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Mixed up

Movies | The Secret of Kells offers a strange concoction of religions

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

Half Christian history, half Celtic fairy story, The Secret of Kells is the most beautiful movie to come out in a season full of high-quality kids' films. It's also a very confusing one, from a Christian perspective, as it suggests that wood elves helped to preserve the words of Jesus.

Our story starts out in the ninth century, when Christian monks in Ireland kept what remained of human knowledge and lived in constant fear of Viking invaders looking to plunder their abbeys. Brendan (Evan McGuire), a curious 12-year-old boy, is helping his too-strict uncle, the Abbot (Brendan Gleeson), to build a wall against the Norsemen. But what Brendan really wants to do is to illuminate manuscripts like the Abbot's friend Brother Aidan, who doesn't seem to hate fun like the Abbot, and who brings to the abbey the Book of Kells-an ornately illustrated collection of the four Gospels.

Brendan is kept from doing most interesting things by his uncle, including going out into the woods where there are all kinds of terrible creatures including "pagans and Crom-worshippers."

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Naturally, Brendan ventures into the forest, where he discovers a dryad named Aisling, who helps him gather the berries he needs to make paint and protects him from the evil Crom, who is not, it turns out, an invention of the super­stitious.

Far from, say, C.S. Lewis or Gene Wolfe's clever combinations of Christian symbolism and fairy-tale trappings, the movie's position appears to be that no faith is less ridiculous than any others. Thus if Christianity is correct, surely there must be dwarves and wizards, too-sort of the inverse of Richard Dawkins' argument that if some religions are false, all of them must be wrong. This, obviously, is a complicated idea to explain to small children, many of whom will be in tears during the unrated movie's showdowns with Crom (a one-eyed snake monster) and the bloody Vikings.

It may sound odd, but I'd recommend the movie most to teenagers and grown-ups who want to watch a clean, breathtakingly made movie and who are secure enough in their faith not to bother about the film's theology.

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