I've just finished reading an extraordinary work. It was lent to me by a friend, who handed it over with a simple, "This is my favorite book," adding in a voice that brooked no argument: "And I'm not going to tell you what 'Skallagrigg' is." Skallagrigg. A strange title, indeed. Is it English, or some other tongue? A person or a place? Now that I know, I wouldn't dream of telling, either; it wouldn't be fair. My friend is not alone in her appreciation of this tour de force by British author William Horwood. One Amazon reviewer called it "a life-changing experience," another said it was "probably the greatest book ever written," while to a third, it was "stunning in its complexity and humanity." Just one reader I came across found it "overrated, overlong and overwrought," complaining, somewhat endearingly, that "every couple of pages some character makes or serves tea." Skallagrigg, a hefty 728 pages in paperback, is first and foremost a thumping good read as it moves between the early and later years of the 20th century, weaving together an unforgettable cast of characters. But beyond the writer's skill and astonishing breadth of material, it reframed for me some basic and essential truths about that complex entity we call a human being. Such as: Appearances are too often deceptive. We need to work hard - sometimes very hard - to put aside our prejudice and, more challengingly, our fear of those who are "different." And: What looks like human strength may be weakness; and vice versa. And: Love can bring enduring joy to even the most painful life. ESTHER Marquand (born 1965) and Arthur Edward Lane (born 1920), both suffer from cerebral palsy. What links them is their search for the Skallagrigg, a mystical figure who will free the cerebral palsied from their severe, often agonizing limitations. In Esther's case, these are physical ones, for in the relatively enlightened '60s it has become accepted that CP sufferers may have a normal mental capacity. But Esther's speech doesn't go much beyond "Yeh" and "Nah," and her desperate struggle as a young child to convince her father, Richard, that she has any intelligence at all gave me pause over how carelessly we relate to that wondrous connect between thought and its expression. Esther, as we find out, possesses a quick mind and rare mathematical ability that get her admitted to a special school. She communicates via a Possum, a tool designed for people with severe physical disabilities that integrates a typewriter with a switch-controlled scanning device. Introduced to an electronic version of ping-pong played with a black box and two joysticks plugged into a regular TV set, she realizes that here at last is something she can control. This addictive game - hinting at the enormous future potential of home computers - opens a mental door through which Esther rushes, plunging deep into computer programming and eventually developing a cutting-edge computer game that becomes an international best-seller. ARTHUR, born in a far darker age, hadn't a chance at any kind of normality. Unable to talk, control his limbs or do anything unaided, "he was what was then called a cripple. Worse... he was an idiot." Thus labeled, he was at age seven torn from his family and consigned to life in the hell British mental asylums then were: frightening institutions where sadists such as the feared male nurse Dilke reigned supreme, heaping humiliations and unspeakable punishments on the helpless inmates, many of them, like Arthur, strapped tightly into cots. It's the stuff of not one, but many nightmares. And yet Arthur, too, is highly intelligent and sensitive - something the other unfortunates come to realize and respect. With his friend Frank serving as his mouthpiece, Arthur becomes a leader, his "word" heeded and obeyed by his fellow internees. But Arthur's long decades lived inside four restraining walls where sunlight doesn't penetrate are full of torment. Only his unshakable trust in the existence and redeeming power of the Skallagrigg can pull him back from death caused by malice, malnutrition, neglect and his own utter despair. Which of us hasn't, at some time, desperately needed to believe in something greater than ourselves - call it "Skallagrigg," or what you will? Arthur turns into a larger-than-life figure. Stories of his heroism and aid to others, despite his grim situation, become inspiring legends that circulate among the institutionalized spastic community in England's north. They bring the reader uncomfortably close to early 20th-century officialdom's attitude to the "deranged" and how they should be treated. THE author's daughter, Rachel, suffers from CP, which is what led him to write this monumental novel. What remained with me after finishing the book? The realization â€¢ that "authorities" can, even today, be arrogant, complacent and rigid in their conviction that they know what's best for those in their care - and that they may be totally wrong. Britain, which I visited last month, has been in turmoil over revelations concerning "Baby P," whose death in 2007 was caused or allowed by his mother and two men in the London borough of Haringey despite his being seen more than 60 times by social workers, doctors and welfare groups, even days before he died of multiple injuries, including a broken back. The "authorities" - except for police, who urged, fruitlessly, that the toddler be removed from his home - were convinced that the best thing was to keep Baby P "in the family." â€¢ that great mental and moral strength can exist alongside physical helplessness. The hated Dilke's power to terrorize Arthur disappears when Arthur understands that it is Dilke's weakness that drives him to bully his charges and prove his "superiority" to them. Conversely, Arthur, unable to speak comprehensibly or control his limbs, commands silence and respect from his institution-mates via a mere look or laborious turn of the head. â€¢ that human love is the greatest balm, and the greatest spur. Skallagrigg is worth reading if only for the lifelong love and fierce protection that Tom, a boy with Down Syndrome, demonstrates for his friend Esther; that Esther shows for her computer collaborator and husband Daniel; that Frank shows for Arthur; and that Arthur shows for his "dreamgirl," Linnie. The friendship between Frank and Arthur in the asylum is one of the most moving I have ever come across. Frank, the only inmate who can understand what Arthur is saying, acts as his "interpreter" and lives a life of devoted attention to his friend's needs. Again, the authorities step in where they are least wanted and, for a time, send Frank - howling in despair at the enforced parting - to another institution, judging that in such cases of attachment, "separation is best" since it often "leads to bad behavior" among the men. Fortunately, that story ends happily. FINALLY, the book led me to probe the concept of beauty. The human eye and brain are programmed to seek harmony, to favor the lovely or noble visage, the gently undulating body, the graceful carriage. As a child, Esther is described by a caregiver as "an attractive little thing" - but what to make of protagonists whose heads often drop, whose limbs are twisted or jut out awkwardly, who dribble when they drink, and who speak, if at all, in grunts and whispered sibilants? When Daniel and Esther first meet, she shouts "Nah!" in fear and apprehension. Then she notices: "He hasn't run away. He hasn't said he thinks she's ugly... "'Thank you for coming,' she types." I suddenly recalled John Merrick, the Elephant Man, immortalized by John Hurt in the 1980 film, inside whose misshapen exterior dwelt a being of such grace and refinement as to turn those around him into chattering monkeys. No moviegoer with any sensibility could fail to appreciate it. Another story, the much-loved Beauty and the Beast, delivers this pointed message: "Beauty lies within." It's a truth to internalize for societies that promote packaging over content.