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Western Animation / The Secret of Kells

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"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 and an Animated Medieval Fantasy-Adventure directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey at Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind Skunk Fu! and Puffin Rock. It was distributed by Disney under Buena Vista International in Ireland.

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. Cartoon Saloon's next feature, 2014's Song of the Sea, was also helmed by Moore and acts as the second part of an "Irish Folklore Trilogy", which was completed with Wolfwalkers in 2020.

The Secret of Kells provides examples of the following tropes:

  • All That Glitters: The Book of Kells' cover is partially made from gold, and when a group of Northmen ambush Brendan and Aidan and grab the book from them, the leader of the group flips through the pages...and rips off the cover while callously throwing the rest of the book away, caring more for the gold on the cover than any of the illuminated manuscripts inside. This ties into the story's theme about the true value of art; as Aidan says early on, "the cover is not the real treasure".
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • At their first meeting, Brendan correctly recognizes that Aisling is a "fairy". When Aisling later warns Brendan of Crom Cruach, he dismisses it as "pagan nonsense". The irony that lies in saying that to a fairy escapes him. Possibly justified in that, living most of his life at an Abbey, he can accept a minor supernatural being like a fairy, but cannot accept a being that is supposed to be a god, when in his mind there is only one God.
    • Brother Aidan discusses this also while mentioning Crom Cruach, saying he doesn't know what parts of the story are true, only that one of Crom's eyes was used to illuminate books. This gives Brendan the idea to seek out Crom Cruach to get the crystal.
  • Arc Symbol: The Eye of Colmcille/ Crom Cruach appears everywhere in the film. The city of Kells even resembles it from above. It represents chaos and darkness but also creative potential, the ability to turn darkness into light.
  • Arc Words: "Turning darkness into light," note  which represents the film's central theme of preserving art and culture to give people hope and happiness in dark times.
  • 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 Colm Cille, or Saint Columba, doubles as a Genius Bonus because it imitates the style of manuscripts being produced at Colm 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.
    • Crom Cruach's lair has a slightly different art style to emphasize its otherworldly nature, being all angular lines and glowing green on black. In fact, this appears to be a bit of an in-universe thing as Brendan is somehow able to utilize its two dimensionality to his advantage by trapping Crom Cruach in a chalk circle.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other:
    • Cellach is often harsh with his nephew, telling him he is a disappointment and locking him up to punish him. But then Cellach desperately attempts to save Brendan during the Viking attack, and when he believes Brendan dead, his haunting grief lingers for decades. It's clear that he deeply loves his nephew, even if he's not the best at showing it.
    • Brendan's relationship with his uncle is rocky. When Aisling asks him if he has a family, he says no. But he still defends his uncle when the other monks mock him. He is utterly devastated when Aidan forces him to leave his uncle for dead during the Viking attack.
  • Badass Preacher:
    • Cellach who takes an arrow to the chest, and has to be knocked down by Vikings before he stops protecting his nephew.
    • Colm Cille who took an eye from a Pagan god just to use it as a magnifying glass.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Brendan prepares to sneak out, Pangur Ban appears seemingly to warn him about going to find Crom Cruach's eye. It's actually because Abbot Cellach is outside waiting to bust Brendan for sneaking out again.
  • Beneath the Earth: The mound of Crom Cruach.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Aisling's wolf pack saving Brendan and Aidan from the vikings.
  • Big "NO!": Brendan releases one when seeing his uncle wounded in the snow during the Viking raids.
  • 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 Brendan 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.."
      • Aisling's song. It translates: "There is nothing in this life but mist, and we will only be alive for a short time." Aidan also utters these exact lines elsewhere in the movie.
      • Mick Lally, who voices Aidan, recites a poem about Pangur Ban in Irish, which is loosely based on the original "Messe ocus Pangur Bán" poem for which the cat is named.
      • While climbing the tree, Aisling points to some bugs, and says, "Aithníonn ciaróg, ciaróg eile." This is an Irish saying, literally meaning, "One beetle recognizes another," (which Brendan understands and helpfully translates) but more colloquially, "It takes one to know one."
  • 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.
    • Aisling's loss of human form is even dependent on if one considers Song of the Sea as a Stealth Sequel as in it she appears in her human form in 1987 Ireland.
  • 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.
