Secret of Kells

May 28, 2010

SeSecret of Kellscret of Kells, playing now at the Regent Square Theater, is the story of Brendan, a boy who lives with an order of monks and learns the art of illumination, the decorating of manuscripts, from a master illuminator who has come to Kells after his monastery in Iona was destroyed. The Abbott of Kells has decided to devote his monks’ lives to building a defensive wall and thus protecting the village from Viking invaders. Fearing the dangers that exist in the forest beyond the wall, the Abbott forbids Brendan ever to leave. However, when the master illuminator comes to the village bearing the unfinished book of Iona, he takes Brendan on as an apprentice, having him venture into the woods to find berries that can be made into ink. In the forest, Brendan meets mythical creatures, such as a forest nymph and a snake-god. He finds himself on a quest to save the Book of Iona, later to become the Book of Kells, from the Barbarians.

Religion is a kludge, a combination of myths and gods and stories that have melded together as people have intermarried, conquered one another, and read each other’s books. Secret of Kells takes place in old Ireland at a time when the myths and styles of Paganism were thinly overlaid by Christianity. It was a time of uncertainty and cultural upheaval in which religion and myth formed the backbone of thought. People attempted to make sense of the world, but were limited in their access to knowledge. As one character laments, “There’s nothing in this life but mist, and we’re only here for a short time.”

Through visuals and symbolism, the film explores the merging of two religions. The Abbott admonishes against all things Pagan, but Brendan finds himself facing the old gods, working at times with them and at times against them. He then incorporates their likenesses into his art, further fusing the old religion with the new one.

syncretismThe Book of Kells itself was created around the year 800 by monks. The text of the book is the Bible, but the images are Celtic designs imbued with Christian symbols. The movie accurately portrays what is known of the book’s creation and near destruction by Vikings. Much of the history of the book is unknown, with a variety of theories existing about it origins and makers. It seems to have originated in Iona and been brought to Kells after Iona was devastated.

The book, and thus the movie, contains images of snakes knotted around themselves. The snake is an old Celtic image, a symbol of a god. When St. Patrick rid Ireland of snakes, he was actually ridding it of Pagans. Now, the Pagans did not leave the island, but rather converted to Christianity. However, in the process of conversion, they took with them into Christianity their stories, myths, celebrations, and images. The Book of Kells contains snakes for the same reason that Christmas involves Christmas trees and Easter involves an Easter bunny. Religions accumulate images and tales and weave them into a coherent narrative. Secret of Kells is a visualization of this process of syncretism. This is most notable in the scene where Brendan must steal the eye of a serpent to use as a lens to properly visualize and produce his art in fine detail. Taking the eye of the snake symbolizes hemming in and destroying the old god but retaining its perspective. Only through the eye of the old religion could he make his art.

The film contains the Old English ethos of good versus evil embodied as light versus darkness. The Celtic aesthetic of bright greens and florid loops, the soft colors and fractal swirls surrounding Brendan and his ilk, are set against the harsh hues and solid lines of the Vikings. It is a visually striking film showing a quest for enlightenment amidst the threat of barbarism.

serpent god


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