"One Beetle Recognizes Another": The Secret of Kells

Young Brendan ventures into the Irish forest searching for berries to make ink for the Book of Iona, and encounters the fairy sprite Aisling, who offers to help him. Desperately trying to keep up with her, he tells her about the book that will turn darkness into light, insisting to her, "Wait until you see it!" In reply, Aisling utters, "Wait until you see the rest of my forest!" and points out to Brendan two beetles on a leaf. She explains with a proverb in Gaelic, "Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile" which translates into "One beetle recognizes another." This well-known Irish saying may have been included in the scene to represent the growing friendship between the two characters, despite their differences. While Brendan seems to be emphasizing to Aisling the significance of the book, a lavishly-illustrated transcription of the Gospels, Aisling emphasizes to Brendan the beauty of creation in her natural realm. While the book is created in the isolated four walls of scriptoriums across Ireland, its beauty is fabricated by elements of the created world outside. Both Creation and Scripture we are told are "God-breathed" (as referenced in the opening chapters of Genesis and in 2 Timothy), and it is possible for each to inform, enlighten, inspire and "recognize" the other. In many ways and through many layers of meaning, this is what I have come to see in the exquisite animated feature from Ireland, The Secret of Kells.

I first saw this film on the big screen at the 2009 Spark Animation Festival in Vancouver, and it captivated me instantly. The director Tomm Moore and art director Ross Stewart were in attendance at the festival and I got the rare opportunity to tell them how much I loved and appreciated their work. Upon repeated viewings, listens to the soundtrack, musings and ponderings over it, this appreciation only continues to grow. On the surface, it is most certainly because of the story, the animation, the music and design, and how it all works together aesthetically. Perhaps another part of my appreciation is subconsicous, due to the Gaelic origins of my given first name and the Irish roots in both sides of my family history. (My paternal grandfather was German-Irish, and my earliest-known ancestor from my mother's side was shanghaied from Ireland as a boy, put onto a merchant ship to New York, escaped, started a life for himself, and began the thread that would lead to my family. So the Irish is in my blood.)

Another observation that was made about The Secret of Kells initially by myself, and by many others who have reviewed it online, is that the film never specifically mentions or talks about the contents of the holy text that is its subject; that is, it is partly a film about the creation of a Bible which never mentions the message of Christ directly. This was confusing for some, and the directors did not directly address it during the Q&A sessions at the Spark Festival. Nonetheless, Tomm Moore explains in an online interview (ArtInfo.com) that, "Our initial rendering of the plot was more religious. I was very comfortable working with the themes, character, and motifs, since I’m Irish Catholic, but as we worked on the film, the producer Didier Brunner — who also produced the 2004 Oscar-winning animation 'The Triplets of Belleville' — felt that we should stress the universality of the story. The film is ultimately about being an artist and being able to fully express your creativity." This summary statement by Moore suggests an incarnational aspect to his work, in that an artist who fully expresses their creativity is potentially responding to God's calling to translate what is unseen into works of art. I too felt the subject matter of the Book of Kells didn't need to be spelled out that specifically, as the Gospel message can certainly be read underneath the surface of the entire film, or not, depending on what the viewer is looking for. (A keen viewer of The Secret of Kells may notice glimpses of written Scripture, the fact that the Celtic cross re-appears several times throughout the film, and in the climactic showdown with the enemy, the Viking warriors' swords fall into a cross shape on the ground.) Anyone who knows their Bible may also understand that the entire book is about Christ even when He is not mentioned by name. The book of Esther does not even mention God the Father by name, yet this certainly does not mean He is not present in the subtext and unfolding plot of the story.

I have long wanted to write about this film since seeing it and having it continue to haunt me, yet putting it off until now has provided some further insight into what I feel I can say. Having been in an Elder role at my church, focusing on local impact and outreach to our community (in many ways through the arts), and having experienced prior pastoral transitions in our congregation, this can lead to much debate and discussion about identity as a church body of believers. Praying through and navigating these waters of discernment and soul-searching are a diverse mix of individuals who think differently on both sides of the brain...the analytical and business-minded alongside the creative and introspective. With differing views and personalities come different theologies and attitudes towards Scripture, engagement with culture, and how the two worlds relate. All the while, my own personal reading, study, and newsfeeds from my favorite podcasts, blogs and online sermons have presented a mosaic of different views and perspectives on grace, salvation, culture and all of the above. How does one find a nuanced view of life and faith amidst so many dualities? All too often, rather than find a way to balance opposite truths or perspectives, we clam up and choose one camp or the other, resulting in division and missed opportunities for how God may use us as different parts of the larger body. (Providentially, writer/musician Carolyn Arends has just recently mused over this theme far more eloquently in her article A Both/And Path to Truth.)

