The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 10, No 1 (2006)

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Alice-Latham

Alice's Academy


Magical Realism and the Child Reader: The Case of David Almond's Skellig

Don Latham


Don Latham is an assistant professor in the College of Information at Florida State University. His research interests include magical realism, identity formation, and socialization in young adult literature. He has just completed a book on David Almond, which will be published by Scarecrow Press in 2006. He has published articles in Children's Literature, The Lion and the Unicorn, Children's Literature in Education, and The ALAN Review.



In this article Don Latham uses Gabriel García Márquez's short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" to illustrate how Skellig is an example of magic realism and how it is uniquely suited as such within children's literature. Although this article doesn't directly explore the theoretical aspects of magic realism within children's literature, Latham's method of applying Wendy B. Faris' criteria for magic realism to Almond's novel and then contrasting Skellig with "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" implicitly states that magic realism is possible in children's literature and lays solid groundwork for future theoretical explorations of how magic realism in children's literature is unique from its other, perhaps more common, manifestations.
(Elizabeth Pandolfo Briggs, editor, Alice's Academy)

 

Since the publication of his first young adult novel, Skellig, in 1998, British writer David Almond has won numerous awards, both in the United States and the United Kingdom [1], and has been praised by critics for his evocative use of magical realism. Magical realism, as the name implies, is concerned with the manifestation of the supernatural in everyday life. As Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris explain, it is concerned with "liminal territory . . . phenomenal and spiritual regions where transformation, metamorphosis, dissolution are common, where magic is a branch of naturalism, or pragmatism" (6). While in interviews Almond has variously embraced and rejected the characterization of his work as magical realism [2], his novels indicate that, undeniably, he is concerned with the presence of the magical amid the mundane and, moreover, with the special ability of young people to recognize and respond to that presence.

In his use of magical realism, Almond is invoking a literary tradition that is both transnational and intertextual by nature. The term "Magic Realism" was first used by art critic Franz Roh in 1925 to characterize German post-Expressionism's return to a more realistic style of painting (Zamora and Faris 16). The term was then taken up by Alejo Carpentier in 1949, transformed into the phrase lo real maravilloso americano ("the marvelous real in America"), and applied to a genre of literature evident among a number of Latin American writers in the 1930's (Zamora and Faris 75). Since then the term has evolved into the term we know today as "magical realism," and as a literary genre it is evident in the works of a variety of writers, not only in Latin America, but throughout the world. David Almond, a native of Felling-upon-Tyne, a former coal-mining village in northern England, is a case in point. His use of, and debt to, magical realism can be seen throughout his oeuvre but perhaps most clearly in his first young adult novel, Skellig, the story of an adolescent boy who finds an ill, tattered angel living in his family's dilapidated garage. Almond's novel recalls a similar short story published in 1968 by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," subtitled "A Tale for Children." In this story a young couple, Pelayo and Elisenda, discover a bedraggled angel lying in their yard, the victim of a torrential rainstorm. Almond has acknowledged his debt to García Márquez in general and to this story in particular. He says that, while he certainly knew "A Very Old Man," he was not consciously thinking of it as he was writing Skellig. But, then, about halfway through writing, he remembered the García Márquez story and recognized the connection—and suddenly understood what a "huge influence" the story had on the work he was in the process of writing (Almond, personal interview). In terms of plot and imagery, the two works display obvious striking parallels. At the same time, they employ magical realism toward very different ends. By exploring the intertextual connections between García Márquez's short story and Almond's novel, we can understand more clearly the extent to which each text uses magical realism to accomplish its cultural work of critiquing adult society.

It should be acknowledged at the outset that there are some key differences between the two works, differences which ultimately serve to reinforce their different purposes. Whereas García Márquez's focus is on adult characters, Almond's focus is on two adolescent characters, Michael and his friend Mina. A more significant difference between the two works has to do with the fate of each angel. García Márquez's very old man is put on public display like a caged animal, to be gawked at and mistreated by anyone with enough money for the price of admission. In contrast, the existence of Almond's angel is kept hidden by Michael and Mina, who seem to understand intuitively that revealing Skellig's existence to adults would likely bring upon him the same sort of abuse and exploitation that García Márquez's old man experiences. Instead, they secretly care for him and nourish him back to health, while also learning to recognize their own potential as "extraordinary beings."

