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“I am eager to play chess – I have mastered nine skills”

By (September 1, 2015) No Comment

Ivory Vikings:The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
By Nancy Marie Brown
St. Martin’s Press, 2015

IvoryVikingsAt some point in 1831, on a windy, sea-swept patch of coast on the Outer Hebrides Isle of Lewis, a small dry-hold trove was uncovered from a sand bank. No one knows quite who uncovered the trove (there are apocryphal stories about a curious cow that, like all apocryphal stories, are much better than the more plausible ones), and we’ll probably never know who stashed it in such a spot or why. Was it a trader, storing his wares for quick retrieval when a skiff pulled up on the freezing beach? A rich man’s agent, stashing his purchases from a sudden storm or an oncoming party of questionable types? A local collector, hoarding his precious items as local collectors are wont to do?

However the trove got into that sand bank, its subsequent history has taken place in the glare of the world’s gaze – because the items here weren’t blurry old Roman coins or some broken goblets. Instead, they were 14 table-pieces, one buckle (from the satchel that once carried the lot?), and 78 chess pieces carved of walrus tusk and whale tooth. The chess pieces were squat kings and queens, knights on burly horses, bishops clutching croziers, and armored men so enraged they were biting their own shields. They hunched and hurried; their eyes bulged and stared; their personalities, hidden from the sun for centuries, were vital.

These “Lewis” chessmen are the subject of Nancy Marie Brown’s new book Ivory Vikings, and the wonderful way she takes in the whole wider context of their world starts with her panoramic description of where they were found:

Stand on the dunes hear the chessmen’s traditional findspot and the later history of Uig Bay comes to life. Sweep your eyes slowly from east to west, from inland out to sea: There, a little island has a broch on top, a drystone Iron Age tower; the word broch comes from the Norse for fortress, borg, though the building long predates the Viking Age. A line of stones is a causeway connecting the broch to a headland, under which lies a Bronze Age cairn. By the shoreline sit the schoolhouse and the Church of Scotland manse at Baile-na-Cille, both dating from the eighteenth century. Beyond the manse’s garden wall is a chapel and circular graveyard dating from time out of mind; one stone has been identified as a holy water stoup … a hump beyond the cemetery marks another Bronze Age cairn.

The description is typical of Brown’s ability to work a great deal of information into a compression of lively lines, and that skill at compression allows Ivory Vikings to cover an enormous amount of ground in a comparatively small number of pages. Many books have been written on the Lewis chessmen, but none in English can quite match this one’s blend of history and aesthetic impression. The three centuries of the Viking Age are brought vividly to life in those pages, as are the considerable cultural achievements of Iceland, Norway, and Denmark (the subject of her justly-praised 2012 book Song of the Vikings) at the height of the 12th century when those Lewis chessmen were carved. It was the time of Christianity’s dogged spread throughout Scandinavia, and it was also the period when the game of chess flourished throughout Europe, having reached Iceland and Norway through a circuitous traveling transformation over the previous centuries, a route Brown traces with neat economy:

From India, this war game traveled through Persia to Baghdad, by then the capital of the Islamic empire. Islam prohibits the carving of idols; chess men became chess pieces: beautiful smooth lumps of stone or bone or ivory, with the merest points and projections to indicate which pieces were which. Abstract chess pieces arrived in Christian Spain by at least the year 1008, when a count near Barcelona bequeathed a rock-crystal set to the local church.

The game became hugely popular in Norway, a popularity mirrored in the writings of the time, including a 12th century poet (and future saint) named Kali Kolsson, who lists proficiency at the game as one of the essential accomplishments of any young bravo:

I am eager to play chess,
I have mastered nine skills,
I hardly forget the runes,
I am interested in books and carpentry.
I know how to ski,
my shooting and sailing skills are competent.
I can both play the harp and construe verse.

Rognvald’s casual inclusion of the game as part of the cultural atmosphere speaks to how widespread it was throughout Norway, and it’s little wonder that Norway has claimed the provenance of the Lewis chessmen. That claim is the small, politely contentious upraised hand at the center of Ivory Vikings; Brown echoes some of the recent scholarship that wants to claim the pieces for Iceland instead of the consensus-favorite Norway, citing that around the year 1200, Iceland was “at the peak of its Golden Age: rich, independent, and in a frenzy of artistic creation.” Brown favors the idea that the pieces were carved during this mini-renaissance period in Iceland, and as her book’s subtitle indicates, she likes the idea that they were carved by a woman: Margaret the Adroit, cited in the Saga of Bishop Pall as “the most skilled carver in all Iceland.” These were the years when elaborate stores were being chanted at mead halls and royal chambers, stories like Njal’s Saga and Laxdaela Saga – in which the formidable character of Gunnhild Kings-Mother often plays a starring part. “If the Lewis chessmen were made in Iceland in the late twelfth century, when these tales were being told for entertainment, who better to model the queen than Gunnhild the Grim?” Brown asks. “The Lewis queens are not young and beautiful. They are women of experience – women of power.”