One of the central tensions that is presented in The Secret of Kells, in a nutshell, is through the characters of Abbot Cellach and Brother Aidan. Cellach is a former "Illuminator", a creative scribe for preserving and illuminating the Holy Scriptures with a mysterious technique of art and design. Yet now his focus is on the building of a giant wall that will protect his people in Kells from the evil of the coming Vikings, and he is insistent that "only through our walls will they come to see the strength of our faith." His old comrade Brother Aidan, the master Illuminator, has fled from the Vikings' attack on Iona and seeks refuge in Kells, hoping he can focus on finishing his book before the evil approaches, in order to give hope to the people. Stuck in the middle is young Brendan, who is expected to follow in his Uncle Cellach's footsteps, yet his heart pulls him ever closer towards the mentorship of Aidan and his mission to complete the book. (It is easy to draw parallels here to the story of Star Wars, and the relationship between Luke Skywalker, his demanding and over-protective Uncle Owen, and Luke's call to follow Obi-Wan into a grander adventure than he is currently living....likewise to the story of Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf calls Frodo to leave his uncle Bilbo's house to a grander adventure of his own.)

Behind the backdrop of this story from The Secret of Kells, the implications behind the conflict between Cellach and Aidan do have origins in the history of Celtic Christianity in Ireland. It is a history which is unpacked in a book I've re-visited off my shelf many times over the years, Listening for the Heartbeat of God by J. Philip Newell, who suggests a faith perspective based on Celtic spirituality as one to consider adopting in our modern culture. The backdrop of this history and Newell's perspective, knowingly or un-knowingly, weaves itself into The Secret of Kells both in its subject matter and its timeless message of faith in action.

The central theme of Newell's book is largely based on the outcome from the meeting of the Synod of Whitby in 664, where two major viewpoints on Christianity were presented by two groups, the Celtic and the Romans. The first view was the Celtic mission's tradition brought to light by Pelagius and other figures, yet also drew its inspiration from "an ancient stream of contemplative spirituality stretching back to St. John the Evangelist and even to the Wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. It was a mystic spirituality characterized by a listening within all things for the life of God." The image of the disciple John leaning against Jesus at the Last Supper and "listening for the heartbeat of God" was a key component to this approach to faith. This tradition came from the island of Iona, through the figure Aidan of Lindisfarne, who may be the inspiration for the character of Brother Aidan in The Secret of Kells.

This Celtic spirituality, as expressed in the Book of John from where it gets its chief inspiration, derives from a gospel and a story written from the perspective of "kairos," God's realm outside of time and our chronological clock. It is one of universal perspective seeing things as from an eagle's point of view, emphasizing the "Word became flesh" to bring us the Truth that can be found in all things. In this view, glimpses of truth may even be found in the pagan myths which point to the "true myth" of Christ, and in the beauty of creation which also speaks to us. Brother Aidan expresses his passion for translating the patterns and materials of creation (such as the berries from the forest used to make special ink) into the "work of angels" that is incarnated into his Book of Iona. He sees his mission, as the Celts did, as putting emphasis on the invisible, the eternal, and the contemplative act of finding God in creation so that "beauty may save the world." There exists in this realm an innate search for the goodness in things, both in creation and in the original imago Dei within us, but also an awareness of evil and its ability to overpower and consume us.

