The Secret of Kells
"I have lived through many ages,The book that turned darkness into light..."
Through the eyes of salmon, deer, and wolf.
I have seen the Northmen invading Ireland,
Destroying all in search of gold.
I have seen suffering in the darkness,
Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places.
I have seen the book;
An Irish/Belgian/French co-production directed by Tomm Moore at Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind Skunk Fu!.
A fictionalized version of the history of the Book of Kells, the story focuses on Brendan, a young monk wanting to join his fellow monks in working on illuminating texts. But with the rising threat of Viking invasion, his uncle, Abbot Cellach, is far more focused on fortifying the Abbey for the inevitable attack.
The arrival of Brother Aidan, a master illuminator from Iona, allows Brendan to finally have a teacher and gives him an opportunity to leave the Abbey's wall when he is asked to get materials for ink. Brother Aidan has fled the Viking onslaught and is the keeper of the legendary book of Iona — the greatest work of illustration yet produced in Northern Europe, soon to be the Book of Kells. Befriending an enigmatic fairy named Aisling in the forest and taking a part in assisting Aidan with the Chi Rho page, things go well for him until he encounters the evil Celtic god Crom Cruach, and the Viking threat continues to slowly move closer to the Abbey...
Praised for its gorgeous visuals and music (it even got a standing ovation from the staff at Pixar), it managed to surprise everyone and get a Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars in 2010.
The film is now up on Hulu, meaning you can watch this gem for free!
- All That Glitters: The Book of Kells, especially for the Norse. Possibly the film's Aesop.
- All There in the Manual: Brendan and Aisling's backstories are revealed in the graphic novel adaptations of the film, written and drawn by Tomm Moore. The two stories are included as an insert with the Blu-Ray edition of the film.
- Ambiguous Gender: Pangur Bán. Though the novelization refers to the cat as being female, and if one listens carefully Aidan refers to it as 'her' near the beginning.
- Gender Flip: In the Irish poem Pangur Bán, the cat is male.
- French Brendan is Badass: The poster art seen above is... a little misleading.
- Angel Of Death: Abbot mistakes the adult Brendan for this.
- Annoying Arrows: Averted. A single arrow to the shoulder is enough to grievously injure Abbot Cellach but he manages to get back up and continue through sheer force of will.
- Anticlimax Boss: Crom Cruach. Despite being an ancient Celtic god who destroyed Aisling's entire family (and possibly species), it gets about a minute of screen time and is promptly defeated by a piece of chalk.
- Arbitrary Skepticism: When Aisling first tells Brendan of Crom Cruach, he dismisses it as "pagan nonsense". The irony that lies in saying that to a fairy completely escapes him.
- Arrows on Fire: The Vikings are fond of these.
- Art Initiates Life: How Brendan beats Crom Cruach.
- Art Shift: The monks' stories and Brendan's slate sketches. The art shift during the stories that talk about Colum-Cille, or Saint Columba, doubles as a Genius Bonus because it imitates the style of manuscripts being produced at Colum-Cille's time; a style categorized as the early insular gospels, and designed for the ease in Pagan conversion by presenting Christian aspects in a comprehensible comic-book-like format. Shown Their Work indeed.
- During a dramatic action scene when the Norsemen attack, the art suddenly gains perspective.
- A Storm Is Coming
- The Beast Master: One of Aisling's abilities; she controls the local wolf pack, and uses them to defend her forest and her friends, like when Brendan and Aidan are nearly killed by a pair of Vikings.
- Beneath the Earth: The mound of Crom Cruach.
- Big Badass Wolf: Aisling leads a pack of them, though initially they come across as everything being worse with wolves when they attack Brendan on his first journey into the forest. They later become more badass when Aisling rallies them against the Vikings who ambush Brendan and Aidan after they flee from the massacre at Kells.
- Big Damn Heroes: Aisling's wolf pack saving Brendan and Aidan from the vikings.
- Big Ol' Eyebrows: Aisling. All the characters have big eyebrows, but Aisling's are the most prominent, not to mention they aren't even the same colour as her hair.
