“The Secret of Kells” was a 2D animation that celebrates its two-dimensions and, despite some mildly scary moments, is fine for all ages, particularly budding artists. The beauty of the lines and designs ignored Renaissance rules of perspective and instead looked at the legacy of the more abstract art of the illuminated illustrations for the Christian Gospels dating back to 800 A.D. in the “Book of Kells.” The 2009 “The Secret of Kells” was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Animated Feature) and is currently available for live-streaming no Netflix.
The real “Book of Kells” is housed at Trinity College in Dublin. This fanciful tale is about how the book was finished and preserved despite the invasion of Vikings and the pillaging and death of many villagers. This isn’t about the rich warlords of the feudal ages, the kings and queens and great warriors. This is about the hard-working monks who were mostly anonymous artists of great works and worked together.
If you love Celtic designs, this is a must-see (and you’ll also want to find the recently published book “Designing Secret of Kells”). If you’re interested in traditional animation or Celtic tradition and folklore, you’ll be suitably charmed.
Tomm Moore directed (with Nora Twomey) and wrote the original story (Fabrice Siolkowski wrote the screenplay) and he has included many subtle references, even the beautiful lithe white cat, Pangur Ban has special lyrical meaning.
The story begins in the 8th century at the Abbey of Kells. This is a real place, a former monastery located in Kells, county Meath, about 40 miles north of Dublin. The “Book of Kells” was actually kept there until the 1650s and much of the book may have been created there, but historians don’t actually know the exact date and the circumstances around its creation. The Abbey of Kells was founded by St. Columba in about 554. In the early ninth century, Columban monks fled the island of Iona which was being repeatedly raided by the Vikings.
Iona is a Scottish island off of Scotland’s western coast and was a center for Irish monasticism for four centuries. The Iona Abbey is now an ecumenical church. Iona now a tourist destination.
The monk Columba found the monastery in 563 when he was exiled from his native Ireland because of his participation in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne. The battle is also known as the Battle of the Book and is one of the earliest recorded disputes about copyright. Columba copied the Psalter (Book of Psalms) manuscript belonging to Finnian of Movilla Abbey. Although Columba copied the book, Finnian felt that because the original belonged to him, so did the copy. King Diarmait mac Cerbaill ruled that “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”
Columba wasn’t satisfied with this judgment and instigated a rebellion. The battle over the books had real casualties. Columba was then exiled from Ireland. He did not go alone. He brought 12 others and together they created what would become a learning center and an important scriptorium.
The movie fictionalizes the creation of the “Book of Kells” and is seen through the eyes of a young boy named Brendan. He is the nephew of Abbot Cellach who, although a former illuminator is ever fearful of Viking raids and has suspended work on everything but the tall walls which he is sure will protect the Abbey of Kells and its monks from the Vikings. One day, the white-haired Brother Aidan, a master illuminator, brings with him the Book of Iona. He has escaped the Vikings and brought the book with him.
With him, is a white cat with two different colored eyes–one blue and one green. The cat Pangur Ban befriends Brendan as Brendan apprentices under Brother Aidan. Brother Aidan asks Brendan go disobey Abbey Cellach. Cellach has forbidden Aidan from venturing into the forest, but Aidan needs a particular berry to make ink. In the forest, Aidan meets a forest spirit, a white-haired pale girl named Aisling. Although she doesn’t trust Aidan at first, they become friends and she helps him find the gall nuts.
Although his uncle discovers Brendan’s adventure and again tells him he can’t go into the woods, Brendan learns illumination under Aidan and does venture back into the woods, this time in search of a special eye that will help him work on more intricate designs. To get the eye, he must face the pagan deity Collum-Cille, who killed Aisling’s family.
In the end, the Vikings do attack and Brendan and Aidan escape into the woods and must depend upon Aisling to save them.
Of course, we know that the “Book of Iona” will eventually return to Kells and then become known as the “Book of Kells.” We come to understand that Cellach may have made some mistakes, but he was a good man and loved his nephew. Cellach, Aidan and Brendan and even Aisling all helped to preserve this beautiful work and you can’t help but wonder what beautiful things were destroyed in the raids and wars and are still being destroyed.
During the credits, you can see parts of the “Book of Kells” and they become animated. Moore has made a fanciful tale that celebrates the beauty of illumination and his heritage and shares it with a world. And Moore doesn’t exactly ignore the wider world. The illuminators portrayed include an illuminator from China (Brother Tang), Italy (Brother Leonardo), Africa (Brother Assoua and England (Brother Square). Irish folklore has connected China with Ireland and whether that connection is real or imaginary, Moore makes that connection real in his fantasy.
Moore was reportedly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” as well as Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” Pangur Ban, who plays an important role in the movie is the name of a cat belonging to a 9th century Irish monk who wrote a poem about his white Pangur. A verse of the poem is read during the credits roll.
“The Secret of Kells” is an imaginative story that weaves together history and folklore, myths and legends, and should inspire artists everywhere.