When I tell you that I was recently shocked by the treatment of history in a children’s cartoon, you may wonder what kind of pompous buffoon I might be. (“I cannot begin to list the fundamental errors in marine biology that The Little Mermaid parades before our vulnerable children . . . ”) Yet watching the 2009 Irish/French/Belgian film The Secret of Kells, I was genuinely surprised by the very powerful statement it made about the role of religion in history—or rather, the total absence of such a role.
I confess right away that I was expecting a different kind of film, something more on the lines of David Macaulay’s illustrated books and animated features. If you do not know David Macaulay’s work, you should. For 40 years, he has been producing some of the finest works of education and entertainment aimed at children and teenagers. Typically, Macaulay creates a fictional setting in which a community chooses to build a monumental structure, whether an Egyptian pyramid, a Gothic cathedral, a Roman city, a Welsh castle, or an Ottoman mosque. He then explains in intricate detail just how the structure was created, so that by the end the reader has become a near expert on the architecture of the given period, with all its specialized vocabulary, not to mention the surrounding society. Macaulay, in short, is a national treasure.
My error: I thought The Secret of Kells would follow something of the same format, using as its core subject the Book of Kells rather than a building, which it does not. Nevertheless, The Secret of Kells is a gorgeous film, a beautifully animated fantasy about the creation of that stunning Irish gospel book. The film offers three heroic characters: the young novice monk Brendan, the Irish fairy Aisling (pronounced “Ashley”), and the cat Pangur Bán. Among them, they succeed in completing the book and preserving it from destruction by monstrous marauding Northmen, while defeating the plots of the jealous pagan god Cromm Crúaich, who is now more or less confined to a remote fastness. The animations grow directly from the art of the Book of Kells and related gospel books like Durrow and Lindisfarne, and those florid Celtic motifs swirl gloriously about the screen. David Macaulay it is not, but it is not striving to educate. Not, as they say, that there is anything wrong with that.
So where’s the problem? Here’s the basic issue: The film never mentions Christianity and studiously avoids any related concept. That’s remarkable, given that the Book of Kells was a text of the Christian gospels, written by monks in a Christian monastery (perhaps in Kells, perhaps not), around a.d. 800. Other monks tell us about the archaic cult of Cromm Crúaich, whose dark reign was overthrown by the Christian truth; and so on. Personally, I have no objection whatever to the film’s fairy lore, but I am aware of the nightmares it would undoubtedly have occasioned to the actual monks and scribes of ancient Ireland.
Where has the Christianity gone? The film undoubtedly portrays a monastery, with abbots and monks, and there are snatches of churchy chant. But never once do we hear exactly what the monks are doing, why they are doing it, or what the “gospel” book actually is. We even hear that after decades of work begun by Saint Colmcille, the artists are finally about to create the book’s ornate centerpiece, “the Chi-Rho page.” Um, please, Mr. Filmmaker, what exactly is that? Can these really be the first letters of the word Christ?
If you take Christianity out of the picture, then we are left with a bizarre picture of what the monks are actually up to. They are a totally cosmopolitan bunch of generic wise men, struggling to create books because books transmit knowledge, and the greatest treasures of all—such as the Book of Kells—are supernatural objects that emit mystic light and blind sinners. Books turn darkness into light. But the light they are preserving is totally bland and denatured.
When The Secret of Kells came out, many Christian reviewers were not too concerned about its religious character because its spiritual and sacramental content was so self-evident. What other kind of light could it be talking about? True, if you approach the film with sufficient knowledge, that is a reasonable point of view. But do recall the film’s origins, as a Western European coproduction, in a region where any sense of the Continent’s Christian heritage is fading fast, and where children are ever less likely to acquire any accurate knowledge of that tradition. Less than half of all French people now claim even a notional Catholic identity. Europeans, it seems, are now like Americans in that they have to imbibe their history in a form sterilized of any and all religious references.