Friday, January 21, 2011

Kells Bells!

I recently watched "The Secret of Kells" . It's an animated feature about the Book of Kells, a late-eighth century illuminated Gospel book and one of the most widely-known medieval manuscript books in the world. At Kells, in Ireland, Young Brendan, nephew of Abbot Cellach, is supposed to be helping his uncle build the fortifications around their monastery/town, but he'd rather contemplate the wonders of the scriptorium and run errands for Brother Aidan, a master illuminator.

Brother Aidan is a refugee from the Vikings, who attacked his monastery on Iona and killed everyone who couldn't escape. Abbot Cellach knows the Northmen will be coming to Ireland next, and he is fiercely determined to build a wall around his monastery that will keep out the marauders. Cellach is a pragmatist and a planner, and he hopes to shepherd his flock to safety in the face of the invasions. Aidan, a survivor, knows that nothing can keep the Vikings at bay, and instead focuses on his work--illuminating the Gospel--as a way to create something enduring that will bring light and hope to others. Brendan, a budding illuminator, gladly helps Aidan, and defies his uncle and abbot by going outside of the walls to find materials to make ink.

In the forest Brendan meets Ainslie, a fairy, who is able to talk to the animals and make the terrifying forest seem more hospitable. She takes him under her wing, shows him the forest and gets him what he needs, even at significant risk to herself. (This film has a few parallels to that other encounter narrative of 2009: "Avatar.") Ainslie's family have, it seems, been killed by (Christian) settlers Crom Cruach, the big bad who lives in the forest, but she doesn't hold this against Brendan (in his little monk's habit), even when he puts her in danger--repeatedly--for the sake of the Book. I'd have told him to take a hike.

The animation is enchanting. Abbott Cellach looks like a Byzantine ikon, with his red hair, high cheekbones, and long nose. The Vikings were terrifying, although they did remind me of the Bugs Bunny classic, What's Opera, Doc? The animators did a great job of making the animal and plant motifs in the Book of Kells visually coherent and part of the landscape of the forest around the monastery. And the moment when the Abbott sees the finished book is quite powerful. The animation jumps out of the screen (despite being in 2-D)--the intricacies of the designs glimmer and turn, making the entire page into a holistic organism.

That said, I can't get behind the "How the Irish Saved Civilization" slant of the film. Yes, the Vikings were terrifying marauders. And yes, it's nice to see a film that celebrates the importance of learning and books. But it's never made clear why "the people" would rather have a beautiful book to give them hope than stronger fortifications. Is it because they're Irish and a naturally bookish and literary people? And I thought that the parallels between Christian monks and pagan Vikings could have been better fleshed out: The Vikings have no respect for Christian symbols or human life and the Christians (esp. the monks) have--according to our fairy guide--no respect for nature, fairies, or the symbols and beliefs of the people who came before them.

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