Dr. J. Patten
May 3, 2000
Care and Feeding of the Spirit in Skellig
Section 1: Close Reading
"I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum had said we’d be moving just in time for spring. Nobody else was there. Just me. The others were inside the house with Dr. Death, worrying about the baby" (1) .
David Almond’s Skellig begins with a passage that contains the seeds of several essential elements of the story we are about to hear from its central character, Michael. The passage does not tell us who Michael found in the garage-or that his name is Skellig. That tidbit is not revealed until we arrive on page 87–nearly halfway through the story. Skellig may be an angel, or an owl, or a man. He may be a combination of all three–or none of the above. Skellig may be an Old Norse word for courage or hope. It could be a term that symbolizes renewal or resuscitation after grave disappointment. In the end, what Skellig is remains an enigma; he is unique and defies classification.
As the story unfolds, Michael is distraught. He hadn’t suspected "the winter was ending." Michael is alone with his sad musings when he finds Skellig in a ramshackle outbuilding not unlike a manger. It is Sunday, the Lord’s day. Michael’s family has just moved. Like Moses, he is a stranger in a strange land. It is literally a strange land because he has just moved there. But, it is figuratively a strange land as well because he is bewildered by what is going on around him. He does not understand what is happening inside himself. He does not understand Dr. Death. He suspects that something is wrong with his baby sister, but his parents are evasive about her condition-or they know little more than he does. When he finds Skellig, the latter is as helpless as a baby (baby Jesus?) and attended only by spiders and bluebottle flies. Michael’s newborn baby sister is attended by Dr. Death.
As the story unfolds and we learn that Skellig has huge wings under his filthy overcoat, we begin to suspect that he has come to Falconer Road on a mission. He has been in the cobwebs and dust of the garage for some time. Maybe he was sent there to help the former owner of Michael’s new house and somehow botched the job. Skellig has lost hope and let himself go to ruin. He will not save the world, but he may help Michael learn how to live in it. Michael does not yet realize that Skellig is his rescuer. Unwittingly, he becomes the good Samaritan and rescues Skellig. He puts his concern for a stranger ahead of his own concerns. He feeds him "27 and 53" "food of the gods." (29) .
When Michael discovers Skellig, his luck begins to change. "Winter was ending." The season of death and dormancy (especially for Michael and Skellig) is about to give way to the rebirth of spring-a kind of second innocence. Michael’s discovery of Skellig, and what he learns from him, is his alone. "Nobody else was there. Just me." He is about to embark on a journey from timeless innocence to the temporal experience of mortality. He will be guided by a fallen angel who needs Michael as much as Michael, unknowingly, needs him. And while Michael pursues his journey from innocence to experience and on to a higher innocence (a la Blake) in close proximity to his family, their focus is inside (themselves) with Dr. Death worrying about the baby.
The opening lines are a paraphrase, a bare outline of the story that follows. The speaker has an archangel’s name. He has moved to Falconer Road. A falconer is someone who trains winged creatures. Michael helps the winged creature, Skellig. Owls join in the care of Skellig. Michael’s friend Mina (Myna, bird) chants Blake’s verses about a caged bird and observes and draws birds. Birds represent freedom, flight, the soaring spirit. To attain its freedom, a bird must leave the nest (the old house) and find its place in the world (the new house). It is time for Michael to exit the golden cage of childhood and soar up into the terrifying and beautiful world of maturity. It is time for innocent children (Michael and Mina) to resuscitate a winged creature that has given up hope.
Love is the vehicle that gets the job done. But, it is a special kind of love, a love that asks for nothing in return. It is a love that worries about the baby, that worries about the desiccated stranger, the love of parents and parent birds, the love of a girl like Mina or a doctor whose name is not really Death after all. It is a love like the love espoused by Blake and Jesus.
