The Secret of Kells and the Art of Making

Feb. 1, Feast of St. Brigid of Ireland, the Mary of the Gael, who, among many other miracles, when she asked for land, was granted all that her cloak would cover.  When she lay down the garment, it spread for miles.  She was born into a high Druid family and was instrumental in the smooth transition between the the old ways and Christianity.  St. Brigid is patroness of blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, infants, Ireland, mariners, midwives; milk maids, newborns, nuns, poets, poultry farmers, printing presses, scholars, and travelers.



The Secret of Kells by Carton Saloon
(image source)


In honor of St. Brigid's Day, I'm sharing an old post from my other (often neglected) blog, Spinning Straw into Gold.  Though the holy marriage of fairy tales and the Faith is not immediately obvious, the signs are there for those who pay attention.  I hope, if you like these thoughts, that you'll consider clicking over to Straw into Gold from time to time, where I happen to headquarter my third of our lively Harry Potter book club.

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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 spite 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, as well as 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.



source


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.

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4 comments:

  1. I love Brendan and the Secret of Kells - in fact I have the cd too (same composer of Coraline), a very under-appreciated film!

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    1. So under-appreciated. It took me far too long to discover it!

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  2. This is a great review of a beautiful movie. The Secret of Kells is a family favorite in our home.

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    1. Thank you! It is a family treasure, isn't it?

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