Reviewed by Liz Dexter
The subtitle of this book belies the breadth and depth of the material inside: taking the Lewis Chessmen and the many theories about their origin and maker as only a starting point, the book provides a thorough and engaging social and political history of the entire Norse world, no less.
Nancy Marie Brown is an Icelandic and Norse scholar and has previously published a book about Snorri Sturluson and his milieu (Song of the Vikings). In this book, she doesn’t cover much old ground, but instead spreads the topic of the book across the Norse world, via the “sea road”, from North America right the way across the Atlantic, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia and Russia (with forays all the way to Constantinople).
The Lewis chessmen, discovered on that island in the 1830s, are woven through the book, and we read of different aspects of them, encompassing walrus tusk carving, the history of gaming – and chess in particular – gifts and tributes for kings and then the controversies that have raged ever since their finding on their groupings, meaning, history and makers.
In addition, Brown makes the inspired decision to treat different social groupings in different chapters based on the main chessboard characters, allowing her to talk about rooks (berserkers in the Lewis chess set), bishops, knights, queens and kings and the different histories and roles of each of these. This keeps things very interesting, although it does mean that we jump around the chronology a little, which might be hard to keep straight for the less knowledgeable (there are a couple of slip-ups in references to other places in the text in this respect, too, although more in assuming we’ve not yet met someone we have already come across, so not too detrimental to the reading). There’s a huge wealth of knowledge, resources and sources behind this, and Brown goes to the primary sources a great deal, making the information seem fresh, authoritative and interesting.
In what is presumably an editorial / publisher decision (as the Snorri book has this, too), the referencing style is to eschew footnote numbers or symbols in the main text and gather the notes with page numbers and emboldened sections of text as references at the end of the book. Although this is not my most favoured referencing method, it does remove clutter from the page and makes it an easier read for the novice; and the references are full and thorough, as are the bibliography and index.
There are some good maps and some lovely full-page illustrations of the chess pieces, which you might not realise on leafing through the book, as they are printed onto the pages rather than on separate glossy leaves. The images of the figures, featuring on the cover, too, are what draws you in, with their mysterious expressions and forms. Brown does a great job of describing them and their human as well as artistic characteristics.
It’s impressive that Brown manages not to take sides, but lays out the academic and amateur debate dispassionately and carefully. She doesn’t come fully down on the side of the idea of a woman having made the figures, or of them having been made in a particular place, but simply lays out evidence that suggests this to be the case, alongside other evidence and opinions. She’s particularly good at reinstating some work which has been done in Icelandic and therefore somewhat ignored by the rest of academia. She is also clear about where there are gaps in knowledge, stating in the introduction that, ‘To play the game, we fill the empty squares with pieces of our own imagination’, and of the story she constructs much later in the book,
In fact, this whole story is a flight of fancy […] But so is every explanation of how the chessmen arrived on Lewis a flight of fancy—even some that have been presented for many years as fact.
I think you would have to have some interest in the Norse world and/or chess in order to enjoy this book, as its 280 pages are crammed full of kings, queens, warriors, historians, shield-biters and artists. But it’s very much worth a read, with so much colour and interest, ably brought to life by the author and giving a broad and deep picture of the Norse world and the world of those who interacted with the Vikings, which will reward the careful and interested reader.
Liz Dexter is teaching herself modern Icelandic, slowly, and slightly hampered by her knowledge of Old Norse, which gives her lots of words for chopping people up but not many for going on the Internet or listening to a band. Her book review blog is at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home
Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman who Made Them (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 978-1137279378, 280 pp., hardback.
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