I love it when I learn a thing or two from one of the books I’ve requested for review. I had requested this book because I enjoy Scandinavian literature and mythology and I saw a natural tie-in with this book. But I did wonder, ‘Can someone really write an entire book about some ancient chess pieces?’
First of all, I have to admit that I did not realize how famous these chess pieces are. I did not know that these specific chess pieces were used as the models for the giant chess pieces depicted in the Harry Potter movie. Referred to as The Lewis Chessmen, they consist of 93 chessmen pieces, hand carved from walrus ivory, that were uncovered on a beach in Scotland in the early 1800’s. And why are they ‘viking’? Well, that’s part of the story, but a big reason is that the soldier pieces resemble the viking Berserkers.
To get to the origins of these beautifully carved game pieces, author Nancy Marie Brown leads the reader through a great deal of history and the sociology of the period, focusing on Iceland but including a number of Scandinavian, Germanic, and British countries.
The leading candidate for the creator of the chess pieces was a woman known to us now as Margaret the Adroit, “who at the time was the most skilled carver in all Iceland.” Nancy Marie Brown’s book pieces together the likelihood of Margaret the Adroit’s work coming into contact with many of the famous movers and shakers of the period. To do this we get a lot of background, both historical and archaeological, of the period, as well as some legend and mythology that complements the rationale.
I didn’t know that to expect when I started this book, but it was truly remarkable and I was constantly wanting to get back to the book when I wasn’t reading. It was smart and informative and dealt with art (the carving), history, politics, mythology, and the history of chess. This was truly a fantastic read and the bibliography and notes in the book have generated a very long list of other books I’d now like to read. So many of the characters who are mentioned here, strike me as equally fascinating and worthy of more discovery. People such as King Magnus BareLegs of Norway,Ragnar Lothbrok, Bishop Pall, Scottish minister Hugh Monro (who is reported to have said to his parishioners: “Out of here, out of here every one of you. The whales have come into the bay. You can get a sermon any time, but you cannot often get the whales.”
This is such a wonderful book. Anyone who enjoys non-fiction, particularly history, should be sure to read this book.
While we know this, intellectually, we don’t often think about the fact that, as the book notes: The bygone ages of the world were actually filled with living men.
This books serves as a wonderful reminder.
Looking for a good book? Ivory Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown, is a tremendous examination of the legend and history and people surrounding one of the great discoveries of the 19th century, the Lewis Chessmen, and you should read it.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World’s Most Famous Chessmen
Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
author: Nancy Marie Brown
publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Trade
hardcover, 256 pages