The Power of Images in The Secret of Kells

Apologies for the late update, and a belated Happy Thanksgiving!

Last week I finally got the opportunity to watch The Secret of Kells. It is the story of a young monk, Brendan, who lives in a abbey in medieval Ireland. In an attempt to keep to keep out evil invaders from across the seas who have traveled across Ireland pillaging, destroying, and burning as they go, the Abbot of Kells has begun building a great wall around the abbey. Yet, in the process everything else has been forsaken, with the wall becoming more important than the monk’s traditional duty of illuminating texts.

Brendan hears the older monks speak of a great text by a great illuminator that makes evil run away blinded upon seeing its pages. As the story progresses the inheritor of this book and the task of finishing the process of illuminating it arrives at Kells, his own abbey having been destroyed by the evil forces. Yet, he is no longer able to complete the task of illuminating the text due to the unsteady hands and poor eyesight of old age. He has also lost the great “eye” of the original illuminator, a gem which magnifies the text and allows the illuminator to create images and patterns of unbelievable splendor. The task of illuminating the text falls to Brendan, who takes it up despite direct opposition from the Abbot, who believes that the path of the young monk will be to take charge of the abbey.

In venturing outside the walls of the abbey to find plants to make ink, Brendan, accompanied by the old illuminator’s cat, finds himself surrounded by dark wolves. A white wolf appears, and the dark wolves show their respect and leave. The white wolf is a sprite, the spirit of the forest, shapeshifting between her girl and wolf forms. First apprehensive and guarded, she befriends Brendan and helps him to gather the plants, and later to obtain another “eye” from a place of ancient evil place at the risk of her own life. Angered to find that Brendan has continued to illuminate and venture beyond the walls of the abbey, the Abbot takes away an intricate circle the boy has drawn, crumpling it.

All the while the dark forces continue to encroach upon the abbey, pounding easily through the great wooden gate set in the strong stone wall. They see the great book, yet upon opening it they simply tear out the pages, rather than being blinded by its greatness. Taking the tatters of the book, the young monk and the old illuminator escape with the cat in the chaos of the fire. The Abbot thinks Brendan dead and regrets greatly his anger towards him. Until old age he treasures the circle drawn by him.

The young monk and old illuminator travel long until the young monk is no longer young and the old illuminator passes away. At last, the book is completed in a small shack, and he returns to Kells and the Abbot’s death bed. Overjoyed to see the young boy he had loved so much still alive, the Abbot is able to see at last the finished text, which has become the Book of Kells. Tears touch his eyes as he looks upon the moving patterns and forms of the text. And that is all. The movie ends.

The text itself is of little importance. The story itself does not focus on God in a monotheistic manner, with evil coming in the form not only of evil humans, but also of ancient, pagan forces lurking within the world. Good comes from shapeshifting pagan spirits who live within the forests. It is not really the words of the text that are important either, as if that were the case there would be no need for illumination. Even the idea of the importance of the illumination as an act of prayer and devotion by the monks involved seems called into question by the importance of the circle uninvolved with the text proper, and by the child’s working with pagan gods to bring the book into existence. If religion has a place in the importance of the text it is not an explicitly monotheist religion or even explicitly pagan religion, but the concept of spirituality and the idea that forces of good and evil are at play regardless of how we understand and conceive of them.

Religion only really comes into play by association. They are monks living in an abbey illuminating a text. Yet, the content of the text, and the nature of the beliefs of the monks are completely uninvolved with the story as it is presented here. Rather, the emphasis is wholly upon the image. It is the wondrous images and patterns of the text which are central to the story. The power of the text is housed in those images. Those who look upon it cry for its beauty, but it does not have some sort of power as a religious item to blind and turn away the evil. It also seems to be more so the concept of an image that is important rather than a specific image, as the shapes and forms twirl, form, and dissipate constantly.

Within the images there is life and movement and beauty. When shown the book, the images never stay still. In the delicate intricacies of the book’s pages deer run and circles turn. Gold sparkles, green refreshes, and red stands forth boldly. The audience is in rapture at the beauty of images and patterns, the depth of symbolism in the traditional knots and the snake eating its own tail, and at the level of detail of the work. This detail is such that a small section can be delved into as a driver approaching water from a great height sees the water open up before him. We see in the text reflected the beauty of the forest outside Kells, and therefore the beauty of the nature is brought into a symbol of mankind, and the world outside the wall comes finally to reside forever within the walls.

The significance of the book, and of its images, seems ultimately to be as an embodiment of hope and joy. In simple terms this refers to the original hope that the book could banish evil, and to the happiness of the monks of Kells upon seeing the work in progress, taking their minds away from the evil forces approaching and their hardships in working to complete the wall. On a more abstract level this refers to the possibility for happiness and beauty to be sought and created in a time of fear and strife, and as a such the book comes to embody hope. Along with this, while the hope formed by the physical wall was easily destroyed by the breaking down of the wall, the hope within the book remained in tact even when its pages were physically torn out. Upon seeing this book we see the hope and happiness it brings in the expressions of the onlookers. Perhaps the beauty of the images themselves is a symbol of hope in the stark and ugly reality of the world razed by the invading forces.

This movie provides an interesting proposition when applied to comics. It makes a strong statement for the importance and significance of the image, perhaps even beyond that of the text. Without the image, the text itself is unremarkable, but upon the addition of the image the work gains value. Certainly comics and illuminated texts are starkly different mediums, with little in common beyond the union of words and images. But it is interesting in the sense that the context of the words, be they pictures or embellishments, is proposed to be more significant that the words, or at least that the words require their context to become truly noteworthy. The idea that words without images is mature or the logical way for concepts to be relayed ignores the history of the union of words and images. Images are able to empower words with significance, beauty, and power, and place them into a context in which they can properly be appreciated.

At times images must also take on the place of words where words cannot portray what must be expressed, or when the onlooker is unable to read the text. (As was often the case with illuminated texts.) Here the image is able to give the reader a sense of the motion of the story, or at least at its significance. If the illuminated text is to be understood as hope, then the beauty of the illumination itself is enough to communicate this hope, in the same way that the images of a comic can express beauty, ugliness, fear, sadness, and endless other emotions and understandings of the world within the story.

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