- Trilingual Bonus: Aisling's song in Irish and the page of Latin Brendan and Aisling are shown running across.
- The first Latin sentence reads: "And so the little red-haired monk excelled at illumination but stayed mediocre in Latin."
- Bittersweet Ending: Aisling seemingly gives up her humanoid form helping Brendan into Crom Cruach's cave, the Vikings ravage Kells and kill most of the inhabitants, but Brendan and Aidan escape and finish the book. Aidan eventually passes and Brendan himself eventually returns to Kells, guided by wolf Aisling (who briefly flashes to her fey form) and raises the spirits of his broken spirited and aged uncle in the end by letting him look at the finished product he thought destroyed.
- Black Irish: One of the monks is from North Africa. His design... raised the hackles of a few reviewers unfamiliar with the Celtic art style.
- Black Speech: What the Northmen speak. Though sometimes they say a word that sounds a lot like "gold", since that's what they're after.
- Body to Jewel
- Break the Haughty: Abbot Cellach.
- Bunny Ears Lawyer: Aidan.
- Call To Illumination
- Celtic Mythology
- Chekhov's Gun: Green ink. Specifically, the smoke side-effect caused by it.
- Cool Teacher: Brother Aidan.
- Cute Little Fangs: If you look very closely in one scene, you can see that Aisling has them. They're made more obvious in an earlier scene when she tries to intimidate Brendan into leaving her forest.
- Design Student's Orgasm: In a family-friendly sense.
- Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Brendan manages to defeat Crom Cruach. Keep in mind, this is a monstrosity that has killed off most of Aisling's people, a race of very powerful, very well-armed warriors. And he does it with chalk.
- Disney Acid Sequence: The Book of Kells itself.
- Distant Finale
- Doing It for the Art: As most reviews have noted, it's only fitting that a film about the sublime glory of art is so impossiblybeautiful -- to the point where the lavish (and appropriately styled) animation is the main draw of the movie.
- The Determinator: Although Abbot Cellach is shot with a flaming arrow, struck down and ran through with a sword, and left for dead on an Irish winter's night, he simply refuses to die and, after being retrieved, goes on to live for around two decades.
- Easter Egg: When Aidan is throwing things around while looking for the Eye, a couple sheets of animation paper go fluttering through the air.
- Easy Evangelism: Completly averted; at one point a viking warrior gets to have a look at the Book of Kells (which is, you know, a Bible), only to rip out all of the pages and throw the book away a few seconds later, clearly unimpressed.
- Also averted with Aisling. Despite knowing how important the Book is to Brendan, she never converts. This is probably because pre-Christian Celtic demi-deities don't really care for Christianity. Like the filmmakers, she seems to be Doing It for the Art.
- Eccentric Mentor: Aidan, and presumably Aidan's old mentor from what we hear of him.
- Eldritch Abomination: Crom Cruach can be considered one.
- Evil Uncle: The Abbot (aside from the Vikings) seems to be an antagonist at first, and early concept art definitely depicts him as more typically "evil"-looking. Ultimately subverted, though, since despite being extremely strict he does genuinely care about Brendan.
- Cute Kitten:Pangur Ban
- Eyedscreen: The sudden focus on Brendan's eyes when he first enters the forest. Also used on the last refugee to arrive before the Viking invasion.
- The Fair Folk: Aisling, who is friendly for the most part, but will not hesitate to sic her wolves on people who trespass in her forest. Word of God says she's one of the Tuatha De Danann, a powerful divine race in Irish mythology.
- Five-Token Band: Of Irish Catholic monks. Think about that a moment. An Irish monk, an Italian monk, a Chinese monk, an African (Moor) monk, and an English monk, who was originally supposed to be Afghanistani. (There's also a monk with a German accent, a gloomy Slav, and a French monk (albeit without any lines in the final version).) It isn't explained how they all got there ("there" being a 9th century Irish monastery) but according to Word of God they represent the different artistic influences in the book. This counts as a Genius Bonus if you believe the hypothesis of How The Irish Saved Civilization. It's possible that Irish monasteries were essentially an ark for refugees across the Roman empire.
