Friday, January 13, 2012

The Secret of Kells


I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I've had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, "Hey, I've been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C'mon, I've heard it's good."

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that's when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.


Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle's will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you've just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)



Which is excellent, because the movie begins: "I have seen the book which turns darkness into light."  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It's also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.


Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it's not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they're talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:


Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word "Christ" in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats' feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.

This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It's quite a work of art -- the movie as well as the book.  

Good luck -- you're in for a treat.


8 comments:

Phiala said...

I finally watched a few weeks ago. Such a lovely movie. I saw the Book of Kells in person a few years ago (was yelled at by the docent for taking too long to look at the open page). It's a wonderful artwork, and much smaller than you'd think.

I assumed the "oak berries" were oak galls, which were used in inkmaking as a tannin source. I've never heard them called berries, but they're often called oak apples. The only green medieval inks I know of used verdigris, and not any plant material at all. (Not an ink expert, by any means.)

Simon Forster said...

That looks amazing. And since your post on Dragon Hunters made me look it up & buy it (and I loved it), this is going on my list. Thanks for sharing.

feoh said...

Great post! This is a gorgeous movie. I too kept seeing it in the list and thinking I should get to it, and when I did I was utterly swept away.

Rarely are both the visuals and the story that they tell so achingly beautiful.

I saw the actual book in Ireland a couple of years back, and I wish I'd seen this first!

mcf said...

Actually, the Book of Kells is on permanent exhibit at Trinity College Dublin.

Annoying Corrector said...

The Book of Kells is actually on display in Trinity College in Dublin. The library usually displays two of the current four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. In fact, it has been on display to the public in the Old Library at Trinity since the 19th century. Both the Wikipedia for the film and for the original book mention this.

Nevan said...

The Book of Kells is living in a Library in Dublin, on display for people to see. It's escaped the clutches of the British Museum.

Heather McDougal said...

Ahh, my mistake! I was mixing it up with the Linnesfarm Gospels, which I think I saw long ago at the British Museum. Thanks for the correction!

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the tip! I've just ordered the DVD myself.

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