Here is a two-part conversation about The Secret of Kells, published in the Good Letters blog at Image journal: Part One and Part Two
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I am a priest in Sioux Falls but I come from Kells and my house was in the same street as the round tower of Kells. The town wall depicted in the film marked the end of my garden. Below our garden lay the “Abbey Field” where the monks are said to have been buried, and where the Book was hidden or lost and then found after the Vikings had pillaged the monastery and taken the book cover, which they valued more than the Book itself. The memory of the lives and work of the monks, so much a part of where I lived through the presence of the high crosses, St. Colmcille’s House (the Scriptorium), the Round Tower, St. Colmcille’s well, the old wall, the field and the Book itself (although kept in Trinity and now a major money-maker for TCD), was an inspiration for my faith and the faith of so many generations of my town.
I have not yet seen the film; it is scheduled to be shown in Sioux Falls next month so I should see it then. However I have seen descriptions of the film in different news reports and reviews in addition to the film’s website. I am sad that the film-makers seem to have done a great disservice to the faith of the men who expressed their faith and love of Our Lord through the Book. As you say, they present the Faith as mundane and limiting at best while paganism is mysterious and exciting, and the contents of the Book are ignored.
Given the cultural and spiritual atmosphere present in Ireland this does not surprise me – I would have been surprised if the film had extolled Christ and Christianity in any way. The film seems to be an expression of a new, pagan rewriting of Irish culture and spirituality. This new rewriting says that the true Irish soul is pagan and this film attempts to place the early Church as pagan in reality – as without paganism it could not produce such wonders. I doubt very much that those who illuminated the pages of the Book of Kells would agree.
Fr. Paul King
You do raise some valid concerns for the Irish culture which I can’t refute here (since I belong to another culture). Unfortunately, “debasement” seems to be the order [sic] of the day. It’s now alarmingly all over the place, more so in mainstream entertainment. This is not to say The Secret of Kells falls into a debased criteria, it isn’t even mainstream entertainment.
Personally, and without meaning to proselytise, I found the film very gratifying on many levels, not only on the artistic level, but also on the spiritual level. People find this very hard to believe since not once in the film were the Gospels, or for that matter, God, even mentioned. The conspicuous absence of Practice also seems to render the film into commercial domain.
Now, this may seem mawkish, but I was able to sense a running well of Faith beneath the film, and I found it to be very deep; which may explain why up till now, the film resonates strongly with me. For a film that understands and incorporates noble, underlying meanings (seamlessly and beautifully), all that artistic beauty could not have been just for vanity and conceit! I suspected that the thought behind the film must also spring from the same ancient well of the Illuminating Arts, which in its truest form is Glorification. The film (especially its outcome) is so overwhelmingly gentle in nature, it’s virtually inculpable of shaming and dishonoring the Gospels (despite a rather subversive take on an issue. But then again, what are the Gospels without a tint of subversion?). The best part of it all is, the film doesn’t even advertise these values, achieving finally an understated moral strength. That is all the dramatic impact I require.
Father Paul King, please try to see the film’s final images in another light, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I refer to the scene where the Chi Rho Page comes alive. That scene where the Creations come alive is an unmistakable wordless exaltation of God. Where once it was (just) Glorification through Talent, now it expands into an ode to God as seen through our Heritage, and I refer to the Living Heritage here on Earth.
I said this once at NYT, this film is an understated masterpiece. Perhaps the only part that remains questionable (what I once mistakenly referred to as a flaw) is when Brendan regressed back to his younger self. Had Aisling remained a wolf in the clearing, it would have done Brendan’s passage to adulthood immeasurable good, and achieved more dramatic, not to mention sacrificial, resonance. After all, Aisling’s appearance inside the final swirling motifs will still give acknowledgement to whatever it is the filmmakers wish to acknowledge. That said, it’s a slight misstep, but forgivable, depending on which point of view the viewer is coming from. Anyway, Father King, I hope you enjoyed the film.