- Flat Earth Atheist: Brendan initially dismisses Crom Cruach as a story to scare children and says that Abbot Cellach told him never to worry about pagan fairytales. He tells all this to a fairy he just met.
- Foreshadowing: Brendan breaking through the scaffolding while chasing the goose.
- Funny Background Event: While Aidan and Brendan talk about important things, Pangur Ban slowly slides through Aidan's arms, her expression becoming more indignant by the second.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: The comic book prequel reveals the Abbot's scar came from a Viking's sword while rescuing Brendan as a toddler
- Good Is Not Nice: Abbot Cellach.
- Gory Discretion Shot: The stabbings of the dock worker and Abbot Cellach happen off-camera.
- It's also heavily implied but not explicitly shown that the monks and villagers holed up in the church instead of the tower don't survive the attack.
- Hard Work Montage: Brendan's training, interspersed with the Abbot's work on the wall.
- Herald: Aidan is an Action Survivor; see below.
- Hell Follows With Me: Aidan's journey to Kells is all about this.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: The Abbot of Kells is Mad-Eye Moody!
- Aidan has had an encounter with the legendary beings of Irish folklore previously in the beloved Secret of Roan Inish.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Unintended on Brendan's part, but after trapping Crom Cruach in a chalk prison, the monstrous abomination, unable to lash out at anything else proceeds to consume itself.
- Horny Vikings
- Hypocritical Humor: "You can't learn everything from books." "I think I read that somewhere."
- I Am Dying Please Take My Macguffin: Aidan's reputation is as "the perfect illuminator," and Brendan calls his book the work of angels. But his eyesight's going and his hands are too unsteady to finish the book, hence enlisting Brendan's help.
- Implacable Man: The Vikings. Every shot we see them in is basically them slowly moving. We never see them run at all, or even show any sort of fear, except for the two that are killed by Aisling's wolves.
- Karma Houdini: The Vikings, with the exception of the two killed by Aisling's wolves.
- Large and In Charge: The abbot dwarfs everyone else living in Kells.
- Last of His Kind: Aisling may very well be this for The Fair Folk.
- Magic Feather: The Eye of Crom is a jewel capable of magnifying illustrations. It can only be used by someone who already has a natural talent.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Aisling, literally, minus the romantic element. Her name means "dream", for goodness sake.
- Mismatched Eyes: Pangur Bán, Aidan's cat. Mismatched eyes and long white fur (as well as extreme loyalty and affection and above-average intelligence) are a common trait of the Turkish Angora, a popular cat breed in Europe at the time. Mismatched eyes are also often a sign of mystical significance.
- Misterious Mist: When the fairy Aisling makes her first appearance, the forest fills with mist. This is a nod to the notion of Irish Mythology that the Tuatha Dé Danann concealed themselves in a magic mist (the "fairy mist") from observers. The mist dissipates as Aisling becomes more friendly towards Brendan.
- Motif: Celtic knots are visible everywhere. Every snowflake, for starters.
- Circles and spirals are also very frequent there. Spirals apparently represent nature while circles are related to civilization, religion and art. Incidentally, the Book of Kells contains heaps of both.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Cellach. As the sacking of Kells begins, it begins to get through to the Abbot that, despite all his preparation, things aren't going to work out. And what follows is a massive slaughter that basically makes the rest of his life one really prolonged version of this trope.
- Mystical Waif: Aisling, though she's more assertive than most mystical waifs.
- Nature Spirit: Aisling.
- Never Say "Die": Aidan's footsteps are washed away in the sand next to Brendan's and Pangur's footsteps. Though averted when Aidan states that he would have been killed had he not fled Iona, and again when Aisling tells Brendan that he will die if he confronts Crom Cruach; all of the actual deaths are implicit.
- Non-Human Sidekick: Pangur Bán, who seems to be intelligent enough to go get help when it's needed. Not to mention Aisling.
- The Obi-Wan: Brother Aidan.
- Ominous Fog
- Ominous Latin Chanting
- Parental Abandonment: Brendan's parents were killed by Vikings when he was a baby; Aisling's mother was killed by Crom Cruach, along with the rest of her people.
