The William Blake Blog

Skellig – 25th Anniversary Illustrated Edition
25 years after its initial publication, this anniversary edition of David Almond's magical tale includes wonderful illustrations by Tom de Freston.

As David Almond explains in his afterword to Skellig, first published 25 years ago, not only did he not plan to write the novel, he also didn't really have an idea where the plot or characters would take him once he had started writing it. The appearance of the strange angel, decrepit and barely existing on a diet of insects occasionally supplemented by Chinese takeaways brought by the protagonist, Michael, was a mystery to the writer, but what did seem important almost as soon as the story began to take form in the author's mind was that William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience would be a key source of inspiration.

Like all good children's books, there is much about Skellig that defies categorisation, and one of its particular marvels is that such originality has done nothing to stall its popularity, having sold over a million copies. For this anniversary edition, the novel has been wonderfully illustrated with art by Tom de Freston, following the trend to create hybrid, almost graphic novels (for example in S.F. Said's Tyger) which is also particularly Blakean in its appeal. The story itself is at once profoundly simple and rich - after Michael's family moves to a new home, which his parents struggle to renovate as his baby sister fights for her life in hospital, he discovers an alien figure in the derelict garage who he slowly nurses back to life with his new friend, Mina.

It is through Mina that Blake's poems are brought most vividly to life (something continued in the sequel to Skellig, My Name is Mina), as when she explains to him how she is home-schooled:

Our Mott is on the wall by my bed," she said. "'How can a bird that is born for joy / Sit in a cage and sing?' William Blake." She pointed up into the tree. "The chicks in the next won't need a classroom to make them fly. Will they?"
- Skellig, p.71

Many of the allusions to Blake initially deal with the subject of education and schooling - unsurprisingly, when Mina next speaks of the poet it is to cite his poem "The Schoolboy" - after which she also summarises Blake as follows: "Much of the time he wore no clothes. He saw angels in his garden." (p.83)

Seeing angels in the garden is, of course, key to how Michael's and Mina's relationship with Skellig will develop: the revelation that this apparently old man is, in fact, a beautiful young angel only occurs gradually, as the doors of Michael's perception in particular is slowly cleansed through his friendship with Mina. To do so, he has to unlearn the categories and strictures of his own schooling - although, to be fair, Almond does show a great deal of kindness among Michael's teachers and school friends, though the attack on what reading age "The Tyger" would fit into brings with it a great deal of heartfelt anger. It is when he can finally learn to see Skellig through, not with, his eyes (to adapt Blake's Auguries of Innocence) that he understands something of this creature's divine nature and how he can help his sister.

Significantly, it is through drawing that he begins to understand Skellig's nature:

I drew Skellig lying dry and dusty and useless on the garage floor, then I drew him standing proudly by the arched window with the owls flying around him. I stared at the changed Skellig. How had this happened to him? Was it just Chines food and cod liver oil and aspirin and brown ale and dead things left by owls?
- Skellig, p.185

This section comes after another quotation from Blake's poem, "The Angel" (recited as an epilogue following a falling out between Mina and Michael): "Soon my Angel came again; / I was arm'd, he came in vain..." The warning, of course, is that Michael can grow too old, ossify like the dry and dusty Skellig, all too quickly if he does not feed his own imagination. In so doing, he in turn feeds Skellig - both literally (with Chinese food and brown ale), and figuratively, and when the angel finally returns home the novel ends with his baby sister finally being given a name: Joy.

I have no name
I am but two days old.—
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name,—
Sweet joy befall thee!

Although "Infant Joy" is not cited directly in the book, the intended allusion is clear. Indeed, the only writer directly named in the novel is William Blake, and his poetry - particularly the Songs - infuses all of Skellig. David Almond would go on to use Blake even more extensively in My Name is Mina (an extract from which is included at the end of this book), but the anniversary edition of Skellig with its numinous, mysterious illustrations, is a happy reminder of how inspirational Blake remains two centuries later.

David Almond, Skellig, illustrated by Tom de Freston, Hodder Children's Books, 2023. 245pp. RRP: £12.99.