“Kells”: A Film of Beauty and Dubiety
An animated film brings early-Christian history to life with great art, yet mixes with pagan antiquity.
Wonder, vibrant color, glorious Celtic music, and spectacular artistry overwhelm and make The Secret of Kells (2009) an incredibly enjoyable watch. By bringing to life a fictionalized narrative of a seldom-heard-of era in Western history, the film provokes thought, though it could potentially be a bit confusing.
A two-dimensional (though not really traditionally) animated film; European-made Kells was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, losing to Pixar’s much deserving Up. This film is – in my opinion – better for the Christian audience than for the unbeliever, (for reasons that will be gone into later,) though anyone will appreciate the excellence in art and story telling.
The Secret of Kells is set in the post-Roman British isles, circa 800 AD Ireland, in the Abby of Kells, which was founded by St. Columba around 554 AD. It is a dark time, and marauding Vikings are slaughtering and pillaging everywhere. Within Kells, the leader Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is trying desperately to build up the fortifications and walls around the Abby before the Northern men arrive; but time is running out. His orphaned nephew Brendan (Evan McGuire) is an eager and adventurous young boy, who wants to help, but also longs to go into the surrounding forest, which the Abbot refuses to let him do. It was a dangerous world. Things get further turned upside-down with the arrival of Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), the master illuminator of the Isle of Iona, known historically as the Apostle of Northumbria, who has fled for his life from the Vikings. [Note: Illumination was the process of illustrating and decorating written text by the monks who worked within the monastery scriptoriums.] Aidan brings with him only two things: the first is his cat Pangur Bán (a character based off of an actual cat written of by an Irish monk in a poem of that same name,) and the second, the legendary Book of Iona, a Gospel Book containing the Christian Scriptures of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The film never makes this as clear as it should, but the Christian and the student of history will know of its significance. Aidan, who is an old man, seeks Brendan’s help in illuminating the book, particularly in creating the most important page, the Chi Rho page. (“Chi Rho” is the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ). This book is important, say many characters throughout the film, because it will “bring the people hope” and “turn darkness into light”. It is interesting to note that whenever the Christians open the Book of Iona (that is, the Book of Kells), it lights up all around it; yet the unregenerate Vikings open it and see nothing; a very poignant part of the film, which speaks volumes whether the filmmakers understood it that way or not. This theme is prominent within the film, and is a very striking one. On the theological side, it speaks of the need for the revelation of Scripture, and the wonder that accompanies God’s Word. Also the movie is able to highlight and bring to life the extraordinary artistry of the monks themselves, which is itself fascinating.
There are some really salient aspects to this film: the beauty, the animation, the Christian ideas and historical figures, but there are a few things that need addressing as well.
I mentioned that The Secret of Kells could be confusing to some, and here’s why: though Christianity and church history play a large and crucial role in this movie, the filmmakers put those ideas right alongside the paganism of ancient Celtic tradition. This period of history was one of Christianity and paganism existing side-by-side, so in that sense the film is within the bounds of historical authenticity; however, they go a bit too far when they make a young Sprite a chief character. When Brendan finally ventures into the forest on his own, he meets up with a “forest spirit” named Aisling (Christen Mooney). She helps Brendan, teaching him about the wonders of the forest. Though nature, as presented in the film, probably lines up with the concept of Creation, as the Christian knows it, Aisling repeatedly refers to it as “my forest”, which, coming from her, is another nod to paganism. However, they don’t go very far down that road, and Brendan remains a Christian to the very end. Another pagan element brought into the movie is the cultic god of ancient Ireland Crom Cruach, whose worship was supposedly earlier brought to an end by St. Patrick. In order to gain a special crystal (i.e. a magnifying glass) for Brother Aidan, Brendan must enter an abandoned shrine of Crom Cruach and retrieve it; and, in a rather bizarre (and for younger children possibly frightening) scene Brendan does battle with the monstrous deity in a dream environment, ultimately beating him by surrounding him with writing (the inference is that the Christian Scriptures are superior to, and triumph over, this bloody idol.) With Crom defeated, Brendan is able to help finish the Chi Rho page. It seems that, despite the fact that the filmmakers themselves don’t appear to be believers, and they threw in some pagan characters, the film proves the Christian faith to be superior to the old Irish superstitions and cults.
Another negative element is the fact that the film makes a key turning point out of Brendan’s conflict with the Abbot, who only wants to keep him safe, yet seems to have lost faith. Eventually Brendan defies his uncle’s command to stay out of the scriptorium, and the other monks even help him with his deception. This is unfortunate, but it doesn’t harm the affect of the overall film. It is good to remember that the family and godly authority are both a part of Christian society, and any attempt to undermine either is subversive, even in the pursuit of a worthy thing. Thankfully, though they never show Brendan repent for disobeying the Abbot, the film does resolve their relationship by the end. This, along with a few scenes of violence (mostly inferred,) Viking raids, and the above-mentioned battle with Crom Cruach, may make Kells a film not suitable for younger audiences; but older viewers, with a little discernment, can get a lot out of it.
[A note on the film’s historical accuracy: just because it is set in a historical period with characters based off of real people does not make it 100% true, for instance Brother Aidan actually died in 651 AD, that would be hundreds of years before this story takes place. However, this film seemed more interested in capturing the general atmosphere or impression of the time, and the art of illumination, rather than being historically precise.]
I think that, since neither the name of Christ nor the words “Gospel” or “Scripture” are ever actually used in the film, it would be difficult for the unbeliever to get to the heart of this highly symbolic tale. Add to that the syncretizing of Christianity with paganism, though – confusingly – at the same time differentiating between the two, and supposedly vindicating Christianity; those who do not know history and/or Christ will find here just a story of a special, or “mythical”, book rather than the Scriptures.
This film will fascinate audiences, though some may find its very unconventional style hard to get used to. It shows how the Irish monks saved Christian civilization from the Viking raids by preserving the Scriptures. God’s Word is our only true light as it brings us knowledge of the hope we have in Christ. Despite its few dubious and problematic areas I believe that Kells is a beautiful motion picture and well worth a watch, then go grab your Bible and a history book!
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
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