David Almond’s Skellig is a novel very much concerned with the experience of community and communion explored through the eyes of a young narrator called Michael who finds his life radically changed when his new baby sister is critically ill.
He moves house, and discovers a female friend called Mina, who never goes to school. She is fascinated by the poet and artist William Blake and references to Blake run through the novel, highlighting his belief in the liberating power of the imagination, as opposed to the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ (see ‘London’) of social conventions and doctrines.
At the same time, Michael also finds a strange, even ‘Blakean’ or hybrid creature living in his tumble down ‘ruin’d’ garage who is part bird, part angel and even perhaps part human!
Mina and Michael rescue Skellig from his predicament and in doing so rescue or ‘resurrect’ themselves too.
Hardly surprisingly one of Michael’s main questions around ‘Skellig’ centres around Skellig’s identity.
Michael learns to accept Skellig’s difference, his ‘hybrid’ character and thus embraces an imaginative flexibility and resourcefulness that seems something like ‘faith’, something like ‘hope’ something like ‘love.’
Here in chapter 42 of this wonderful novel, Michael asks Skellig about his identity:
‘What are you?’ I whispered.
He shrugged again.
‘Something,’ he said. ‘Something like you. Something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel.’ He laughed. ‘Something like that.’
Skellig’s identity is vaguely suggestive of several ‘species’ of being. The fluidity between one being and another denotes flexibility and acceptance.
The emphais on approximation reveals how arbitrary differences may be, yet how keenly precious they may seem to us and to the wider world.
‘Something like’- Skellig’s casual vagueness also calls into question the reliability of identifying characteristics or strategies.
Similes are used ordinarily to bring different things together so we can understand ’things’ better, we can bridge the gap between this or that in our understanding.
Yet in this conversation Skellig uses humour to expose the final irrelevance of labels, even of our need for similes to explain or pin down one apect of our experience with another.
Little wonder that here, once the flexibility of identity has been suggested, then the three characters become momentarily held in a form of communion, where the chidlren even grow ‘ghostly wings’ and levitate!
This is a dance of liberation, intimacy and transcendence- an experience that will endure:
‘Thank you for giving me my life again. Now you have to go home.’
Wonderful in the truest sense of the word!
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