Good Letters

Part One of my Conversation with film critic Steven Greydanus about the film The Secret of Kells was published in a Good Letters post on Friday.

Here is the conclusion of that conversation:

Jeffrey to Steven, #4

In your review, you wrote, “It must be admitted that The Secret of Kells somewhat short-changes Brendan’s Christian world in relation to Ireland’s lingering paganism. The Faerie world is matter-of-factly depicted as living, magical and powerful; Christianity is mundane and limited.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree.

Don’t you think that “Brendan’s Christian world” has injured itself by cutting itself off from the natural world and other cultures?

By surrendering to the abbot’s overpowering fears, the people of Brendan’s Christian world have cut themselves off from natural revelation, for starters. And nature—represented here by Aisling—is one of the places where God does extraordinary, mysterious work. I’m inclined to say that, yes, Christianity is limited in the film, but only insofar as fearful Christians have limited it.

Steven replies:

But what about Brother Aidan? He’s meant to embody the more winsome face of faith, but his Christianity, while more fun and humane than Abbot Cellach’s, is just as mundane and limited. There’s nothing truly mysterious, miraculous, or even spiritual about his experiences or ideas. It’s all demythologized and aestheticized—and again, they don’t do this to the pagan world, at least explicitly.

Critically speaking, you could choose to regard Brendan’s encounters with Aisling and Crom Cruach as a fantasy sequences, although the wolves that drive away the Northmen in the end seem real enough. Minimally, the film presents Aisling and Crom as seemingly real, and the viewer can easily regard them as such. Whereas the fanciful tales of St. Columcille are not only not seen onscreen, but are implied to have a naturalistic basis, at least insofar as Columcille’s “third eye” turns out to be a crystal—although his acquisition of the crystal is explicitly connected with a confrontation with dark forces in exactly the way that we see Brendan himself do, so that’s really the one hint of anything like mystery or power on the Christian side of the equation.

Jeffrey to Steven, #5

It’s interesting to me—and you noted something about this in your review—that St. Brendan becomes the film’s best example of bold Christianity, in that Brendan is willing to engage with the whole world. He doesn’t just run away from evil, as Aidan does. Nor does he build a wall against it, as the abbot does. He faces the monster, Crom Cruach. In fact, he seeks to capture its crystalline eye.

And that’s really interesting to me. Isn’t that what Christianity claims—that what is true and “clear-eyed” in the distorted and incomplete religions and myths of the world is, in fact, the property of the One True Vision? Ultimately, false religions are left with nothing but their lie, destroying themselves. Evil implodes, while what was true and beautiful within its lie is reclaimed by Christ. In fact, the true and the beautiful were Christ’s property to begin with.

And yet there I go again: Interpreting a film by reaching into a deeper place than the film really seems interested in taking us.

It’s almost as if the filmmakers are unaware of the profundity of their own story.

Steven replies:

That’s a really good way of putting it. I think I may see that confrontation between Brendan and Crom in a deeper light than the filmmakers too, although the explicit connection between Brendan and St. Columcille in confronting the powers of darkness does suggest that there’s some actual spiritual warfare motif here. I think too of the connection to the famous legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. We might be reaching a bit here, but I don’t think it’s too terribly much of a reach!

The other aspect of the scene that I think begs for a deeper reading is the way Brendan defeats the serpent by literally circumscribing his power—and then leaves him, in an image borrowed from Insular art and other sources, devouring his own tail. The self-devouring serpent, the Ouroboros motif, is found in many cultures, sometimes with a more positive spin (so to speak), other times more negative. Here, clearly, Crom devours himself in impotent rage and fury, suggesting the self-destructive nature of evil, especially evil defeated.

Jeffrey to Steven, #6

What films do you think best represent medieval Christianity?

It’s regarded now as just a silly ’80s action flick, but I’ve always been rather fond of Ladyhawke, in part for its representation of faith. The bishop in the film is wicked to the core, but like The Book of Kells, the film suggests that the “good magic” of nature can be reconciled with the church of nature’s creator.

Steven replies:

I wish I could mention The Seventh Seal here, but as thoughtful about spiritual matters as that film is, the Christian elements are a pretty hollow facade.

Andrei Rublev offers an aptly messy depiction of the medieval world that includes positive and negative sides of Christian experience.

Becket includes some lavish medieval religious pageantry.

Oh, and Eric Rohmer’s charming Perceval, one of the most genuinely medieval-minded films I’ve ever seen, ends with a remarkable Passion play as redolent of medieval spirituality as anything I can think of.

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