Review by Amber
The struggle between fear and creativity is endless. When we are children, creativity comes easily and naturally, but as we grow up, the concerns of everyday life begin to drown it out. The award-winning and Oscar-nominated gem The Secret of Kells (2009) illustrates how crucial our creativity is, and how we can use it to glorify God.
Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is a wide-eyed, curious young boy growing up in the Abbey of Kells, and he has never set foot outside the walls of the town. Brendan lives with, and is essentially apprenticed to, his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). Fearing a Viking invasion, the Abbot strives to focus the energy of the entire community, Brendan included, into fortifying the town’s defenses—by building a high stone wall around Kells. Brendan, however, wants to spend his time in the scriptorium—where the monks work day in and day out to create beautiful illuminated manuscripts. The Abbot is a talented artist himself, but he has abandoned all creative and artistic endeavors in order to focus on building the wall—because of his own fear.
When a master illuminator, Brother Aiden of Iona (voiced by Mick Lally), is driven from his own home by a Viking invasion, he comes to Kells for sanctuary—and with him he brings the famed Book of Iona. The Book is a magnum opus in progress, and Aiden fled his home with the Book in order to see it completed. He invites Brendan into the process, and asks him to help him gather the natural materials he needs to make the ink—materials that can only be found outside the walls of Kells. Though his uncle has strictly forbidden it, Brendan determines to break the rules by venturing outside the walls and into the forest in order to help Brother Aiden with the Book. He is afraid, of course—afraid of breaking the rules, afraid of his uncle’s displeasure, afraid of the forest, and afraid of the unknown—but ultimately he decides that if he stays focused on the Book, he will forget his fears. Thankfully, Brendan meets a new friend in the woods, Aisling, who helps him through the dangers and sees him safely home.
After Brendan returns and he helps Brother Aiden with all of the preparations, Aiden suggests that Brendan put pen to paper instead of just helping make quills and ink. Brendan is hesitant at first, and Aiden asks if he is afraid. One may wonder, “What on earth would he be afraid of?” Any artist can answer that: there is the fear of making mistakes (inadequacy), the fear of the vulnerability that accompanies the creative process (self discovery), and the fear of sharing one’s work with others (which could lead to rejection). Once again, Brendan puts aside his fears and takes his first steps to becoming an illuminator himself. When the Abbot discovers what Brendan has been up to, he is furious; Brendan tells his uncle that he has forgotten the importance of artistry, of creativity—of the Book. The Abbot has entirely given in to fear, and in so doing has lost sight of what is important.
It is tempting to abandon our greater purpose in pursuit of temporary security—or even the illusion of it. Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27) Fear and worry are counterproductive. The wall around Kells did not endure, but as we know, the Book did (I had the privilege of visiting Trinity College Library in Dublin and seeing the Book of Kells firsthand). When fear causes us to lose sight of God and His purposes for us, it undermines our faith. Paul writes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (I John 4:18) God, the first and greatest Creator, created us in His image; our creativity is uniquely human, and should be cherished. Brendan, though only a child, understood that, while his uncle quite forgot it.
As Brendan continually puts aside his own fears, his bravery begins to inspire others. When he must once again brave the dangerous forest in search of an important tool needed for the Book, he must overcome great obstacles and great fears in order to obtain it. Through his adventure, his own bravery inspires Aisling to work through some of her own fears. He also inspires Brother Aiden, as well as the other illuminators, to persevere in the midst of their trials, and ultimately, he even inspires his uncle to see his own errors.
The artistry in The Secret of Kells is unparalleled. Every visual element works together to create a world of fantasy and mystery that is infused with magic at every moment. The style is very little like what American animation studios generate—where the style that has developed here in the States involves, for the most part, creating the illusion of a 3-dimensional world on screen, The Secret of Kells does almost the inverse. It does not follow strict rules of perspective; rather, it looks like a series of 2-dimensional illustrations come to life—much like a book. The painterly backgrounds and the Gallic motifs throughout the film (motifs directly influenced by the artwork in the Book of Kells) further enhance this illusion of a book that has come to life. Another thing I love about the style of this film is that it breaks the convention of remaining within the 16:9 format dictated by the screen; throughout the story, the film makes use of extreme anamorphic frames, as well as diptych and triptych formats.
I love that The Secret of Kells highlights the importance of artistry and creativity. When life feels hectic and stressful, creativity can seem frivolous and superfluous (it did to the Abbot)—but it is a gift from God, and it is a means by which we can show Him to others. Brother Aiden tells Brendan that the Book is not meant to be kept hidden, but to be shown to the world. Luke 8:16 “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.”
“And yet, I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book—the book that turns darkness into light.” -The Secret of Kells