And you thought you knew vikings

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

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.


                I know very little about chess.  I know how to play, I’m not very good, and I think some of the chess sets, the Lewis chessmen included, are awesome works of art.  That’s about it.  Oh, and I like the horses, and my favorite rooks are castles on elephants.  Just so you know.


                Brown’s easy to read book is about the famous Lewis Chessman, and if you don’t recognize the term Lewis Chessmen, don’t worry.  You have most likely seen a picture of them somewhere, so odds are you know them without knowing that you know them, if you know what I mean.  Brown thesis is that the chessman where Icelandic in original, most likely the work of Margaret the Adroit.


                Now, I can hear someone saying something like, “oh, no not another feminist, revisionist whatisit”.  While I am sure that those scholars and people who believe that the chessmen were Norwegian in make will see this book as revisionist, it isn’t really.  Margaret the Adroit was well known during her time, and the scholarship is solid.  Furthermore, Brown is very clear about what scholars know for sure, what guess work is, and what is possible but unlikely.


                More importantly, there is a huge amount of information about the Icelandic past here as well as a rather interesting discussion about the differences between walrus tusk and elephant tusk.   To prove the viability of her thesis, Brown includes a good about the placement of the church in Iceland.  Perhaps the book is slightly misnamed for while there is a fair amount of material about Margaret the Adroit, there is more information about the society that she inhabited.  Undoubtedly this is due to a lack of source material.


                Another interesting aspect of the work is the detail Brown gives to the debate about the chessmen, not just which society made them, but to which part of the United Kingdom they belong to.   This also includes a rather interesting discussion of the finding of the pieces.  The book is wonderfully sectioned into chapters titled after the pieces.  Worked into the history of Iceland, are also history of the various pieces of the chess board. 


                It’s true that Brown comes down on the Icelandic side of the question, though she allows the reader to follow her thinking.  Perhaps the one flaw is towards the end, where Brown weighs the merits of the Icelandic case.  She makes a comment about the Icelandic side having fewer flaws or weak points than the Norwegian.  While the course of the book does an excellent job in detailing the pros and cons of each side, a summary chart at that point would have been nice.  I know this is every person history, but it would have been nice.


                If you like the Lewis chessmen, are interested in Iceland and vikings, or even just like chess, this is the book for you.

                Highly recommended.