When David Almond has Michael say, "I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon," he seems to be reminding us that Jesus was found in a similarly mundane setting, and Moses was found in an obscure place. They were the messengers of great goodness in the world. The answers to our confusions and miseries lie within ourselves, in how we conduct ourselves through the world. They lie in how we love our neighbor. That conduct is innate in the lives of animals (in this case, birds), but it must be learned by humans. It is a message propounded by Blake, and Almond seems to be using Mina as his Blakian messenger. Blake makes selfless love and joy a central part of his message. It is no wonder then that Michael’s parents eventually choose Joy as the newborn’s name.
The parallel themes that begin with the opening paragraph continue throughout the story. Everything seems to have a double meaning at the very least. The owls hoot to each other and call attention to their caring behavior. Aping the owls, Michael and Mina hoot to each other as they go about their ministrations. They feed Skellig, and the owls feed Skellig. The secular winter is ending, and Michael’s spiritual winter is ending. Skellig’s spiritual winter is ending too. Winter is also ending for Michael’s parents as well as for the baby, Joy. Mina finds a kindred spirit in Michael, and her season of isolation ends.
As the opening lines predict, we are just in time for the season of renewal, the joy of spring, the resurgence of hope. In fact, hope does spring eternal in this tale. Even Dr. Death (another symbol of winter) becomes Dr. Life after all. And his actions in saving baby Joy find a parallel in Michael’s god-like act of recreating his sister as perfectly as he is able in clay.
Michael begins by informing the reader that he found "him" in the garage. But, soon Michael and Mina move Skellig to a safer place. Dr. Death moves Joy to the hospital because her life is in danger where she presently resides. Both moves are shown to allow the caregivers a better opportunity to do their jobs. The results are equally successful. The good doctor(with Skellig’s aid) cures Joy and Skellig defeats his nemesis Arthur Itis with the aid of a pair of owls and a pair of children.
Of course, the story begins when Michael and his family move from a settled life on Random Road to the new house on Falconer Road. They are able to make the move because the former owner, Ernie Myers, has moved to the next world. Michael and Mina are able to move Skellig because Mina’s grandpa has also moved to the next world.
Another parallel theme concerns possession. Michael says he alone found Skellig. But he soon realizes that Mina has come to possess him once they move him to her Grandpa’s house. Mina has the key. Once the baby is moved from the house to the hospital, she belongs to the doctor. The doctor’s skill at heart surgery is the key to the baby’s life.
Finally, there is the theme of connection. From the outset Michael has felt the baby’s heartbeat in his own body. After the operation, he feels his own heart stop. The baby’s heartbeat is now solely her own. Michael and Mina have become deeply connected, but they quarrel. For a while they hate each other. But, they are able to patch it up with the recognition that they are two separate beings, not one. Mina tells Michael that sometimes friends hate each other. Sometimes things go wrong; it’s part of life. There is a similar falling out between Michael and his friends, Leakey and Coot. Their relationship changes. Michael even drifts away from Skellig momentarily, but Mina brings them back together for a parting dance. In the end, everything has changed. Skellig departs. Michael returns to school. Joy sleeps peacefully out of danger. And the scene of Michael’s opening discovery changes. The garage is demolished and hauled away. It has served its purpose, and like Skellig, it is no longer needed. The winter had ended. It was "just in time for the spring" (1).
Section 2: Questions and Answers
Q. How does an investigation of the title help us to attain a deeper understanding of the story as a whole?
A. The title of a creative work always adds something to the work. Even when it is repeated in the body of the work, it is emphatic. The author chooses the title to call our attention to something important. In the case of Skellig, the title not only informs us of the name of a major character, it emphasizes the spiritual nature of the tale. If we merely accept Skellig as the name of a character, we can still come away from the story with a deep understanding of the author’s intent. But if we add to the text the following information, our understanding is enriched.
The noun skell is slang for a homeless person who lives as a derelict. The adjective form of derelict means: 1. Deserted by an owner or keeper; abandoned. 2. Run-down, dilapidated. 3. Neglectful of duty or obligation; remiss. The noun form means: 1. Abandoned property. 2. A homeless or jobless person. A skellum is a rascal; a rogue.