    • Director Tomm Moore has actually apologised for Brother Assoua's character design - while it was inspired by medieval art, the creators didn't think through the Unfortunate Implications of its resemblance to modern racist caricatures.
  • Black Speech: What the Northmen speak, which emphasizes how monstrous and inhuman they seem to their victims. Though sometimes they say a word that sounds a lot like "gold", since that's what they're after.
  • Bonding over Missing Parents: This is what gets Aisling to soften up to Brendan. When Brendan mentions that he doesn't have a family, Aisling admits that she doesn't have one either.
  • Break the Haughty: Abbot Cellach believes he can keep the Vikings out by building a wall around the monastery, and they should focus on that instead of creating books. When the Vikings easily ransack the monastery and kill half the villagers, because of his obsession with the wall and nothing else, he becomes a broken man.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Aidan may not be the full shilling but he is a brilliant illuminator.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Brendan does this to his uncle about caring more about the wall than the Book, and how Cellach ought to know about how important the Book is, having once been an illuminator. Cellach responds by locking up Brendan until he can behave.
  • Cassandra Truth: Early in the film, Aidan bluntly tells Cellach that no wall can stop the Vikings and that when they do come to Kells, the best the inhabitants can do is run and hope they are fast enough. Aidan is proven right when the Vikings knock the front gate down and proceed to slaughter every inhabitant who couldn't make it to the tower because he never thought of supporting the scaffolding.
  • Cats Are Magic: In a sense; since Aisling is unable to free Brendan from his room in the tower (fairies cannot enter buildings without an explicit invitation), 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.
  • Cats Are Snarkers: Pangur Ban can't speak, but her expressions more than make up for that.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Green ink. Specifically, the smoke side-effect caused by it.
    • Subverted with the Book's purported ability to blind the sinners who read it. The buildup right before the greedy viking opens it really leads you to believe a miracle will happen at any moment and divine light will blind him. This makes it all the more shocking when he does just fine and tears it all to pieces.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Brendan's ability to draw lets him defeat Crom Cruach with a bit of ingenuity.
  • Circle of Standing Stones: The first meeting of Brendan and the fairy Aisling takes place inside a stone circle.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: After forbidding him from working on the book, Abbot Cellach locks up Brendan in the scriptorium with the book during the Viking raid.
  • Cool Teacher: Brother Aidan
  • Creepy 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.
  • Cue the Sun: When adult Brendan returns to the abbot.
  • Cute Kitten: Pangur Ban
  • 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.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: Subverted; Abbot Cellach makes sure that Brendan is fed while he is locked up, even telling the monks to give his breakfast to Brendan.
  • 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.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Double-subverted. When Brendan ponders going into the forest to get the berries that Brother Aidan needs, he draws out the potential drawbacks. Once in the forest, however, he doesn't know what the berry trees look like or how to get home.
    • Cellach's obsession with the wall; it never occured to him have a back-up plan with that scaffolding, huh?
  • 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 Death: Cellach thinks that Brendan and Brother Aidan died when the scriptorium burned during the Viking Raid. He doesn't find out the truth until Brendan returns to Kells as an adult.
  • Distant Finale: The film ends with an adult Brendan returning to Kells to show the book to his elderly uncle.
  • The Dreaded: The Vikings and Crom Cruach.
  • 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: Completely averted:
    • Abbot Cellach mentions that most of the refugees are Pagans and Crom worshippers and believes that "it's with the strength of our walls that they will come to accept the strength of our faith."
    • At one point a viking warrior gets to have a look at the Book of Kells (which is a Book of the Gospels), 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, or any religion for that matter.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Failed a Spot Check: After locking Brendan up, Abbot Cellach trusts the other Brothers to make sure Brendan stays there and that he is fed, while never checking the room. He doesn't even notice the activity in the scriptorium until green smoke comes out, or the Brothers assisting Brendan in the illumination because he's so focused on the wall. He does bust them eventually when the Brothers are careless in cheering on Brendan for his drawing.
  • 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 Dé Danann, a powerful divine race in Irish mythology.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Abbot Cellach to his nephew Brendan, forbidding he does most anything not wall-building related.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Brendan gets in trouble for anything related to illuminating books, even learning to ink with a quill.
  • 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 Afghan. (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.
  • 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 Aisling, whom he recognized as a fairy when they first met.
  • Fluffy Tamer: 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.
