By Tania Mann
“I have seen suffering in the darkness, yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the Book – the Book that turned darkness into light”.
The Secret of Kells opens with these whispered words. The independent film produced in Kilkenny, Ireland, was one of this year’s surprise Oscar nominees. It was up for Best Animated Feature against such box office hits as Disney-Pixar’s Up and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. The film’s plot centres on 12-year-old Brendan, an orphan in 9th-century Ireland living among a community of monks who practice illumination, the art of illustrating and embellishing Gospel texts.
Brendan’s adventures begin when a quirky old illuminator named Aidan arrives with his cat Pangur Bán. The monk is renowned for his work on a famous Gospel manuscript under the legendary St Columcille (also known as St Columba). Br Aidan’s seemingly whimsical arrival is a harbinger of danger, however; he comes seeking refuge, having fled from the Viking raids that destroyed his home of Iona. Prompted by Aidan’s request for inkberries, Brendan ventures beyond the village’s fortified walls against the wishes of his stern uncle, the Abbot of Kells (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). There in the forest he meets Aisling, the sprightly and boisterous girl who accompanies him on his journey.
Director Tomm Moore, a 33-year-old Irish illustrator, comics artist and filmmaker, spoke about the significance, historical background and creation of The Secret of Kells in a telephone interview granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s English edition on 12 March.
Moore explained that extensive research was involved in the making of the film. This included studying the actual Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels which is considered Ireland’s finest cultural artefact. Today it is displayed at Trinity College in Dublin, but originally it was housed at the Abbey of Kells, the monastery founded by St Columba where the story is set.
By combining history, fantasy, and myth, Moore’s team aimed to illustrate the importance of preserving valuable traditions and shed light on the truth common to all faiths. The result is a dream-like journey that speaks of sacrifice, gaining strength through suffering, reconciliation and hope.
Several of these themes emerge in the way the film’s catch phrase – turning darkness into light – is interwoven with the story: “We took that language from a poem that a monk wrote about his cat, Pangur Bán, and it’s a direct translation from the old Gaelic”, said Moore. “He wrote it in the corner of the Gospel he was transcribing. He said that his cat had a like path to him – that his cat was chasing mice but he was chasing words, and that they worked all night turning darkness into light”.
Brendan’s adventures involve facing the darkness both within and without. As the boy struggles with the idea of leaving to brave the forest, Br Aidan assures him of the importance of experiencing the outside world: “I lost my brothers to attackers from the outside. Now I only have the Book to remember them by. But if my brothers were here now, they would tell you that you will learn more in the woods … than from any other place. You will see miracles”.
In the forest, Brendan’s enemy takes the form of Crom Cruach, known in Irish legend as a pre-Christian deity to whom pagans would make human sacrifices in the hope of good crops. But in the film Crom appears as a snake-like creature that devours its own tail, an Ouroboros.
“The Ouroboros is a symbol that you see a lot in the Book of Kells”, said Moore. “It was a symbol of eternal life that was used often in the crossover period between pagan and Christian faith in Ireland”. He explained that the scene symbolizes an inner battle: “We decided to make Crom very abstract so that it was more Brendan’s own fears that he was defeating rather than a specific pagan god. It’s Brendan’s journey into his own subconscious where he has to fight with his own fears, and then comes out triumphant with a new vision”.
In his defeat of the creature, Brendan’s character parallels the figure of St Patrick, who was said to have struck down Crom Cruach, bringing an end to paganism in the country.
If Brendan can be likened to St Patrick, then perhaps the film’s illustrators can be compared to the Gospel illuminators. “Whenever we were looking at the Book of Kells, a lot of people pointed out that it must have taken a certain meditative quality to create that work. The monks would have had to be completely calm and focused, because it’s almost impossible to imagine how they created such detail with such rudimentary tools that they would have had at the time”.
Similarly meticulous is the work entailed in creating a 2D animated film like this one, which is 95% hand-drawn and produced “without a lot of fancy computer equipment”, Moore said. “People are forgetting how magical it can be that just a pencil and a piece of paper can bring something to life”.
The director explained that each second of animation took approximately 12 drawings per character, in addition to the extremely elaborate backgrounds. “We spent four years working full-time on creating the film, but prior to that there were about six years of designing and developing”.
These artists’ pencil-sketched creations include a diverse group of monks from Italy, Africa and the Middle East. Moore explained that the choice of characters came from researching the Book of Kells, in which there are inks from Afghanistan, Moroccan designs, and other foreign influences. The artists imagined that perhaps people had come from across the world to work on the Book. “We also read a book that talked about how Ireland was a kind of a refuge, that the library in Kells was one of the few refuges existent in the Dark Ages”, he said. “That’s how Ireland became known as the land of saints and scholars, because during that period people came from all over the world to study or to work whenever it was more dangerous on the Continent”.
Moore’s favourite character, however, is Aisling. The fairy-like girl seems to be bursting with both youthful energy and ageless wisdom. Her character grew out of ideas from literature and from real life. “Aisling is often a figure in 18th-century Irish poetry, where Ireland is represented by this beautiful woman, very serene, and she appears to the poet in a dream – because aisling means ‘dream’ in Gaelic. We decided to turn the tradition on its head and make her a mischievous little girl instead of a sombre matriarchal figure”. Moore based Brendan’s relationship with Aisling on his own relationship with his younger sister, whose personality he claims is similar. “My sister even looks a little bit like her, except for Aisling’s white hair!”.
As the film begins to open to record-breaking crowds in the United States, it seems the “secret” is definitely out. And with it comes a message rife with Christian meaning.
“The Book was never meant to be hidden away behind walls, locked away from the world which inspired its creation”, Br Aidan tells Brendan, destined to become Abbot of Kells. “You must take the Book to the people, so that they may have hope. Let it light the way in these dark days”.
For further information visit the film’s production blog, http://theblogofkells.blogspot.com
© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 03/17/2010