Book Review: Ivory Vikings

Ivory Vikings:  The Mystery Of The Most Famous Chessmen In The World And The Woman Who Made Them, by Nancy Marie Brown

The odds are high that many people among my readers will not know the Lewis chessmen by name.  However, most of these people will have seen the Lewis chessmen, even without knowing them by name or knowing their contentious role in a variety of cultural disputes.  If you have seen Harry Potter learn wizard chess in the first movie, you have seen these chessmen.  If you have looked at numerous books on the history of the Viking age, the chessmen are prominent in the artwork of these covers, to say nothing of those who have seen them at various museums in Great Britain.  It should be noted at the outset that this is not so much a work of history as it is a work of polemic.  It is a case being made to give Iceland and the Hebrides their proper place as part of the center of concerns in the Scandinavian world of the high Middle Ages [1], and also a case to regard the achievements of one obscure Margret the Adroit, who may have carved the chessmen.  Like Caroline Bingley, the author moves happily from conjecture to almost settled confidence in what is a highly contentious case between Iceland and Norway (who fight out rival theories as to where these chessmen were carved) and between Scotland and England over where they properly belong in an age of rising nationalism.  Whether or not this book is strictly historical, it certainly is an exciting read if you like historical mysteries.

The contents of this book are divided mostly into chapters based on the chess pieces themselves and what they mean.  The author could have easily been a theologian the way that she draws more than two hundred pages of exegesis from an analysis of obscure Icelandic writings, some of which have never been translated into English before as well as from a sympathetic look at the chess pieces themselves.  Aside from their aesthetic appeal and their cultural importance, the chess pieces mark the first time that one finds bishops among the chesspieces as opposed to their foolish and knavish predecessors.  So, after an introduction of missing pieces that points out the contentions these chess pieces have produced within the generally sedate world of medieval Viking art history (!?), we have a discussion of the beserker rooks, some of whom are biting their shields, a discussion of the Church in Iceland and the relationship between church and state in the viking world, a detailed discussion of the importance of women as wives and mothers and counselors and craftswomen in an age where walrus ivory from Greenland had an important role in the global ivory trade, which helped to bankroll Scandinavian regimes, as well as a discussion of the civil wars of Norway and surrounding areas, and the various earls and other soldiers who fought in these wars generation after generation.  Let it never be said that the medieval history of the viking realms was boring or uninteresting.

This is a very excellent book.  To be sure, fans of the theory that the Lewis chessmen were carved in Trondheim will probably not appreciate the book as much as those who are at least willing to think that they were carved in Iceland, or perhaps even on the island of Lewis.  The book addresses questions of legitimacy of authority, pragmatism in religious behavior, the role of women, the importance of reciprocal gift-giving in medieval viking society, the importance of trade, and questions of national identity in Iceland and Scotland.  The book also discusses the evolution of chess and the insights one can gain from art history.  I can say for myself that nearly all of these are subjects I have a great deal of interest in, and if that is the case for you as well there is much that you will find of interest here.  The author is certainly passionate about Iceland, about its people and history and literature, and she conveys that thoughtfully in this book.  It does not work as a sober work of history, but as a case-making book in the midst of a polemical debate about important art, this book is certainly a worthwhile one to read.  One only wonders if the pro-Norway side have their own book as compelling and interesting as this one to give the other side of the story.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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