Saturday, October 8, 2016


More people, I imagine, recognize the Lewis Chessmen than realize that they do. They're the models for the set Harry Potter and pals use in their films. Some illustrations for Lewis Carroll's works draw on them. Etc. Or, like me, they heard of the set on the amazing History of the World in 100 Objects podcast and looked them up and spent untold hours just admiring them. The beserker rooks as they bite their shields, the elaborately enthroned kings with their swords on their knees, the knights astride their stocky little ponies, the queens with their faces resting pensively (or worriedly?) in their hands...

For such people, I wouldn't call Ivory Vikings essential reading, as such, but it's pretty interesting nonetheless. The book explores the set -- or rather, sets, for bits of four sets of chessmen were dug up on that Scottish beach in 1831 -- piece by piece, beginning with the knights, modeled after late Viking warriors, and in the process makes a particular argument as to their nature and origin, a nature and origin intimately tied to some of the later and lesser read Bishop's Sagas of Iceland, as well as to some of the more famous Family Sagas, on which author Nancy Marie Brown draws for ideas of legendary/historical characters that might have inspired these personality-filled bits of walrus ivory and whalebone.

By the way, if you're not familiar with these sagas, you can pick them up pretty cheaply in "Saga Six Packs" over at Amazon, or, and I highly recommend this even if you're not going to read them (though you should read them!), go have a listen to the Saga Thing podcast, in which a pair of scholars summarize, dissect, and rate the sagas in terms of "best bloodshed" and "nicknames" and "notable witticisms" and such. Trust me. It's even more fun than it sounds!

But back to Ivory Vikings, which I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. The problem is structural; while the idea of building the arguments as though one were slowly setting up pieces on a chess board is an intriguing one, the execution of same is very sloppily done, here. For instance, the final chapter, ostensibly considering the pawns, outlines the known history and provenance of the pieces since their discovery in 1831, and thus feels like it belongs at the book's beginning (especially since offhand references to stages in their journey from the island of Lewis' Uig Bay to various museum exhibits are made throughout the rest of the book, and phrased as though the reader is merely being reminded of something already discussed, to baffling and annoying effect). Too, and perhaps more irritatingly, anecdotes from the history of the North Sea in the ninth through 13th centuries are often repeated almost verbatim in several places, while others are fragmented and scattered throughout the book's chapters. The resulting narrative is rather more like a fever dream than a thoughtful work of non-fiction.

Still, these anecdotes and ideas -- that the famous/infamous Gunnhild the Grim may be the model for the queens (and now I can't but picture her holding her hand to her face as she considers what curse would be best for her lover Hrut, for instance), that Pall Jonsson not only might have commissioned the pieces but is also a living avatar of the modern chess bishop that was no bishop in the original Arabian game that became our modern chess, that a woman referred to briefly in a saga of his life might have been the carver of the set -- are fascinating and fun to consider, even as one realizes, through one of the more coherent threads in the book, that the mystery of these remarkable chess pieces might not ever be solved. Locations that might hold the answers to our questions are also locations of existing archaeological digs that would be damaged, if not destroyed, if we wanted to go deeper, as we'd have to, say, in Iceland's Skaholt, where an important 16th century site may sit right on top of the 11th or 12th century site we'd want to examine.

The reader who can be patient with the book's weird structure, and has an interest in chess, history, art history, commerce, archaeology, craftsmanship -- anything, really -- will enjoy this excuse to think about all of these things while admiring these whimsical, enigmatic, arresting little works of art. The reader who can't, will probably want to skip this one.

As for me, I'm off to read or re-read some sagas. Even as I shake my fist that a lot of the ones I'm now most curious about have not yet been translated into English. Ah, me.

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