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How to adult like a child} ?> From a young age, Brendan knows three things about the world: (1) the world is brutal, (2) Vikings are dangerous, and (3) building a wall around the Abbey of Kells—and staying inside it—is the only way to protect himself from numbers one and two.
At least, that’s what his uncle, Abbot Cellach, would have him believe.
In the Academy Award nominated film The Secret of Kells, Brendan is forced to grow up faster than his age can keep up with.
His uncle is a steely-eyed giant of a man whose obsession with wall-building takes his focus off other important things—like overseeing the creation of the Book of Kells, a tome that’s destined to convey hope and history to future generations. Whilst Cellach toils at the construction site or doodles blueprints all over the walls and floor of his bedchamber, survivors of Viking attacks on nearby villages gradually trickle into Kells Abbey; this only reinforces Cellach’s beliefs that the outside world is a place occupied by worshippers of the pagan god, Crom Cruac.
However, Brendan starts to question his uncle’s beliefs once he begins an apprenticeship under a famed Illuminator (holy artist) in order to complete the legendary Book of Kells. During a trek into the forbidden outside world on a quest for ink ingredients, Brendan meets Aisling—a shape-shifting fairy who personifies much of Brendon’s childish innocence and fear. It’s Aisling who introduces Brendan to the wonders of nature—inspiring his work as an Illuminator—and who holds him back in terror when Brendan ventures too close to the den of Crom Cruac.
“There’s no such thing as Crom Cruac,” Brendan assures her, echoing his uncle’s words. Crom is a fable—pagan, imaginary nonsense to scare children, and despite his youthful age and prepubescent voice, Brendan clearly doesn’t consider himself one of those.
Secretly, Brendan’s terrified that Crom Cruac exists—to the point where it haunts his dreams at night—but, due to the adult-like sense of skepticism instilled in him by his uncle, he denies that fear. He is forced to grow up too fast, and in doing so, misses something valuable in being a child.
As soon as we’re old enough to become self-aware, it seems we’re set on “growing up.” And why wouldn’t we be? Hearing the oft-repeated “wait until you’re older” implies that our age is a restriction. We eagerly await the birthdays when we’ll be thirteen, fifteen, eighteen, twenty one, old enough to be considered a legal adult. That word, “adult,” is toted around like a medal given to those who, oftentimes, merely meet the qualification of age.
But maybe being “grown up” means something more—like overcoming the insecurities of being “childish.” Children are fearless. They ask questions, they absorb and reflect the world around them with spellbinding candor, they have the self-confidence and curiosity to try new things.
It’s when most of these children reach adulthood that the distrust of the world gets to them. They suddenly hold their questions in for fear of appearing incompetent. They keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of saying the wrong thing. They approach new experiences with caution because the world has taught them to fear what they do not understand. These children (who, science tells us, are born with only two natural fears— falling and loud noises), suddenly encounter a host of worries upon reaching adulthood.
In the real world, it seems, to be “grown up” means learning to fear.
Under the influence of his uncle, Brendan is taught to bury his deep-seated fear of Crom Cruac. That doesn’t change the fact that Crom is, in fact, real—as real as Brendan’s self-doubts about his ability to complete the Book of Kells. He believes he’s not worthy or skilled enough. He’ll ruin it. It’s ironic that the boy who prides himself in “not fearing imaginary things” is afraid of his own imaginary incompetence.
And yet the Book of Kells uncannily inspires Brendan to press on. The words and beautiful images encased beneath its golden cover are birthed from the unrestrained, child-like hearts of the monks who contributed to it throughout the years; its pages are not bound by the ominous walls that surround the Abbey. Abbott Cellah—an ex-Illuminator, himself—sees the book as childish and locks Brendan away in order to keep his focus in its “proper” place—wall-building.
It’s Aisling—Brendan’s Faye-like friend—who frees him from his uncle’s prison. The book must be completed, and that means Brendan must face the fear holding his imagination at bay: he must face Crom Cruac. It’s a moment that marks the apex of Brendan’s maturity—his leap into adulthood—and it means sacrificing his doubts and fears.
In Brendan’s case, it means sacrificing Aisling, too.
We all face our Crom Cruac, eventually; maybe not as a literal monster, but something very much like it—a death, a disaster, a divorce, a discovery, a decision—and it’s this apex in our lives that determines how we step into “adulthood.” Some, like Abbott Cellah, emerge from the creature’s den shaken by the darkness in the world and wall themselves away from it. Others, like Brendan, find the world a different place than before—one without their beloved Aisling, but one in which Aisling is still very much a part, if only she’s looked for with a faith-filled heart.
Growing up “costs” us something—our security, our innocence, or our ignorance. But our child-like faith doesn’t have to be part of the price.
The Vikings eventually raid Kells and tear down Abbot Cellah’s walls, but Brendan remains unshaken: he knows what lives in him is far stronger than the evils of the world, and so he completes the Book of Kells—a compendium he later returns to the Abbott and his surviving people as a token of hope. It’s no irony that the real Book of Kells, which now resides in Trinity College Dublin, is a chronicle of the four Gospels—a series of biblical books containing passages about the power of childlike faith.
We can’t always choose the experiences that shape us, but we can choose how we respond to them. Perhaps the true “adult” response is best summarized by the great wizard of words, C.S. Lewis:
“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”