  • For Want of a Nail: If Cellach took as much time to support the scaffolding as he did the wall, he would've been able to save more people.
  • For Your Own Good: Cellach locks Brendan in his room to protect him after Brendan refuses to give up visiting the forest and working with Brother Aidan.
    Cellach: If I can't trust you to stay out of harm's way, you'll have to remain here until you see sense.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Brendan breaking through the scaffolding while chasing the goose.
    • The scene of Brendan touching a goose feather is repeated twice; the second time just as he's about to start his first proper illumination and the first time as, well, this very trope.
    • Brendan's highly active imagination and effortless little artistic tableaux of him going into the woods foreshadow the talent he'll display as an illuminator later on.
    • As the Vikings' invasion of Ireland is sporadically shown throughout the events of the movie, one scene shows a burning town...which is inside a wall.
  • 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.
  • Funny Foreigner: The monks are of multiple ethnicities, and some of them are comic relief characters, especially the Italian monk Brother Leonardo who is chasing a goose and falling in the mud in his first scene.
  • Gender Flip: In the Irish poem Pangur Bán, the cat is male.
  • Ghibli Hills: There's a lot of emphasis on the beauty of the forest when Brendan visits it for the first time. While it briefly becomes dangerous when he's attacked by wolves, the mood lightens again when he meets Aisling and she shows him the way through the woods to get the oak galls he needs.
    Aidan: You'll learn more in the woods, from trees and rocks, than in any other place. You will see miracles.
  • Good is Not Nice: Abbot Cellach is strict and controlling, but he is not cruel. He just wants to protect the monastery from Vikings. Even when he locks Brendan in the tower as punishment, he ensures he is fed every day.
  • 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.
  • 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, as their scene ends with the Vikings bursting through the door.
  • 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.
  • The Grim Reaper: Abbot mistakes the adult Brendan for this.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Brendan's training, interspersed with the Abbot's work on the wall.
  • Hell Follows With Me: Aidan's journey to Kells is all about this.
  • Herald: Aidan is an Action Survivor; see below.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • When entering Crom Cruach's lair, Aisling holds the entrance long enough for Brendan to get in, even though Cruach's black vines grab her.
    • Cellach tells the refugees in the tower to close the door, and then stays on the ground as the Vikings attack to rescue Brendan.
  • Historical Fantasy: The story takes place at some point during the 9th century, when Ireland was frequently raided by Vikings, and it focuses on the making of the Book of Kells, a real illuminated manuscript. It's also a highly fictionalized account of the book's making, including fantasy elements like fairies and an ancient Irish god.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Unintended on Brendan's part, but after trapping Crom Cruach in a chalk prison and blinding it, the monstrous abomination, unable to lash out at anything else, proceeds to consume itself.
    • Cellach's obsession with building the wall — instead of the scaffolding — walled the villagers in, making them easy pray for the Northmen.
  • Hope Spot: Once Brendan gets Crom Cruach's eye, he and the other priests start to work on the book in earnest, avoiding Abbot Cellach's scrutiny and finishing the beloved page. Then the Vikings attack and the Abbot locks up Brendan in the scriptorium after busting him and the priests.
  • Horns of Barbarism: The Northmen wear horned helmets that, as they're only ever shown in silhouette, make them appear to be horned demons more than anything else.
  • Horny Vikings: To the point where the Northmen seem more like monsters than people, moving slowly, growling in Black Speech, and looking like huge dark blocks with limbs, and living for nothing but war, killing and gold. This was an intentional design choice by the filmmakers, since the medieval Irish feared the Vikings and their designs in this movie are meant to reflect how they were seen as nightmarish killers rather than being historically accurate.
  • Humanoid Abomination: How the Northmen are depicted, right down to the glowing red eyes and Black Speech.
  • 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.
  • I Gave My Word: An implicit example with the abbot. As he lies wounded and goes through his BSOD Despair Event Horizon moment, he is reminded that he, in fact, cannot give up, since he's the abbot (i.e. the leader of his people). It is enough to make him get up.
  • 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.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: During the Viking sequence, there are multiple shots of a red-haired little girl running around. After the Vikings leave, this girl is among the survivors helping the Abbot. And of course, Brendan is thought dead but survives. Presumably other children did die in the attack - unless all the children were sent into the tower first before the steps broke. Whatever the case, we don't see it.
