The Secret of Kells tells the story of Ireland's national treasure, The Book of Kells, written by Celtic Monks around 800 AD. The book is an illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels. The art form is called Insular Art or Hiberno-Saxon Art. The production history of the book is debatable, however, it is believed that the book may have been started by Columkille (pronounced like the words "column" and "kill," also known as St. Columba) in late 500 AD during his time on the Island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. When Vikings raided Iona in 794, the book and other relics were brought to the Abbey of Kells in Kells, County Meath, Ireland where the book was worked on but never finished. This widely accepted theory of the origin of the book written in Iona and the continuation of the book at Kells was used in the story line of our movie.
The story begins just before the Viking raids on the Abbey in Kells where Brendan, a 12-year-old boy, lives with his uncle Abbott Cellach. The Abbott is so bent on building a stone wall around the Abbey to protect the people from the Vikings that when Columkille comes to Kells to protect the book he finds the work to finish the book and protect it unimportant; however, Brendan is encouraged by Columkille to use his artistic skills on the book against the Abbott's wishes. When Brendan leaves the protection of the Abbey to find berries for ink making, he meets the wood faerie Aisling (pronounced Ashley, although I think I heard it pronounced Ashlain in the movie). Aisling is a spirit of the forest, one of the Tuatha De' Danann, and is a changeling, shape shifting from one form to another. She protects the forest and has supernatural powers over the animals. She fears the pagan God Crom Cruach (pronounced ) who lives in a cave in the forest.
First, what I like about this movie.
I must refer to this description from www.decentfilms.com. "Weaving scrollwork interlacing in endless knots, spirals and plaits, circles and arches, panels and decorative borders dance and frolic throughout The Secret of Kells....Astonishingly, the breathtakingly beautiful work (witness the dappled light playing over the hero as he walks through the forest) is nearly all hand-drawn, with very little computer animation." This movie is beautifully done. Even the snowflakes are celtic knots!
In my opinion, the movie portrays a convincing view of two conflicting beliefs. The fact that the people from that time period struggled with their pagan beliefs after being introduced to Christianity is well known. I think Aisling, intended by the writers or not, could also be viewed as portraying the pagan people of that time.
Aisling's acceptance of Brendan and his beliefs is encouraging. I especially like they way they portrayed the faerie Aisling in the way she accepted Brendan. The writers could have made her wary and afraid of Christianity, but they didn't portray her that way.
There is a part in the movie that I find very poignant when Aisling is helping Brendan retrieve a crystal "eye" from Crom Cruach in order for him to be able to finish the book. The writers could have handled this very differently by making the faerie hate anything that resembles Christianity as we find in so many movies these days. But the writers wrote this faerie as one who recognized the importance the book would have in removing evil from the world.
The scene opens with the two of them running into the forest after Aisling rescues Brendan from being locked into his room by the Abbott. She asks Brendan why the Abbott put him in there. Brendan says "Because I disobeyed him." and she innocently asks, "Why?" Brendan doesn't answer and Aisling's question hangs in the air.
He stops her and has her look at an ink mark on his hand of the crystal he is after to help him create the artwork for the book. She responds with fear, "The eye of Crom!"
Brendan says, "No, its a crystal. I think there's one in the dark ones cave. I have to go there."
"No Brendan, it's tricking you. You should have stayed in your tower. Crom Cruach took my people, He took my mother. It takes everything. You will die!" She fearfully exclaims. Turning from him.
Brendan says, "Aisling, if I don't try, the book will never be completed." Aisling peers at him and says, "The book. Alright then. I will help you." She leads him to the mouth of the cave
As they get close to the entrance, Aisling is physically effected by the evil of this place while Brendan is not. Brendan says, "Aisling this place is hurting you. You must go back! I'll find some other way!" covering her with his cloak.
"I must help you." She lifts a fallen idol away from the entrance and exclaims, with her seemingly last breath, "Turn the darkness into LIGHT!"
What I find interesting about this scene is that Aisling seems somewhat surprised that Brendan disobeyed his uncle, She doesn't encourage him in disobedience but questions him why he did it. I found it interesting that Aisling is physically effected by the evil while Branden is not. Also, Aisling sees the book as the answer to bringing an end to the darkness.
A really nice addition is Pangur Bán. Written in the 8th or 9th century, a poem called Pangur Bán also known as "The Monk and his Cat" was found in the margins of a Latin New testament. Including the cat in the movie was a nice touch. Read more about the poem here .
This movie is not for everyone.
I recognize there are a lot of things wrong with this movie. For instance, How the Faerie World compares to the Christianity. Here is a quote from www.decentfilms.com that describes this much better than I ever could, "It must be admitted that The Secret of Kells somewhat short-changes Brendan’s Christian world in relation to Ireland’s lingering paganism. The Faerie world is matter-of-factly depicted as living, magical and powerful; Christianity is mundane and limited." This is sadly a common depiction of the difference between the pagan world and Christians in books and film. Does it make me like the movie any less? No.
Secondly, Christianity is not represented very well in this movie. There are precious few movies out there that are about Christianity and even fewer that are doctrinally sound. However it does depict humanity very well. In reality, the Christian is in a state of learning how to abide in Christ and a large portion of that life is lived misunderstanding how to abide above. True Believers are lead solely by the Holy Spirit. Understanding comes from Him and only after we have come to a place were we are in total need of Him. During that time of learning of our need of Him, Christians experience many struggles, failures and fear as we try to follow Christ by erroneously working to please him. Our humanity is on display until Christ changes our hearts. I would go out on a limb and say Brendan's uncle, Abbott Cellach, demonstrates this struggle very well, but it fails to show the victory in Christ, except, if you count the brief gesture to "bring the book to the people" at the end of the movie.
Thirdly, and this is quite unimportant compared to the previous statements (even laughable!) I was a little put off by the portrayal of the Vikings as being scary monsters but my husband, who is from Scandinavian descent, pointed out to me that "making the Vikings scary monsters is symbolic and not stereotyping in the context of this movie filled with symbolism".
Finally, I never like movies that encourage disobedience in children; however, this was portrayed in a way that makes sense to me in that sometimes our parents will for us is not the same as God's will for us, and in those cases we have to obey God first and foremost. I am not sure if the movie did a good job in portraying this or not but my feeling is that Brendan still respected his uncle. I am sure there are other things wrong with this movie that I have not covered here and I am sure to hear some comments about it. This movie is full of symbolism making it open to interpretation.
While some scenes are not for the little ones (there are some scary scenes when the Vikings invade and when the wolves give chase, not to mention the mythical God Crom Cruach...) and the story line should be viewed by children who can discern well the differences between myth and truth, I still recommend the movie to those who love good Celtic story telling, beautiful imagery and wonderful Celtic music!
I let my 9 year old watch it because I use these opportunities to teach my kids about myths, truth and the difference between them and I knew he could handle it, but like most stories of this nature you really need to determine that for your own child.
Read a much better review of this movie here.
Right now you can watch it on Netflix as an instant watch! It made this old Celtic heart skip a beat!