LewisChessmenIt’s a bit slim as far as historical triangulation goes, and Brown’s other piece of evidence – that bishops didn’t go by the term “bishop” in Norway at the time these pieces were carved (but did in Iceland) – is likewise more thought-provoking than dispositive. Iceland may have had Margaret the Adroit, but the workshops of Trondheim in Norway had many more such artisans – less adroit, perhaps, but better able to serve the monied buying class that existed in Norway at the time and might have commissioned pieces such as the Lewis chessmen or bought them in bulk from some Irish trader. When it comes to this issue, partisanship in professional circles tends to run along nationalist lines rather than evidentiary ones.

The controversy is a courteously inconsequential one in any case – the Lewis collection is split between the National Museum of Scotland (11 pieces) and the British Museum (98 pieces), and there’s little chance any of the pieces will ever take up residence in Trondheim, much less Reykjavik – and it serves more than anything to remind the reader of the sense of passionate involvement these pieces have always sparked in people who encounter them. Standing before their displays in either Edinburgh or London, you’re struck not by history or provenance but by the sheer ungainly immediacy of the figures themselves.

Brown’s book, so strong in so many ways, is at its strongest when conveying that immediacy. She organizes most of her chapters around the different ranks of pieces, from the pawns that in the Lewis set are obelisks rather than foot soldiers, to the queen on her intricately-carved throne, one hand on her cheek in dismay at the thought of clashing armies and possible capture (queens at the time were far less powerful pieces on the chessboard than they are today, capable of moving only one diagonal space at a time – weaker, in other words, even than the king). Reading Brown’s comments on the Lewis rooks (armed men in the 12th century, not the stone towers of current iconography), you can picture her walking around the pieces under gentle museum lighting, notebook in hand, noticing everything:

None of our rooks has a spear to shake: They’re armed with rather more expensive swords, another sign that these are late-Norse warriors, not Viking Age berserks. All but one have helmets; the odd one wears a chain-mail coif. Nine helmets are pointy caps, most with earflaps; they might or might not have noseguards. Two are quite different: One looks like a bowler hat, the other, a bucket. Some rooks are mustached and bearded, some clean-shaven. Their hair is cropped at the shoulders. Most glare straight ahead, one looks askance. They are stalwart, gruff, bold-looking bluffers, not terribly fierce, except for those four who are biting their shields. Beware. They are going berserk.

odin playing chessShe’s full of curiosity about the inclusions modern chess players take for granted, which only adds to her book’s charming freshness. “The bishop stands flanking the king and queen,” she observes at one point. “How odd, if you think about it. Chess is a war game. What is a churchman doing on the chessboard?” The question, intentionally leading, allows her to expound on the worldly and warrior bishops who were, alas, a staple of the medieval church, and there are similarly well-executed discussions seeded throughout the book. And the culmination of such discussions, the eight Lewis kings, is another occasion where Brown can step back and fill in the larger context of the game:

By placing the kings on the chessboard, the society in which the Lewis chessmen were created becomes clear. It was a world connected by sea roads; a world in which Iceland and the Isle of Lewis were not on the periphery but central; a world in which a campaigning king’s by-blow (Harald Gilli, born in Ireland) or an indiscretion removed from court (Sverri, raised in the Faroes) could become Norway’s sovereign and found a dynasty. It was a world in which the roles of kings and bishops in the new Christian kingdoms of the North were still in flux, and one in which no one knew the rules of the game.

But those broader contexts always keep giving way to the aforementioned particular urgency of the pieces themselves; the bristling, busy way they go about their warring concerns is so insular, so totally concentrated, that it becomes spellbinding. The Lewis pieces have been used dozens of times in art and on screen as symbols of both the power and the age of chess, and as Brown rightly implies, their power at the time derived from contemporaneity: these were the kings whose names players knew; these were the queens who reared the troublesome princes of the realm; these were the rooks who burned farms and sacked monasteries. It was both thrilling and slightly scandalous to be moving them around on a red-and-white board, their fates in your hands for once instead of the other way around. Only today’s novelty chess sets, with living world leaders (or even pop culture figures) as pieces, come close to echoing that experience from 900 years ago. And yet somehow, the Lewis chessmen are still alive, still alarmed and vaguely bumptious and utterly convincing, charging about their vanished world on matters of life and death. Ivory Vikings brings its readers into the tumult of that vanished world with its icy trade routes and its fiery sagas, and it remains a fascinating story whether or not it ultimately burnishes the work-history of Margaret the Adroit.















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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.