Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Secret of Kells

Brendan and Aisling, picture from Matthew Sernett, Fantasty Film Review
 The Secret of Kells is a 2009 film about The Book of Kells and its creation.

This film is unbelievably rich for those who have learned a bit about Irish history and culture. The creators blend Irish history and legend together in a way that is befitting. In an Anglo-Irish literature class, I was told that it's hard to know what is true about Irish history because history and myth are thoroughly mixed together.
Can you separate the ingredients of a cake after it is baked? No, but the cake sure is delicious. So it is with Irish history.

Just like the history of Ireland, myth and reality intermingle in the film.The boy, Brendan, befriends a fairy girl in the woods.  Cromm Crúaich, a monster Brendan believes to be a myth is very real and dangerous.  Brendan's knowledge of Irish lore helps him find "the eye of Columkille," which is also the eye of the monster that the monks use as a crystal magnifying glass.

Brother Aiden tells a tale about St. Columkille, also known as St. Columba, the man attributed with bringing Christianity to Scotland. He was also a trouble maker, and was in fact sent to Scotland by his superiors because he got involved with a war between Irish chieftains.  As Aiden speaks, the tale is told in pictures. These pictures are comical and frank. When Columkille dies, his tongue slides out of his mouth and his eyes turn into Xs. Seems irreverent, but in this situation it works because it fits with the persona of Columkille as portrayed in lore: an ambiguous legendary figure, a Saint who was hot-headed and got into trouble.

This scene also demonstrates how tall tales are created. Brother Aiden says that St. Columkille was given "a third eye" to help him create the intricate designs in The Book of Kells.  The other monks chime in, saying he had a third hand, or a whole host of hands.  Aiden continues with his story about the third eye and St. Columkille.  It turns out the "eye" is actually a crystal that is quite simply used to magnify the images. It isn't magical and it isn't a third eyeball in Columkille's head. 

That said, the crystal is the eye of Cromm Crúaich. This monster apparently has crystals for eyes. Brendan needs a crystal, so he takes the monster's eye. And so, the legend of St. Columkille is mixed with the lore of Cromm Crúaich. Both are real in the film, not parts of alternate realities.

Aisling, the fairy, uses a famous Irish saying in a scene. Brendan provides the English translation for us.  This is symbolic: Aisling uses the native language and represents the old ways of Ireland before St. Patrick, the time when fairies and Celtic gods walked the land. Brendan represents life post-Patrick. Not a complete loss of the old way of life, but a new outlook. (By the way, this is NOT how English became the dominate language of Ireland. Here the use of the two languages is symbolic). When St. Patrick came, the worship of Celtic gods was diminished and they were relegated to the realm of stories. The Irish monks wrote down the ancient Irish legends (heretofore only in oral form) and thus preserved Irish "history." They tweaked some, adapting them to the Christianity, but not altogether discarding them because Patrick recognized the beauty and value of these colorful tales.