I can’t think of a better movie than The Secret of Kells to show medievalists on St. Patrick’s Day (or to show wee medievalists-to-be at any point in the year). This movie is a fairy tale about the making of the Book of Kells. One need not know anything about the Book of Kells to enjoy the film, though some background will make it more enjoyable.
Brendan is an orphaned child growing up in the care of his uncle, Abbot Cellach, in the monastery at Kells. When Brother Aidan of Iona arrives with his cat Pangur Bán and the famed Book of Iona that he saved from Viking destruction, he apprentices the enthusiastic Brendan in the scriptorium. Abbot Cellach, distracted to obsession by immanent Viking invasion, has forbidden Brendan to leave the monastery, but Brendan makes two journeys into the surrounding forest. The first is to retrieve ink ingredients. The second is to find the famed eye of Crom Cruach which will enhance his vision, allowing for masterful illumination fitting for the Chi-Rho page. On both journeys, Brendan is aided by Aisling, the “fairy” who guards the forest. Kells is eventually sacked by Vikings, but Brendan saves the book, finishes his masterpiece, and helps Abbot Cellach remember what is truly important in his life.
Stuff I Liked
The plot of The Secret of Kells is simple and a bit predictable, but it’s fitting for a children’s movie. What I like about it the most is that it blends pre-Christian Irish myth and medieval Irish Christianity in a way that may seem odd to modern audiences, but would have been quite natural for many living during this time. I also appreciate Brendan’s honest enthusiasm for the Book of Kells since movies rarely depict children who feel a religious calling and have a love for such books. It may feel too obvious for adults, but I think the way the message is portrayed is appropriate for children (especially since it seems this movie expects the viewer is already familiar with Christianity).
The focus of The Secret of Kells is the beautiful artwork. The backgrounds blend the designs from the Book of Kells with the scenery, sometimes animating scenes exactly as they appear in the book. There’s little I can do to describe it sufficiently. . I don’t have the legal rights to post screenshots from this movie, but Google it—it’s beautiful. Even the snowflakes are little knots. My only complaint is that I wish the human figures had resembled the human figures in the Book of Kells. I believe the animators were using a particular style from a number of popular children’s cartoons to make the whole more familiar to children. It’s no wonder that I have a different agenda
The Secret of Kells is currently available on Netflix, but many medievalists will probably find that this film is worth buying. It is a singular work that should not be missed.
P.S.: I adore the cat.