In considering the means by which each narrative accomplishes its cultural work, it will be useful to employ Wendy B. Faris' five characteristics of magical realism as a framework for comparison. These are:

  • An irreducible element of magic;
  • A grounding in the phenomenal world, i.e., the realistic world;
  • The production of unsettling doubts in the reader because of this mixture of the real and the fantastic;
  • The near merging of two realms or worlds; and
  • Disruptions of traditional ideas about time, space, and identity

(7-27 passim)

The first of these, the presence of an element of magic that cannot be explained by recourse to natural laws (Faris 7), is evident in the central (and title) character in each work: a winged, human-like creature, who is perhaps an angel, perhaps a beast. In "A Very Old Man," although there is much disagreement over whether the old man is an angel, a demon, or simply a human imposter, there is no satisfactory way to account for his wings without resorting to a supernatural explanation. Such a view is further strengthened by the fact that at the end of the story the old man flies away and slowly recedes into the distance until he becomes a mere speck on the horizon. Similarly, the children in Almond's novel soon discover that Skellig has the remnants of wings hidden under his jacket. Mina's reaction implies a supernatural explanation: she whispers to Michael, "'Extraordinary, extraordinary being'" (84). Later, Skellig confirms the supernatural aspect of his nature when he admits that he's "'something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel'" (167).

The second element in the magical realist equation is realism (Faris 7), and both "A Very Old Man" and Skellig display a number of realistic elements. In fact, Almond has said that his attraction to García Márquez's story was not only the "strangeness and magicality, but also the ordinariness of it" (personal interview). Both works depict the realities of everyday life, from the humdrum routine of daily activities such as housework and schoolwork to more disturbing realities like inept authority figures and dangerously ill babies. Both works offer realistic portrayals of the representatives of adult institutions, specifically priests (in "A Very Old Man") and doctors and teachers (in Skellig). Moreover, there is gritty realism in the descriptions of the two decrepit angels. In García Márquez's story, when the young couple first discover the old man, they are dumbfounded by his ragged appearance:

He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth . . . His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever tangled in the mud.
(217-18)

In Skellig, Michael likewise is stunned when he first encounters the tattered figure in his family's garage:

I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders.
(8)

Such realistic descriptions add to the credibility of these angelic characters by making them more appear more human and more vulnerable.

Moreover, the narrators of the two works reinforce the element of realism through their matter-of-fact narrative style. As Amaryll Beatric Chanady explains in her seminal book on the topic, magical realism can be distinguished from the fantastic by their differences in narrative stance. In a magical realist work the narrator accepts the occurrence of supernatural events; in a work of the fantastic the narrator questions such an occurrence and this questioning is left unresolved. In both "A Very Old Man" and Skellig, the narrators clearly accept the occurrence of supernatural, inexplicable events, although there is admittedly some initial hesitation on Michael's part in Skellig [3]. The narrative voice of "A Very Old Man" is very much like that of a fairy tale, and, in fact, the story is subtitled "A Tale for Children" (about which I will have more to say later). The narrative voice is calm and detached as it reports the bizarre events that occur in the young couple's courtyard. This mode of storytelling is one that comes quite naturally to García Márquez, according to his translators Gregory Rabassa and J. S. Bernstein, for, as a child, he often heard his maternal grandparents report "the most improbable happenings with the same facial and vocal expressions with which they recounted fact" (340). And it is this matter-of-fact way of presenting the mystical that Almond "took great heart" in as he crafted his own story (Almond, personal interview). In a similar fashion, Michael, the first-person, adolescent narrator of Skellig, reports the strange events that occur in his family's garage (and later in the attic of Mina's grandfather's house) with a mixture of wonder and a child-like acceptance. Like García Márquez, Almond became familiar with this kind of narrative perspective at an early age. He reports in the author's note included at the end of the book that, when he was growing up in northern England, "[o]ur lives were filled with mysterious and unexpected events, and the place and its people have given me many of my stories" (183). As a result of the narrative voice in each work, the reader is implicitly encouraged to accept the mysterious characters and fantastic events as factual, much like the more mundane elements of the two stories.

At the same time, each work causes it readers to experience unsettling doubts, Faris' third characteristic of magical realist narratives (7). Those doubts stem primarily from the unresolved inexplicability surrounding each of the angelic creatures. When Pelayo and Elisenda discover the old man lying in their yard, their immediate response is to summon more "knowledgeable" people: the local priest and a neighbor renowned for her wisdom. The neighbor identifies the old man as being an angel, possibly an angel of death who has come to take the baby, and, because she believes the angel must be an outcast from some heavenly battle, she advises clubbing him to death. The priest, on the other hand, refuses to believe that the old man is an angel at all and instead insists that he represents some trick of the devil. But whether angel or demon, it does not matter, for people flock undeterred to see the old man, obviously believing him to be some kind of supernatural creature. The narrative itself offers no explanation for the old man's wings or his mysterious origins, leaving the reader with unsettling doubts and no hard evidence for either belief or disbelief.

