The Secret of Kells
This beautiful Irish animation provides an imaginative origin story for the Book of Kells.
Over a thousand years ago, Europe was gripped by what historians today call the Dark Ages. This era is better known for war, famine and poverty than for art and culture. While our understanding of life so long ago has been shrouded by the passage of time, a few relics of that ancient world have survived to the modern day. One of the most beautiful and mysterious is The Book of Kells. This magnificent manuscript, illuminated with painstaking illustrations, takes its name from a remote monastery in Ireland where it was carefully preserved for over a millennia. Its survival is as remarkable as its artistry. The manuscript was created at a time when Ireland was besieged by Viking invaders, who, history tells us, attacked Kells itself more than once.
Now a cherished national treasure on display in the library of Trinity College in Dublin, the stunning quality of the Book of Kells challenges the notion that the Dark Ages were a time without creativity or intellectual growth. Yet who crafted it? And how was it preserved all those years? These unanswered questions have given plenty of room for speculation. Now an independent, animated film created by Irish director Tomm Moore provides the artifact with an imaginative origin story.
The movie follows the adventures of Brendan, (voiced by Evan McGuire,) a young boy living in the Abbey of Kells under the supervision of his stern uncle, the Abbot, (voiced by Brendan Gleeson.) Charged with protecting the monastery and the small village that surrounds it, the Abbot is determined to build an immense wall around the settlement. He has enlisted everyone’s help on the construction. Brendan however is distracted from the work project when a stranger arrives at Kells. The old man is the legendary master illuminator, Brother Aiden, (voiced by Mick Lally.) Fleeing a Viking attack on his own monastery, he has come to Kells with his life’s work; a beautiful manuscript that is nearly finished.
The imaginative young Brendan, amazed at the beauty of the book, quickly befriends Aiden and his moody cat, Pangur Ban. Still, the timid boy hesitates when Aiden suggests they work on finishing the pages together. Creating ink for the illustrations will require leaving the protection of the Abbey and searching the nearby forest for supplies, something that the Abbot has strictly forbidden. After some deliberation, Brendan decides to risk it. Accompanied by Pangur Ban, he sneaks into the woods. There, he meets a magical young girl whose knowledge of the forest is literally a lifesaver. But even with Aisling (Christen Mooney) by his side, the world is full of dangers. It takes the help of friends and a growing confidence in himself, before Brendan can face his fears, unlock his own creativity, and finish the book.
Like the Book of Kells itself, the movie is dazzling in its color and detail, as well as ingenious in drawing inspiration from its medieval source material. The characters live in a world of flattened perspective, impossible environments, and mesmerizing shapes that will look familiar to anyone who’s studied Irish art of that period. Although the visuals are amazing, they are very different than what mainstream animation presents.
The storyline may also be confusing. Switching between Brendan’s daily life in the Irish monastery and the magical world of the forest, it’s sometimes hard to know what’s real and what’s simply a young boy’s imagination. And without some understanding of the events of that time period, or the identity of the precious religious text the monks labor to reproduce, it’s hard to know why they are so motivated to protect the book. Sadly, much of this context will go over the heads of younger viewers, who will likely be preoccupied with frightening imagery, moments of life threatening peril, and the tragic events that befall some of the characters.
For audiences with an appreciation for art and history, the production will undoubtedly seem a worthy tribute to the anonymous scribes of the Book of Kells, who really did believe their efforts could change the world. In the words of one of the characters, “If there were no books, all knowledge would be lost for all eternity.” For the creators of this illuminated manuscript, real and imagined, knowledge was something worth dying for. The Secret of Kells is a beautiful reminder that creativity and determination can survive the ravages of time, changing the darkness of ignorance into dazzling light.