Much of the above information merely delineates what we already know from reading the text. But the third definition gives a hint about why Skellig is found in a storage shed and in such a dejected frame of mind. It is a reinforcement of our suspicion that he has perhaps come to this state because he failed in his duty to protect Ernie Myers, the former owner of the house on Falconer Road.
A search of the Internet provides further verification of the mood and timbre of the story. I refer to Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastic hermitage on a tiny island off of Ireland. It is a place where, legend has it, a man once lived alone on a tiny ledge 700 feet above the sea in an attempt to live as close to God as possible. It is no stretch to refer to the ledge as an aerie, a bird’s nest or a household perched on a high ledge. And the man lived alone. Every character in Skellig has a solitary interior life and a quest for a spiritual rudder. And of course the two central figures are Skellig and Michael or Skellig Michael.
Q. When Mr. Stone, the real estate agent, shows Michael’s family around the new house, he often remarks, "You have to see it with your mind’s eye" (2). Why does Almond make this the theme of an entire page instead of quickly moving on with the story?
Seeing with the mind’s eye is an important faculty that Michael needs to
learn as he grows into adulthood. The old house (childhood) was familiar to Michael. The new house (adult world) is strange and unfamiliar. He is being asked to see the potential in the world around him. It is time for Michael to actively participate in the business of living. When he sees the terrible condition of the new house, he wants to go back to the security of the old place. He is comfortable with that world. Michael’s dad is a grown-up and will show Michael that he can initiate changes that will make the place more to his liking. Through the metaphors of remodeling and repainting, Almond directs Michael’s attention to active participation in the world. Unpleasant situations can be changed. That is what grown-ups do. Ernie Myers moved a toilet into the dining room because he was dying. That reminder of death can be removed and the dining room restored for the new lives that have taken Ernie’s place. Skellig can be restored to his former self by "27 and 53" (29). But he cannot feed himself; he needs the help of others who care about him. Dr. Death will operate on little Joy to alter the course of her life. Michael and Mina will change Skellig’s future-and their own. They will do it with their own personal skills and with love.
Q. When Michael looks at the people on the bus, he realizes that appearances tell nothing about "what was happening in their lives" (13). This leads him to the realization that he too is anonymous in their eyes. Why is this knowledge important?
It demonstrates Michael’s personal growth. He is beginning to understand
the depth and complexity of life. And he is beginning to reflect on his own inner life as it may or may not be seen by others. He is also realizing that he and others are basically the same; he is becoming connected to the rest of humanity.
Q. What is the significance of Skellig’s overcoat?
Skellig’s overcoat is part of his exterior or appearance. It hides a fundamental part of his true nature, his wings. It does not reveal his nature until Michael gets close enough to touch him in some important way. Almond implies that each of us wears an overcoat that hides our true nature. Dr. Death’s somber appearance seems to Michael to be connected with the imminent demise of his baby sister. In fact, he is her savior. Skellig’s overcoat is a reminder that you have to look with your mind’s eye.
Q. What is Mina talking about when she says, "The mind needs to be opened to the world, not shuttered down inside a gloomy classroom" (49)?
Literally, she is referring to her mother’s belief in home schooling.
Figuratively, she is reiterating the theme of growing up, the need to personally experience the world in order to understand and live in it. She is reminding the reader of Blake’s notion that growth has three stages: innocence, experience, and a higher state of innocence that is a synthesis of the first two. Experience can only come from being in the world, not in the cage of a protective environment like the classroom.
Q. Why is Michael’s baby sister important to the story?
Her illness introduces Michael to the reality of the presence of death in the
world. Michael first sees that death exists when his parents buy the new house. Ernie Myers died on the kitchen floor. But this is, after all, only a distant story in which Michael played no part. However, when his baby sister arrives prematurely and in a feeble state of health, death becomes a palpable presence in Michael’s life. He is so intimately connected to her tiny life that he has attached her tenuous heartbeat to himself and feels it inside his own body. In doing so, he has invited the reality of death inside as well.
