I recently saw an unusual and theologically confused animated film called the Secret of Kells. Ingeniously and beautifully, it uses the artistic style of the Book of Kells, the 9th Century illuminated Bible, to tell a story about the book’s origins. The film is beautifully rendered. Two things impressed me about the film.
First is the story of the Abbot, who is portrayed in a mostly negative light. All of his effort is spent preparing a wall to protect the Abbey from the advancing Norsemen. He labors single-mindedly to this end, thereby leaving unrecognized the emergent illustration talents of his young nephew, who in time will become the signature artist of the finished book. The wall represents for the Abbot the last chance to defend civilization from the perishing effects of barbarism. Imagine the weight of that burden, to believe–with justification–that the fate of civilization depends on your actions alone. How crushing a burden that must have been. One might forgive the Abbot his blindness to the budding talent of his young nephew. We of course know what a treasure the finished Book of Kells is. The Abbot knows only the finality of an encounter with the marauding invaders.
For months the Abbot personally leads the construction of the wall. When the Norsemen come, it fails to hold. The abbey, now housing all of the local villagers, is overrun and set ablaze. Most are killed. The Abbot himself is both shot with an arrow and stabbed with a sword. He falls to the courtyard, dying. Everything he worked for is lost. All his efforts were in vain After a day, the Norsemen are gone off to their next target and the survivors emerge from the rubble. One monk finds the wounded Abbot lying where he fell. Says the Abbot: “I’m so tired, I just want to lie here and die.” The junior monk hesitates only a second before saying matter of factly “You’re the abbot of Kells. Get up!”. The Abbot’s eyes open wide. He gets up. That to me is a great example of the leader, whose responsibilities never go away. Many a morning I feel like staying in bed, saying: I’m so tired. I just want to lie here dying. Then I remember that line and get up.
The second point worth remarking on is the gnostic influence on the story. In an attempt to include something of the native Celtic religion, the story tellers end up suggesting that the illustration of the Christian Gospels requires the young nephew to steal the eye of a Celtic Satan figure. What ever happened to divine inspiration? To suppose that good and evil are entwined and interdependent is a hallmark error of the gnostic mind. I’m not advocating a return to the days of burning at the stake. (That would give off too many greenhouse gases.) I will say from even a purely humanistic viewpoint, gnosticism is a bad deal for people, who are never more than helpless and hapless pawns in the struggle of larger cosmic forces which care little for us, let alone for our art.