The Secret of Kells
I love that Brother Aidan's cat in The Secret of Kells is called Pangur Bán. In the eighth or ninth century, an unknown Irish monk, in a playful respite from his normal work, penned in the margins of a Latin New Testament manuscript an affectionate ode to the mouse-catching prowess of his white cat. That monk would surely be astounded to find Pangur Bán again commemorated in pen and ink over a millennium later, romping across backgrounds that look at times like the decorative work of the monks themselves, brought to cinematic life.
Ornate scrollwork, endless knots, spirals, plaits, circles, arches, panels, and decorative borders dance and frolic throughout The Secret of Kells. Developed at the Irish media company Cartoon Saloon by co-founder Tomm Moore, who wrote the story with screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski and directed with Nora Twomey, the animated indie weds the design sensibilities of traditional Insular art with the stylized simplicity of such contemporary retro animation as "Samurai Jack" or "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." Astonishingly, the breathtakingly beautiful work (witness the dappled light playing over the hero as he walks through the forest) is nearly all hand-drawn, with very little computer animation.
A similar blend of simplicity and elaboration animates the narrative, told from the perspective of young Brendan (Evan McGuire), an orphan living at the abbey of Kells under the sternly watchful eye of Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), Brendan's uncle. Brendan's world is half Christian, half Faerie, with barbaric invaders, woodland sprites and dark gods coexisting, at least for the time being, with the work of the monks—works like "the book that turns darkness into light," according to the opening voiceover by the woodland fairy Aisling (Christen Mooney), whom Brendan meets and befriends in the forest.
"Turning darkness into light" is the last line of a well-known free rendering of the poem "Pangur Bán"; and the book, of course, is the Book of Kells, also called the Book of Iona or the Book of Columba. One source claims that the monk who wrote "Pangur Bán" did so while working on the Book of Kells (dubiously enough, though they date to approximately the same period). It's enough of a hook to place Pangur Bán in the keeping of Brother Aidan, an illuminator who brings the unfinished book from the isle of Iona to Kells.
The Book of Kells, a fantastically decorated edition of the Four Gospels, is both one of the finest works of medieval Irish illumination, and the best-known symbol of the Irish illuminated manuscript tradition. The Irish monks have been credited with "turning darkness into light," not only with respect to the light of the gospel, but also in helping to preserve the light of classical learning through the Dark Ages of barbarian conquest. "If there were no books," exclaims an elderly brother, "all knowledge would be lost forever!" (Thomas Cahill, with perhaps more rhetorical flair than historical accuracy, has elaborated on the contributions of the Irish monks in his hyperbolically titled How the Irish Saved Civilization.)