MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT
A long time ago I watched a magical animated short film about a young monk in a monastery set in Dark Ages Ireland. This film was called The Secret of Kells (2009). The story it tells is of Brendan, a young novice monk living at the Monastery of Kells and the Book of Iona – which would eventually become known as the Book of Kells.
Although a novice monk, Brendan has family at the monastery. His uncle, Abbot Cellach, was an illuminator, but due to the threat of Viking raids he is consumed by the task to build an impenetrable wall around the monastery. As they are religious men and the community around them mainly consists of the elderly, mothers, and children, they have no other way to protect themselves. Cellach’s dire task has also in turn neglected his care of Brendan, who often feels alone inside the dour monastery. Brendan is apprenticed to the scriptorium, where the writing and illumination of religious works were produced in a monastery.
Brendan’s world is interrupted by the arrival of Brother Aidan from Iona, who is accompanied by his loyal cat and carrying the unfinished Book of Kells. As Aidan fled from Iona due to a Viking raid, this further increases Cellach’s obsession to build an unstoppable wall. Due to Brendan’s fascination with the book, Aidan enlists his assistance. From then on Brendan’s faces enemies and obstacles which are not always from our own world.
Although the film focuses on the creation of the Book of Kells, many characters and stylistic elements also come from traditional Irish mythology including pre-Christian Irish deities. This is because when development began all the way back in 1999, the creators had admired other films which had based their animation on traditional art. These films were Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993, 1995), Disney’s Mulan (1998) and the work of Hayao Miyazaki. From this admiration they decided to do something similar but drawing inspiration from Irish art. The stylistic elements can be seen in amazingly animated scenes showing the creation of the book, ending the film in a fitting way.
Now onto the historical Book of Kells. No one is exactly sure of the date of composition, though it’s thought it began circa 800 AD. Previously it was thought that the book was created in the time of St. Columba or even by his own hand. But it is hard to believe this considering he died in 597 AD. The film keeps the origins of the book truthful, although there are multiple suggestions for the origin of the book. One is that it was actually started in northern England, was moved to Iona and then on to Kells. Another suggestion is that the book was actually completely produced in Kells. But the most popular opinion is that it had come over sometime from Iona. As during this time Viking raids were known to occur on Iona, it is plausible that the monks fled to Kells. But again no one is sure about when the book actually arrived in Kells. Although there is a reference the book from a record dated from 1007 AD, so it is certain it would have arrived in Kells before then.
The only reason why the book is known as the Book of Kells (rather than the Book of Iona), is because it was kept in Kells throughout the medieval period. It was moved to Dublin in 1654, for safekeeping. Soon after in 1661, it was presented to the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin where it has remained ever since. It has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College since the 19th Century.
As someone who has seen the Book of Kells at the College, I’ll give a brief description of the experience. Firstly, Trinity College is a lovely university, obviously modelled on previous campuses at Oxford and Cambridge. Thankfully it was a sunny clear day because me and my family had to wait in the queue outside for about 30 minutes before we could even see the admissions office. Then even after paying some euros to enter, there was more shuffling and waiting. Finally, we entered a small room with a glass cabinet in the middle. There was the Book of Kells.
Sadly, I can’t remember exactly what pages it was showing. But I do remember that it was gleaming with gold. In The Secret of Kells they mention it as “the book that turns darkness into light” and I think this is a pretty accurate statement. Although I wanted to study it longer, I felt that I had to move on as more people kept flooding into this tiny room. So I walked through the ancient library and into the gift shop. And would you believe it? They had a huge section dedicated to The Secret of Kells.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.