The SPECtacular Irish Mythology and Imagery of The Secret of Kells

There are about a million reasons to watch the 2009 animated film The Secret of Kells. It has all of the things a good Irish movie of the 2000s needs: blue-eyed gingers, a gorgeous Celtic score, authentic accents (you really can’t overemphasise the importance of this point), and Brendan Gleeson.

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The Secret of Kells follows the adventures of twelve-year-old Brendan, a burgeoning illuminator apprenticed at the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. In the creeping shadow of an imminent Viking invasion, Brendan becomes captivated by the glorious illumination work of Brother Aidan, who comes to Kells fleeing the savagery of the (literally) beastly Vikings. Depicted as red-eyed, bull-like creatures, these “Northmen” tear ruthlessly through Ireland, drawing ever nearer to the sacred and tranquil walls of Kells. Brother Aidan begins to mentor Brendan, and eventually asks him to take over work on the Book of Iona, an astonishingly beautiful Bible he has been illuminating for many years but cannot finish due to his failing sight and shaking hands. Even as Brendan’s imagination and skill grows and he begins to roam freer (both creatively and physically), his uncle, Abbot Cellach, increasingly tries to limit him, turning his own illumination skill to furiously drawing plans for fortifications against the invaders on the walls of his chamber. Brendan’s quest to become the next illuminator of the Book of Kells eventually leads him to a battle against the demonic pagan god Crom Cruach for his last remaining crystal eye, which will allow Brendan to see the world and his illumination work in more detail.

Contrived of as a Studio Ghibli film done in an Irish style, the film is a lush visual delicacy. An extraordinary attention to detail characterises every aspect of the animation; Celtic knots and spirals are suffused into wisps of fog, snowflakes, the branches of trees, and even in the stonework at the abbey. The Celtic art constantly reminds the viewer that this is an Irish tale without the heavy-handedness found in so many films dealing with Irish myths and/or culture (no leprechauns or banshees! Hooray!).

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The film draws on a wealth of Irish myths and legends: Crom Cruach, Pangur Bán, Tuatha Dé Danann, Colm Cille, and the Aisling, to name the most obvious. The high quality of the writing, however, ensures that it doesn’t end up as a listless stream of name-dropping. The characters (particularly Aisling) have depth and distinctiveness that’s carried effortlessly throughout. Like the subtlety and tact with which Celtic artwork is worked in, the film’s elegant and sophisticated use of Irish mythology continually enhances its beauty, perfectly underscoring the film’s “thesis”, which explores the intersection of and interplay between knowledge and creativity.

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Despite the tide of violence always looming on the periphery, the story manages to stay largely whimsical and otherworldly. It captures the essence of Celtic myth as few other films have (a notable example might be Hallmark’s 1999 The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns, but The Secret of Kells still leaves it far behind on many other fronts). The music is a tremendous aid in this, particularly the use of the tin whistle, string instruments, and the bodhrán, all of which reaffirm its Irish character and deftly tie it into the Celtic art. Aisling’s song as she transforms Pangur Bán into a spirit animal (which actually incorporates a verse from Pangur Bán, a mediaeval Irish-language poem written by a monk about his cat named White Pangur) is another charming feature, which not only adds to the Celtic flavour of the film but also neatly encapsulates the film’s mystical atmosphere.

Secret of Kells 4It must be allowed that the general peacefulness of the film has an interlude of terror and graphic death in the Viking attack on Kells, but that really isn’t at all out of character for an Irish film, which is generally much more ready to deal with death than Hollywood is.

Beautiful, original, and endearing, this film offers a fresh look at a mythology that’s too often made proverbial and limited. We need more films like this one.

-contributed by Emily Willian

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