Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Book Review: Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown

What a fascinating book! A colleague recommended this a few weeks ago and as soon as I looked at the cover, I said wait--we used to have a set of these chess pieces! I had no idea they were something cool! (Don't worry, my parents didn't commit major art theft--apparently there was a kit or something you could buy and my mother made them by filling molds with resin.)  But I didn't have a clue that these were based on something famous--the Lewis Chessmen.

Ms. Brown does an amazing amount of research into the history of these chess pieces and even more so into the history surrounding them. When, most likely they were made, possibly by whom, and for whom. They were found in Scotland but have always been assumed to be Norwegian. But Ms. Brown makes a persuasive argument that probably they were Icelandic--and also made by a woman. 

It seems like the information has been there all along, it's just that so few Icelandic books have been translated and so aren't available. Their sagas are famous, but mostly still only readable in Icelandic. It's only been in recent years that Icelandic scholars have pointed out some pretty straightforward evidence in their archives and histories that make the Icelandic roots of the chessmen very likely. And thanks to those Icelanders making that information more known, other scholars and historians can go to those sources as well to find even more documentation. 

Yes, a lot of it is by necessity, conjecture. Art history runs across that a lot. There's simply a lot we don't know and may never know. Archeology might bring us more facts in the future, but based on what is known now, this is the best theory on these adorable and personality-filled little playing pieces. You've got to check out the berserk rooks biting their shields!

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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