A similar reaction occurs when Michael first discovers Skellig. His initial reaction is to doubt what he has seen. Later he summons his friend Mina not only to help him figure out what to do with Skellig, but also to confirm Skellig's actual existence. Both children recognize that Skellig is an extraordinary being, who possibly has the power to heal Michael's sick baby sister. Nevertheless, Skellig's avowal that he is part beast, part bird, part angel does little to resolve the reader's unsettling doubts about how to interpret his character. Michael's narrative perspective models a child-like acceptance of the supernatural, but his narrative, like that of García Márquez's story, refuses to provide easy answers or real closure for its adolescent characters or its adolescent readers.

Both works evince Faris' fourth characteristic of magical realism as well—the merging of two different realms (7). One example of such merging, and one that we have already touched on, is the conflation of the extraordinary with the ordinary, resulting in works that read as generic hybrids, part fairy tale and part realistic fiction. To be sure, "A Very Old Man" seems more in the realm of fairy tale, while Skellig offers a more balanced, and nuanced, blending of the two modes. Still, both works contain distinct elements of both styles, combining them to create dream-like narratives. Maggie Ann Bowers sees this aspect of magical realism to be both subversive and transgressive. It is subversive in that "it alternates between the real and the magical using the same narrative voice"; it is transgressive in that it "crosses the borders between the magic and the real to create a further category—the magical real" (Bowers 67). As a result, the reader is led to question not just the nature of reality, but "all assumptions of truth" (Bowers 68). García Márquez's story opens with a surreal description that borders on nightmare. We are told that the storm that has been raging for three days has driven many crabs into the house, creating an oppressive stench. The ocean and the sky have been transformed into "a single ash-gray thing," and the beach has become "a stew of mud and rotten shellfish" (217). The light is so poor that Pelayo can barely see the heap of a thing "that [is] moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard" (217). This scene, in fact, is described by the narrator as a "nightmare" that at first frightens Pelayo and then causes him and Elisenda to stare in a "mute stupor" (217). This opening scene deftly establishes the realm of the story, which is the kind of liminal territory that Zamora and Faris identify as being characteristic of magical realism (6). Similarly, Almond's narrative is filled with the unsettling dreams of its protagonist, Michael. After first discovering Skellig in the garage, he dreams that Skellig, covered with dead flies, comes into his bedroom and asks him, "'What do you want?'" (10). Later Michael dreams that his baby sister is in a blackbird's nest in Mina's garden. In this dream, Mina warns Michael to stay away because he represents danger. And in yet another dream, Michael sees both the baby and himself in the blackbird's nest, with two doctors standing beneath the tree beside a table laid out with knives, scissors, and saws. The doctors, who in the dream clearly represent danger rather than help, are trying to coax the baby out of the nest. Michael's dreams, while surreal and disturbing, also reflect a psychological truth in that they symbolically depict his fear that his sister may die. As Mina says at one point, and as both narratives vividly illustrate, "'Truth and dreams are always getting muddled'" (52). Yet, as both narratives also vividly illustrate, the magical events of the stories cannot be attributed only to dreams or hallucinations. Mina confirms Skellig's existence both for Michael and the reader. The existence of the old man with enormous wings is confirmed by everyone in the story. As Bowers points out, magical realism does not rely solely on dreams or psychological experience to present the magic, but instead ties it to the material world so as to give it validity within the narrative context (24). Certainly, that is the case in both García Márquez's story and Almond's novel, where the dream-like quality of the narratives is presented as a commentary on but never a substitute for reality.

Almond's novel depicts another, albeit related, kind of liminal territory, through its focus on the transition of two adolescent characters from childhood into adulthood. On the one hand, Michael and Mina are portrayed as still children, and the novel contains numerous references to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which serve to associate Michael and Mina with the innocence of children and to warn of the corrupting effects of adult society. On the other hand, though, both characters display levels of discernment and compassion one might expect from older, more experienced people. In many ways, Michael and Mina assume the parental role in caring for and protecting Skellig. Moreover, the narrative suggests that, through their friendship with and ministrations to Skellig, they may be indirectly responsible for the baby's successful—one is tempted to say "miraculous"—recovery. Their ability to discern Skellig's extraordinary nature and their willingness to accept responsibility for his well being both reflects and facilitates their own passage from childhood to adulthood, and it is their passage through this liminal territory—these merged realms, if you will—that is the real focus of the novel.

