Turning Darkness Into Light: Truth and Magic in the Story of a Book

I recently had the pleasure of watching a movie that has now joined the ranks of Melissa’s Absolute Favorite Films of All Time.  It doesn’t happen often, but this movie deserves it several times over.

The movie came out last year and was nominated for an Academy Award, and yet few people have actually heard of it or know what it is.  I saw the preview and was very interested, but forgot about it by the time the DVD release rolled around.   Fortunately, I was giving the opportunity to watch it last week.

The movie is called The Secret of Kells.  It is a cartoon done in the old style with all hand drawn art.  The odd topic and the cartoon style probably deterred many a potential viewer.  Unfortunately, the movie is more aptly named than it probably means to be.  Far too few people seem to know anything about the Book of Kells at all, and that, my readers, is a crying shame.

Trinity College Library: This is one of my tourist destinations when I cross the Pond this fall...

The Book of Kells is the most treasured piece of literature in Ireland.  Its origins are shrouded in a haze of mystery due to the chaos of the seventh and eighth centuries, but despite the ravaging of many a monastery in those days, the Book of Kells survived.  It now resides in Trinity College in Dublin, encased in glass, with one page turned every month for the viewing pleasures of visitors.

What makes the Book of Kells so fascinating and astonishing is the intricate illumination work done on each page of the text.  Few examples of such quality illumination exist.  The Book of Kells is a manuscript primarily dedicated to the four Gospels, and each page is a work of loving, carefully rendered art.

Because the origins of the Book are unknown, screenwriters felt able to create their version of the story and capture it in the masterpiece that is The Secret of Kells.  This movie is magical, a blending of history and Irish faerie tale that is perfectly suited for the story and the approach the early Irish Christians had to their faith.

I won’t give away the whole story.  I want you to watch it for yourself!  Suffice to say that this is the story of a young boy named Brendan who lives in the monastery of Kells, ever under the threat of Viking invasion.  When the unfinished Book is brought to Kells, Brendan goes on an adventure in which he encounters remnants of the ancient, mythic past while striving to help complete the beautiful Book.

What I really want to focus on in this post is the movie’s incredible blending of Christianity and Irish myth.  The Irish people, as you may well know, were largely brought to faith because of the providential coming of Saint Patrick.  Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was one of the most peaceful national conversions.  There are several reasons for this, but one of them, I believe, is that the old Irish religion was not so much abandoned as relegated.  The Irish people recognized the truth of Christianity, but they saw no reason to cease believing in the Tuatha de Danaan.  The gods of the Irish lost their power in the eyes of the people, but not all of their presence.  They became the Sidhe, the fair folk, the faeries.  Believing in God and believing that a brownie lives in your bedroom (the faerie, not the baked good…) were not mutually exclusive.  The Irish had the ability to hold fast to a new faith while seeing magic in the world that their newly accepted God had made.

The artwork of the movie was stunning: the forest was filled with Celtic knotwork.

Thus, the Irish are able to have stories such as those of Taliesin and Oisin. Taliesin is the bard of some of the oldest Welsh Arthurian tales who speaks of his many magical transfigurations in one line of poetry and his faith in God in the next. Oisin is a mortal who marries a faerie queen and lives in the Otherworld for hundreds of years before returning to Ireland.  When Oisin’s feet touch mortal soil, his years catch up with him, but he is converted to Christ before he dies.  Having the Sidhe and Christianity in one world is not only acceptable, but beautiful in Irish literature.

In The Secret of Kells, this blending is brought to light in the movie’s subtle incorporation of the meaning of the Book with Brendan’s encounters in the woods outside the monastery.  The movie never outright states the content of the Book, but hints are woven into the movie as carefully and integrally as Celtic knots.  Brother Aidan talks about the Chi Rho page, the most important page in the Book.  Chi and Rho are the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name.  It is also repeatedly emphasized that this Book is more important than any other book and that it is the Book that “turns darkness into light.”

The stunning Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells

On the other hand, the first one to explain this book’s significance is an immortal Sidhe who whispers of the many things she has seen in her time, ending with the Book that turns darkness into light.  A mythic creature interacts with a Christian text.

Brendan also stumbles upon the dwelling place of Crom Cruach, an ancient dark pagan deity and, incidentally, one that Saint Patrick is said to have destroyed (its image, of course, not the deity itself).  Brendan’s use of the very same art that he will later use on the Book to conquer this enemy is significant.  A creature of ancient darkness encounters the light and falls before it.

Pangur Ban is an endearing little character, but even he is integrally connected to the history of the Book of Kells. Pangur Ban (meaning Whiter than White) is found in an old poem written by a monk. A white cat is also woven into the Book of Kells.

I found this movie enchanting, astonishing, and incredibly moving.  The artwork of the movie itself imitates the illumination of the Book with intricate borders, snowflakes that resemble tiny Celtic knots, and repeating patterns in the forest and trees that are unmistakably Celtic designs.  The story is touching and engaging, with both humor and somber tragedy, but an ultimate note of triumph.  This is a movie that will touch anyone who loves beautiful artwork, lovely Celtic music, and a subtle touch of Faerie in an amazing Christian story.