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, it doesn’t aspire to unravel the two, 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 Irish religious and societal history, it is strongly implied).
The true designer(s) of the Book Of Kells as well as the exact date and circumstances under which it was produced are unknown to history, as is the identity of the owner of Pangur Ban and whether or not Pangur Ban and his owner had any actual connection to the Book of Kells, though they did have a connection with monasteries and writing.
Scenes featuring one of 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.
The monks have heard of 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 supposed 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. 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. 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 (indeed soon after the gossip by the mature monks, the monastery ends up hosting legendary illuminated book artist Aidan and his white cat Panguar Ban because they fled from a Viking attack on the island of Iona off the Irish coast) have made the Abbot anxious, paranoid, and controlling. 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.
Brendan ends up getting his chance to illicitly venture outside monastery walls soon after Aidan arrives. Aidan is an older man who wants to make Brandon his apprentice in order to assure that the incomplete illuminated gospel book he is working on has the prospect of getting completed. Aidan tells Brendan to gather a certain type of berry from the woods in order to make green ink. 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) and 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.
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.
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 his budding new career as an illuminated book artist by telling Aidan that he will have to leave.
He then locks Brendan in his room, but Brendan’s new-found friendship with Aisling the nature spirit, inspires her to come to his rescue by putting a spell on Panguar 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.