Q. What do Ernie Myers, Mina’s father, and Mina’s grandpa have to do with
A. They are there as background for Michael’s recognition of the presence of death in the world of the past that reaches into the world of the personal present. Ernie’s death made the house available to Michael’s family. Mina’s father created Mina and disappeared before she was born. Mina’s grandpa left his house to her, and she uses it to shelter Skellig from danger or possible death in the garage. All three of these deaths are distant events that remain outside of Michael and Mina’s personal experience.
Q. Why has Almond included Archaeopteryx and evolution in the story?
A. It is a way to make Skellig credible. We don’t know what he is or where he came from. But we are reminded that there once was a dinosaur that flew, and evolution can produce many different forms of strange beings. It just may be that Skellig is the last of an ancient species, something akin to an angel. It is also a way to connect his story to the much older story of the evolution of humans and the personal evolution of understanding the ephemeral nature of being.
Q. Mina and her mother are devotees of William Blake. How do they
exemplify his ideals?
Mina is taught to educate herself by direct experience and careful
observation of life without any institutional intermediary to translate her experiences for her. She gives free reign to her curiosity and spirit and draws Michael to her by directing him to examine his own education at school. She exemplifies Blake’s belief that each of us will find our own way to wisdom if we are left unhindered to follow our own desires. This is born out by the success that Mina and Michael have with Skellig. As Michael says, "the world’s full of amazing things. I’ve seen them" (108). It is the seeing that is far more important than learning about it from the experiences of others.
Q. What is the meaning of the story of Persephone told by Mina’s mother?
"The winter was ending" (1). New life was bursting forth on every side. Michael had been through a period of dark experience and confusion. But, now all was well. It would not stay that way of course. Michael had learned that life has cycles of growth and dissolution, and eventually everything dies. The story of Persephone is a tale of suffering and hope, pain and renewal, struggle and triumph and loss repeated forever. It is the crucial lesson that Michael learns about life that year. The seeds of the pomegranate are like Persephone’s life and all life. Each seed contains both sweetness and bitterness in equal measures, and they are not separable. We must eat them both to live in the world.
Rationale for Questions and Answers
What I have attempted to do with the questions and answers above is to involve the student in multiple levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. My strategy has been to first draw the student onto seemingly familiar ground and then deftly (I hope) transform the rug underfoot into a flying carpet. I want to provide the reader with multiple opportunities to discover that the plot of Skellig is not the story after all; it is merely the overcoat that contains the real story. The theme of the real story is the same for all stories: we are all unique individuals, and at the same time we are all ubiquitous metaphors for phenomena that are ever-present in the complex world of humankind.
Question ten, for instance, first calls the reader’s attention to the fact that toward the end of the novel there was a story involving someone named Persephone who may or may not have existed. Likewise, Skellig may or may not have existed. Persephone ate pomegranates, and they surely exist. Both Persephone and pomegranates are metaphors for the ever-present theme of travail and renewal that constitutes an essential lesson that all of us must learn if we are to be successful with our lives. It would be easy to overlook this small part of the larger story. But, once it is called to our attention, and we look at it closely, we discover that it is the same story told in a slightly different way.
It is my hope that the reader will then take the leap to a higher level of understanding and look for other metaphors within the context of the story and make connections between them and his/her own experience of the world.
Section 3: Developmental Issues
My interpretation of the characters and dilemmas in Skellig are most closely aligned with the theories of Maslow, Erikson, and Piaget. I have said that I see Michael’s journey from the security of his early life on Random Road to the precarious and confusing removal to Falconer Road as essentially a maturation from a state of childhood innocence to pre-adolescent experience of self and other bound together in the greater world of humankind. Erikson wrote that we cannot become fully human until we go deeply into ourselves and search out our unique individual identity and our inextricable bond with the whole human species. They are two sides of the same coin.
Random Road represents a kind of scenario for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is a place of physical security for Michael. He was born there and took its existence for granted. He was the only child and so was the focus of his parents’ love. They provided for his needs, and he had no reason to discover that life could ever be different. It is a kind of Garden of Eden prior to the knowledge of good and evil.
