Our Favourite Book: The Kells Manuscript

Us adults, intellectual adults in particular, we admire and are distressed at the same time by what television and movies and cartoons do to children's reading culture.

The evening letter-hunting is becoming more and more tiring and old-fashined and seems to be sort of an allure to the modern person. There were efforts made in the media to stop this tendency; there was the Big Book campaign and then a whole year was devoted to popularize books. Domestically, our poets, novelists, celebrities do reading tours around the country, while internationally, the Harry Potter series was said to be the ambassador of reading. We need heroes!



Another kind of hero arrived. A monk wearing the armour of a medieval crusader. The Secret of Kells, the Irish-Hungarian animated cartoon goes to war outnumbered; it took on itself to popularize medieval manuscripts – from ages 5 to 1200.
The protagonist of the story taking place in the 9th century is a boy called Brendan who lives in a Celtic abbey, which is more like a fortress. He is protected, yet he is frightened of what is beyond the walls. Both the vikings and the evil, mysterious powers of the woods are dangerous for a twelve-year-old lad. However all this becomes insignificant, as the young man has a mission. He is the only one who can finish the powerful book that has all his people's knowledge and wisdom in its pictures – the Book of Kells. To find the right colours and forms, he has to know the secrets and spirits of the woods (including the frighteningly beautiful Aisling), and eventually has to face the lonely years of work after the attack of the Vikings.

The films magical elements are faithful to a half-nature, half-mystic folk. Their prime enemy is fear to which Brendans answer is recognition and hard work. He saves the blend of his people's and christianity's culture letter by letter into the Book of Kells, so its spirit can live on protected inside of it. Here, the magical powers that help the protagonists in other films, are replaced simply by the boy's faith in the importance of his work.
The style of animation is original, yet familiar. It's a nice mixture of Celtic motifs and the stylized forms of Hungarian folk art. This fresh pairing was what director Tomm Moore was looking for when he contacted the cartoon artists of Kecskemétfilm Ltd. in Hungary. The style is the base of humour in the film: it is spontaneous, simple and charming. This and the word play support each other very well. Although in most contemporary animated cartoons, humour is the main attraction, here, the beauty and charm of the characters is just as important. And besides the surprising depth of the story, the ultimate component is the message that fills the animated style with sacrality.
The unusual dramaturgy and ending have a refreshing effect; Brendans life story isn't set to the delicate cycle, as a result those usually dreading the naivity of cartoons can easily identify themselves with him.

Every feature of the drawn world is simple, yet significant. It consciously takes on its sweet load, carrying the ideas of the characters of the Celtic-style world of forms. The essence of this is what the Book of Kells takes on. The historic theme is almost exlusively moved by the desire to pass on the admiration over the Book. There's almost no mention of data, contents or the historical background. It is astonishing that up until the last seconds of the movie, the book itself can only be seen from the outside. These classic tools (suspense, the creators' salute through the world of forms – an artists' tribute to the artist ancestors) are what the designers use to focus the viewers' attention to the beauty shining from the book's pages. All this wraps both the book and the animation in their own sensual-intellectual significance.
We've seen countless attemps at didactic productions that are supposed to make viewers interested, but mostly there's something wrong about them – you can just sense that it wants to teach you something. The few lucky exceptions include the prince of the Miyazaki Hayao books and the Hungarian tales series that is also produced by Kecskemétfilm, and inspired many young historians to find their careers. The Secret of Kells is another such exception. You can listen to experts glorifying medieval literature all day without any understanding, or numbly read through volumes and volumes of manuscripts. And there comes this simple animated tale that will, bizarre as it may sound, make you willingly read some manuscripts before going to bed.

The cartoon does work, it makes you think and it's premium quality – the infamous category of 'unity of content and form' does work well here. At the same time it's simple and loveable. It also has won its share of prizes and awards (Berlinale, Edinburgh, Annecy, New York).

The Secret of Kells
France, Belgium, Ireland, Hungary
75 min
Music: Bruno Coulais
Producers: Didier Brunner, Tomm Moore, Paul Young
Evan McGuire (Brendan) Michael McGrath (adult Brendan) Christen Mooney (Aisling) Mick Lally (Aidan) Brendan Gleeson (Abbot Cellach)