Mina giggled. She looked through the book. It was about a boy who tells magical tales that turn out to be true. ‘Yeh, looks good,’ she said. ‘But what’s the red sticker for?’ ‘It’s for confident readers,’ I said. ‘It’s to do with reading age.’ ‘And what if other readers want to read it?’ ‘Mina,’ said her mum. ‘And where would William Blake fit in?’ said Mina ‘“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night”. Is that for the best readers or the worst readers? Does that need a good reading age?’ I stared back at her. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to get back over the wall and go home again. ‘And if it was for the worst readers would the best readers not bother with it because it would be too stupid for them?’ she said. (from Skellig by David Almond 1988, Hodder Children's Books)
And so a line from one of my favourite children’s books gives me permission to read any book I like! When I was Diocesan Youth Chaplain some years ago, I delved into young people’s literature and discovered a world of beauty and profundity.
‘After years of writing for adults,’ said David Almond, the author, ‘I found myself writing a children’s book, Skellig. It was very exciting to be suddenly writing for readers who have such flexible minds and who can consider all kinds of possibilities. I felt that I’d come home as a writer.’
Filthy and pale and dried out
When it was first published Skellig was greeted as a classic, highly acclaimed and award winning and it is a book that seems to have coloured every book he has written ever since. It is the story of Michael whose life is disturbed by a sick baby sister and a strange being he discovers in the derelict garage in the garden next to his new house.
The figure is ‘filthy and pale and dried out,’ covered in cobwebs and bluebottles, surrounded by bones and old things. ‘I thought he was dead. I couldn’t have been more wrong,’ said Michael. Skellig is an angel.
Michael’s questioning and wide eyed perplexity receives only vague and evasive answers from the strange angel he discovers lying behind the tea chest in the dirt and the dust. But as Michael wrestles with the mystery he has discovered, wondering if it is just a dream, the question of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What are you?’ are turned on Michael and the other characters in the book – and, yes, on us too.
Michael shares his discovery with his new friend and neighbour, Mina. ‘I’ll see whatever’s there,’ is her response to Michael’s over-concern as he draws her closer to the angel he has found. Mina is used to seeing the world differently. She has a rather unconventional upbringing and education: ‘The chicks in the nest don’t need classrooms to make them fly’ she states. And as Michael questions her about her constant sketching, she responds with ‘Drawing makes you look at the world more closely.’
It is through Mina that William Blake makes an appearance in the story. ‘He painted pictures and wrote poems. Much of the time he wore no clothes. He saw angels in his garden.’ Of Skelling she says, he’s ‘the kind of thing William Blake saw. He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, a little harder…maybe we could all see such beings, if only we knew how to.’
And so our eyes are opened: not just to the identity of Michael’s mystery but to the presence of angels throughout the story and throughout our lives. ‘Shoulder blades are the place where our wings once were’ so the children wonder, and Michael’s nest like dreaming of his sick baby sister sees her as a young bird, an angel, willing herself to fly.
Names, too, are important in the book. Skellig, at first, is reluctant and refuses to give his name away. Michael’s parents have yet to decide on a name for his baby sister and we have to wait until the very last word of the book until it is revealed. Names are exchanged. ‘I’m Mona…you are…?’ And descriptive nicknames are given by Michael to other characters such as ‘Doctor Death’. But perhaps the biggest secret unfolds in Michael’s name. Is Almond trying to tell us something? Perhaps it is a discreet nod to the more obvious allusions that Almond makes throughout his story.
‘Pair of angels. That’s what you are,’ says Skellig to Michael and Mina as he shows gratitude for their kindness, and Mina’s mother, watching the two children sat at the table waiting anxiously for news from the hospital about his nameless baby sister, sees rather two angels sat the table.
The book is dreamlike and lyrical, beautifully written, as we see the world through the eyes of two children who are alert to the possibilities of life and its extraordinariness.
In fact, ‘extraordinary’ is Mina’s favourite word and it is woven through the story. Skellig is described as an ‘extraordinary creature’ and the word is turned on humans too. ‘We’re extraordinary,’ says Mina. Her friendship enables Michael to see the extraordinary and the heavenly and, most importantly, to be able to express and explain it. ‘Maybe this is not how we are meant to be forever,’ she says’ or perhaps we could use far more familiar language: ”What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed’ (1 John 3:2).
This story, of course, is not some theological piece about angels. It is, after all, a children’s story but the symbolism of angels enables us to look at who we are and what we are. The Christian narrative firmly places angels as heavenly beings and not something that either we once were or one day will become. However, the book enables us to see the beauty in everything around us, the extraordinariness of life and its fragility too. ‘Can love help a person to get better?’ asks Michael innocently. His searching questions express our fears and our longings too. ‘We’re still like little chicks. Happy half the time, half the time dead scared.’
As a child, Almond was nurtured as a Roman Catholic and his books abound with religious imagery and allusions. As an adult he has found himself ‘writing for readers who have such flexible minds and who can consider all kinds of possibilities.’
The presence of angels in the story of our salvation (and the way that they are colourfully portrayed in Scripture and Tradition) is often untenable and beyond our experience but surely, as Christians, we should be considering all kinds of possibilities.
We live in a realm that is both down to earth (and grounded in the realities of life) and spiritual, with our eyes set on heaven, open to the possibilities of spiritual encounters that reveal themselves in the most ordinary and unbelievable of ways. ‘We,’ says St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, ‘are citizens of heaven’ (3:20) and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unawares’ (13:2). After all, angels are often interpreted as messengers.
The message of Skellig, I think, is the extraordinariness of life or, to use Mina’s own insightful words, the message may really be that ‘We are extraordinary.’ That, of course, takes some working out but there are always angels there to help us on our way. Happy reading!
This article, slightly edited, was written some years ago for a publication of Credo Cymru