But, as Erikson points out, personal development comes from the appearance of a series of psychosocial crises that must be grappled with and successfully resolved. Failure to do so results in failure of the child (in this case, Michael) to reorganize his early inner perceptions to fit into the newly discovered external world (Falconer Road) where he must henceforth function and reside. Michael’s first crisis is represented by the new house, which must be extensively remodeled (reorganized) to make it comfortable. The realtor, Mr. Stone, (as in "written in stone?") instructs him that he must view his new situation with the mind’s eye. In other words, he must adjust his schemata (enter Piaget) to increase his knowledge of the world.
His next crises appear almost simultaneously. He finds a strange starving creature that he must help, and his baby sister arrives unexpectedly early and damaged. Piaget would be right at home with Michael in his new environment. He would readily recognize that Michael is beginning to develop the ability to deal with the difference between appearances and their underlying reality. Immediate dilemmas for Michael pop up like toadstools. What is Skellig? What’s wrong with his baby sister? Who is Dr. Death (Dr. Dan), and why does he frighten Michael so much? Why is everything changing except school? Why is there suddenly so much evidence of death in the new environment?
Michael’s journey is classic Piaget. He begins by discovering the world and moves on to relating to the newly discovered world by shifting from self-centered behavior to observing what is happening around and to him. Next, he takes direct action to save Skellig and includes his new friend Mina in his formerly private world. He begins to question many of his assumptions and adjusts his schemata to reflect his new knowledge and experience.
Michael keeps his own counsel, but he does not hesitate to engage adults when he recognizes his own ignorance. He asks a doctor about arthritis and quizzes a teacher about evolution and shoulder blades. And he learns from his mistakes. He may never know who or what Skellig is, but he knows that Skellig is good; he helped his sister, joy. And he knows that he was wrong about Dr. Dan. Dr. Dan was there to help keep Joy in the world in the same way that Michael was there to be Skellig’s guardian angel.
When the curtain comes down on the last punctuation mark of Skellig, we are assured that Michael will continue to develop as a fine human being. We are assured because he has shown us that he wants to learn about himself and the world of other people. And he has no desire to do harm. Of course, reading the book teaches the reader the same lessons that Michael has learned. And that is what the author had in mind.
My reading in the arena of developmental theories has not been extensive. A year ago I wasn’t even aware of the field, but I believe I have benefited from what I’ve read so far. It is particularly interesting to me to discover that many of the ideas and strategies about how children learn can be applied to a critique of the way in which major characters and themes are developed over the course of a good novel, play, or short story. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me; after all, fiction is modeled on life, and life is a series of learning experiences whether we sign up for the classes or not. Somehow the circular nature of it escaped me, until now. In any case, it occurs to me that if we, as English teachers pay as much attention to how our students develop as we do to how our characters develop in the stories we teach, we can’t go wrong. The stories and those who teach them are really there for the same purpose-to develop the skills for a successful life among others in the world.
Section 4: Synopsis
Almond, David. Skellig. New York: Delacorte Press, 1999.
Summary: "I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. 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 Dr. Death, worrying about the baby" (1) .
Our narrator is a young lad named Michael, and his story begins when his family moves to their new house in the English countryside. Michael’s "mum" has recently given birth to a baby girl. An air of concern surrounds baby’s health. Something about her isn’t right, but no one is talking about it. Michael longs for his old school pals Leakey and Coot. The new house is a fixer-upper; its former owner was found sprawled under the kitchen table a week after he’d fallen over dead. No one is smiling, except the real estate agent. He tells them, "You have to see it with your mind’s eye" (2) . He has the right idea for the wrong reason.
Michael is an acute observer of his surroundings, which is why it is he who discovers Skellig desiccating in the cobwebs of the ramshackle garage at their new house. Skellig is pallid, squalid, and apparently too weak to stand or move about without assistance; curled up in his filthy overcoat, he reminds us of a derelict wino. He has been moldering in the dust for some time.