Finally, both works display the fifth characteristic of magical realism, which Faris identifies as a disruption of traditional notions of time, space, and identity (7). The angelic beings in both works seem, paradoxically, to exist outside of time and yet to be subject to the ravages of time. Nothing is known about their origins or their ultimate destinies. Both seem to have come from another world, and yet they are not exempt from the physical maladies of this world, namely sickness and old age. Disruptions of identity occur in both works as well. Gracía Márquez's narrative depicts in very matter-of-fact language additional wondrous beings, part-human and part-beast. A traveling carnival, for instance, is said to feature an acrobat who can fly over the heads of spectators. But the people of the village are indifferent to him because "his wings were not those of an angel but, rather, those of a sidereal bat" (220). Even more bizarre is the story of the woman who has been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents. Unlike the acrobat, she proves to be a more compelling attraction than the angel, no doubt due partly to the fact that admission to see her is less than that to see the angel. Although comic to a degree, the spectacle is also disturbing to the reader, for it suggests that a world in which someone can easily be transformed into a spider is a world in which no one's identity is stable.

Such examples of destabilizations are not as dramatic perhaps in Almond's novel, but they are vivid nonetheless. As we have already seen, in his dreams Michael is transformed in various ways. In one dream, for example, spatial reality is altered, and he finds himself and his sister together in the blackbird's nest. In fact, throughout the novel, Michael, his sister, and Mina are all closely associated with birds. Michael and Mina are also connected with Skellig, ultimately discovering within themselves the extraordinary nature they have seen in Skellig. In a memorable scene, Skellig and the two children perform a slow, circular dance, during which the children are gradually elevated off the floor. It is as if during this dance the three beings become one, for Michael sees wings rising from Mina's back and feels them rising from his own. In a similar fashion, Michael also becomes telepathically connected with his sister, able to feel her heartbeat within his own chest. Again, we find ourselves in a world where received notions of selfhood are disrupted and identity is shown to be fluid.

Although the elements of magical realism are similar in the two works, they are used to accomplish very different purposes—and herein lies the key difference between these two works. García Márquez in his "Tale for Children" is caricaturing adults and their almost perverse fascination with spectacle, their fickleness, and their inability or unwillingness to treat the angelic visitor as anything other than Other. They objectify the angel by placing him in a cage and charging admission for the privilege of looking at him. They exploit him not only by placing him on display and not allowing him to share in the profit that he produces, but also by trying to wrangle miracles out of him. The sick and the lame flock to the angel for healing; however, instead of acting as we might expect supplicants to act, they pluck his feathers and throw rocks at him. Moreover, they quickly lose interest when a more dramatic spectacle comes to town, in the form of the woman who has been turned into a spider. Although the unfortunate woman apparently possesses no miraculous powers, it would seem that, on balance, the people prefer pathos and "a fearful lesson" (222) to the opportunity for a (possibly) divine encounter. The angel quickly falls out of favor because he is thought to be too human, perhaps "just a Norwegian with wings" (222), while, ironically, the spectacle of the spiderwoman becomes wildly popular because her plight is thought to be "full of so much human truth" (222). When the old man finally flies away, the couple is much relieved to be rid of their burden. They do not seem to have been changed in any positive way by their encounter with the angel. One suspects that, for his part, the angel is equally relieved to escape from these unappreciative, inhospitable people. This magical realist tale, while amusing and entertaining, also serves an instructive purpose—namely to criticize the shallowness and hypocrisy of adults in general and, through the character of the local priest, organized religion in particular. In that sense, the story may be seen as a cautionary tale for children who, presumably, might still be innocent and untainted enough to escape the corruptions of adult society. But it seems more likely that, under the guise of being offered as "A Tale for Children," the story is actually intended to hold a mirror up to adult readers who will perhaps see reflected in it their own limitations [4].

