Happy Saint Patrick's Day! A few weeks ago, the kids and I watched The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore, with Nora Twomey. The movie presents a phantasmagoric account of the origin of The Book of Kells (c. 800), perhaps the greatest cultural treasure of Ireland and one of the outstanding achievements of the Christian West. It's home is Trinity College Library in Dublin, and can be viewed online: http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php…. The Book is actually four volumes, illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels in Latin. (The Celtic knot work and interweaving style of The Book of Kells can be found in the stained glass windows of my former parish, St. Columbkille's in Brighton.)
Like the Book itself, which in its illustrations and ornamentation draws all the abundance of the world, including natural and mythological forms, into the forcefield of Jesus, the movie synthesizes nature mysticism, Celtic mythology, Irish nationalism, and Christianity, even beginning with a diatomaceous evocation of the primeval chaos from which beauty must be won. Jesus is the secret center of all life and history. The movie reminds one of the perfect synthesis of myth and Christianity C. S. Lewis achieves in Till We Have Faces. The movie does not reach the same perfection, but its capaciousness is just right. Probably a closer analogy to The Secret of Kells would be Tarkovsky's enigmatic movie Andrei Rublev.
Traditionally, The Book of Kells owes its beginning to Saint Columbkille himself, and that's the story the movie presents. Without monasticism, all the learning of the West would have succumbed to the fire and sword of Vikings and other marauding tribes. This movie understands that and, warming any bibliophile's heart, explicitly acknowledges the necessity of books to preserve civilization, indeed to illuminate and elevate the world. In the opening sequence, a forest spirit whispers, "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." As made explicit in the movie, the center of gravity of that book, which is in fact THE BOOK, the Bible, is the name of Jesus, on the Chi Rho monogram page, one of the images below.
In the movie, the Abbot of Kells is obsessed with building a wall to defend against the Vikings, while in the scriptorium, the illuminators point out that the absolutely needful bulwark against the violent waves of chaos cannot be found in fortifications, but rather is in books: “If there were no books, all knowledge would be lost. For eternity." "We cannot only build walls. The people must have books, so that they may have hope."
By the way, Tomm Moore directed another movie, Song of the Sea, achingly beautiful, actually a better movie than Secret of the Kells, a must-see for all families and cineastes. It drips with Irish melancholy, sad and beautiful, and shares with the earlier movie a stunningly beautiful animation unlike anything you've seen.
While I'm at it, I'll give two more animated movie recommendations. Moore and his partners at Cartoon Saloon were inspired to follow the example of director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in distinctive, vernacular animation, but to do so in an Irish idiom. Miyazaki has two movies any family would be edified and delighted to see: My Neighbor Totoro (a perfect film) and Ponyo.
[This was originally posted on Facebook, February 6, 2016.]