When ninety-three meticulously carved, 12th century, walrus ivory chessmen were discovered in the decidedly protestant sands of Scotland’s Isle of Lewis in 1831, a haul that included 16 alarmingly Catholic-looking bishops, no one knew where they had come from (Fairies?), and while we still aren’t sure of their origins today there are some passionately held theories, a subject that this book explores in fascinating detail.
The chessmen themselves are fantastic looking, with distinct irresistible facial expressions and elaborate garments. The kings and queens sit on ornate thrones, the knights are astride pony-size horses–which were all they had in northern Europe at that time–and the rooks are wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields with crooked teeth. You’ve seen replicas of these chessmen if you watched Ron and Harry play wizard chess in the first Harry Potter movie. My edition of the book, a free advanced review copy supplied by the publisher, had just a few black and white photos. I don’t know if the finished book will have more, but it’s easy (and well worth it) to find images on the internet.
Ancient ‘‘sea roads” have long connected people who lived in what are now the British Isles and Scandinavia, and I greatly enjoyed reading about the interconnections, religious networks, and cultural exchanges this made possible. Origin contenders for the chessmen include Norway, Scotland, and–after extensive research author Nancy Marie Brown’s favorite possibility–Iceland, where they may have been created by Margret the Adroit who is said to have carved walrus ivory “so skillfully that none in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before.” That line comes from the Saga of Bishop Pall, possibly written by Pall’s son Loft (friend of Icelandic saga master Snorri Sturluson) which would give it some historical credibility.
In exploring the genesis of the chessmen, Brown delves deeply into the stories, histories, and personalities of the past, both the 12th century when they were created and the 19th century when they were found, and she also reports on debates about the chessmen that continue to this day–some Scottish nationalists believe the The British Museum should return its 82 pieces to Scotland. I don’t have much personal investment in who exactly created the chessman, which meant that some of the more exacting details didn’t hold my attention, but most of the book completely captivated me.