- My Parents Are Dead: A variant of this occurs when Brendan and Aisling first meet:
Brendan: I don't have a family, and we have food in Kells, so I wouldn't have come here for it anyway. I was just...a bit lost.
Aisling: You have no family?
Aisling: No mother?
Brendan: [looks down, not saying anything]
Aisling: ...I'm alone too.
- People of Hair Color: All the native Irish whose hair hasn't turned white.
- Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Aisling is shown to be quite strong for her small size, considering how she pulls Brendan up like it's nothing when he's dangling from a tree branch and when she lifts a statue much larger than herself to help Brendan get inside Crom Cruach's cave.
- Rapunzel Hair: Aisling.
- Ravens and Crows: Heralds of the Norsemen. And, by the way, associated with the goddess of war in Irish folklore and the Norse god of death and battle.
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Aisling is implied to be much older than she looks, and if her opening narration and her brief reappearance in her Fey form near the end of the film are anything to go by, she may not even age. Unsurprising, since she's one of The Fair Folk.
- Redheaded Hero: Brendan.
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Crom Cruach is a giant serpent, though his appearance owes more to deep-sea fish. And it's made of jointed drawings. Brendan uses this to his advantage.
- Room Full of Crazy: Abbot Cellach's room is painted with the plans for the town wall as well as a map of Kells on the floor. It's all sketched out with chalk in medieval non-perspective, to suggest the Abbot's obsessive devotion to completing the wall. A little different from usual in that he's sane -- to a fault.
- Running on All Fours: Aisling can run on all fours, probably to show her connection to nature and how wild she is.
- Scaled Up: Crom Cruach should not have turned into a snake. It never helps.
- Scenery Porn
- Seasonal Montage: At the end of the film.
- The Shadow Knows: When Pangur Ban is in spirit-form, she still has the shadow of a cat.
- Silent Snarker: Some of Pangur Ban's expressions are priceless.
- Snow Means Death: The attack on Kells.
- Sword of Plot Advancement: The Eye of Crom Cruach.
- Take Our Word for It: Subverted. They avoid showing the contents of the book for most of the film, only to show the completed Chi Rho page at the end.
- Too Dumb to Live: Brendan decides to investigate Crom's hideout despite the continued insistence of Aisling that he stay away.
- Uncatty Resemblance: The sheepherder. "Baaaaa!"
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Scholars put the creation of the book around the year 800, which means Colmcille (d. 597) can't have had a hand in it, and the historical St. Aidan [dead link] lived over 150 years earlier. Also, the cover wasn't stolen for another 200 years or so. There's not much we know for sure about the creation of the book (it might have been produced entirely at Iona or Kells, or some combination, or even Lindisfarne), so they had to take some liberties in order for there to be any plot.
- Lampshaded when the monks at Kells can't agree on the history, either, including Colmcille's methods (third eye? three hands? 36 FINGERS?!), and simply get their facts wrong. One monk says the book was begun 300 years ago by Colmcille; impossible if Aidan knew him.
- And Pangur Bán was owned by an anonymous Irish monk in a German monastary.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: Aisling is a fey that takes on the form of a white wolf at will, and she's shown to have also taken on the forms of a salmon and a deer in the past. Unfortunately, she seems to suffer Shapeshifter Mode Lock after nearly giving her life to get Brendan into Crom Cruach's lair. Then again, as the local wolf pack already accepts her as their leader, she's finally got a family again.
- Morphic Resonance: Whenever Aisling is in a different form, she always retains her white hair colour and her green eyes.
- Wall Crawl: Aisling can do this through magic.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Abbot Cellach is a mild example. He acts like a total Jerkass who is obsessed with building his wall, to the point where he disdains and eventually forbids his monks from doing anything else. However, the point of the wall is to keep out the Vikings, who already killed all the family he had except for his young, impressionable nephew, who now wants to do non-wall related things like go outside and create beautiful holy books. He doesn't listen when Aidan tells him that his wall won't hold and they should all flee instead, which leads to disaster, and his Heel Realisation.
- White-Haired Pretty Girl: Aisling. In the second comic prologue, it's revealed to be a racial trait of The Fair Folk.