  • 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. Between these two bookends, it takes on a third, more literal meaning in Aisling's song when she sings these words (in Gaelic) as she turns Pangur Bán to mist. (She sings also of the shortness of life, but with wistful hope rather than Aidan's later defeatism.)
  • 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.
    • The actual Book of Kells is in fact the Christian New Testament, but the film does never actually spell that out.
    • A large piece of the movie focuses on Brendan completing the Chi-Ro page. The Greek letters chi and rho were normally used in medieval manuscripts to abbreviate the word Christ, but this is never explained in the film.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • When a wounded and unarmed Cellach trundles to the scriptorium, to free Brendan before it burns down, the Vikings attack him.
    • Also, the Vikings tear up the book of Kells that took months if not years to illuminate.
  • Large and in Charge: The abbot dwarfs everyone else living in Kells.
  • Last of His Kind: Aisling is this for the Tuatha Dé Danann.
  • Left for Dead: Abbot Cellach is so badly wounded by the Vikings' attack that they don't bother finishing him off.
  • The Lightfooted: Aisling has a distinct and graceful way of moving, even when she goes down on all fours.
  • Little "No": Brendan gives one when Cellach forbids him from visiting the scriptorium and brother Aidan.
  • The Low Middle Ages
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The Abbey's residents when the Vikings attack, starting by shooting flaming arrows over the wall, and then when the stairs to the tower collapse due to too many people using them.
  • 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 color and her green eyes.
  • Motifs
    • 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?:
    • Aidan calls himself an old fool when he gets Brendan into trouble with his uncle in recruiting him for the book. He tries to Shoo the Dog when Brendan appears with Crom Cruach's eye.
    • 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.
  • 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?
    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.
  • Mystical White Hair: Aisling. In the second comic prologue, it's revealed to be a racial trait of The Fair Folk.
  • 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.
  • No Kill like Overkill: The Vikings make it a strong point to wipe out everyone in Iona except Aidan who escaped, and do the same to most of the residents at Kells, even when it wouldn't benefit them.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Subverted. Aidan and Brendan leave Cellach for dead, despite Brendan's protests. The Distant Finale shows that Cellach lives.
    Brendan: We have to save him!
    Aidan: We can't help him now.
  • Noble Wolf: Aisling gives off this vibe while in her wolf form. The other wolves she controls aren't quite as benevolent.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Pangur Bán, who is apparently intelligent enough to go into the woods and find Aisling when Brendan needs help.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Brendan when his Uncle busts him for sneaking out into the forest, both times.
    • Brendan and Aidan when the Vikings catch up to them in the woods and take the book.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: The track "The Monks" features a choir singing in Latin, which plays when Kells is being ransacked by the Vikings and Cellach has reached his lowest point, believing that Brendan was killed and serves to make that moment even more sombre.
  • Ouroboros: after Brendan takes his eye, Crom Cruac is shown to take the form of this symbol.
  • 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.
  • Parental Substitute: Brother Aidan promises to be one when he and Brendan think that Abbot Cellach is dead.
  • People of Hair Color: All the native Irish whose hair hasn't turned white have red hair.
  • Pet the Dog: Abbot Cellach has a few moments that actually show he's not an Evil Uncle and foreshadow his eventual Heel Realization.
    • At one point, a group of refugees arrives in the village. Abbot Cellach lets them in without hesitation.
    • It's shown several times that he's one of the hardest workers on the wall.
    • It's briefly shown at some point that he's actually saddened by his decision to lock up Brendan. He also makes sure that he's still fed and at one point asks a monk to bring his own breakfast to Brendan.
  • Physical God: Aisling is technically one, the comics showing her family to be the native gods of Ireland. Unfortunately, keeping with medieval Christian theology, she and her family were far from omnipotent and were rolled over by Crom Cruac.
  • 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.
  • Red Herring: When Brendan is locked up, he tells Aisling to go get Brother Aidan to see if he might get the key. Aidan had previously talked about Crom Cruach's eye and thus has less Arbitrary Skepticism about the Fair Folk. Aisling decides to use Pangur Ban and her magic, however.
