David Almond’s Skellig is a book that many British adults will remember from their childhood. This acclaimed story about two polar opposite ten-year-olds who happen upon an angel is very hard not to fall in love with.
*CONTENT WARNING: Past the quote, this article will contain mentions of depression and suicidal ideation. Please do not read if you are particularly sensitive to such topics.*
*SPOILER ALERT: This article will also contain plot points directly from the book.*
When I first experienced Skellig, it was in a classroom. It’s not the most adventurous setting, but it works. Picture this, it’s September, it’s raining; a teacher, fresh out of university is reading a book to her very first class… Some of her kids are half heartedly paying attention, some are playing hangman, but there are a few listening intently and that is exactly why she got her PGCE. If you have been a bookworm since childhood, maybe you can relate. Before high school, other children might not yet have learnt to be cruel, but you already feel like you’re not like them. When the teacher reads you a story, you hang onto every single word because each one is a new building block contributing to a new world in your head. I re-read the book so many times in the library at lunchtime, and after hearing the tale, I was no longer afraid of dark spaces because I was always sure I would find Skellig there. This is what Skellig meant to me. Now, however, Skellig means something else.
The narrative of this article was pre-planned, it was supposed to follow the story of a young girl who loves reading, but there’s more… You see, I was ready to read Skellig and maybe pick out a few quotes and laugh at lines like “bollocks” and “those are tits” because I had read this book before, in fact I’d read it dozens of times. But I honestly never expected it to leave more of an impact on me now than it did over ten years ago. First of all, as soon as I opened it, I couldn’t remember it being so… straightforward. When we think of children’s literature we always assume it’s fluffy and nice, but because adults always seem to sugar-coat serious things, so books provide a space to be frank and open. Yes, there is a beauty in the way Roald Dahl presents the world to children, but even that has a sense of underlying truth about it that only comes with the genre. Long story short – don’t underestimate the power of children’s fiction.
The odd thing about reading a book you read as a child as an adult is that the world already exists somewhere inside your dusty old mind, and there is nothing quite like the imagination of a child. I’d never be able to conjure up such vivid images reading fantasy now as I did then, but Skellig helped unlock a part of my brain that I thought was long dead. I can still feel the wisps of Skellig’s feathers and I can feel the baby’s heartbeat alongside my own. I wasn’t just reading a book, I was reading my past self.
Of course, these were slight revelations, but it wasn’t the biggest epiphany I had while re-reading Skellig as an adult. That happened about halfway in. I can pinpoint the exact moment my internal organs collapsed. Dramatic? Yes. Justified? Also yes.
There were tears in my eyes.
“He just sits there,” I said. ” He doesn’t care. It’s like he’s waiting to die. I don’t know what to do.”
“Do nothing,” he squeaked.
(Excerpt from Skellig, David Almond. 2016 edn. p 72)
As a child who had only just begun the journey of reading, I automatically always aligned with children in books, more so if it was written in first person. So, the little girl who read Skellig identified with Michael and Mina the most, because everything is seen from Michael’s point-of-view and he’s a child. As a nerdy girl, Mina becomes a reflection of this reader and as a relatively new reader, it’s harder to come out of this little bubble of where you fit into the story.
That brings me to now. As an adult reader, I like to think it has become easier for me sympathise with different characters, but however open-minded you go into a story, there are sometimes blind spots you can’t quite see, characters that you appreciate but will never associate with yourself because as multi-faceted as you are as an individual, you are one person. The magic of reading a book you read as a child over ten years later is that you are placed in different perspective, but you can remember the perspective you no longer have.
Let me elaborate. The reason my organs collapsed inward when I read this particular line and I had to take a moment to absorb and reflect upon what I had just read was because I had one simple thought; I am Skellig. This excerpt resonated with a part of myself that never existed as a tiny, naive child. And that was a little monster called depression and suicidal ideation. Wow, heavy, I know, there’s a reason I’m bringing this up.
Seeing suicidal ideation from both perspectives at the same time is nearly impossible. In my life I’ve seen both but they have been very separate. Why am I applying this to a children’s book? Skellig personifies the idea of “giving up” on being trapped in a garage. We never find out how he came to be there, and we’re told that his face looks young. After being in this position, it’s hard not to align with him. But having already seen the story from Michael’s perspective as a child, you are provided with two views that have converged into one story. They are no longer separate entities, they are one story and you can see it from both sides.
Why is this important? Suicide is often painted as “selfish”, because it gives the sufferer the ideology that they are alone, they forget about what it’s like to have any other perspective. To see someone suicidal gives us the opposite view, but we can often blame the person for being selfish, even if we have been through it ourselves, because we are no longer in that mindset and if we are, it only validates that mindset. Seeing the two perspectives simultaneously gave me the kind of epiphany you can only really have once. I feel sure that this is not the end of my struggle with mental health, but reading this book has definitely helped in grounding those feelings in the everyday.
Hopefully, you’ve found this an interesting take on looking at such a masterpiece of a book that is still surprising me with how many layers there are to the narrative.
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