daily seems the source of faith in David Almond’s novels and indeed in other texts somewhat precariously labelled ‘magical realism.’ More about this in a later blog entry ….
Skellig’s magic is apparent from the opening chapter. The narrator Michael has moved house, just as his new baby sister has fallen very ill, attended by the rather ambivalent figure of ‘Doctor Death’. Michael’s grotesque label reveals the lack of faith of the narrator in conventional medical healers and identifies a source of anxiety from the beginning.
Illness separates and isolates. Michael’s mother spends most of her time at the local hospital with the baby, leaving Michael and his Dad to cope with the urgent repairs necessary for the house to be comfortable and safe for the whole family.
The fact that the ‘whole’ is in fragments makes the crumbling garage a powerful symbol of the fallen world in which Michael’s narrative takes place. The novel therefore is concerned with isolation, displacement and different forms of bereavement.
These concerns are explored through the perspective of the first person narrator Michael, whose situation intensifies his sensitivity and awareness, thus making him a wonderfully permeable vehicle for impressions and magical encounters.
‘I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.’ Here Michael introduces the as yet unnamed ’Skellig’ figure, a creature identified through the ambiguous pronoun ‘him’. Michael mentions the precise day of the week and the place, both coordinates of the real that reinforce the credibility of the narrative and particularly of Skellig’s existence.
The time of day(‘afternoon’) is also important, a point mentioned by one of the MA students, as this shows that the light would be good and therefore that Skellig’s presence cannot be termed just a trick of the fading light affecting visibility. Once again, as with Wendy Faris’ criteria for magical realism, an ‘irreducible element of magic’ is strongly present.
‘The winter was ending. Mum had said we’d be moving just in time for the spring. Nobody else was there. Just me. The others were inside the house with Doctor Death, worrying about the baby.’
The narrator Michael is thus outside of the new house which is not a home, but a place of sickness and loss, an ‘unhomely’ place to borrow Freud’s term. Indeed the season is ironically about to change from winter to spring, yet how can this be a cause for celebration when the advent of spring brings death and isolation?
Mum’s promise concerning the move, is importantly tied up in the boy’s mind with all the other changes. The mother figure spends most of the narrative away from Michael and this encourages his friendship with Mina and with Skellig. Yet the mother’s dream about the baby being visited by Skellig at the end of the text, is essential for bringing a resolution and healing explanation to the novel, uniting Skellig with the baby and with Michael and herself.
This transitional time from winter to spring announced here at the opening, recalls the myth of Demeter and Persephone. If the baby is like Persephone nearly lost in Hades, the underworld of death, then the mother Demeter’s identity seems shared between mum, Michael, Skellig and even Mina. David Almond is revising the myth and improvising new contemporary manifestations and connotations in order to explore different forms of solace and reconciliation.
I do find the reference to Michael’s family as the ‘others’ interesting too, as it leaks psychological information about Michael’s feeling of estrangement from his sick baby sister and his parents. They represent a group away from his personal identity and feelings.
The figure of ‘Doctor Death’ seems a grotesque creature too , a harbinger of gloom amd chaos-straight out of Hades perhaps? Michael’s faith in his capacity to heal seems very compromised indeed.
Michael is therefore at a threshold in terms of his emotional and spiritual growth and his meeting with Skellig precipitates radical change and even resurrection.
More about Skellig in another blog…
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