The discovery of Skellig introduces the first theme of the story. Skellig is not easily defined; Michael is beginning to realize the complexity of the world that he is growing into. Skellig, Michael’s parents, Dr. Death, the baby, even the people on the bus: "I thought how you could never tell just by looking at them what they were thinking or what was happening in their lives" (13) . He too, is anonymous, "I knew if somebody looked at me, they’d know nothing about me, either" (13) . And though recently there have been big changes in his life "school stayed just the same" (13) . That is, until he met his new neighbor Mina.
She is about Michael’s age, but she is being home-schooled. Mina carries a notebook to write in and draw in. She likes to sit in trees, and freely quotes William Blake. Her parents believe "schools inhibit the natural curiosity, creativity, and intelligence of children" (49) .
Michael’s baby sister goes to the hospital, and he is excused from regular attendance at his school because of the family crisis. He begins feeding Skellig left-over Chinese food "27 and 53" (19) that he and his father have been getting since his mother moved to the hospital to be near his baby sister. For Skellig, it is food of the gods compared to the bluebottle flies and spiders that were his mainstay previously.
Michael falls readily under the spell of Mina’s Blakian influence and takes her to meet Skellig. Together they hatch a plan to nurse him back to health, seemingly against his will. When they move him to a safer location, they discover that Skellig’s overcoat hides a huge pair of wings. Perhaps he is a guardian angel or an as yet undiscovered species of owl. What he may or may not be does not concern Michael and Mina. He will die without their help. When he has recovered, he returns the favor in a surprising manner.
Related books: Almond, David Kit’s Wilderness; Holt, Curtis, Christopher Paul Bud, Not Buddy; Erdrich, Louise The Birchbark House; Kimberly Willis When Zachary Beaver Came to Town; Sachar, Louis Holes.
Teaching: This book is classified for ages 8-12, but I believe it is suitable for young adults and any other reader who is comfortable with polysyllabic words and has enough dexterity to easily turn the pages.
Almond’s prose is lyrical to the point of approaching fine poetry. It encompasses many of the central themes associated with the power of love and understanding, initiation into the world of other people, the strength of family, metaphysics, the dichotomy of self and other, symbiosis, and the miraculous healing properties of Chinese cuisine. He explores the mysteries of life and death, friendship/betrayal, compassion, letting go, trust, growing up, following your heart, but most importantly, the power of love to heal.
Section 5: The Library Component
Option A. Biographical Investigation
I began this research paper with a close reading of the opening paragraph of Skellig because I felt that it contained the essential skeleton of the larger story that follows. As I made my way through the remaining story, using the opening paragraph as a flashlight, there were a few moments when I began to doubt my original thesis. By the time I was done, only the ghost of a lingering doubt remained. That ghost was vanquished recently when I read an "Achuka" interview with David Almond.
The interviewer asks Almond if the writing of Skellig had somehow released him from his former overly self-conscious approach to writing. He was referring to Almond’s earlier statement that he began writing the story of Skellig with the opening sentence, and the rest of the book seemed to write itself. Almond goes on to recount how the subsequent writing flowed with such great pace and certainty that he quickly realized he wasn’t really in conscious control of the characters or events. He had left his old way of writing behind.
When I read that statement I thought immediately of the plight of his narrator, Michael, and the frustration and anxiety he felt about his family’s move and his baby sister’s tenuous hold on her new life. Almond’s Skellig writes itself and drags the author along while Michael’s life appears to have broken loose and taken its owner helplessly along for the ride. In both cases the protagonist experiences a lack of control over events that eventually resolves itself into a new confidence. The confidence that Almond gained from writing Skellig helped him to maintain control of all the different strands in the complex plot of his next highly successful YA novel, Kit’s Wilderness. It also gave him the courage to plunge deeper into the subject of death.
