Mae Woods Bell

Mae Woods Bell

Brown unravels centuries-old mystery

By Mae Woods Bell
Book Reviewer

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In the 1830s, on a remote beach in Northwest Scotland, 92 carved ivory chess pieces were found along with the buckle of the bag that once contained them. The collection of exquisite “Ivory Vikings” (St. Martin’s Press; $26.99) is believed to be the work of an obscure Icelandic artist, Margaret the Adroit, who lived some 600 or 700 years ago.

In this nonfiction book, author Nancy Marie Brown gives us a wide ranging investigation into the mystery surrounding the creator of the skillfully carved ivory pieces, known as the Lewis chessmen. The number of objects suggests that they were once part of a container holding four or five complete chess sets.

The author’s knowledge of the Icelandic sagas, and the record of the country’s personal and political connections leads her to the conclusion that the chessmen were meant to be gifts from the Bishop of Oslo, one of the movers and shakers in the early 1200s, to several influential churchmen of his acquaintance.

Gift-giving in the Norse world was an expression of status: “A gift did not go unrequited. What might Bishop Pall have sent him in return? And where might it ultimately have ended up, owing to the vagaries of winds, waves, and warfare?”

Could that be where and why the Lewis Island sands gave up the chessmen?

Brown reveals much about the society in which the Lewis chessmen were created in a fascinating chapter about the chieftains and clergy choosing and anointing kings. The stone carvers they chose to embellish their churches and cathedrals worked in a combination of Viking and English motifs. Those motifs show up in the garb carved into the robes of the chessmen Brown describes so vividly.

Using clues from sagas, archaeology, art history, Viking trade routes and the evolution of the game of chess, Brown examines theories that place the creation of the Lewis chessmen in Norway, Iceland or Scotland. She favors the claim that the pieces are the work of Margaret the Adroit of Iceland, whose skill in ivory work was well known to the king of Norway, who used her work in his gift-giving. However, Brown gives equal space to a number of theories passionately held by others. The mystery has not yet been solved, but there is no doubt that interest and research revolving around the pieces will continue unabated.

The interconnections, religious networks and cultural exchanges brought out in the narrative make the reading irresistible and informative; Brown’s enthusiasm is contagious; and she is a skilled wordsmith.

In one section, Brown shows that when Norsemen ruled the North Atlantic, sea roads connected Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, Greenland and North America. Through the presence of Viking Age ivory workshops in Dublin, Canterbury, Cologne, Greenland, Iceland and Norway, we are shown the whole history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic and how the entire area was dominated by Norway for almost 500 years until a Scottish king took over the islands in 1266.

The violent side of the Viking story is contained in a combination of mythology and history, as evidenced in “The Saga of King Sverrir.” When Sverrir arrived in Norway from the Faroe Islands the nobles were no longer simply jockeying for power. They were ready to fight to the death.

Sverrir slew 15 kings and their relatives to seize the throne. In 1185, a year after Sverrir killed his rival, an Icelandic abbot visited, then stayed with Sverrir and wrote the saga, while Sverrir sat beside him and determined what he should say. His grisly and violent career ended when he died in 1202, still excommunicated by the church. Brown gives us exciting page turners as she equates Viking battles and strategies to a modern chess game.

A walrus is an enormous animal. When threatened, it is a killing machine Life in the period covered by her subject matter includes a breathtaking tale of hunting walrus for its ivory tusks, prized by those whose creations were personal and meaningful, but also an important export item. This fact is one of scores of bits of information about Iceland’s past that emerge in the larger story.

The book includes an introduction, notes, tables of important dates, bibliography, index and a map of the world of the Lewis chessmen in 1200 A.D. There unfortunately are only five black and white photos of individual chessmen. It is possible to view faithful reproductions of a whole set being played in several movies, including “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter.”

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of several books of nonfiction, including “Song of the Vikings.” She reads Icelandic and Old Norse, and spends her summers in Iceland. She lives in northern Vermont.

Mae Woods Bell is the retired director of the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum and the longtime book reviewer for the Rocky Mount Telegram.