"I have lived through many ages, 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; The book that turned darkness into light..."
The Secret of Kells (original title) or Brendan and the Secret of Kells is 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 Americans can watch this gem for free.
The Secret of Kells provides examples of the following tropes:
Adult Fear: The third act. Because the young protagonist Brendan has once disobeyed his uncle's (the abbot of Kells) strict curfews, he locks him and Aidan in the scriptorium, both out of anger and to keep them out of reach of the invading northmen. In the ensuing slaughter, the abbot has a very sudden and positive character change when he is horrified to see all his schemes and preventive measures against an invasion going up in smoke. He himself is wounded repeatedly and badly, and passes out. The scriptorium is set on fire. Unbeknownst to him, Brendan and Aidan managed to escape beforehand. They, in return, see the abbot lying in the snow and think he's dead. Now, Brendan believes the abbot, the only parent and relative he had ever known, is dead, while the abbot thinks that Brendan, his only surviving relative whose own life he risked to save him as a baby, has burned to death because he himself had locked him there in the first place. The movie ends very much with a very dark Bitter Sweet Ending as this misunderstanding is cleared up decades later. But still, the fears of an adult authority to fail in really really trying to protect his community and his nephew's life are fully and conveniently exploited in this film.
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.
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.
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.
Justified Trope: However, Aisling and her people are known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, semi-divine pre-Christian nature spirits. Despite being worshipped as gods, they were still mortal (explaning why Aisling is the only survivor) and could be viewed in the same way demons and angels are viewed, nonhuman sentient entities (or the 'neutral' party.) Compare this to Crom Cruach, an ancient and evil Celtic god.
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.
The Beastmaster: 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.
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. Tomm Moore has stated that he partially based Aisling on his sister when she was young, and she also had prominent eyebrows.
Bilingual Bonus: The book page Brenden and Aisling are climbing on in one of the montages reads "And so the little red-haired monk excelled at illumination but stayed mediocre in Latin"
Bonuses exist for anybody who speaks or understands Irish:
In the forest Brendan begins reciting the Lord's prayer in Irish: ''Ár nAthair, atá ar neamh.."
The poem read after the credits
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.
Cats Are Magic: In a sense; since Aisling is apparently unable to free Brendan from his room in the tower, she turns Pangur Ban into a spirit so she can free him from the inside. This harkens back to the Celtic belief that cats were capable of going to otherwordly realms that others couldn't enter.
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. It's a very quick scene, but if you pause at just the right second here, her face is pretty scary.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Greed: The Vikings plunder and kill to search for gold.
Green Thumb: Aisling. Notably, she seems to be able to make small white flowers grow out of solid rock.
Hard Work Montage: Brendan's training, interspersed with the Abbot's work on the wall.
Harpo Does Something Funny: Sort of, the directors commentary states that Christen Mooney (the voice of Aisling) was told to sing Pangur Bán's song however she wanted. She decided the pitch, speed, etc., of each verse.
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.
Ironic Echo: The first time Aidan says "There's nothing in this life but mist" he says it in a jovial manner, with the intention of saying life is filled with questions to be answered. Later however, he says it in a somber and resigned way indicating the hopelessness of uncovering the mist in the short time we live.
Jesus Taboo: Though the film is set in a monastery and most of the characters are Christian monks, the faith itself is not focused upon. The faith is mostly alluded to with the Book said to be that which will "turn darkness into light", and the relationship between the old religion and Christianity is touched upon symbolically. Justified in that the religious setting is mostly a background historical setting.
Karma Houdini: The Vikings, with the exception of the two killed by Aisling's wolves.
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.
Meaningful Echo: "There's nothing in this life but mist" is a phrase Aidan uses early in the film. He says it again later only more somberly with the additional phrase "and we're only here a short while". This whole phrase is then sung by Aisling shortly after, only it is sung in Irish with the lines "Níl sa saol seo ach ceo / is ní bhéimid beo ach seal beag gearr".
Meaningful Name: The Aisling is a genre of Irish political poem usually lamenting the state of the Irish people. In Irish Gaelic, the word "aisling" literally means "dream" or "vision".
Morphic Resonance: Whenever Aisling is in a different form, she always retains her white hair colour and her green eyes.
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.
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? Brendan: Uh... no. Aisling: No mother? Brendan:(looks down, not saying anything) Aisling: ...I'm alone too.
Mysterious 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.
Mystical Waif: Aisling, though she's more assertive than most mystical waifs.
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.
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.
Really 700 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.
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.
Savage Wolves: Aisling leads a pack of them. Initially they play the trope straight when they attack Brendan on his first journey into the forest, but they later pull a Big Damn Heroes moment when Aisling rallies them against the Vikings who ambush Brendan and Aidan after they flee from the massacre at Kells.
Scaled Up: Crom Cruach should not have turned into a snake. It never helps.
Speaks Fluent Animal: Being so closely connected to nature, Aisling is implied to be able to do this, especially when she tells Brendan that she asked some wasps not to sting him when they find the oak galls.
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.
Time-Compression Montage: The scene showing Brendan's education in art. On a side note, the film takes place over the course of a year (shown by the change in seasons).
Too Dumb to Live: Brendan decides to investigate Crom's hideout despite the continued insistence of Aisling that he stay away.
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."
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. Aidannote Not so fun fact: the real St. Aidan and his voice actor Mick Lally both died on August 31st 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 monastery.
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.