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Book of Kells and the fourth hand

15 April 2016

Peggy Woodford reads a tale about Celtic knotwork

The Well of the North Wind: A novel
Kenneth Steven
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


AS A child, Fian endlessly draws patterns in the sand, and their beauty catches the eye of a monk, who takes him by boat to Iona, to Colum — St Columba. Fian becomes a part of the saint’s community, but it is his talent for drawing and painting which makes him stand out. Eventually, after undergoing many trials, he is chosen to complete the monastery’s greatest treasure: an illuminated manuscript on vellum of the Four Gospels, which lacks a final section.

Kenneth Steven tells the story from Fian’s point of view, and within his fictional sixth-century world, bringing the reader claustrophobically close to the characters and their setting. We feel the silence and hardship of sixth-century life, we smell the sea, the weeds on the beach, the simple fleeting scents of food in a monastic setting on the remote island of Iona.

Life is basic and hard, the wind is cold, and the sea dangerous. There’s a lack of lightness, of humour: Fian’s first experience of laughter occurs on page 70, when the monastery cat Pangur wanders in, miaowing, and “the laughter rose until Pangur herself backed out.” Maybe the rigours of life on Iona at that time would not have encouraged much lightness of heart.

The manuscript, now called The Book of Kells because it was kept in the Abbey of Kells for centuries, is known to have been written by four separate hands; and Kenneth Steven’s novel has invented Fian as the unknown “fourth hand”. Its 340 vellum folios, and the unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation that covers them, include ten full-page illustrations; and the text is vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures that mark the furthest extension of the anti-classical and energetic qualities of insular Celtic art.

This great treasure is now kept in Trinity College Library, Dublin.


Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

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