I recently saw The Secret of Kells, a 2009 animated film made as a joint Belgian-French-Irish production. (Don’t worry; it’s in English, not French/Flemish/Gaelic.) It concerns a fictionalized account of the creation of the Book of Kells, a seventh century illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels, which is considered Ireland’s greatest treasure.
The protagonist of the film is Brendan, a young monk who lives at the Abbey of Kells, in medieval Ireland. For the past few years, the people of Kells have been engaged in constructing enormous walls around the settlement; this construction has been led by Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson, who played Professor Alastor ‘Mad Eye’ Moody in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). With these formidable defenses, the Abbot hopes to fend off the North Men, Viking raiders who have been ravaging towns and villages all across the British Isles.
While the Abbot focuses the efforts of the townspeople and the monks on the walls, a visitor appears in the form of Brother Aiden, a refugee from his own monastery on the Scottish Isle of Iona. The raiding North Men have burned Iona to the ground, Aiden having only barely escaped, carrying with him the unfinished Book of Iona, an illuminated
manuscript begun centuries before by St. Columba himself.
The monks are excited and inspired by the appearance of the Book, as their own scholastic pursuits have been left by the wayside with the wall taking precedence. Brendan shows particular interest in the manuscript, and Aiden agrees to teach him if Brendan can get some oak berries to make ink from. To do this, Brendan will have to venture outside the walls and into the forest beyond. However, Brendan’s uncle has forbidden him to do so, out of concern over the dangers of the outside world.
In typical protagonist fashion, Brendan disobeys his uncle, and sneaks out through a gap in the wall. In the forest, he meets a forest spirit named Aisling (pronounced with a Gaelic ‘sh’—this is the origin of the name Ashlyne). She helps him find the berries, but also warns him of a dangerous place stalked by the evil pagan deity Crom Cruach. When Brendan returns to Kell with the berries, Aiden begins teaching him the art of illuminating manuscripts, but Brendan’s uncle, the Abbot, is none too happy that Brendan has ignored his orders.
Brendan struggles to continue learning the art of illumination, in spite of his uncle’s wishes. The Abbot feels that, under the looming threat of the North Men, more ethereal concerns such as the Book should be put aside. Brendan is caught in the middle between living with concern for the survival of the people of Kells and attempting to use his life to enrich those of others.
In addition to the compelling story and themes, it is astounding how many historical and mythological references they were able to include into the film. Iona and Kells historically had monasteries, and St. Columba (or his Gaelic name Collum-Cille, as he is called in the film) is credited in legend with beginning the Book. Aiden is named after St. Aiden of Lindisfarne, who was an Irish monk credited with restoring Christianity to Northumbria, on the Isle of Britain. The name of Aiden’s cat, Pangur Bán, is taken from an Old Irish poem written by an Irish monk in a south German monastery (Irish monks seem to get around). Brendan’s fairy friend Aisling has her name taken from a style of poem popular in 17th and 18th century Irish language literature. This type of poetry generally involves a vision of a woman who appears to the poet and inspires him, which is echoed in the film by Aisling showing Brendan the beauty and intricacy of the forest. This later manifests in the intricacy of his illuminations. The pagan deity Crom Cruach is said to have had a cult which engaged in human sacrifice to appease him, but his cult image was destroyed by St. Patrick with a sledgehammer, which (as many of the stories concerning St. Patrick do) symbolizes the triumph of Christianity over the pagan religions of pre-Christian Ireland.
The art style of the film draws much from illuminated gospel texts, as well as the Celtic designs of traditional Irish art. Every frame that comes on screen is evocative and beautiful; I have no doubt as much care and detail were put into the film as were put into the medieval manuscripts created by monks of the era depicted. The characters are endearing and believable, and it is definitely worth watching. It is available to stream for free on Hulu (although you will have to deal with annoying ads interrupting it every 20 minutes or so—no way to get around this, not even with AdBlock), and I highly recommend you see it.