Set in Ireland in the 9th century … in a monastery facing Norse raiding parties …
…The Secret of Kells is a surprising film that, like the Celtic illuminated manuscripts at the center of the tale, manages to incorporate several layers of meaning and plot, and still leave the viewer with much to ponder. I loved it. And I am dismayed that the filmmakers decided not to mention why the monks lavished so much love and hope on the Book of Kells – that it was a book of the Gospels.
I saw the film after hearing about the beauty of the hand-drawn animation. I was not disappointed. In contrast to the ultra-realistic computer-generated films from Pixar, The Secret of Kells has the mark of the human hand and imagination everywhere. It would be worth watching simply for the breath-taking beauty of the animated images. But there is so much more.
The abbey contains contrasting values: the manuscript illuminators who place greatest value on beauty and imagination, and the abbot who strives mightily to protect his world – including the illuminators – with high walls and strict rules. Young Brendan, nephew of the abbot yet drawn to the work of the illuminators, struggles to be faithful to both values. When he encounters Brother Aidan and his unfinished manuscript that “will bring light to the darkness” he knows where his heart is drawn. At the same time, Brother Aidan came to Kells after his abbey in Iona was over-run and pillaged by the same Norsemen whom his uncle fears: he knows that the danger is real, and that it is close.
As the plot unfolds, Brother Aidan’s book gains importance within the abbey. He makes brilliant inks, and re-energizes the hopes of the illuminators. Yet the source of this hope, the Gospel that preaches victory over violence and death, is never mentioned. Even when Brother Aidan shows Brendan the blank pages where the central illumination must go – the Chi-Rho page – he never mentions Christ, to whom the two letters refer. The real Book of Kells was made by monks who applied the highest level of their artistry to the light that shines in the darkness – the Gospel – which is the real illumination. A Christian watching the film might know this, but it is omitted from the script entirely.
In fact, nature itself is presented as the source of “goodness” which Brendan encounters as natural beauty – and the fairy Aisling who is self-sacrificing in her help for him – a goodness that has no source. At a superficial level, the movie contrasts the freedom and beauty of nature with the rigidity and repression of the Abbot’s rules and walls – with an implication that perhaps the rules and walls should simply be ignored. (Brother Aidan certainly prompts this perspective in young Brendan!)
The film is, in the end, more subtle. In a simplistic tale, the beauty of the book would win over the Abbot, and all would revel in the beauty of nature. In The Secret of Kells this doesn’t happen. Just as the Abbot feared, the Norsemen do come, intent on pillaging and the destruction of the beauty of their chant, their community and their way of life. And just as Brother Aidan predicted, no walls or doors would be strong enough to keep them out. Utter tragedy – the destruction of both the orderly abbey and the whimsy of nature – seemed a possibility. Unless the Book of Kells can be a light that shines in the darkness.
A Christian can watch this film, catch all the references to Christ which are inherent in the story, and find it spiritually fulfilling. A non-believer, a humanist, a Druid could also watch this film and carry away a message of hope. The evangelist is always glad to see the word of hope go out – and wishes so deeply that the source of hope was not only shown but named.
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