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The Secret of Kells

“I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.”

When I was in Dublin a few years ago, I had a chance to visit Trinity College and tour its library and museums. It’s famous for being the home of the Book of Kells, which was illuminated by Irish monks and survived the Viking attacks in the late 700s and early 800s A.D. Considering the content of my novel having a lot to do with illuminated manuscripts and monks, it’s always been an area of interest for me.

When the 2010 Oscars aired, I first heard of a movie listed in the Best Animated Film category called “The Secret of Kells,” (or “Brendan and the Secret of Kells”). It was the oddball out of more mainstream films nominated, “Coraline,” “Princess and the Frog,” “Up” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and it looked fascinating and beautiful, so I mentally made a note to watch it, but I actually didn’t get around to it for months.

So, the verdict? Well, I watched this movie for the first time on May 22nd, and I watched it twice in a row that evening. It’s safe to say that I adore it!

It tells the story of a young boy named Brendan living in Kells at the time of the Viking attacks, and how his life changes when a monk named Aiden comes from the island of Iona with a mysterious illuminated book that is only partially finished.

It is done in vivid 2D animation by international talents with an Irish director, and the finished product is one of the most wonderful animated films I’ve ever seen. It’s whimsical and harrowing at the same time, mixing the wonder of creation with the crush of harsh, real life, and shows how art, beauty and truth can truly bring light to darkness.

The style is very distinct, and in an interesting bit of trivia (thanks, Jennie!), at this time in history, artists had not yet learned about perspective, so to honor that style, the movie’s backgrounds and images are very flat. But in no way are they lifeless!

The hero defies an angular, labyrinthine serpent with just his drawing ability; the imperiled good guys escape blood-red Viking shock troops in great billowing whorls of green ink.
~ Nashville Scene

As that quote alludes to, not only does the movie explore the life of Irish monks and how they illuminated manuscripts in that time period, but it’s filled with elements of Irish folklore, which, of course, is also right up my alley.

Young Brendan befriends Aisling (it sounded like they were saying “Ashley,” and on second watches I heard “Ashling”), a sprite who looks after the nearby forest, and Brother Aiden has a cat named Pangur Bán, which is the name of a certain monk’s cat in a very old Irish poem, which I am more than positive influenced this movie in many ways. Brendan also must battle a dark being named Crom Cruach, who holds something that he needs and terrifies the inhabitants of the forest. Medieval Irish legend says that Crom was driven to hell by St. Patrick himself, and at first, Brendan doesn’t believe that Crom is real, saying that it’s just a pagan legend, but as the story progresses, Brendan finds these legends to be very real indeed.

The boy explores the powers of magic and imagination, while the hulking Abbott (voice of Brendan Gleeson) falls back on fear and intimidation.
~ Nashville Scene

However, only the abbot possesses an austere religious view. The other monks are more forgiving and understanding, and at the end, the abbot has time to reevaluate his life. There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the mythical and the religious worlds in this story, and both are viewed as being extremely important. In a country with such renown for their folklore and beliefs, so used to having both myth and religion side-by-side, the director Tomm Moore did a very good job in balancing and edifying both.

“Up” won the Oscar, but this gem from the Emerald Isle stood out in its own right against the others in the category, with only it and “Princess and the Frog” being 2D animated. And while I absolutely love “P&F” (that’s another entry all together!), “The Secret of Kells” wasn’t done by a world-renowned company, which gives it a lot of credit, and it’s not just “good,” it’s stunning, truly captivating. It’s strange, mysterious, and all at once embraceable and charming, dark and chilling, shrewd, and yet so innocent. It gave my creativity the nudge it needed, and helped me with my novel in ways I never would have expected.

I hope any interested parties will take the time to see it. You won’t regret it.

PS: For parents with kids, there are scary parts involving the threat of Crom Cruach, and especially the Viking attack, which is pretty dark. But everything else is wonderful, so use your discretion.

PPS: I found this web page with beautiful pictures of the Chi-Rho page of the real Book of Kells, the one talked about extensively during the movie. It’s put together by an educator, and has some very interesting things to say.

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