The second viewpoint at the Synod of Whitby, held by the Romans, came mainly through Augustine of Canterbury. This view drew its inspiration more from St. Peter, of whom Jesus claimed as "the Rock on whom I will build my church." The emphasis of their spirituality was on faithful action, outward unity, and listening for God within the life and teaching of the Church. The inspiration for this view came more from the Book of Matthew which, rather than the universal perspective of John, told the Christ story through the perspective of a particular people, a genealogy and the line of vision from a man on Earth. The perspective here is more set in "chronos" rather than "kairos," in what is visible rather than invisible, and in a strict adherence to Scripture as a guiding authority on all things. The four walls of the Church and focus on a place of security and sacrament was in contrast to the wide open "song of creation" which inspired John. In views on things such as Holy Communion, the Celtic mission may have seen this as more of a communion with the mystery of the universe, vs. the Romans' focus on the mere material of the bread and wine. The reality of evil and sinfulness has a stronger emphasis in this tradition, recognizing it as something within us which also corrupts the world outside the walls we try to build. Abbot Cellach in The Secret of Kells takes this idea to a literal extreme, through his obsession with building walls to create a sanctuary of isolation and protection from the world.

The different qualities in these two ways of listening to the revelation of God are also their strengths, particularly when harmonized together. To focus on Scripture and church sacraments to the exclusion of seeing God in creation can lead to an isolated, rigid system of fundamentalism; to focus on nature and creation without the authority of Scripture can lead to pantheism or vague spirituality. Yet the final ruling of the Synod of Whitby favored the Peter-inspired Roman mission as the official religion for Britain and Ireland, and the John-inspired Celtic mission began to gradually fade into obscurity. Newell's book explores the result of choosing one emphasis of faith over the other as an unfortunate tragedy. We can see the ripple effects in many aspects of today's Western Christianity which tends to be either separated from (or against) culture out of fear, rather than engaging the culture creatively to find common ground with the good news of the Gospel. Newell proceeds to explore the different ways the Celtic mission's views did manage to survive through its years of exile, and suggests that through reconciling the two "ways of listening" emphasized by John and Peter (rather than isolate either from the other), we may find a spirituality that is relevant and vibrant for our modern age.

Newell unpacks the notion that there are times when we enter the busy-ness and chaos of the outside world (with all the noise and distractions we've created) and find rejuvenation of our spirits by moving into silence inside the four walls of a church. Likewise, our hearts may be unexpectedly opened by the music or message of a church service, and afterwards we exit into the beauty of creation with a new perspective and enlightened "eyes to see and ears to hear." He also reminds us that the disciples John and Peter often appear together in the different accounts of the Gospel, and particularly at many key moments of the story. They are both witness to Jesus' Transfiguration, they sit together at the Last Supper, and though separated at the Crucifixion they both run to the empty tomb upon hearing of his Resurrection. The prayer of Jesus for his disciples was a desire and command for unity....between John and Peter, contemplation and action, the "already" and the "not yet"...between the sun over Creation and the rock under Scripture. The inter-weaving designs of Celtic art signify this visually, and their prayers sing of it, such as St. Patrick's musings on "Christ above me" and "Christ below me." Newell describes the Book of Kells as "the Celtic combination of love for creation on one hand and love for Scripture on the other is expressed in the brilliantly colored and superbly crafted illuminations of gospel text. Heaven and Earth, the visible and invisible, are depicted as intertwined, angel faces peeking out at the end of one design strand, plants or animals or human faces appearing at the next. Celtic art's everlasting pattern was used to suggest...the immediacy of God in all created life."

Our response to this idea must reflect the same interweaving of deep, contemplative faith with missional and transformative action, regardless of belief, background, ability or history. An inspiring model, I believe, is none other than young Brendan from The Secret of Kells. Like so many of us today who are torn between different views about faith and divisions among believers and non-believers alike, Brendan is torn between the desires of his two opposing mentors, Cellach and Aidan. Yet he finds a way to take the best of their respective teachings to heart. He has never left the walls of Kells and knows little more than what he learns from the monks and his Uncle Cellach. For both Cellach and Brendan, their artistic tools of expression are their chalk and slate. Cellach once used his skilled hand to illuminate sacred texts, but now uses it to draw detailed plans for his wall. Brendan is being trained by Cellach to use these same tools for the same purpose, yet through the monks he hears murmurs of Aidan's book and is captivated by it. At the same time, when he hears the rumor that sinners are blinded by the book, he is afraid to look at it, which means that his upbringing within the church has taught him correctly about his sinfulness.

