Saturday, June 4, 2016

Thoughts about Another Children's Program: _The Secret of Kells_

As I note in "Thoughts about a Children's Program", I have the great pleasure of being a father to a young daughter, and I try to keep abreast of what media my daughter consumes. Recently, my wife, daughter, and I watched--for similar meanings of "watched" as before--Tomm Moore's 2009 The Secret of Kells. The movie dramatizes part of the production of the Book of Kells, following the theory that it was begun at Iona and taken through Kells amid Nordic raids on the British Isles. An illuminator, Aidan, arrives at the abbey at Kells, which is in the process of fortification under the guidance of Abbot Cellach; the abbot's nephew, Brendan, falls in with Aidan, violating his uncle's dicta to help Aidan work on the text and turn his own hand to the illumination. In doing so, he faces down and defeats Crom Cruagh, the dark pre-Christian deity whose stone altar remains nearby; he is aided by the fairy Aisling, who takes an interest in the boy and sacrifices much of herself to help him. With Aidan, Brendan flees a Viking raid on the abbey, venturing into the wilds with his tutor in the illuminator's art and completing much of the work on the Book of Kells before returning at length to his now-old uncle's bedside with the glorious book in hand. Despite some inaccuracies and some few oddities, The Secret of Kells is a solid, engaging presentation that points towards a more useful idea of the medieval than many other children's programs that pretend to partake of the medieval, one I am glad my daughter has gotten to see (and likely will again).

Any presentation of the medieval is bound to provoke complaints about inaccuracies, particularly from those of us who study the medieval in (something resembling) serious fashion. The Secret of Kells is not an exception. For one, the Vikings in the film, although bestial in accordance with prevailing impressions of them among Insular religious communities of the time, are depicted as horned. Although the horned Viking helmet is a fixture of pop-culture depictions of Nordic raiders--likely accounting for its inclusion in the movie--it is not attested by available physical evidence, and it would be impractical in any event, being likely to get stuck in doors. For another, the Book of Kells is treated in the film as a thing to be taken among the people; in truth, the kind of book of which the Book of Kells is among the most prominent examples was kept indoors and used little. It certainly was not taken out among the populace as the film suggests it was meant to be.

Several things in The Secret of Kells stand out as oddities. One that presents itself to my eye, as I grew up in the Texas Hill Country, is that Aidan evokes Willie Nelson in terms of his appearance and frequent association with strange smokes. Whether such a resonance is intentional or not, it is striking, and somewhat at odds with the medieval Irish milieu of the film--although it does amuse. Another is that there is relatively little overt prayer in the movie. It could be expected that a religious community--and an abbey is certainly a religious community--that makes much of religious artifacts and other places of worship would have more to do with the ritual exercise of faith. Yet aside from the occasional cross and the imagery deriving from the Book of Kells itself, there is not much in the way of observance. There are implications that such things happen "off-camera," but the centrality of faith to abbeys would suggest that it should be much more "on-camera" than it is.

Something that will likely strike many audiences as odd but is more accurate than many realize is the incorporation of multiple ethnicities into the community at Kells. Although there is something of the stereotype about them, such characters as Brothers Assoua and Tang point to the presence of non-white persons in medieval Europe. That they are among the few named characters in the work privileges them, and in their narrative privilege, they do serve to mitigate the idea of what Helen Young calls "the monochrome Middle Ages," the fallacy that there were not non-white people in Europe during the medieval period (see "Who Cares about Historical Authenticity? I Do" for more). Admittedly, the treatment is not as balanced or nuanced as it could or should be, given the aforementioned stereotyping and the isolation of the named brethren as representatives of non-white sympathetic characters, but it is a fair sight better than it could otherwise be.

Something else that comes out as accurate, although perhaps unlikely to be recognized as such, is the aforementioned smoke with which Aidan is associated. Notably, it is green, the result of an almost alchemical process--and green has overtones of magic and mysticism among the Insular medievals. The ink whose production occasions the smoke is itself lined with mystical overtones, both in the prevalent association of writing with salvation and preservation and in the lightening of darkness directly ascribed to the illuminator's art in the film. And the smoke serves to afford Brendan and Aidan the opportunity to escape the Viking raid on Kells, something that would doubtlessly have seemed a miracle to the characters. (Notably, too, the fairy-girl Aisling is green-eyed, reinforcing the connection of magic and greenness.) In using the green to connote the (helpfully) otherworldly, then, the film makes use of a medieval trope well, something that is refreshing to see in a work of near-contemporary children’s programming.

Other accuracies and invocations are perhaps more expected. In the film as in truth, Kells features a standing tower, although the film exaggerates its proportions. The layout of the abbey evokes any number of medieval mappa mundi, depicting a circle with a high tower at its center and seemingly divided into three parts, an eastern half and northern and southern quadrants, or Jerusalem surrounded by Asia, Africa, and Europe--much as medieval geographers conceived of the world. And the art in the movie as a whole is relatively faithful to its source material; there is much of the illuminated iconographic in the presentations of the characters in the film, and the beauty of the Book of Kells itself is clearly conveyed. The audience is left with a clear idea of the medieval world the film depicts as a place that has much to offer, a place where enduring glory could come to be, which is a useful corrective to prevailing ideas of the medieval as unmitigated squalor and dullness. It is a wholesome thing for children to see, something that can help them to proceed into their later lives with a better understanding of and appreciation for their long forebears.

There is more to plumb in the movie, to be sure. Much could be said of the emphasis placed on Pangur Bán, for instance, or the oceanic, non-Euclidian geometry--and concomitant invocation of the Lovecraftian--of Crom Cruach. But as a way to show children some of what the medieval has to offer, The Secret of Kells has much to recommend it; it will be a film I will encourage my daughter to watch again.

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