Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Secret of Kells and the Art of Making

I've only recently encountered this delightful animated film from 2009.  The Secret of Kells is about a boy growing up in the walled abbey in Ireland during the time of the Viking raids, while the Book of Kells was being penned and illustrated.  It was an instant favorite for my family, and we play this song to our little one all the time.

This clip shows the highly stylized animation that evokes traditional Irish art.  Much could be written about these exquisite and deceptively simple illustrations.

The plot is straightforwardly simple, so much so that I was a bit surprised when the credits started rolling.  However, after stepping back from the experience of viewing to examine the whole, a clear theme emerged: that of the perseverance of human nature and its ability to create art in despite of trial.

The Book, not yet known as the Book of Kells, arrives in the abbey fortress with the famed illuminator Aidin, sole survivors of a Viking raid to the island of Iona.  Brendan is told by his uncle Cellach to keep away from the Book, and the forest that creeps up to the very threshold of their settlement.  Both are dangerous in different ways.

Cellach's intentions are worthy enough; day and night, he labors over the design and construction of an immense wall, intended to hold out the Vikings and defend the abbey and those who look to it for protection.

But the lure of the Book's mystery speaks to young Brendan.  Once he glimpses the fantastic illustrations, he longs to be a part of its making.  He risks disobedience at Aidin's behest and ventures into the woods to find berries for ink.  There he meets Aisling, a native faerie, who befriends him and teaches him the mysteries of the wood.  As Brendan's knowledge grows in the art of illumination, so does his appreciation for the art of the natural world.

The Secret of Kells is about pushing through adversity to continue making; about the human soul reaching out for beauty, and the way art transforms, even as men and women transform the materials around them into something new, especially works of art.  

In times of trial, we are tempted to point a finger at the dreamers and idealists; it is hard to see what the value of art is in a world of destruction.  Beauty and utility clash.  What good is a lovely song or a moving picture when death lurks at the end of every day?

This is the abbot's unspoken question in Kells.

Cellach, the abbot of Kells, was once an illuminator himself.  Jaded by hardship and worry, he forsook it and took up the task of building a wall to protect those under his care.  So desperately does he try to preserve life at any cost, he shuts out that which does not directly contribute to that aim.  He banishes his sense of wonder and refuses to acknowledge beauty.  One cannot eat a poem, he reasons.  A painting cannot stave off death.

What Cellach believes will protect him, however, ultimately proves useless.  Only, having shirked joy and the hope inherent in creating things solely for beauty's sake, he has failed to treasure the gifts and talents (and people) he had while he had them.  He has neither safety, nor hope.

Fortunately, the film doesn't end on the wasted Kells and the empty abbot.  Brendan, who, with a child's innocent wisdom, recognized in his own way the importance of the Book, facilitates his uncle's reconciliation with truth and beauty before the end.

It's a well-made, thoughtful movie, and I highly recommend it.  Whether intentionally or not, The Secret of Kells speaks to why we should still tell stories, especially fairy tales.   

Our voices matter, and our efforts are not made in vain; just as the aged monk's were not, who could not have guessed the profound richness with which he endowed humanity, when he first picked up ink and quill.



  1. I LOVE this movie. I found the pacing to be pretty strange but if you realize the book is the main protagonist, it's very fitting.

    Also loved the way the old religion was a vital part of saving and introducing Christianity. Lots of symbolism to dig into and enjoy, as if the beautiful animation wasn't enough to get out of the movie! I listen to the soundtrack all the time, too, it's so lovely.

    1. It didn't occur to me that the book was the protagonist. I will have to watch it again with that in mind!

      The Irish had a very smooth and effective conversion to Christianity, which did a good job of translating their old ways and adapting them. It's an un-scholarly pet peeve of mine (I do _try_ to be academic!) that Marian Zimmer Bradley makes the clash between the historically nonexistent paganism and Christian religion the hinge of her Arthurian novels.

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  3. That movie is just the best.

  4. I am subscribed to your awesome website/blog and would love for you to visit my fairy tale website 'The Chronicles of King Big Bear' I make fairy tale inspired art as a hobby, and illustrated my own children's story 'A Father's Wish." If you'd like to connect with me feel free to do so through my website and/or by email

    1. Thank you for getting in contact, Christine, I'll certainly check out your site and story. All the best!


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