Michael and Almond follow their best instincts and let the story unfold on its own terms. The result is a new confidence borne of its benefactors’ good intentions. Almond recalls that once the story began to flow properly, it suddenly developed several levels, and he wondered for a time whether he was capable of pulling it off. In the same way, Michael follows his instinct to help Skellig even though he has no idea who or what Skellig might be. He doesn’t even know for certain that he can be of any use to Skellig, but like Pip in the opening of Great Expectations, he takes personal risks to bring sustenance to someone in desperate need of assistance. And like Pip, Michael is ultimately rewarded for his ministrations. His mysterious charge later becomes his benefactor.
In similar fashion, it seems that Almond’s muse just needed to get a foot in the door and a running start to propel him noticeably further on in his personal development as a writer. Almond had been writing stories for adults and had found a select audience for them. The body of his work consisted of a sequence of stories about his own childhood called Stories From The Middle Of The World.
He has said that when he finished the sequence, Skellig lay in wait. It is interesting to recall the similarity of his description with Michael’s introduction to Skellig. Michael too moves from a familiar childhood world into a new environment. And he discovers Skellig almost immediately. When he finds Skellig, he says that he looked as though he had been there forever. Another way of saying it is, Skellig lay in wait. And he needed Michael’s assistance to be restored to his original nature. Almond had reached the end of his childhood tales for adults and needed a push for further development. He decided to try writing for children because it made him focus on the elemental nature of stories.
Prior to writing Skellig, Almond had been reading a good deal of early Christian history, including lives of saints, etc. It may’ve been during this time that he read about or heard about the hermit of Skellig Michael and his desire to live like a solitary sea bird high in a crag on an uninhabited geological projection to be close to God. He did say that the best images/metaphors arise organically and almost unconsciously. This would seem to aptly fit that description.
When questioned about the quasi-angelic character of Skellig, Almond acknowledges that he grew up in an extended Catholic family where angels were spoken of quite openly. His childhood was rife with stories that featured angels. He was brought up to accept that angels watched over his family caring for them and helping them through life. And, of course, angels kept a journal of everyone’s actions on earth. He remembers his neighbors speaking of occasional angel sightings in the streets and houses of the town where he grew up, especially when someone had died. This recalls Michael’s statement, "the world’s full of amazing things. I’ve seen them" (108).
But Skellig hardly fits the usual angel stereotype, and for Almond, as well as many of his readers, it is a good thing. For a time he was a little concerned that he might be accused of getting on the current, sickeningly, sentimental angel bandwagon. Luckily, as the muse filled Almond’s head with Skellig’s tale, his bestial characteristics turned out to be just as strong as his angelic side. Almond gave more weight to Skellig’s worldly nature and kept his classic angelic qualities in soft focus. Whether conscious or unconscious, that choice has probably widened his audience considerably and left open the tantalizing mystery of Skellig’s nature. As if to emphasize that point, Almond includes in his story the great mystery of archaeopteryx, the dinosaur that flew (98). Shortly after Mina introduces archaeopteryx, she tells Michael "There’s no end to evolution. We have to be ready to move forward. Maybe this is not how we are meant to be forever" (99). She then whispers Skellig’s name three times.
It is not difficult to imagine a similar scene in Almond’s own childhood. It is a quiet Sunday afternoon, and little David is seated on his grandma’s lap peering at an illustration of an angel in the book of bible stories she has opened across his chubby knees. Grandma is ancient; her wrinkled skin is desiccated. The angel before him has all of the familiar features of a normal person. But out of its shoulders rise a massive pair of spotless, pale wings. The wings too are familiar. He has seen them on a swan. Unlike Mina, he knows nothing about pneumatization. It is easy for him to pair the characteristics of the two creatures and believe in a hybrid of sorts. As he matures and enters the world of adults, the image fades into his unconscious. One day, many years later, he is seated at his computer trying to unstop the portals of his creativity. He is a teacher and a writer of books. His mind drifts back to his childhood in Felling. It was a long time ago, before death had entered the world, a time before anxiety. The image rises like a bubble of methane from the bottom of a still pool. It is a hybrid creature half angel, half grandma. "I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon."