The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells. Les Armateurs 2010.

Before watching the movie:

For a long time, I thought that this movie was Japanese in origin, I think pretty much entirely due to first observing it in a collection of animated movies that seemed to otherwise be exclusively Studio Ghibli movies. I had a vague sense that it was a story of Ireland, and likely concerned a fantastical adventure with nature spirits, but barely even that. I pictured something like Fern Gulley with the Irish forests. The box art was not very descriptive at all, and I’ve chosen a poster I haven’t seen before that gives more of a sense of story over mood, though I grant the other version is more visually appealing.

Having so little to go on, I think the main thing that kept me less than interested for so long was the design style of the boy and girl characters not being one of my favorite looks. I’m also not sure if the title is meant to convey more than I’m picking up. I’ve only ever heard of Kells as in “Celtic knots inspired by the Book of Kells”, so for a long time I thought the Book of Kells was a book cataloging design. For a bit, I entertained the possibility that Kells might be another name for Celtic knots.

After watching the movie:

Brendan is a young boy growing up in the Abbey of Kells under the guardianship of his uncle, Abbot Cellach. While Brendan wants to study illumination with the other monks, Cellach is obsessed with building a wall around the abbey to keep out the North Men that have been raiding all of the villages in the land, so that he can keep the people in his care safe and create a demonstration of the safety provided by the Christian God to the remaining pagans. The brothers of the scriptorum lament that Kells has no great illuminator to make their books truly glorious, when Brother Aidan, the greatest living illuminator from Iona, the most legendary island for book making, arrives at their gate. Aidan bears only the incomplete Book of Iona, his cat Pangur Bán, and word of the North Men’s destruction of Iona. Aidan immediately recognizes Brendan’s interest in illumination and talent for it, and takes him on as the apprentice who will be able to finish the Book now that he himself is too old to do it justice. When Aidan asks Brendan to go into the forest and find special berries for ink-making, Brendan meets Aisling, a fairy who claims the forest as her own, and they become friends. Despite Cellach forbidding Brendan to leave the safety of the abbey, and then forbidding him to enter the scriptorum, Brendan studies illumination with Aidan and has adventures in the forest with Aisling. Brendan discovers a cave in the forest that Aisling tells him is a stronghold of Crom Cruach, a powerful and evil deity that killed all of her people, and warns him not to go inside, which Brendan initially shrugs off as the childish stories his uncle told him they were until a malevolent force from inside nearly kills him and Aisling is severely weakened in saving him. Aidan comes to a point in training Brendan where it is time to introduce him to the Eye of Colm Cille, a crystal which his teacher the legendary illuminator Colm Cille used as a magnifying glass for fine detail, but realizes he must have dropped it while fleeing the sacking of Iona. More than just an ordinary, replaceable crystal, Aidan explains that it was either bestowed by God to help Colm Cille’s successors share in his insight, or stolen off a pagan demon Colm Cille defeated. Brendan recognizes the crystal Aidan draws as something he saw in the cave of Crom Cruach, but as he prepares to set out to collect it, Cellach catches him and locks him in his room in the tower until he sees reason. And another refugee arrives at the gates with news that the North Men are on their way to Kells.

While the designs of Brendan and Aisling are not a style that appeals to me, they are not fully indicative of the artistic direction of the movie. Most characters are much more caricatured, and present a wide diversity of interesting shapes suggesting bodies more than they actually look like people. The more grounded scenes have one more grounded design sensibility (though still with room for artistic flourishes to convey the emotion of a scene), but the more fantastical scenes, dreams, and storytelling, take a much more fanciful and beautiful style, and I would’ve liked more of it. It also of course borrows a lot of design language from the illustrations of the Book of Kells and other Celtic sources.

I came to this movie without knowing a lot of the background information it’s based on. Aside from drawing on Celtic lore as I expected, this is ultimately a story of creating the Book of Kells. So it would be important information to understand that the Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels, something which was only mentioned in passing if at all. I assumed it was biblical scripture as that’s the main thing monks transcribed, but it’s mainly represented as being glorious and important for its illustrations and what the illustrations depict is not discussed. The movie depicts it as having been created almost entirely at Iona but brought to Kells to be completed, and only becomes known as the Book of Kells because it comes to reside at Kells so the people can view it and receive hope. It seems that in actual history, Kells was founded by refugees from the destruction of Iona, and there is debate over which abbey it was created at, though aside from Kells and Iona existing at the same time, the general consensus is as shown in the movie. It was also helpful to learn that an Aisling is a type of poem about a poet having a vision or being confronted by a seeress, and unsurprisingly, Crom Cruach was known as a pre-Christian god (that sometimes took human sacrifices) and Colm Cille is also known as St. Columba.

I would have liked some things expanded upon, though partly that’s because I was a little distracted at key moments and missed important things that seemed less important than they were, like the montage of Brendan and Aisling being friends through the seasons and having adventures in the forest after their initial meeting. I still feel like Aisling is a bit inconsistent in that she’s clearly a pre-Christian spirit and appears to be depicted as unable to enter the abbey’s stronghold because it’s too Christian, but also she respects the completion of the Book as something important even before she really becomes Brendan’s friend. I also felt the confrontation between Brendan and Crom was, while visually striking, over much too quickly and easily, even going back and rewatching the sequence to make sure. The movie really seems more concerned with the conflict between Brendan and his misguided uncle than with the supernatural elements. Finally, while “the Secret of Kells” is an intriguing title, I’m not really sure what secret it’s referring to. None of the secrets seem to really pertain to Kells the abbey. I suppose it could be the secret of how the Book was finished, but while the Book is venerated by the movie, Brendan’s story seems relatively insignificant to it. Brendan’s specific contribution seems to be the Chi Ro Page, which is, as the movie describes, considered to be one of the most magnificent pages, but I think it’s a bit much to thereby give Brendan credit for the entire book’s majesty.

I feel underqualified to really make too firm of judgment on the lore this movie is based on. It is a fable as lushly illustrated in its own way as the work it centers, drawing upon the transition from Celtic religions to Christianity in medieval Ireland. It’s also founded on an adoration of the Book of Kells that, while it is an artistic treasure masterfully illustrated, seems a bit inflated and perhaps idolatrous, but again, I only got around to learning about it in trying to understand the movie. The storytelling may be a bit flawed, but it’s gorgeous to look at, and has the outline of a compelling story I may not have been fully prepared to appreciate.


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