Some months ago I watched the Secret of Kells (2009) on Netflix and meant to share some thoughts about it. Actually I was hoping to pester Kaiju into making one of his rare appearances to talk about it (he being more qualified to opine on religious symbolism and whatnot than I), but alas.
Animated by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the Secret of Kells is a Christian fantasy story crafted around the abbey at Kells, in Ireland, during the 9th century. Although I wasn’t initially impressed by stills I had seen of the movie, it’s actually quite beautifully animated in a style that reminded me of Samurai Jack.
Kells incorporates many of the themes and elements that I and others have waxed about of late, regarding the shift in fantasy storytelling. The film weaves Christian history, dogma, and myth together with pagan Celtic legend in a thoughtful and effective manner. I won’t go into detailed analysis of the plot right now, but suffice it to say the setting – a secluded abbey surrounded by mysterious, magical woods, during the fearful age of the viking raids into England, is the perfect backdrop for the exciting, moving tale told here.
A young boy being raised by his uncle, the abbot of Kells, finds himself drawn to literary illumination and the legendary Book of Kells. Meanwhile the abbot is consumed with a burning drive to erect a great wall around the monastery to protect the monks and refugees from death at the hands of the invaders from across the sea.
Aside from some breathtaking art and music, one of the things that impressed me most about Kells was the amount of research and thought that must have gone into the story and that was so skillfully incorporated without feeling forced.
For instance, the story involves a certain artifact belonging to St. Columba, the founder of Kells and at least in the film the originator of the Book. So far as I can tell, there wasn’t actually a myth about such an artifact, but Columba was the subject of other legend. St. Columba is credited with having spread Christianity to Scotland, and was said to have banished a great water monster to the depths of River Ness.
The abbey at Kells and its namesake book are real, the later currently residing in Dublin, and at some points the film shows us some animated versions of actual illuminations from the tome.
The observant watcher will also note the name of the dark Celtic god Crom, which was likely the inspiration for Robert E Howard’s Conan deity. There’s also some interesting imagery to be observed, including that of the ouroboros.
Perhaps my favorite “Easter Egg” or whatever you might call it, is a feline character belonging to one of the monks. The cat is named Pangur Ban, and was inspired by an actual 9th century poem written by a monk about his pet cat.
There’s an excellent song at one point in the film, where the character Aisling uses magic to enlist the help of the small animal. The Gealic lyrics of her singing invoke James 4:14. One theme of the story seems to be the giving way of the pagan powers to the Christian God, as perhaps reflected in Aisling’s song.
The Secret of Kells is a wonderful movie, though I wouldn’t show it to young children due to some emotionally intense scenes. It’s uplifting to observe that though many mainstream entertainment media shy away from Christian SFF storytelling these days, there are smaller outlets that do not, and they’re capable of some fantastic work.