The Secret of Kells is an interesting animated movie, a riff on Irish legend and history (the two of which are often intertwined like Celtic knotwork) and while it is an entertaining and family-friendly spectacle, in the sense that it contains nothing obscene or overtly heretic, it doesn’t aspire to unravel the fiction connected with the time period and the place from truth, or fantasy from orthodoxy, but rather twists and interlocks them further.
The center of the action of this story, set in the early centuries of Christianity in Ireland, is the Abbey of Kells, surrounding which is a tall, thick wall under construction because of the danger posed by the “Northmen”, a.k.a. Vikings. The Abbot is the uncle of pre-teen postulant monk Brendan (whether he is meant to represent the individual who would later in his life become known as Ireland’s St. Brendan the Navigator is unknown and not explicitly stated by the movie, but to those who have an acquaintance with St. Brendan’s, it is easy to see a parallel between them).
Scenes featuring one or more monks are present throughout the movie, and there is even a Brother who is a brother, being a black man with an African name. I don’t know if this racial and cultural diversity was in fact historically accurate to the time period and the place in Ireland, but the Catholic church being a worldwide church with active evangelization and a great deal of recorded travel for its personnel even in those days before readily available commercial plane travel, such a thing could have been in the realm of the possible. While this choice in the portrayal of the monks may be a sop to modern notions of political correctness, it is also consistent with the spirit of the Catholic Church in which fidelity counts for more than race or external appearance, and acceptance of people of different nationalities is a desiderata in a denomination which aspires to worldwide sway and indeed, in past history overtly aimed for global hegemony.
Overall, the portrayal of monks and monastic life in this movie is respectful and positive, even though the brother monks with whom Brendan lives play a vital role in telling tall tales concerning the illuminated gospel codex that will come to be known in our time as the Book of Kells, and are in such a state of awe that they repeated among themselves incredible stories concerning the book itself (a look at it is supposed to blind sinners), as well as Aidan, its artist, who is rumored by the monks to have extra arms and/or fingers and a so-called “third eye”.
The actual Book Of Kells is a book of the Four Gospels of the kind used by the priest at the altar at Mass. (The true identity of the illuminator or illuminators of the real Book Of Kells is unknown to history). Though modern bound copies of the four gospels retain this ornamental quality with leatherette covers and stamped gold embossing, the chief value of the Book Of Kells was ornamental and liturgical rather than practical. The Book of the Four Gospels is commonly displayed on the sanctuary altar when not in use, fact which the makers of the movie were perhaps unaware of (were they Catholic? Did they have priests in the family?). Historians believe that in that era, the priest did not even, as a general rule, read from such an ornamental gospel book, but rather recited the appropriate gospel passage from memory (this would be the case for those who were not literate). Hence, there would have not been the same kind of big deal in real life that is made in the movie about the fact that the book is hidden behind monastery walls and not brought to the people as in this movie.
The danger of the Viking invasions which have taken place elsewhere in Ireland at that period in history have made the Abbot anxious, paranoid, and controlling. Indeed, soon after the scene featuring gossip about the Book Of Kells and Aidan, its illuminator, by the mature monks, the monastery ends up hosting Aidan and his white cat Panguar Ban because they fled from a Viking attack on the island of Iona off the Irish coast. While caution is certainly justified at that time in history, the Abbot takes it to an extreme and does not allow young Brendan to venture outside the walls of the monastery. While Abbot Cellach’s intentions may be good, Brendan faces the distinct possibility of growing up and being expected to accept the monastic life for his future without having the opportunity to explore alternatives and freely choose, a situation which he bemoans to the other monks, and which has been known to happen in the Catholic church in past history.
After Brendan leaves the Abbey without permission to gather oak gall for ink, at Aidan’s behest, (Aidan as an older man wants to make Brandon his apprentice in order to assure that the Book Of Kells has the prospect of getting completed even if he does not live much longer). Knowing what trouble he will get in if caught, Brendan still ventures out to gather the berries. It is on this trip into the woods that he meets a mysterious lithesome girl with long white hair (who turns out to be some sort of nature spirit and shape-shifter. Supposedly a pagan being, Aisling surprisingly has heard of the Book and still respects the Book and its promise of “bringing light to darkness” enough to place herself and Brendan in danger from Crom Cruach. Brendan hears her tale of a cave which contains the monstrous Crom Cruach, a creature later revealed to be inspired by the Biblical Worm That Never Dies, the Catholic Devil, and the Jungian Orobourous. (Note: this movie is not appropriate for those children too young to handle scary imagery and to show it to Freudians would be to cast pearls before swine.)
Though this is an ostensibly pro-Catholic movie, the authoritarian abbot who tries to physically and mentally separate young Brendan and the other monks from not only the rest of the country, but their own cultural traditions and the surrounding community initially comes off as the short-sighted, narrow-minded, and power-mad.
It is highly significant that by encountering the fairy maiden and listening to the pagan legends, Brendan is successful in enabling Aidan to teach him the skills required for him to work on the book and to take over Aidan’s role as an illuminator for the completion of the book. One could argue that this is an allegory arguing in favor of dabbling in the occult in the name of spiritual searching and academic freedom in the name of intellectual mobilization, but this picture says it far more elegantly than I could. It’s easy to see the physical object of the walled monastery as an allegory for the monolithic Catholic Church.
A lot of good use is made of Celtic pattern elements (the overall look of the movie contains a lot of stylized two-dimensional figures, the intention perhaps being to make it look like a moving medieval illuminated book). A fascinating touch was the use of Celtic roundels with smaller sub-elements being made to move on screen. It certainly gave a new and different look at these traditionally static decorative elements in Celtic graphic art. It also made me wonder if those medieval monks who originated such design elements were on something stronger than the sacramental wine.
Brendan predictably gets busted, and the quest to finish the book takes on a new urgency. It turns out that Aidan’s so-called “third eye” is really a crystal or curved lens that has intense magnifying powers, enabling him to see and create small, intricate patterns. Once Brandon discovers this, it occurs to him that a similar crystal exists as the eye of the monster in the cave in the woods.
The Abbot tries to put a stop to Brendan’s budding new career as an illuminated book artist by telling Aidan that he will have to leave, and locking Brendan in his room.
However, Brendan’s new-found friendship with Aisling the nature spirit, inspires her to come to his rescue by putting a spell on Pangur Ban which makes the cat turn into a white mist, which enables him to get past the Abbot’s locked door, steal the key, and bring it to Brandon. Brandon goes on his hero’s quest, beheads the monster, and brings back the “eye” (lens) for use on the book. But his troubles and the abbey’s aren’t over yet.
The Northmen invade as the Abbot feared, and in the ensuing raid (in which the Northmen are depicted as one-dimensional demonic figures with horned hats) both the book and Brendan go missing during the battle.
In the aftermath, the Abbot is even more depressed than before, and apparently at least several years pass as the Abbot becomes an old and feeble man. It is then (when it is implied that the abbot is on his deathbed) that there is a somewhat happy conclusion in the form of a resolution imbued with a somewhat idealistic Catholic sentiment: Brendan, now grown up, returns to the monastery with the Book of Kells, completed by his own hand, and reveals that fact to the Abbot so he can die with a sense of peace, fulfilling the Catholic ideal of a holy death.