In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.
Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
Brown (Song of the Vikings) successfully crafts an Icelandic history of chess while tracing the possible movements of 92 remarkable carved figures found in the early 19th century on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. Drawing on the intertwined cultures, local artistic abilities, and close relationships among 12th-century Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, and England, Brown connects the threads between them with her own translations of Icelandic sagas and related archaeological research. She divides the tale into sections Rooks, Bishops, Queens, Kings, and Knights and inserts little-known historical tidbits about the game itself. Scandinavian history buffs and chess enthusiasts will revel in the power games between would-be kings and those already enthroned, some of whom, Brown posits, may have commissioned these walrus ivory chess sets as gifts for other kings. Other readers may find the mystery of the set's hotly contested origins more enthralling. As for Margret the Adroit, the woman who supposedly made them, Brown makes the most of a saga's sole mention of her artistic skill to support a recent and entirely plausible theory as to the pieces' source. Though more full of conjecture than the assertive subtitle suggests, Brown's account is nonetheless fascinating. Illus.
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complex history where the author has placed items into context of time, culture and lore opens a wel
For years I’ve been fascinated with mythology and history: not simply the better known Greek and Roman, or even the lore from the Brothers Grimm, but the lesser known folk tales, beliefs and history of other cultures. Often the ‘discovering’ of this information is quite a dry read: more scholarly in nature, with frequent references that assume (or require) a broad base of historic knowledge to ‘place’ an object in time. While this often carries the onus of coursework you ‘have’ to complete, rather than wish to investigate, the time spent is always beneficial. But, to find complex history where the author has placed items into context of time, culture and lore opens a well of richness that spurns imagination and helps to vividly imprint that information.
In Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown delves into the rich history of the years where the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, courageously (and without advantage of modern technology) establishing presence on areas as diverse as Greenland and Scotland, England and Norway, Ireland and Iceland and even into modern-day Scandinavia. While myth and discoveries intertwine, there is also the story of the artist, the creator of the very wondrous pieces, a woman (yes – I too was surprised) Margaret the Adroit.
Woven through all of the information and history, including the construct of the pieces, the background and history to each piece on the board and information on the discovery of the pieces, who holds the best argument for provenance, and even using archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) to illustrate the story. The history and legend of Iceland, life and beliefs are also highlights, with information coming fast and furiously, well-documented and placed to present a solid history for the pieces.
I couldn’t put this down, and I have a list as long as I am tall to ‘look for’ later: most importantly, I wanted to touch the pieces, stroke them. There is a certain ‘life’ to ivory (for those who haven’t felt an old carving or piano key) that has a warmth…somewhere along the way I had read that ancient people preferred items carved from bone or ivory, believing the spirit of the animal helped to infuse a life and warmth, if not special powers. While the use of the visages from the set may forever be encapsulated by the Wizard’s chess games in the Harry Potter books, the set, on display at the British Museum, can spur imagination and questions evermore. Brown has answered some of those questions, and given readers more to investigate along the way.
I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.