By a happy accident, we ended up renting The Secret of Kells from LoveFilm, and I can greatly recommend it. It’s an Irish-French-Belgian collaboration (bear with me…) giving a fictional account of the creation of the Book of Kells, and was nominated for the best animated feature at the 2010 Oscars. (It lost to Up, so no shame there…)
The film tells the story of a young boy, Brendan, who lives in the monastery of Kells:
The abbot of the monastery is Brendan’s uncle, Cellach. Abbot Cellach’s life is consumed by a single purpose: to build a huge wall to defend Kells from the Viking attacks that were ravaging northern Europe at the time the Book of Kells was created.
Brendan, however, becomes consumed by a different vision: the vision brought to Kells from Iona by Aidan, a manuscript illuminator famed for his work on The Book: the “Book of Iona”, an illuminated manuscript of unsurpassed beauty.
As I hope this post has made clear, the most striking feature of the Secret of Kells is what a visual feast it is: one of the most visually remarkable animations I’ve ever seen, full of allusions to the imagery found in the Book of Kells itself. Very different in style from Studio Ghibli, but fit to be mentioned in the same breath.
Beyond the visual appeal, though, The Secret of Kells has a deeper message, one that is probably rather appropriate to its pan-European production and funding. It shows two possible responses that a society can make when feeling itself (rightly or wrongly) to be under threat. The first is to build a wall; the second is to give people hope and inspiration. Abbot Cellach’s Wall vs Brother Aidan’s Book.
Abbot Cellach’s error is not that he builds the Wall, but that he thinks that the Wall is all that’s needed, and that the Book is a distraction and a frippery. Plenty of ways in which that can be applied today, in a world of cuts to the arts, a “just the facts” approach to education (intended to “prepare children for the world of employment”), and so on.