Upon using the chalk to creatively envision his exploration of the forbidden forest, his first reaction is one of fear, smashing his slate. But stepping out in faith, Brendan learns to differentiate the good and evil within the pagan culture outside Kells. He sees Aisling as a good and creative element of the world who he can befriend and trust, and through his chalk and slate he is able to illuminate the art of the book to her. (This is a powerful illustration of the very nature of Irish Christianity itself, which blended the truth of the Gospel with elements of their prior mythology rather than completely obliterate it.) Likewise, Brendan discovers Crom Cruach as the destructive power of evil outside, and by drawing a circle around the evil deity, he uses his chalk to illuminate the fact that the only possible result of evil is that of self-destruction. This is exemplified by the self-destructive actions of Crom after being defeated, a popular symbol based on the Ouroboros motif of the snake eating his own tail.

Brendan's faith and courage brings him around full circle by the end of the film. He combines the reverence for Scripture he has learned from both Cellach and Aidan with his appreciation for nature he has learned from Aidan and Aisling. This appreciation is mixed with his skilled hand and dedication to the artwork of the Book of Iona. Continuing the work in exile after Kells is destroyed, he shares the completed work with others, and ultimately returns home to share it with his dying Uncle Cellach. It is a beautiful act of grace which mirrors the parable of the prodigal son, except here it is the prodigal uncle who repents. Cellach repents of forcing Brendan into a fearful life lived behind the walls of Kells, having been reminded of a more creative vision through the tiny scrap of the book he has left behind. It is Brendan who returns as the forgiving, embracing "father" figure to his uncle, and bestows upon him the gift of the book, now called by name as the Book of Kells, giving him hope in dark days, turning darkness into light, and making all things new.

In our families, our brothers and sisters, in our neighbors and enemies, and those who think differently, may we strive to look at them as if through an illuminating crystal that will reveal all the intricate details that unite us rather than divide us...and instead view ourselves like artists walking outwards in faith, not inwards in fear. May we befriend fairies and beetles, and recognize one another.

Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.
-John 17:22-23


  1. Ken- I found your post here looking for wallpapers based around this movie. I loved this movie too, and I glanced at one of your paragraphs and decided to say awhile to read.

    You analyzed it a great deal more than I did, and I have to say everything you've seen in this movie is not only completely correct, but it reveals aspects of the movie that are even more beautiful than I had known. I'm not Catholic (or even Irish), but I can appreciate the ideas going on here, and the relevance to my own self. This "review" is stellar and enlightening, and I love it. Thanks for being another beetle.

    - Jeevas Crow

  2. This is an excellent and penetrating review, Ken. I stumbled upon it while looking for the "one beetle recognizes another" quote and I'm glad that I kept reading.

    I was mesmerized when I saw this film on Netflix and it's really stuck with me. There's something efreshing to find a film with a penetrating (albeit subtle) Christian message told with such finesse and beauty. Your insight into the two practices of Christianity in Irish antiquity was fascinating, as well as their representation in the film. Beside the possible parallel between Aidan of Lindisfarne and Brother Aidan in the movie, the names may be significant. Cellach can mean war or conflict, but also church (either would fit), and Aidan means a small flam or spark that can catch on.

    I've never made the comparison before between the doctrinal/institutional approach to Christianity attributed to Peter and the more experiential and personal approach attributed to John. Excluding either is asking for trouble. The fact that Christ placed himself between these two men in so many stories doesn't feel like happenstance, but an indication that Christ was endorsing both approaches.

    Eastern religion and philosophy are usually given all the credit for focusing on balance, but I believe that the Bible and Christian like comes back to the same concept again and again. Total dependence on the Church can lead to rigidity and separation from the people we're meant to be reaching out to, but the Church as an institution provides permanence, community, and accountability to Christian life. Total dependence on personal seeking and experience can lead to flimsy doctrine and invention instead of inspiration, but that spirit is needed to reach and understand new seekers and leads to joy. The movie beautifully shows both Cellach and Aidan being both right and wrong in some areas to match this. Aidan is able to connect with Brendan and experience the joy and passion of his faith, but he appears in Kells because he and his fellows couldn't protect themselves from the invaders. Cellach is proven right about the dangers presented by the invaders outside but has lost his passion and connectedness in the process.

    I'm going on too long now, but I want to thank you for illuminating (which seems a fitting term here) some of the depths of this story that I had overlooked. I'm putting this movie on my Christmas list. Have a great Holiday Season, Ken!