Almond's purpose is instructive as well, but in a different sort of way. To be sure, his narrative does call into question adult institutions like medicine and formal education. However, he uses the elements of magical realism less to critique adult society and more to illustrate his adolescent characters' capacity for discernment, kindness, and discretion. Michael and Mina are in many ways everything that García Márquez's adults are not. They offer Skellig friendship even though they do not fully understand who or what he is, and as a result, they help to restore him to health. At the same time, through their relationship with Skellig, they come to understand something about themselves. In their capacity for compassion and kindness, they prove in their own way to be as extraordinary as Skellig. When Skellig flies away, Michael and Mina are very sad to see him go, but at the same time they have been transformed in a positive way, largely through their own courage and actions. They are extraordinary children with the potential to become extraordinary adults. Almond seems to suggest that young people—at least some young people—are capable of a level of awareness and compassion that many adults find difficult. Michael and Mina give the reader hope not only for youth of today but for the adults of tomorrow.

The cultural work of each narrative is, therefore, different even though the means by which that cultural work gets accomplished are strikingly similar. Both works recall the biblical passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13: 2, New Revised Standard Version). García Márquez's story is a comic fantasia on that notion, while Almond's novel is a serious meditation, with a far different outcome. In their interconnections—involving transnational and intertextual cross-currents—these two works depict different sides of the same coin. A knowledge of both works enriches the reader's understanding of and appreciation for these multifaceted, imaginative variations on the same theme. Ultimately, the reader is presented with a question we should all ponder: What would we do if we found an angel living in our garage [5].

Notes

1. Skellig (1998/1999) received the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award and the Carnegie Medal and was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. Kit's Wilderness (1999/2000) won the Michael L. Printz Award, and The Fire-Eaters (2003/2004) won the British Library's Smarties Book Prize.

2. See, for example: Ilene Cooper, "The Booklist Interview," Booklist 96 (1 Jan. 2000): 898, Literature Resource Center, online 11 May 2005; and Mark Mordue, "The Gentle Dreamer," Sunday Age (Melbourne), 1 Jun. 2003: Agenda, 10, Lexis-Nexis, online, 3 Jun. 2003. In a personal interview (21 Apr. 2005), Almond acknowledged both his debt to magical realism and the tendency of writers to resist all labels.

3. Greer Watson, in "Assumptions of Reality: Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and the Fantastic," builds on the work of Chanady but draws a distinction between magical realism and low fantasy. According to Watson, in magical realism the supernatural events are known to and accepted by all or most of the characters in the story. In low fantasy the supernatural events are known to and accepted by only a select few. Employing this distinction, Watson classifies "A Very Old Man" as magical realism and Skellig as low fantasy. While Watson's essay raises interesting points, I do not find the distinctions it makes between low fantasy and magical realism convincing; instead it seems that the insistence on the supernatural events being widely known as a condition for magical realism is largely Watson's own "rule." I would argue that if at least one other trustworthy character confirms the supernatural occurrences, then the conditions for magical realism have been met.

4. On the issue of García Márquez's real intended audience, Watson and I agree that it is, in fact, adults.

5. In an interview with Almond, I suggested that in their response to their angelic visitor, Michael and Mina, unlike Pelayo and Elisenda, manage to "get it right." He indicated that, while he had not thought of it in quite that way, he wholeheartedly agreed with the interpretation (Almond, personal interview).

Works Cited

Almond, David. Personal interview. 21 Apr. 2005.

- - -. The Fire-Eaters. London: Hodder Children's Books, 2003. New York: Delacorte, 2004.

- - -. Kit's Wilderness. London: Hodder Children's Books, 1999. New York: Delacorte, 2000.

- - -. Skellig. London: Hodder Children's Books, 1998. New York: Delacorte, 1999.

Bower, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Chanady, Amaryll Beatrice. Magical Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved vs. Unresolved Antinomy. New York: Garland, 1985.

Cooper, Ilene. "The Booklist Interview." Booklist 96 (1 Jan. 2000): 898. Literature Resource Center. Online. 11 May 2005.

Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification Of Narrative. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2004.

Márquez, Gabriel García. "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Collected Stories. Trans. Gregory Rabassa and J. S. Bernstein. HarperCollins, 1999. 217-25.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books. New Revised Standard Version. York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Mordue, Mark. "The Gentle Dreamer." Sunday Age (Melbourne). 1 Jun. 2003: Agenda, Lexis-Nexis. Online. 3 Jun. 2003.

Watson, Greer. "Assumptions of Reality: Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and the Fantastic." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 11.2 (2000): 164-72.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris. "Introduction: Daquiri Birds and Flaubertian Parrot(ie)s." Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Eds. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995. 1-11.

 

Don Latham


Volume 10, Issue 1 The Looking Glass January, 2006

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"Magical Realism and the Child Reader: the case of David Almond's Skellig"
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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