  • Red Sky, Take Warning: Often accompanies the Vikings. Makes sense, since they love to burn everything, and lots of firelight reflected off the clouds is one of the natural ways to get this trope.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Cellach is only focused on building his wall, referencing how he's emotionally shut himself away from the world, as well as his over-protectiveness of Brendan. In contrast to the wall, the stairs that go up to his tower are built so that only one person at a time can go up them. This shows that he only has room in his heart for so few people, his nephew Brendan and his mentor Aidan. Tragically, during the viking invasion, everyone tries to go up the stairs at once, but the stairs can't hold them and they fall. This symbolizes not only the folly of Cellach's approach at protecting Kells, but how he buckled under the pressure of saving his people.
  • 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 black, red-eyed wolves who are rather threatening in appearance. 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.
  • 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.
    • As Cellach continues to put in long hours building the wall while the other monks focus on the Book, at the end of the day his shadow is even more bowed and bent than his body, betraying the depth of his physical exhaustion.
  • Shown Their Work: Some of the artistry in the film goes beyond taking inspiration from the Book of Kells and is directly based on it. The Chi-Rho page is faithfully reproduced. Brendan's first work using the crystal - the drawing that Cellach angrily rips from its frame and later keeps as his "only comfort" - is visible in the bottom left corner of the real Chi-Rho page at the tail of the Chi.
  • Silent Snarker: Some of Pangur Ban's expressions are priceless.
  • Snow Means Death: The attack on Kells.
  • 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.
  • Survivor Guilt:
    • Abbot Cellach at the end of the film is left broken because of his guilt in having numerous villagers and even his own nephew dead..
    • We see a flash of this in Brendan as he and Aidan leave Kells, leaving his uncle for dead.
    • Subverted in the case of Aidan, who seems fairly cheerful and upbeat despite being the only survivor of Iona. Although maybe he's keeping his darker feelings hidden from young Brendan.
  • 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).
  • Uncatty Resemblance: The sheepherder. "Baaaaa!"
  • Unmoving Plaid: Appears in almost everyone's clothing.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story
    • Scholars put the creation of the book around the year 800, which means Colm Cille (d. 597) can't have had a hand in it, and the historical St. Aidan note  lived over 150 years earlier. (In fairness, Aidan wasn't an uncommon name, so this could be a different guy.) 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 Colm Cille's methods (third eye? three hands? 36 FINGERS?!), and simply get their facts wrong. The first monk to mention Colm Cille does accurately mention that he lived 200 years ago; but Aidan sometimes talks as if he knew him ("as Colm Cille used to say..."). At other times, though, Aidan also talks of him as a figure of legend.
    • And Pangur Bán was owned by an anonymous Irish monk in a German monastery. That being said, Aidan and Brendan explicitly spend twenty years travelling the world taking inspiration for the Book.
    • Crom Cruach does exist in Irish mythology, where's he described as a Pagan god whose worship included human sacrifices and he was banished by St. Patrick. He has nothing to do with Colm Cille.
    • There was an Abbot Cellach who was abbot of Iona. He retired to Kells in 814 AD and died the next year. He is credited with building a church in Kells.
    • Brendan is 12. The prequel comic, in which Cellach rescues infant Brendan from the Vikings, is dated 790 AD. That means the events of the movie take place in 802 AD. This was the year of an actual Viking invasion of Iona, just as Aidan describes, and therefore the likely date that the Book of Kells moved to Kells - or at least, left Iona.
      • This is a bit of Artistic Licence History, as the raids in Scotland and Ireland began in 794/5. There WAS a devastating attack on Iona 11/12 years after that, in 806, which led to the flight of Cellach and other monks and the founding of Kells (begun in 807, although Cellach didn't formally resign the abbacy of Iona and assume that of Kells until 814). But certainly Brendan growing up at Kells since infancy can't be reconciled with the historical dates in any case.
  • 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.
  • Walking the Earth:Aidan and Brendan after the Vikings attack Kells.
  • The Wall Around the World: Abbot Cellach is obsessed with building a wall to protect his monastery from Viking invasions. It doesn't work.
  • 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.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Aisling can't enter the buildings in the Abbey, but she comes anyway to free Brendan after seeing him locked up, while visibly trembling and shaking. She's also afraid of Crom Cruach but agrees to help Brendan go into his lair. Aisling reveals that it's because Crom Cruach wiped out her people, including her mother.


The Northmen

To further highlight their seemingly monstrous appearance, the vikings speak in a incomprehensible language, with the only word that's clear being "Gold."

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / BlackSpeech

Media sources: