Last week, we looked at the Book of Kells, a 9th-century Irish manuscript so rich it has inspired generations. Today, we’re continuing our focus on the Book of Kells with a recent family flick inspired by the manuscript–The Secret of Kells. Though it’s been ten years since its initial release in Ireland, the movie’s animation and story remain a beautiful hallmark that hearken back to medieval illuminations.
Originally released in Ireland, one of its countries of origin, The Secret of Kells’ story is intertwined with the Book of Kells. Animated by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, The Secret of Kells is meant to directly resemble the famous manuscript it’s based on. Which it does in glorious fashion without ever seeming unnatural or outdated. Upon its release in 2009 (and in the next year in the United States), it gained rave reviews despite its limited more global release and was nominated for Best Animated Feature.
The movie mainly centers on the story of Brendan, a young boy growing up in the monastery in the Irish town of Kells. Under the strict hand of the Abbot of Kells–Brendan’s uncle, whose preoccupation with keeping his community safe from Viking raids often eclipses his more compassionate side–Brendan helps out the brothers who work in the scriptorium copying sacred texts. Upon the arrival of Brother Aidan, a master illuminator from the recently-raided isle of Iona, Brendan learns more about one manuscript in particular; the book Aidan and his fellow brothers spent their lives working on, a glorious illuminated manuscript that can “turn darkness into light.” At Aidan’s request, Brendan ventures out from the fortified town and into the forest to find more material for ink. There he meets Aisling, a fairy wolf-girl who introduces him to the beauty of her forest…and to a darkness there that could destroy that beauty, which Brendan had heard of previously from Brother Aidan. With the North-men (Vikings) on their way towards Kells, will Brendan and Aidan finish the Book? Will they be able to help turn darkness into light? Can Aisling’s forest also survive the darkness?
The Secret of Kells lovingly pays tribute to the history and artistry of the Book of Kells while weaving a clever, fun story. It also draws heavily on Irish folklore and medieval Irish poetry, with the inclusion of Aisling and a lovable cat named Pangur-Ban. Though some of the North-men scenes might be a little scary for younger viewers (there’s no overt violence, but the dark colors and scary figures might be unsettling), on the whole the movie is a story about how imagination and art can turn darkness into light–the foundational idea behind medieval illumination.
Want to see how medieval illumination inspired The Secret of Kells for yourself? The movie is available to stream via Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and other outlets. Or, do as this author did and check the DVD shelves at your local library.
Discover more about The Secret of Kells at Cartoon Saloon’s site.
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