Skellig, David Almond

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I never read Skellig as a child. I suppose as a result of moving round a bit and having parts of my education in a different country, I must have just missed it. And I can’t say that I feel like I missed much, having finally read it.

Maybe because I’ve come to it as an adult I can’t quite embrace the magic that children and young people feel when reading it for the first time. I would be more inclined to believe that if I didn’t love fantasy literature. I have an imagination and the ability to, in literature, accept the impossible as entirely possible.

Maybe it’s because I don’t like uncertainty. I want a definite answer, not a debate – was Skellig an angel or wasn’t he? But at the same time, I adored the ending of The Life of Pi where the reader has to decide whether what happened was the animals or humans killing each other. So uncertainty certainly isn’t an issue for me normally.

Perhaps it’s because because I don’t like the character of Skellig because he goes against the traditional form of an angel that I, as a Christian, would look for. Then again, I absolute loved Susan Ee’s Angelfall and the angels in that series could not have been less angelic if they tried.

So what is it that I haven’t taken to in Skellig? I’m not really sure. I feel in a way that it’s kind of like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Part of the reason Joyce wrote the novel to be so complex was because he wanted academics scratching their head over it for years to come. Skellig, to me at least (and I’m not saying this is unequivocally the case) seems to be written for children to study. Almond was a teacher when he had the idea for and wrote Skellig. He knew what children were reading and the content and value of the texts they were studying. I read that the idea came to him as a whole, that Almond wrote Skellig as an entire story. Perhaps it was because of the influence of the teacher in him.

That said, I can see how Skellig is a useful book to study with Key Stage 3 pupils, and shall endeavor for the rest of this blog post not to continue moaning about why I didn’t like it, but to explore why, as a teacher, it could be valuable.

Skellig as a Curriculum text

Almond successfully explores the childlike confusion, pain and horror surrounding sickness and death. Michael’s name for the doctor caring for his sister, ‘Doctor Death’ shows a child’s inability to separate the state of death from humanity – he was to give death a figure, a being, to make it manageable. For children who are, hopefully, unfamiliar with sickness and death, and even for those who have grown used to it, Skellig brings a sense of hope to the hopeless, and life to the sick.

The conclusion was very Mary Poppins-esque: ‘”Someone else might find him now” said Mina’ (p. 162). The idea that Skellig was present in their lives simply to save the baby kind of undermines the supposed confusion over what he was. With wings and healing powers, the ability to sense the spirit in a child and his relationship with animals, surely it is obvious that he is angelic. Certainly his attitude might contrast with what we would expect, but I’m pretty sure you’d be annoyed at living on earth if you’d ever seen heaven! But the uncertainty of his identity does introduce pupils to the concept of an unreliable narrator, and the idea that not everything fits neatly into the box we might suppose.

Through the novel there are a variety of literary techniques, useful for close study of the text. Smilies, metaphors, rhetorical questions… there’s a plethora of analysis for the taking.

One of the things I did enjoy about the text was its relationship to art. Whilst on a week long school work experience for Teach First last week, I looked through the text books of a few year 7s. They had been studying A Christmas Carol last term, and the first few pages were filled with drawings of Victorian London, Marley and Scrooge and other little parts of the novella. I can see how teaching Skellig using such creative expression would be really helpful – drawing what we think Skellig looks like, what Mina looks like from Michael’s description, what the garage looks like will all help pupils to engage with the text in a visual and practical manner.

The Verdict

I don’t like the book. The story isn’t for me, the delivery isn’t for me and the underlying tensions of good book to read vs good book to study pulls me away from the story. However, that’s not to say I  can’t see its merits as a curriculum text. I have listed just a few above, and can see how going into this novel would be a good introduction for younger key stage 3 pupils to close textual study and analysis. It does also explore some difficult topics, and with a child protagonist, this makes the much easier to approach.

Personally, I still prefer The Book Thief for those things. But Skellig will do for now!

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